OUR own Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on the 2015/16 League Two campaign, rating all 24 clubs as well predicting the end of season table.
1. Luton Town (8/1 Bet365)
After five years in the non-league wilderness John Still led Luton back to the Football League in 2014. The Conference Premier champions completed their first season back just a place off the play-offs with a wretched end-of-season run (W4-D1-L11) almost solely to blame for the Hatters limp finish.
Still’s side struggled on the road (only Mansfield scored fewer on their travels) and were often edged out by the division’s elite (W6-D4-L12 v top-half teams) but the Kenilworth Road club have reshaped their squad with a number of impressive summer signings.
Defenders Scott Cuthbert, Dan Potts and Magnus Okuonghae should bolster a defence that conceded one goal or less in 35/46 League Two outings whilst Josh McQuoid, Jack Marriott and the, at times, unplayable Paddy McCourt will reinforce the Hatters’ final third output.
At the time of writing, Craig Mackail-Smith is on the verge of penning a deal and the signature of a striker that’s netted 101 Football League goals in 272 appearances should prove to be the final piece in Luton’s jigsaw. Over the past 10 years, on average, clubs have improved 3.5 places on their first season in League Two following promotion and the Hatters look prime candidates to do just that and challenge for top honours.
2. Portsmouth (7/2 Bet365)
Well this is getting embarrassing. Portsmouth start their third season in the fourth tier and unsurprisingly are the bookies favourites to deliver the League Two title, yet again. Pompey are as shot as 7/2 to take gold but if their previous two campaigns are anything to go by, the south-coast club are more likely to be looking over their shoulders. Last season’s 16th placed finish was the lowest in their Football League history. Oops.
Paul Cook’s the new saviour at Fratton Park. The former Chesterfield boss who finished top of the tree with the Spireites in 2013/14 is the ninth manager to take charge since Harry Redknapp’s 2008 departure and with 11,000 season ticket holders already signed up, will get plenty of backing from the stands.
Last season’s Player of the Season Jed Wallace was snapped up by Wolves but Kai Naismith, Gary Roberts, Adam McGuerk and Kyle Bennett are eye-catching additions. Only six teams attempted fewer shots on goal last season and no side won fewer than Portsmouth’s three matches on the road – two areas that must be addressed.
Since dropping down to League Two level Pompey have W18-D19-L9 against bottom-half opposition (last season 44% of their points came against bottom-seven clubs) and so a drastic improvement against the division’s big guns is required if they’re to realise their potential. They SHOULD win the league comfortably. They won’t. But a top-three finish is an absolute must.
3. Oxford United (9/1 Bet365)
Mid-table mediocrity is what Oxford fans have become accustomed to with their five seasons back in the Football League all seeing the U’s finishing between 8th-13th. However, that could all change in 2015/16 with plenty of room for optimism around the Kassam.
Michael Appleton’s men made a slow start last time out (W1-D4-L5) but improved as the campaign progressed, finishing impressively (W7-D6-L2) with nine clean sheets from their final 15 outings. That solid foundation saw only four sides face fewer shots in 2014/15 and three of those clubs won promotion.
Goals were an area for concern (only five teams netted fewer) but the returning Kemar Roofe (who spearheaded the excellent finish) and Ryan Taylor should take some of the burden off the lively Danny Hylton whilst the shrewd signing of Liam Sercombe strengthens the centre of the park.
Should Appleton and Oxford’s ambitions for an automatic promotion push be realised they must improve their Kassam record. The U’s have managed a paltry 34/92 (37%) wins on home soil across their past four seasons whilst only six sides accrued fewer points in front of their home supporters. An expensively relaid pitch should improve the surface. Worthy candidates.
4. Cambridge United (14/1 Bet365)
Cambridge mean business this season and they’re not afraid to shout about it. Boss Richard Money, fresh off signing a new three-year deal, has suggested not many Football League teams are in a better position to develop and progress whilst chief executive Jez George has also waded in, claiming the club “have got to challenge” for promotion.
It’s refreshing to hear and after a fairly inconsistent first year back in the big time where consolidation and stability were key, the U’s are determined to make a splash. Last year’s two FA Cup clashes with Manchester United boosted the coffers and those funds have been reinvested into the team as well as pitch and ground improvements. They’re in a good position.
Southend top-scoring hitman Barry Corr was the most eye-catching arrival in a busy summer that’s seen more than 10 players arrive at the Abbey. Mark Roberts and Jeff Hughes’ experience from Fleetwood could prove pivotal whilst returning Luke Berry, Elliot Omozusi and Keith Keane will all raise standards around the club.
Trends suggest promoted clubs improve by 3.5 positions in their second season of League Two football but a top-seven place is well within range should Money hit upon a winning combination. Only five sides netted more than their 61-goal haul in 2014/15 but they’ll need to enhance a record that saw their longest winning streak stand at just two, last time out.
5. Notts County (16/1 Bet365)
Notts set off like a train in 2014/15, collecting 26 points from their first 14 fixtures but the pace that Shaun Derry’s side set wasn’t to last. Just 24 points were taken from their final 32 games, Derry was ditched and the Magpies wings were clipped. Notts were heading down.
Dutchman Ricardo Moniz has been handed a three-year contract and charged with rejuvenating the Meadow Lane club and it’s been a hell of a busy summer. Chairman Ray Trew has invested heavily in the squad with a remit set out to bounce straight back to the third tier. Fifteen players have already signed deals and more names are expected to be added before the big kick-off.
Moniz has promised attacking football and talked about achieving 70% of ball possession to dominate the opposition and create as many goalscoring opportunities as possible. With Jimmy Spencer returning to fitness and Jon Stead stepping down from the Championship to lead the line, Notts should provide plenty of entertainment.
If it all clicks, County will be amongst the front-runners but whether the side can settle in time remains to be seen. Moniz’s track record is topsy-turvy so whilst there’s appeal, I’d prefer not to part with cash until I see what we’re dealing with. Last season the Magpies collected 88% of their points against the bottom-14 clubs (W12-D8-L6), showing they know how to mix it with teams on their level.
6. Leyton Orient (12/1 Bet365)
It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for Leyton Orient but supporters can at least see light at the end of the gloomy tunnel. Former club captain Ian Hendon has returned as Fabio Liverani’s replacement in the dugout after a spell coaching at West Ham and the East Londoners are optimistic that their return to the fourth tier will be brief.
Eccentric Italian chairman Francesco Becchetti has reaffirmed his commitment to the club (even paying an undisclosed transfer fee for Mansfield forward Ollie Palmer) but whether Hendon can turn the tide whilst overseeing a squad overhaul remains to be seen.
Big name players Romain Vincelot, David Mooney, Nathan Clark and Scott Cuthbert are amongst the departures but there’s high hopes for hot-headed youngster Paul McCallum – the 21-year-old joins from West Ham and has looked electric when spearheading the attack in pre-season.
Defensively Orient still look a player or two short for a serious assault on the top-three but having collected 75% (W11-D4-L7) of their 2014/15 points total against bottom-half teams, there should be plenty of confidence around the club to successfully compete at League Two level.
7. Northampton (16/1 Bet365)
For the last few seasons Northampton have threatened a promotion push but never really convinced. Chris Wilder’s troops rode a rollercoaster of emotions last season, tailing off after a positive start to W2-D0-L12 in a rotten 14-match spell, ending their play-off aspirations despite a valiant finale.
A top-seven finish has again been targeted but much will depend upon shoring up a shoddy defence. Highly-regarded centre-half Lee Collins has moved on, exposing a lack of pace at the back but David Buchanan’s signing from Preston provides plenty of quality and experience at left back.
The Cobblers were the first team back in pre-season and Wilder snapped up seven signings at the start of the summer. Nicky Adams’ signature has gotten Town fans most excited and with the team having scored just two goals fewer than table-topping and leading League Two scorers Burton, Northampton should again prove profitable in the goals column.
Marc Richards carries the goalscoring threat with Ricky Holmes, Adams and Lawson D’Ath tucked in behind – it’s an exciting prospect and nullifies the likely departure of starlet Ivan Toney. But with takeover talk disrupting Wilder’s attempts to bulk out the remainder of the squad, Town may not be able to clinch vital defensive cogs to stiffen their porous backline, leaving a top-seven finish their most realistic and achievable target.
8. Exeter (40/1 Bet365)
Written off as no-hopers (yes, I’m included) this time last year and serious candidates for relegation, what Paul Tisdale achieved with a young Exeter squad was quite remarkable. Leading the Grecians to 10th following a horrendous pre-season, a transfer embargo and a W0-D3-L4 start just scratches the surface.
Exeter accumulated nine more points than in 2013/14 in their last campaign but it’s been the £1.75m sale of Matt Grimes to Swansea that’s put the club on a sound financial footing and began the process for improving upon the past 12 months. As well as investing a third of the Grimes money into the playing budget, spread across three seasons, plans to improve the training facilities and an upgrade to St James’ Park are also moving forward. In fact, it may surprise to hear that City have been planning a promotion push since that sale in January.
Signings like David Noble, Ryan Harley, Tom McCready and Alex Nicholls were brought in to set the wheels in motion and Tisdale’s snapped up goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik and winger Lee Holmes as the summer’s headline incomings. Both should add second and third tier experience whilst Troy Brown’s arrival will provide more bulk to the backline. But perhaps the most important piece of business was fending off interest from Swindon and Birmingham for last year’s Player of the Year Christian Ribeiro.
Liam Sercombe has left to join Oxford and will be missed but there’s belief amongst the club that they’re ready to challenge the top-seven. Tisdale’s the second-longest serving manager in the Football League providing serious stability and if they can improve upon their paltry six clean sheets last time out, promotion aspirations may well be met. Don’t write them off.
9. Morecambe (100/1 Bet365)
Can someone, anyone, give Morecambe a bit of respect? The last four seasons have seen the Shrimps priced up at 100/1, 100/1, 100/1 and 80/1. Their last four finishes have seen the Lancashire club achieve 11th, 18th, 16th and 15th positions. So of course, bookies have chalked Jim Bentley’s charges up at three-figure quotes for the 2015/16 campaign, again.
It’s Morecambe’s eight successive season in the fourth tier so they’re hardly newcomers to this level. Although the budget’s been cut following the expiration of a stadium sponsorship deal, club legend Bentley has been busy in his attempts to continue the upward trajectory of their on-field progress.
Star striker Jack Redshaw was poached by Blackpool and efforts are being made to find an able replacement – the success of which is likely to define their season. Elsewhere, Tom Barkhuizen’s signed on permanently after a successful loan spell, Aaron Wildig should contribute more goals from midfield, Lee Molyneux will offer width and centre-back Adam Dugdale’s arrival negates the loss of Mark Hughes.
There’s stability and consistency in the ranks – two ideal recipes when hunting a good ante-post bet and lets not forget, the Shrimps know how to mix it with the big guns. In 2013/14, Bentley’s boys W11-D3-L4 against the top-nine, taking 59% of their total points tally against the league’s leading lights. Only five clubs had more efforts on target (three of which were promoted) and so there’s more than enough evidence to suggest continued improvement is achievable.
10. Bristol Rovers (20/1 Bet365)
Bristol Rovers look the best equipped of the two promoted clubs to take a stab at a top-seven finish and having made an instant return to the Football League with a penalty shoot-out success at Wembley in the Conference Premier play-off final in May, Gas fans and club brass are expecting a challenge.
But the mood should be tempered. The Pirates have been unable to flex their muscles in the transfer market due to a lack of funds meaning the small squad’s only seen delicate tinkering. James Clarke’s a realiable right-back from non-league whilst Cristian Montano’s looking to resurrect his career in England following a previous spell with Oldham.
Andy Monkhouse’s departure is a blow to Rovers; the experienced head was a reliable performer out wide and also seen as a key character in the dressing room. Billy Bodin should join following a successful trial but and although Darrell Clarke’s success was built upon a mean defence last year, The Gas rarely rest on their laurels when getting their noses in front, which could work against them at a higher level.
Clarke’s dismissed interest from Football League clubs and believes the Pirates have the potential to play in the upper echelons of League One. Described as brave, ambitious and a superb man-manager, he may have to bide his time for next year before Rovers make a serious stab at another promotion.
11. AFC Wimbledon (25/1 Bet365)
After an initial surge through the league pyramid Wimbledon appear to have found their home at League Two level. Last summer’s signings of Matt Tubbs and Adebayo Akinfenwa raised expectations and attracted plenty of big-priced punts on the Dons to take top honours but Tubbs’ move to Portsmouth in January saw goals and progress peter out.
But the Wombles are an improving unit under Neil Ardley. Akinfenwa has agreed to stay on at Kingsmeadow and will again be the focal point of the attack but Lyle Taylor and Tom Elliott have been snapped up to hopefully replace the goals that went missing in the final five months of the 2014/15 campaign.
Portsmouth winger Andy Barcham will join Sean Rigg on the flanks as the key supply line but Wimbledon still look a little light in central defence. The budget has been increased but not significantly as they bid to continue their measured progress. A tally of just four road wins hampered their efforts previously but just one defeat in 17 when hosting team sin 18th and above highlights what’s within reach should everything fall into place.
12. Plymouth Argyle (20/1 Bet365)
Much has changed at Home Park this summer. Having led Plymouth to an unsuccessful play-off campaign, John Sheridan stepped down and was replaced by Derek Adams. With 21 clean sheets to their name last season, Argyle’s defensive instincts are being curbed with the new boss now setting the side up to attack in 2015/16.
Adams, a former Scottish PFA Manager of the Year, has raided Scotland for winger Greg Wylde, striker Jake Jervis and central midfielder Liam Carey (the latter duo having played under him at Ross County) in a bid to get the Pilgrims up and running and replace key departures. Lewis Allesandra, Anthony O’Connor and Bobby Reid are gone and much will depend on how well Adams and his new faces settle into League Two football south of the border.
Plymouth are hoping to emulate last year’s push for a top-seven finish and although still the young side of 40, Adams’ CV from his seven-year stint at Ross County deserves respect. His attention to detail has seen the club swap home dugouts as they look for every possible advantage but the squad looks thinner and weaker on paper, making a sustained challenge tricky.
Over the past 10 seasons, teams that were involved in losing play-off campaigns the previous year have finished in an average position of 10th with only 13/30 (43%) climbing back into the play-off picture. I’ll be eager to see how Argyle go but pencilling them in for promotion looks a little hasty at this stage.
13. Wycombe Wanderers (20/1 Bet365)
How unlucky can you get? Marked up as 80/1 outsiders and relegation candidates this time last year, Gareth Ainsworth’s troops came agonisingly close to an unlikely promotion. Forget penalty shoot-out play-off final heartache, Wanderers didn’t drop lower than seventh at any stage during the campaign and were only out of the automatic picture for five weeks. Of course, one of those was the all-important final seven days.
The Chairboys lost just eight league fixtures. But three of those came in their final seven encounters and Wycombe’s 84-point haul wasn’t enough for a top-three finish – only the 2006/07 MK Dons team missed out on promotion with a points tally as high as Wycombe’s last year. It was also a club record points total. Pretty rough, eh?
By the club’s own admission (Ainsworth, fans and chairman) it was a massive overachievement with the resources available. At times they were forced to field just three subs and that’s despite being reasonably lucky with injuries. With just 18 permanent players on the books and one of the smallest budgets in the league; they’ll again be forced to enter the loan market but there’ll be no return for standout stars Alfie Mawson, Sam Saunders, Nico Yennaris and co.
Setting realistic expectations again, the Chairboys have said a mid-table finish would indicate a very good season and it certainly looks unlikely we’ll see any sorts of figures quite like their previous remarkable return on the road (W13-D8-L2). At Adams Park Wanderers boasted just the 11th best home record and all the voices surrounding the club suggest they’re highly improbable to follow up their 2014/15 adventure this time around.
14. Carlisle United (33/1 Bet365)
Forget Channel 4’s series The Secret Millionaire, Carlisle supporters are currently trying to figure out who the secret billionaire is involved in a mooted takeover of the Cumbrian club. That’s the topic on everybody’s lips around Brunton Park heading into the new campaign.
Following relegation in 2013/14, the Blues endured a rough year. Grahaam Kavanagh was dismissed at the start of September leaving the unpopular Keith Curle to pick up the pieces. Curle eventually steered the side to safety but not before questioning the squad’s lack of male genitalia in just one a series of bizarre outbursts to the media regarding his underperforming players.
The club have lost the talented homegrown class of Brad Potts and Kyle Dempsey during the summer but Accrington skipper Luke Joyce, Bradford’s Jason Kennedy and Rochdale’s Bastien Héry should stiffen up the midfield. In attack, experienced bullock Jabo Ibehre will be asked to provide a platform for Charlie Wyke’s goals – just three of nine new arrivals.
If Carlisle do have any aspirations for success then sharpening up one of the worst performing defences is key. On 14 occasions the Cumbrians conceded at least three goals but then the arrival of the mystery moneyman may provide all the answers with cash and Carlisle cruise to top spot. Yeah, it’s unlikely.
15. Hartlepool United (40/1 Bet365)
Ronnie Moore’s been around the block but the 62-year-old described pulling off the Great Escape with Hartlepool as his greatest ever season. That’s some statement for a man that’s been involved in football for over 40 years but it does reflect the magnitude of what the Monkey Hangers achieved under his tutelage.
Brought in when the club had returned W3-D3-L14 figures from their first 20 matches and been knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans, the Scouser was the third man to lead Pools since the start of the season. Moore oversaw a stunning recovery of W9-D6-L11 to seal safety. Had the 1.27 points-per-game average that Moore managed been spread across a full season, Hartlepool would have earned 58 points – a cushy spot in mid-table.
Moore used the loan market superbly well and one of those signings has now been made permanent; Rakish Bingham will hope to partner Billy Paynter in a new-look strikeforce that attempts to alleviate the goalscoring problem – Pools failed to net in 20 of their league outings in 2014/15. The new owners at Victoria Park are investing in the squad – 10 new faces have arrived with nine departing but other than highly-rated goalkeeper Scott Flinders leaving, the squad looks stronger on paper.
Hartlepool are hoping to replicate Wycombe’s campaign of last and with Moore at the helm, anything is possible. Pre-season’s not quite gone to plan just yet – Pools leaked nine goals in two fixtures and will be desperately hoping to improve on stats that saw the club face the second most shots-on-target last year whilst firing in the fewest. But Moore’s the man to lead the revival.
16. Mansfield Town (50/1)
Lowest League Two goalscorers (a club record low), more defeats than relegated Cheltenham and a season finale of just W1-D0-L8. You could be forgiven for writing off Mansfield’s prospects purely on those three statistics. But whisper it quietly – there’s a case to be made for the Stags to enjoy their best Football League campaign since returning three years ago.
Adam Murray replaced Paul Cox in December and although his W7-D6-L16 is underwhelming, the player-manager has worked overtime to rid the squad of underperformers, bombing out 13 players in the off-season. The 2014/15 roster has been described in parts as one the worst Mansfield sides in years but their campaign was also blighted by injuries – at one point 11 first-teamers were crocked.
Murray’s managed to put his own stamp on the squad over the summer with former hero Matt Green returning to the club the standout addition. Green smashed scored 57 goals in two seasons at Field Mill and his return from Birmingham bolsters an offence that scored two or more goals on just six occasions last season.
Central midfielder Adam Chapman and reliable centre-half Lee Collins are shrewd additions whilst Mitch Rose should be able to do the dirty work in the middle of the park – an area that was too often ignored in their previous campaign. It’s a talented squad, not the biggest, but capable of holding their own and after initially marking them out as potential relegation candidates, I’m confident the Stags will be just fine.
17. York City (33/1 Bet365)
Describe York City in one word? I can’t. I can only do it in two – draw specialists. No English side has drawn as many league games as the Minsterman over the past three seasons (55/138 have ended all square, for the record) and so City enter the 2015/16 renewal looking to find the formula to turn more of those one-point hauls into three.
Since returning to the Football League, York have tended to struggle for goals and struggle for victories. The two trends go hand-in-hand and bar that incredible 17-match streak under Nigel Worthington in 2013/14, it’s been an attritional battle to keep heads above water. Sure, they’ve not really flirted with relegation but they’ve hardly come close to taking a top-three place out for dinner either.
Consolidation and measured progress is again top of the agenda but those same old problems have aired their ugly heads. Goals. Wes Fletcher’s departure alongside niggling injuries to Michael Coulson, Emile Sinclair and Jake Hyde may again hamper the goals for column. Intriguingly only promoted Shrewsbury attempted more efforts on goal last year whilst only three teams fired in a higher number of on-target attempts but goals remained a rarity.
Summer signing Vadaine Oliver must believe now is surely the time to make a name for himself at 23. The former Mansfield and Crewe marksman will hope to hit the ground running in front of goal as the side only managed to score more than once in 13 instances during 2014/15. They’re tough to breakdown and beat but without a finisher, progress will be limited.
Russ Wilcox believes a decent start would enable the Minstermen to be a force in the division but with the aforementioned trio likely to be missing for the curtain-raiser against Wycombe, it doesn’t bode well. Scott Flinders’ capture strengthens their already impressive last line of defence but unless those goals issues are addressed, it’lll be another season looking over their shoulders.
18. Barnet (33/1 Bet365)
How do Conference champions fare following promotion to the Football League? Pretty bloody well, actually. Not one club has suffered immediate relegation this millennium and Barnet are unlikely to alter that record in 2015/16. With Martin Allen at the helm for his fourth spell at the North London club, all is going swimmingly. For now.
The Bees were incredibly impressive on their way to the Conference title; their longest winless spell was just two games and their 94 goal-haul was seven more than the next best strikeforce – they only failed to net in two of their 46 outings. But with Allen in charge, all could go pear-shaped. Just a warning.
Defensively Barnet were pretty sound too. Leaking one or zero goals in 35 league matches but their return of W5-D0-L5 against top-six rivals may cause room for concern as they step up in level. Money remains tight at The Hive but the arrival of Tom Champion, Bira Dembele and Shaun Batt amongst others should enable the club to compete.
Of the 25 clubs to win promotion from the Conference this millennium, 56% ended their first campaign in the bottom-half including four of the most recent six and something similar seems the most likely scenario as the Bees prepare for life back in the Football League.
19. Yeovil Town (33/1 Bet365)
Poor Yeovil. Successive relegations and back-to-back 24th-placed finishes – it doesn’t get more sodden than that, eh? The Glovers upward trajectory through the Football League has long been halted and just 18 wins and 51 defeats from their last 92 league fixtures tells its own story.
Paul Sturrock’s bene given the responsibility of rebuilding the club and Yeovil will find themselves in a transitional season for 2015/16 with a revamped squad of players. The Scot in charge has put the new-look team through a grueling pre-season and has begun to win fans over after their initial skepticism regarding his appointment.
Sturrock’s looking for a simplified approach and although key figures such as Sam Foley have moved on, Kevin Dawson signing on and the return of Matty Dolan to potentially partner Wes Fogden in the centre of midfield has impressed fans. Still lacking a striker of any experience, the Glovers are too short in key areas to mount an unlikely promotion challenge and stopping the rot must be their first port of call. Consolidation’s the buzz word around Huish Park.
20. Dagenham & Redbridge (100/1 Bet365)
Perennial favourites for Football League relegation, Dagenham have defied the odds and critics comfortably across the past two seasons with ninth and 15th-placed finishers under Wayne Burnett’s management. Reaching those heights in 2015/16 might be ambitious and Dagenham’s first aim, as always, will be survival.
It’s been a mixed summer for the Daggers. Having tied Jodi Jones and the evergreen Jamie Cureaton down to new contracts the East Londoners were forced to wave goodbye to over 600 appearances worth of talent with the quartet of centre-half Scott Doe and midfield trio Abu Ogogo, Billy Bingham and Luke Howell all moving on. It’s left Burnett’s team lacking last season’s successful spine.
Matt McClure should take some of the weight off Cureaton in the hunt for goals but having boasted the fourth fewest attempted shots, the second fewest efforts on-target last year and facing the most shots on goal, any decline in their goal-getting ability, coupled with the lack of defensive cover, could have disastrous effects. Burnett will be hoping to use the loan market effectively to ensure against such scenarios and this year might be the one the Londoners sail a little too close to the wind.
21. Accrington Stanley (150/1 Bet365)
I bloody love John Coleman. I love his passion for his role at Accrington and I’m just full of admiration for what he achieves at the Crown Ground considering the constraints he works under. Having taken just a point from Stanley’s first 15 on offer last season, Coleman coolly guided Accy to a comfortable 17th without ever breaking sweat. I wish I knew how he did it.
As with Dagenham and Morecambe, you’ll always find The Club That Wouldn’t Die amongst the front-runners for relegation. Bar a brief flirtation with the play-offs in 2010/11, it does tend to be an arm-wrestle just to keep heads above water at Accrington. Coleman’s continually handicapped by the minimal budget but this summer the vultures have circled; captain Luke Joyce was bungled by Carlisle and starlet Kai Naismith pinched by Portsmouth, amongst others.
Billy Kee will be Stanley’s big hope. Should the former Burton striker find his form of old, Stanley could again look to conquer the bottom-half but it’s their shoddy backline that requires most improvement. Only five clean sheets were kept across their 46 league outings and Coleman’s men might be playing catch-up as they continue to look for defensive reinforcements with the season now just days away.
I wouldn’t dream of writing Accy off. Like their unfancied friends, the Lancashire club know how to make the odds-makers look silly but this season may see their Football League status come under serious threat.
22. Crawley Town (33/1 Bet365)
It’s refreshing to hear a bit of honesty and realism in football. With the bulk of League Two all claiming they’re serious candidates for promotion, relegated Crawley have admitted it might take a couple of seasons before they can look to bounce back to the third tier.
With John Gregory and Dean Saunders unable to save the Red Devils, former Cheltenham boss Mark Yates takes over management duties but he’s straight into the deep end. With last season’s 19-goal top scorer Izale McCleod likely to leave, you sense Town’s prospects hinge on who they can manage to snag to fill the striking void.
Luke Rooney, Simon Walton and Joe McNerney are the three main arrivals and bar Rooney, there’s little to get Crawley locals too excited. In fact, at the time of writing Town are still without a goalkeeper or fit and available full backs. Yates is an experienced operator at this level and whilst there’s hope he can find a few unwanted faces to help galvanise the depleted squad, it’s a tall order.
The Sussex club has been punching above their weight for some time now and they look to be facing a fight on their hands to avoid back-to-back relegations. Yates, in my eyes, is a positive but they’re running out of time in their bid to stop the rot.
23. Stevenage (20/1 Bet365)
Graham Westley has been Stevenage manager for eight of the past 12 years and his sudden departure took me by surprise. I’m a huge Westley fan and taking Boro into the play-offs following their relegation and battling a horrendous injury crisis was nothing short of remarkable.
But the club were looking for a fresh approach and a new direction so step forward Teddy Sheringham, the curious replacement in the Broadhall Way hot-seat. Yeah, I can’t help but feel a huge slice of skepticism regarding the appointment and the instant urge for change may well come back to bite the Hertfordshire club in the goolies.
Fifteen players have left the club in the off-season but only four have been signed up less than a fortnight before the season starts. New bodies are required immediately although the capture of Steven Schumacher should at least provide steel and panache to an already capable midfield that features the talented Dean Parrett and Charlie Lee.
Former Morecambe skipper Mark Hughes is a solid centre-half signing and Brett Wiliiams gives the attack an extra option but Stevenage are short on strikers and thin on numbers. An abundance of kids have been given game-time during pre-season as Sheringham searches for the next prospect but academy starlet Ben Kennedy remains sidelined for the majority of the season through injury. Boro best be prepared for the worst.
24. Newport County (50/1 Bet365)
A bubble has burst in South Wales. This summer saw Newport rocked by the news that chairman Les Scadding has quit the Rodney Parade club. EuroMillions winner Sacdding has been a driving force behind the Exiles’ resurgence in recent years, ploughing a seven-figure sum into the coffers.
Scadding’s departure has seen Newport’s budget reduced to £850,000 from £1.4m last year and new boss Terry Butcher scrabbling around for players. Only five senior players from last season remain following the departure of 15 and Butcher has made 10 new signings during the close season in an attempt to boost numbers.
It’s a world away from the optimism surrounding the Justin Edinburgh reign and the warning signs were there when the former Spurs defender jumped ship for Gillingham midway through last season. The Exiles went on to W5-D4-L9 with former assistant Jimmy Dack in temporary charge and working off a one point-per-game average following Edinburgh’s departure with a stronger squad sets alarm bells ringing.
County are in their third year following promotion back into the Football League but it promises to be their hardest, both on and off the field. The majority of the betting industry has reacted to the ongoing toils at Rodney Parade so whilst the value may already be gone on Newport’s relegation, it’s hard to find too many positives in the Welsh club keeping their status intact. A season of struggle ensues.
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World Cup 2018: The Ultimate Betting Guide
Our 130-page spectacular, World Cup 2018: The Ultimate Betting Guide, is available to buy NOW!
The interactive magazine includes previews, videos, stats and tips for all 32 teams, features on Outright Winners, Top Goalscorer, Refs & Cards, Dark Horses, Flops, Knock-out Betting and much more.
22 football experts contribute to our Ask the Experts feature and there’s over 5 hours of exclusive audio with 5 of the planet’s most respected reporters who discuss the chances of each nation with our very own Mark O’Haire.
And if that wasn’t enough there’s a free bet up for grabs with our partners Ladbrokes.