WE asked Football League expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) to pick out the best outright bets from the ante-post card in League Two. Here’s what he came up with…
English League Two | Outright Winner
Same league, different year but League Two looks as trappy and competitive as ever from a punting perspective. It’s no surprise to see Portsmouth dominate the market for a third successive season but the Fratton Park club have been here before. Having flopped at 5/1 and then 8/1 favourites in their quest to top the fourth tier, long-suffering supporters will be well versed in art of disappointment.
Paul Cook’s been handed the reigns – Portsmouth’s ninth manager in the seven post-Harry Redknapp years – and having failed to fire under the inexperienced heads of Andy Awford, Richie Barker and Guy Whittingham previously, fans are understandably excited to see the former League Two champion arrive at the helm.
Cook’s pedigree is strong. His Chesterfield team that struck gold in 2013/14 scored more goals than any other in League Two but also boasted the second best defence. Having topped League Two, the Spireites then went on to enjoy a play-off charge in League One last year whilst playing some scintillating football.
But quotes of 7/2 (Bet365) surrounding Pompey taking the title just have to be laughed off. Yes, Cook’s arrival is significant and yes the their summer business has been impressive but there’s no hiding place for a club the size of Pompey. They’re still a cup final for the majority of the division and there’s intensive pressure to get things going in the right direction.
Pompey just don’t hit the right notes, for me. League Two favourites have finished in the top-seven in nine of the past 12 seasons, winning automatic promotion in seven of those campaigns but it’s reasonably significant that Notts County (2009/10) are the only ante-post favourites to be crowned champions this millennium. I’m not writing them off – they may well romp the league – but there’s not a cats chance I’d be backing Portsmouth.
Across the past decade the average price of the league winner is 14/1 – Gillingham at 22/1 in 2012/13 and Carlisle at 25/1 in 2005/06 standout as the only two champions at odds bigger than 20/1 and intriguingly, 22/30 (73%) of sides finishing in the automatic promotion places during the same spell have been chalked up at 20/1 or under at the start of the season.
I’m more than happy to stick a line through the relegated sides when hunting my League Two champ too. Only eight clubs have bounced straight back to League One at the first attempt in 10 years – that’s a remarkably poor return of 20% – and only two teams have taken top honours when dropping down. Although it’s worth pointing out that in six of those 10 campaigns a relegated side did win promotion but the success rate is so small, we can ignore the likes of Notts County and Leyton Orient who are going through a process of rebuilding.
Teams coming up from non-league do so with an excellent reputation. All 25 sides that have won promotion from the Conference this millennium have survived their first season in the Football League but only two (8%) went on to win League Two and five (20%) managed back-to-back promotions. In fact, that reputation wanes a little when we see only six (24%) finished in the top-seven and their average finishing position is 13th. Therefore, I’m discounting Bristol Rovers and Barnet.
Wycombe’s huge overachievement in 2014/15 and the subsequent expiration of a series of loan stars will hamper Gareth Ainsworth’s prospects of a repeat performance. Losing play-off finalists have finished back in the play-off positions in five of the previous 10 renewals but only Burton (last season) went on to win the title. I’m also happy to rule out Plymouth and Stevenage – unsuccessful play-off campaigns rarely translate into title-winning performances the following year.
Looking at previous winners, it’s interesting to note that three of the past five champions had finished eighth in their last campaign. In 2014/15 that club was Luton and it’s purely an anomaly but the Hatters represent the strongest challenge outside of Portsmouth to top the table this time around. Bet365 are offering 8/1 on John Still’s troops and they appear to tick the majority of boxes, albeit with the eye-watering 16/1 quotes from early June long gone.
A disastrous run of W4-D1-L11 put paid to their play-off aspirations in their first season back in the Football League but there were enough positives in two-thirds of their season to suggest Luton will come back stronger. Still’s side did struggle 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.
Analytics lovers will have noted their relatively poor shot count (on average, Luton were out-shot in games 9-11 by their opposition) with only five teams firing in fewer efforts on target (two were relegated). But with sharp-shooter Craig Mackail-Smith on the verge of penning a deal, Paddy McCourt, Danny Green and Josh McQuiod reinforcing the offence and the likes of Scott Cuthbert, Dan Potts and Magnus Okuonghae bolstering a defence that conceded one goal or less in 35/46 League Two outings, Still believes he’s found the magic formula.
Interestingly, over the past 10 years, clubs have improved 3.5 places on average from their first season in League Two following promotion and the Hatters look prime candidates to do just that. Four clubs have won promotion in their second Football League season and should the Hatters find consistency early on, I fully expect the Kenilworth Road club to mount an assault. Even at 8/1, they’re worth a bet.
Elsewhere, university rivals Oxford (9/1 Bet365) and Cambridge (14/1 Bet365) should go well following a strong summer in the transfer market and are interesting propositions but at a similar quote, I’m getting involved with Exeter to win promotion at 12/1 with Bet365.
Paul Tisdale’s reputation continues to soar having guided his relegation candidates to a cool 10th-placed finish last time out – a tremendous achievement having started the campaign without a win in seven, under a transfer embargo and one of the smallest squads in the land. The Grecians accumulated nine more points than their 2013/14 efforts and have been preparing a promotion bid quietly since their £1.75m January sale of Matt Grimes to Swansea.
City, now on a steady financial footing, are investing in the squad, training facilities and their St James’ Park ground and so another season of progress could see the club match their exploits in 2008/09 when achieving a top-three finish, despite being written off as 40/1 rags. It’s a similar story this time around but there’s definitely mileage in the promotion prices.
Tisdale brought in David Noble, Ryan Harley, Tom McCready and Alex Nicholls to set the wheels in motion and the arrivals of goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, winger Lee Holmes and centre-half Troy Brown only enhances the squad. Although Liam Sercombe was pinched by Oxford, fending off interest from Swindon and Birmingham for last year’s Player of the Year Christian Ribeiro was another feather in the cap for the Grecians.
Finally, chalked up as huge 100/1 outsiders to top League Two, Morecambe have the potential to continue their upward trajectory and make bookmakers look silly come May. It’s the fourth successive season that the Shrimps have been written off as no-hopers but following a league-high finish under Jim Bentley in 2014/15, there’s little reason to back against them piercing the upper echelons of League Two again.
Bet365 have dangled 22/1 in our direction on Morecambe winning promotion and that’s most definitely worth a couple of quid. It’s the Lancashire club’s eighth campaign on the spin at this level – there’s consistency in the ranks and plenty of stability surrounding the club too – two ideal recipes when hunting a good ante-post punt.
Last year the Shrimps 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. Bentley’s budget has been cut and star striker Jack Redshaw poached by Blackpool but serious efforts are being made to find an able replacement – the success of which is likely to define their season; get it right and they might be the best 22/1 promotion shot of the season.
English League Two – Luton to win League Two (8/1 Bet365)
English League Two – Exeter to win promotion (12/1 Bet365)
English League Two – Morecambe to win promotion (22/1 Bet365)
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