HOW does Football League expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) see the League Two campaign working out? Here he delivers his mid-season analysis.
Ahh League Two – what a season, eh? Traditionally the lowest level on the Football League pyramid is a gritty, attritional and low-scoring bonanza. But not in 2015/16.
The fourth tier are throwing up a meaty average of 2.88 goals-per-game with plenty of progressive sides looking to implement a more aesthetically-pleasing style, to great effect. There may be a 30-point gap between the top and the bottom after 22 games but nobody can deny it’s been a ball, thus far.
Well, that is if you discount my ante-post fancies. I was extremely keen to get Luton onside at 8/1 back in July but the Hatters have really failed to impress, culminating in the axing of veteran boss John Still this month.
Following their National League romp, Luton returned to the Football League in spectacular style, churning out W12-D6-L5 before the New Year. But things have turned sour in 2015 and the Hatters saw their points-per-game average drop from 1.83 to just 1.22 this calendar year (W15-D10-L20).
It’s difficult to make excuses for Still and Luton’s below-par showing. They’ve rarely dominated teams and their shot ratio of just 48% (their share of the total match shots) is reflective on their mid-table position.
A tally of just five clean sheets can be pointed towards as a progress-stunter and two points from a possible 21 against top-seven teams isn’t going to aid their cause. However, even with a 14-point deficit to claw back, I’ve not yet thrown the towel in on Luton – I’ll be watching their next manager appointment with intrigue before doing that.
I felt Exeter were overpriced at 12/1 to win promotion this term and although the Grecians sit just a point and place above the Hatters, I’m feeling a bit more bullish about Paul Tisdale’s troops proving a bit of end-of-season profit.
Exeter are just six points off 7th and hold a game in hand over Bristol Rovers before the busy festive period. What’s caught my attention though is, six of their 10 road trips have come against top-eight clubs and so with seven games against rivals for top-seven positions to come, they’ve a great chance to muscle their way into contention.
Finally, 22/1 shots for promotion Morecambe have nosedived since hitting 7th in mid-October, returning just W1-D1-L5 in their most recent seven. Jim Bentley’s boys have been a safe-haven for goals-based punters – top scorers with the second worst defence – but their nine-point gap from the play-off positions isn’t yet insurmountable.
Like Exeter, the Shrimps have a game in hand and their gung-ho game plan works a treat on their travels, where they’re still to visit eight of the top-half. That shouldn’t concern us though as Morecambe have won W12-D6-L8 at top-12 dwellers since the start of last season, including avoiding defeat at Oxford and Portsmouth this term.
All in all, League Two’s been the least kind to my ante-post recommendations but, perhaps wrongly, I’ve not totally given up hope just yet. This division throws up plenty of trials and tribulations and I’m certain there’ll be more to come in 2016.
Luton to win League Two (8/1)
Exeter to win promotion (12/1)
Morecambe to win promotion (22/1)
Stevenage to be relegated (12/1)
Newport to be relegated (9/2)
As the sad kind of guy who regularly compiles lists of his favourite top-10 Football League managers that I am, League Two leaves me spoilt for choice. The aforementioned Bentley and Tisdale, Still before his sacking, as well as John Coleman, Gareth Ainsworth, Martin Allen and Ronnie Moore; there’s plenty to pick from.
Coleman must be mentioned for driving 150/1 pre-season rags Accrington into the top-seven. Stanley have managed W10-D4-L2 when taking on teams below them but a two-point haul from a possible 12 against clubs residing in the top-five could prove their undoing and there’s not a huge amount of juice in their 11/5 promotion price.
Keith Curle deserves recognition for guiding Carlisle into the play-off positions having begun the campaign as 40/1 outsiders and Mansfield too are enjoying a great season under the watch of astute Adam Murray – they were 50/1 no-hopers in July.
Pinpointing value is tough in League Two at this stage with three sides going up automatically and bigger clubs such as Portsmouth and Oxford lurking just off the pace. But there’s one team and manager who’s starting to be mentioned as potential top-seven gate-crashers.
Cambridge were expected to go very close after a summer of big investment at the Abbey but long-serving boss Richard Money failed to bring home the bacon and was let go. In came Shaun Derry on the 12 November and a W3-D1-L1 return has lifted the U’s from 18th and into the top-half.
Yes, Cambridge currently reside in the top-12 yet we’re able to back them at 11/8 (BetVictor) to conclude the campaign in the top-half – madness. They’re just six points off the play-off places and a ridiculously big 10/1 (Betfair) to pierce the top-seven by the season’s conclusion. Huge.
Derry’s a real student of the game and worked wonders at Notts County before off-field nonsense and a dramatic collapse in form saw him relieved of his duties in his first managerial experience. I’m certain he’ll have learnt plenty and he should flourish at a more stable club with the financial muscle to make a difference in January.
Elsewhere, Plymouth have taken me by surprise and recent injuries have threatened to derail their challenge. But Derek Adams’ overhaul of tactics and personnel in the summer is reaping rewards and the Pilgrims will be buoyed by the news that 13 of the past 15 Christmas table-toppers won promotion.
But as suggested, value is rather thin on the ground so I’m delving into a smaller market to snap up the 7/2 (BetVictor) on Wimbledon concluding the campaign as Top London Club.
The Dons have been no higher than 8th this term and their current six-match winless streak (W0-D4-L2) has seen the side drift down to 14th but Neil Ardley’s men have been a consistently strong performer when viewing the performance data.
Just one win in 11 matches against the top-11 hasn’t done Wimbledon any favours but they’ve been the dominant team for the majority of their contests. Their shot ratio stands at an impressive 57% – the sixth best in the division – and the Dons have also enjoyed a meaty 60% of shots-on-target in their league fixtures this term.
The club have been given a huge boost by news they’ve permission to return their spiritual home at Plough Lane and should they manage to put a bit of consistency to their results, I’ve no reason to believe they can’t usurp Leyton Orient (and Barnet) to be top dogs in the capital.
There’s a nagging doubt about Ardley’s ability as a boss. I hope I’m not being too harsh on the guy but he’s not really taken Wimbledon forward since being given the gig and I think he’s starting to feel the pressure; he refused to face the media after last weekend’s Stevenage loss and that’s rather telling.
Ardley’s had 149 league games in charge of the Dons now and they’ve W46-D48-L55 – that’s a points-per-game average of 1.25. You don’t need me to tell you, that’s mediocre. The club increased their budget in the summer and will be expecting a decent improvement on last season’s 15th-placed finish.
Orient look the major opposition and are 1/5 to finish as Top London Club. But do they really deserve such skinny quotes when leading Wimbledon by only four points having W3-D5-L9 since August? A huge 45% of the O’s points tally was picked up in the first month of the campaign and they’ve kept a solitary clean sheet since.
Rookie boss Ian Hendon was booed jeered and the subject of ‘Hendon Out’ calls during and after last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Yeovil. The first-half of that matches was described as the ‘worst half of the season’ according to some Orient supporters with Jobi McAnuff’s leveller essentially giving the manager a stay of execution.
It’s a little harsh on Hendon, in my opinion. It was always a tough task to turn the O’s around after last year’s debacle and he’s been dealt two major injury blows too. Highly-rated striker Paul McCallum and, arguably the best player at this level, Dean Cox are out long-term whilst top scorer Jay Simpson is being chased by League One clubs.
There’s no way Leyton Orient should be as short as 1/5 in this market so get on Wimbledon at 7/2 in what’s essentially a straight match bet with Barnet out of the picture.
More frustration for me, here. Having suggested Stevenage and Newport at fancy prices in pre-season, Terry Butcher’s sacking at County and a remarkable turnaround in form from Teddy Sheringham’s Boro seems to have left the stragglers behind.
Yeovil, Dagenham and York dominate the relegation market – all three can be found at odds-on quotes in places – and there’s zero appeal in finding an angle around any of them.
Hartlepool (6/1 Bet365) hold a seven-point advantage over the drop zone but following a 100% start from their first three fixtures, have since W3-D2-L13 to slip right back into danger.
Ronnie Moore will need to once again draw on all his experience to keep the Monkey Hangers afloat with new manager bounces at York, Dagenham and Yeovil expected sooner than later.
Across the past two campaigns, Pools have W9-D6-L27 of their league fixtures before Boxing Day – a points-per-game average of 0.72 – failing to score in 17 of those 42 matches. Moore oversaw a historic fight back to keep the Monkey Hangers alive last term and will need to repeat something similar this time around.
The Hartlepool boss is desperate to strengthen his squad and is on the lookout for more goals. But 6/1 seems just about right as I’ve faith in Moore’s experience counting across the next five months and so I’m happy to leave League Two relegation prices alone.
Cambridge to finish in the top-half (11/8 BetVictor)
Cambridge to finish in the top-seven (10/1 Betfair)
Wimbledon to be Top London Club (7/2 BetVictor)
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