The Football Lab’s Dark Horses
You’ve heard about the Football League’s favourites – the Newcastles, the Sheffield Uniteds and the Portsmouths – I’m here to dig a little deeper and talk about the names a bit lower down the pre-season betting list.
The teams that not everyone will fancy, but could muster the spirit and work ethic required to perform above the sum of their parts.
Picture the scene…
You’re a footballer for one of the Championship’s promotion favourites. It’s early in the season and you’re playing Huddersfield Town.
You’re expected to have a fairly comfortable afternoon. You kick-off and all of a sudden are faced with a cavalry of blue and white-striped shirts charging forwards.
Tenacious attackers such as Nahki Wells close the midfield down quickly and cut off forward passing lanes. You are panicked into either non-threatening backwards balls to take away the sting, or clearances to the menacing figure of 6’5” holding midfielder Ivan Paurevic.
They attack with pace, power and directness.
It’s a scary thought, right? That is the kind of intensity that we can expect from Huddersfield throughout the season.
Statistics suggest that had former boss Chris Powell been in charge for the whole of last season, the team would have picked up 43 points.
Had David Wagner been there throughout, the tally would have been 58. That is a massive 15-point difference already.
Consider that Wagner has now brought in his own players with a full pre-season to coach his methods and there is serious potential for progression. Seven pre-season clean sheets, two of which against Bundesliga sides, suggests much-needed defensive changes are already bearing fruit.
Huddersfield have added three club captains from Germany including centre-backs Michael Hefele and Christopher Schindler, meaning we can expect leadership qualities in the back four.
They have plenty of physicality in midfield while Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy, who broke an A-League record with 20 assists last term, provides the creativity to unlock the more defensive sides.
Huddersfield have the ingredients to be a real force, but the question is whether we should take William Hill’s 12/1 on them to go up? With the threat posed by the clubs coming down and last season’s play-off competitors, promotion is a very big ask.
However, I do fancy our Pitbull Terriers to press their way into the top-six and I’ll back them to do that at 11/2 (Bet365).
In the second half of the 2013-14 season, Sheffield United won 14 games to finish seventh and were 6/1 favourites for the next League One title that summer.
In the second half of last season, Scunthorpe United won 12 games to finish seventh and are now 16/1 joint-eighth favourites for the League One title.
There are only two things stopping Scunthorpe being valued as highly as the Blades were: one, they are a smaller club and two, they haven’t signed as many players. Neither of those factors are necessarily negative.
Being a smaller club means the pressure is not as great and opposing teams do not come to Glanford Park every other week and park the bus. A small number of signings means the players that are there can continue to build partnerships with one another, with no key players departing.
They can continue to build on the solid foundations started by the superb centre-back pairing of David Mirfin and Murray Wallace. They have a combative midfield with added pace in wide areas, thanks to the signing of Josh Morris from Bradford and Hakeeb Adelakun’s late season form.
Get Paddy Madden back fit and they have a 20-goal a season striker, completing a squad with the minerals to launch a sustained promotion push.
Given the form that the Iron had shown after the expected departure of Mark Robins, a man widely-criticized by fans, they should be much closer to the pre-season favourites.
Betway’s 6/1 on Scunny to get promoted seems generous.
If AFC Wimbledon’s promotion last year is anything to go by, having a physical, hardworking team with a goalscorer at the other end is not a bad blueprint in League Two.
Barnet took a bit of time to adjust to the fourth tier last term but now they are growing, in both size and confidence.
Since the start of December, they have never gone more than three games without winning and only once have they lost back-to-back, which speaks volumes for the team spirit.
A return of 1.58 points per game in that time would equal 73 points over a whole season, enough to earn a play-off place in seven of the last eight campaigns.
The pre-season transfer activity of last season’s promoted clubs indicates that a summer of stability is often better than splurging on 10 new players.
‘Mad Dog’ Martin Allen has added shrewdly, signing a quality forward in Alex Nicholls to compliment the pace and power of last season’s 24-goal marksman John Akinde. Key stopper Jamie Stephens is currently out, though loanee Josh Vickers made Swansea City’s bench on the final day of last season.
They have a couple of excellent defenders in centre-back Bira Dembele and right-back James Pearson. They’ve lost key man Andy Yiadom but possess another winger in Luke Gambin with plenty of potential and have a nice crop of youngsters bubbling through.
With so many big boys in this division, I don’t see Barnet making the top-three. Instead of taking the 16/1 (BetVictor) on the Bees for a Top-Three Finish – which would reward me if they got automatic promotion – I’ll go for the 9/2 (BetVictor) on the capital club to make the play-offs.