FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on the opening weekend of EFL action for 2017/18.
Fleetwood v Rotherham | Saturday 5th August 2017, 15:00
Just 12 months ago Fleetwood were chalked up as 5/2 for League One relegation. Uwe Rosler had only walked into his managerial role days before the start of the season and many expected the Cod Army to flounder.
By October’s international break, the Trawlerman were hovering ominously above the bottom-four and by mid-November Town were still struggling for consistency.
But a 2-1 triumph at home to Chesterfield was the catalyst for a stunning 18-game unbeaten streak that brought Fleetwood in to contention for automatic promotion.
The Cod Army’s challenge ran out of steam on the final furlong and with seven blanks fired in their last 11 games, the Trawlerman’s lack of final-third punch saw them ousted in the play-off semi-finals by Bradford.
However, the fourth-placed finish and 82 point return marked Fleetwood’s greatest ever campaign. Rosler has since put pen to paper on a new deal until 2020 and summer transfer business suggests Town are ready for another top-six assault.
Right-back Conor McLaughlin and forward David Ball are arguably the only significant departures to leave Highbury but Rosler’s recruited shrewdly with Kyle Dempsey signing permanently, along with Lewis Coyle, Harvey Rodgers, Jordy Hiwula and in particular, Conor McAleny.
McAleny notched 10 goals in an impressive 19-game spell with Oxford and the Everton youngster was being courted by Championship clubs in the off-season. His poaching instinct could prove crucial to Fleetwood’s promotion hopes, adding another dimension to their intense, high-tempo playing style.
I’m backing Fleetwood to start 2017/18 with a victory but the odds on offer allow us to factor in the safety of the draw with 9/13 available with BetVictor on the Cod Army off a scratch +0 Asian Handicap start. Working in the same way as a Draw No Bet selection, we’ll see our stake returned if the game ends all-square.
Last season Town suffered just three home defeats whilst churning out six victories from nine when welcoming bottom-nine League One clubs to Highbury. I expect visitors Rotherham to struggle this term and I’m sure boss Paul Warne would have preferred a slightly cushier opening day encounter.
Relegated Championship clubs boast a rotten record in their opening day away game – it’s a 45% loss rate dating back to 1997 – and I’m not at all convinced Rotherham are ready to turn the tables on a horrific 2016/17.
The Millers finished 28 points adrift of safety – the worst post-war performance in the second-tier – losing 33 games and conceding 98 goals. United returned a club record low number of wins (five) and equalled the highest number of away defeats (21) in Championship history.
Warne – who didn’t want the gig in the first place – saw his side demoted with seven games to spare and still has 17 players from last season’s debacle still about the New York Stadium. However, Rotherham’s best performers – Tom Adeyemi, Danny Ward and Richard Smallwood have all moved on.
Former Fleetwood forward David Ball, Darren Potter and Ryan Williams are decent enough additions and there is a sprinkling of quality throughout the ranks. But I question whether Rotherham have rid their losing mentality just yet and I’m more than happy to oppose them here.
Luton v Yeovil | Saturday 5th August 2017, 15:00
Luton were one of the best sides not to win promotion last term. The Hatters tabled 77 points to finish fourth in League Two, going on to suffer play-off semi-final heartbreak in the dying seconds of the second leg against Blackpool.
Highly-rated head coach Nathan Jones is now under pressure to deliver promotion but the Welshman appears to have addressed the side’s lack of final-third punch over the summer.
Last season Luton often struggled to breakdown deep defences, failing to record victories in three of their five fixtures at home to sides in 20th and below. A tally of only 11 Kenilworth Road triumphs was far from ideal and the 17 draws recorded arguably proved their undoing.
Cameron McGeehan and Jack Marriott moved on for solid sums but Jones has managed to convince top goalscorer Danny Hylton to stay whilst James Collins moves to Bedfordshire having fired over 20 goals for struggling Crawley to enhance the Hatters’ attacking output.
Elsewhere, Andrew Shinnie and Alan McCormack add a bit of brawn, bite and penetration to a midfield that were criticised for their lack of physicality and creativity at times. Meanwhile, the glaring gap between the sticks has been plugged with two quality keepers arriving in Marek Stech and James Shea.
Expectation is rife around town that Luton are ready to rumble in their quest for League One football and I fancy the Hatters to make an impressive start to their campaign when they host Yeovil on Saturday; I’ll be backing Luton to overcome a -0.75 Asian Handicap hurdle at 8/9 (BetVictor).
Backing this bet will see us collect a half-stakes profit should Luton win by exactly one-goal and a full-stakes pay-out should the hosts claim victory by two goals or more.
I’ve major reservations regarding visitors Yeovil. I’ve already recommended backing the Glovers for relegation and their 2016/17 stats and trends don’t make for pretty reading.
Darren Way’s troops concluded their campaign with just three wins from 27 outings; injuries to wing wizards Ryan Hedges and Otis Khan contributed to that demise but even so, Yeovil posted the second-worst away figures (W3-D9-L11) in League Two and bagged just W1-D3-L7 when taking on the top-six.
In four of six away days at the top-six, the Glovers leaked at least three goals and during the off-season the guests have seen key players Matty Dolan, Kevin Dawson and Alex Lacey depart. It might be a miserable start for the Greens.
Morecambe v Cheltenham | Saturday 5th August 2017, 15:00
Jim Bentley’s claimed the Manager of the Month award in League Two in two of the past three seasons with his Morecambe side now renowned for their fast starts.
The Shrimps have sealed a stunning W17-D3-L7 from the first five games over the past six seasons, a 63% win rate that implies betting odds of around 4/7.
Well Morecambe can be backed at odds just shy of 2/1 to see off Cheltenham on the opening weekend… Those bulbous quotes allow us to back the Shrimps at 17/16 (BetVictor) off a scratch 0 Asian Handicap start – that’s too big to ignore.
There’s no real secret to Morecambe’s August exploits; Bentley prefers to keep his squad in Lancashire, drilling the squad hard on the training paddock whilst keeping spirits high with several team bonding sessions. It’s a tried-and-trusted method that I’m certainly not going to doubt.
Bentley’s boys are relegation favourites once more this season but they boast a handy knack of defying the odds despite losing key personnel year-on-year. Top goalscorer Paul Mullin and Player of the Year centre-back Ryan Edwards are the major losses this time around but eight new faces have arrived to fill the void.
Visitors Cheltenham are also fancied to find life tough in League Two this term. The National League champions of 2015/16 toiled on their return to the Football League, requiring a rejuvenation in the final five months of the campaign to stave off the threat of relegation.
Gary Johnson’s serious health issues didn’t help the Robins but the veteran boss is back in the dugout and has overseen a major overhaul of players. Leading striker Billy Waters and quality goalkeeper Scott Brown are amongst the personnel to move on but recruitment has been relatively slow and uninspiring.
The Robins squad is looking rather threadbare, epitomised by last weekend’s 5-1 friendly thrashing at Peterborough. Johnson fielded the same XI for the full 90 minutes before admitting post-match his team are looking undercooked and short in key areas.
At the odds on offer, there’s most definitely value in supporting Morecambe on Saturday.