FOOTBALL LEAGUE boff Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on the Outright Winner and Promotion markets ahead of the 2018/19 League Two season.
WLB Season Preview 2018/19 | League Two: Promotion
33/1 shots Accrington took the League Two title last term – the joint-biggest priced champions of the fourth tier this century – leaving heavily-fancied Luton (7/1) and Mansfield (11/2) trailing in their wake.
Stanley overcame budgetary restrictions to burst many an ante-post balloon as they became the sixth (33%) side in the bottom Football League division to clinch top honours at pre-season odds of 20/1 or larger since 2000.
Whilst Luton justified their hype to seal second spot, favourites Mansfield flopped. Only two jollies from League Two have taken the title since 2000/01 although 9/18 (50%) have sealed automatic promotion.
However, the Stags were one of only six (33%) market leaders not to conclude the campaign in the top-seven this millennium. With David Flitcroft now in the hot-seat, Town are fourth in the market at 10/1 (Ladbrokes) quotes for the 2018/19 campaign despite sustained investment from the Radfords.
The Dons are one of the biggest fish in the fourth-tier this term with an infrastructure, budget and potential as good as any. Paul Tisdale’s an obvious upgrade on Dan Micciche, although with only two relegated clubs bouncing immediately back to League One as champions this century, I’m happy to follow the trends and swerve MK.
If I’d been asked to pen this piece in deepest June, I’d have been a keen advocate of Notts County. The Magpies were available to back at around the 12/1 mark and have since continued their impressive off-season recruitment as Kevin Nolan builds a mightily strong squad for an assault on the automatic promotion places.
County were serious contenders for a top-three berth throughout 2017/18 and should Nolan get the best out of his younger model, there’s no doubt the Meadow Lane club will be in the mix come May. However, at the current quotes, I’m happy to look elsewhere.
Lincoln (9/1 Boylesports)
Three of the past 13 League Two title winners were involved in an unsuccessful play-off challenge 12 months earlier and Lincoln can continue their remarkable year-on-year progress under the Cowley brothers with a significant tilt at top honours this term.
The former PE-teaching pair steered the Imps into the top-seven in their first campaign back at this level – City’s highest finish for 11 years – as well as picking up the EFL Trophy at Wembley. Chuck in their stunning FA Cup run from 2016/17 and their cruise to National League success and it’s clear this club are on the right path to progression.
The Sincil Bank side have strengthened their squad with the eye-catching addition of goal machine John Akinde, a forward suited to Lincoln’s industrious approach. Boreham Wood’s mesmeric playmaker Bruno Andrade has been snaffled, as has former Accrington ace Shay McCartan, to supplement a strike force that already boasts Matt Rhead and Matt Green.
Meanwhile, Michael O’Connor will add tenacity to a midfield that can feature Michael Bostwick and Lee Frecklington, while Harry Toffolo solves the left-back problem to join a watertight unit alongside solid centre-halves Scott Wharton and skipper Luke Waterfall and right-back Neal Eardley.
The Imps returned a reasonable 15 clean sheets last season and leaked only two goals more than League Two’s strongest defence – considering the upgrades, Lincoln will be confident of enhancing a record that’s seen the fourth-tiers best defensive side winning promotion in 12 of the past 13 campaigns.
The data also suggests a first return to the third-tier since 1999 could be in the offing. During their 2017/18 season, only promoted trio Luton, Coventry and Wycombe produced a stronger Shots On-Target Ratio than Lincoln, with the former duo only facing fewer Expected Goals from open play per-game.
City weren’t always the most aesthetically-pleasing outfit but the new arrivals will give the Cowley siblings tactical versatility and abundance of options that few divisional rivals will be able to match and at 9/1 (Boylesports) quotes to finish top of the tree, Lincoln appear a cracking each-way outright selection.
Cambridge 25/1 (Bet365)
Cambridge tabled their third successive top-half finish in League Two last term although fans could be forgiven for feeling a little deflated over their 2018/19 efforts.
Shaun Derry’s defensive football stunted potential progress and sent supporters in the stands to sleep. The Andy Brassell lookalike wasn’t relieved of his duties until February as a poor run of results coincided with Paul Barry taking full control of the club.
Joe Dunne was handed temporary reigns and immediately released the shackles, inviting United to play with purpose, confidence and swagger. The results were almost instant as Cambridge collected 25 points from 15 games under Dunne’s tutelage (W7-D4-L4), the fifth best points per-game return in the division.
Unsurprisingly, the Irishman was given the gig full-time in May and without a huge turnover of players, I’ve every faith the current incumbent in The Abbey hot-seat can inspire a promotion challenge out of a very capable squad.
Defensively, Cambridge were well-drilled under Derry and while Leon Legge has moved on, the addition of George Taft should keep the U’s settled and organised at the back. Luke Berry might not be around to provide punch from midfield but Dunne can still call upon quality schemers such as George Maris and Jevani Brown to chip in with goals, as well as David Amoo and Harrison Dunk.
If there’s one area of concern, it’s undoubtedly up front. Top goalscorer Uche Ikpeazu has moved to Scotland, leaving United to rely upon the likes of Jabo Ibehre and Barry Corr in attack. When 100%, both strikers are as good as any in League Two but neither have proven their long-term fitness credentials for quite some time.
Nevertheless, I’ve confidence that carefree Dunne can coax more consistent performances of out the group in 2018/19 and at 25/1 (Bet365) the U’s are worth an each-way poke to at least pinch some place money. Alternatively, take the 6/1 (Unibet) available on Promotion.
Considering the average price of a top-three finisher this century is 17/1 – and 12 (31%) of the past 39 successful automatic promotion challenges have included a side at 20/1 or bigger – Cambridge fit the bill, for me.
Stevenage (40/1 10BET)
Stevenage are an intriguing prospect heading into 2018/19. The Hertfordshire club finished a full 20 points shy of the play-off places last time out and have lost 14-goal forward Matt Godden during the close season amongst what appears to be a high turnover in squad personnel.
Drill a little deeper and punters may find Dino Maamria’s quietly assembling a competitive squad that could be ready to punch above pre-season predictions of mid-table obscurity. Boro have bulked out their roster with no-nonsense campaigners such as Scott Cuthbert, Michael Timlin and Joel Byrom, whilst also capturing non-league talents like Emmanuel Sonupe and James Ball.
Technician Ben Kennedy, playmaker Mark McKee, targetman Alex Revell and speedster Danny Newton all still call Broadhall Way home and with Maamria suggesting a return to Stevenage’s traditions of hard work, organisation, unity and physicality is to be expected, Boro are unlikely to be easy meat for any fourth-tier team.
There’s been major emphasis on fitness in pre-season with the demanding Tunisian-born boss looking to the Accrington model for success. Maamria took the squad away to Slovenia for a high-altitude training camp and I’m happy to buy into early murmurings of positivity from the camp ahead of a very possible push for promotion.
With many of the top 17 in the betting suffering from numerous flaws, there’s absolutely no reason why Stevenage can’t challenge towards the top of the tree and return punters’ pre-season faith with at least some place money from 40/1 (Bet365) ante-post quotes.
Nine (17%) League Two sides have finished in the top-three despite being chalked up at odds of 33/1 or larger this century and in a wide open renewal, there’s every chance that number will increase when the medals are handed out in May.
Crewe (40/1 BetVictor)
Having recommended Crewe for a promotion push 12 months ago – and being widely berated for such a poor call – it took some convincing before again taking the plunge on the Railwaymen this time around.
Six games in to their 2017/18 campaign and the Alex were nestled nicely in the top-three. However, the wheels soon came off and Crewe struggled to find the straight and narrow until February following a crushing 4-1 victory away to promotion-chasing Lincoln.
The Railwaymen were back on track and finished the season with a flourish. David Artell’s troops tallied 26 points from their final 14 fixtures – only Accrington picked up more in that sample – as January loanees Paul Green and Shaun Miller provided the necessary experience to guide a burgeoning group of youngsters to safer waters.
Chris Dagnell and Zoumana Bakayogo are the only major departures from Gresty Road with the club working hard to tie down prestigious prospects James Jones and Callum Ainley to new contacts. Elsewhere, Alex Nicholls has joined and Charlie Kirk and Harry Pickering remain in situ.
There’s still a lack of leadership and physicality in defence – Crewe conceded three or more goals on 13 occasions last season – but going forward there’s few such concerns as the Alex fired blanks in only five outings since mid-October. With Jordan Bowery leading the line, Crewe will always provide plenty of threat.
Former academy director Artell – a man with multiple degrees – is too clever to allow his team to fall back into last season’s problems and at 40/1 (BetVictor) each-way, Crewe look a decent shot to out-perform their odds.
2018/19 League Two – Lincoln to win outright (9/1 each-way Boylesports)
2018/19 League Two – Cambridge to win outright (25/1 each-way Bet365)
2018/19 League Two – Stevenage to win outright (40/1 each-way 10BET)
2018/19 League Two – Crewe to win outright (40/1 each-way BetVictor)
League Two 2018/19Football League analyst Mark O'Haire reveals his forecast 1-24 from the 2018/19 League Two.