THE always-excellent James O'Rourke (@JamesOR1) has trawled the ante-post markets to unearth his delivered his four favourite fancies from across England's top four divisions ahead of the big 2019/20 season kick-off.
Back Preston for a Top-Six Finish (4/1 888)
In a league full of big hitters like Leeds, West Brom, Derby, as well as the relegated Premier League trio of Fulham, Cardiff and Huddersfield, it is always clubs like Preston that tend to go under the radar.
If we’re based the anticipated end of season league table on the odds for each side to win the title, then PNE are predicted for 14th; the position they reached in the Championship last season. That did not tell the entire story however.
Alex Neil has done a mighty fine job since taking the gig at Deepdale. Considering the fact he was only a appointed extremely late into pre-season of the 2017/18 campaign, and to then guide them to a seventh-placed finish; only two points behind Derby, who occupied the last play-off position, he soon settled into life in Lancashire.
Now onto last season, 14th perhaps doesn’t seem too much to shout home about, and Preston picked up 12 points fewer in this campaign compared to the last, but the Lilywhites certainly had a shout of the play-offs. They were actually seventh following a 1-0 home win over Birmingham in mid-season, but things certainly tailed off afterwards.
North End won just once in their last eight Championship encounters, and that was at home to rock bottom Ipswich. Defeats to Reading, Sheffield United, Leeds and West Brom after that Birmingham victory most definitely cost the club.
Preston are a typical Championship side in the fact that they go through stages of the season where they look a strong outfit, and then prolonged spells of results going against them. They opened the season winning just one in the first nine, and that was on the opening day. They then went through a period of losing once in 12 in October/September/December, before having a poor Christmas.
A 12-match unbeaten streak followed, before PNE finished disappointingly. It is about consistency at the end of the day, and you’d like to think Neil will have learned plenty about his squad in the year gone by to fine tune them into something the rest of the Championship can and should fear.
Preston conceded far too many goals last season; 67 in total, with only six other sides at this level letting more into their goal. They scored only a couple of goals fewer than Derby and Leeds, who both met in the play-offs, so Neil’s side really aren’t that far off. Patrick Bauer has been added to boost their back line, and he was part of the Charlton defence which conceded the second fewest goals in League One last season, en-route to promotion via the play-offs.
I think Preston are more than worthy of a poke to make the top-six at this level for the first time since 2009. They’re ultra-consistent in the sense that they’re finished 11th, 11th, 7th and 14th since coming up from League One, and no team enjoys facing them. Neil knows what it takes to get out of this league from his time at Norwich, and I see no reason for them not to challenge.
Lay Huddersfield for a Top-Six Finsh (2/1 Betfair)
Last season was tough for Huddersfield, to say the least. The Terriers worked something of a miracle to get into the Premier League, and then surpassed that and then some by staying there for a second season.
That second season, as we all know, is the toughest and Town ultimately found retaining their top-flight status too much of a task. Scoring goals was quite clearly an issue – finding the back of the net only 22 times some 12 worse than the 34 Fulham and Cardiff achieved. who were also both relegated to the second tier. Shipping 76 goals doesn’t help either! With only Fulham letting in more.
Now Huddersfield are back in the Championship, but all is not necessarily doom and gloom around the West Yorkshire outfit. Phil Hodgkinson has just completed his takeover of the club, meaning he has a 75% share, with predecessor Dean Hoyle holding the other 25%. This represents an important chapter in the history of this football club, and whilst relegation is never really a good thing, they’re at least returning to a more realistic level.
The Terriers wasted no time in adding to their roster, with Tommy Elphick from Aston Villa providing great experience at this level, whereas Reece Brown and Josh Koroma have some from lower leagues looking to prove themselves. Several faces have departed, which is natural after dropping a league. First-choice goalkeeper Jonas Lössl will be a miss and Liverpool loanee Kamil Grabara needs to prove himself as a potential able replacement, having only had experience in Polish and Danish football.
Huddersfield found it a challenge gaining promotion in the first place, and that was when the league was essentially Newcastle and then the rest. It has much more of an open feel about it now, and it again looks a case of not one team being able to pull away from the pack. Certain clubs have been able to return to the top-flight after relegation at the first attempt in more recent times.
Newcastle last achieved this in 2016, and Hull and Burnley did so the year before. Nobody since though. Clubs like QPR, Sheffield United and Leicester have had lengthy stays at this level before getting back up again, so there are no guarantees at all. Considering how badly Huddersfield were on the pitch last season, can we really expect them to turn it on? Just ask Stoke and Aston Villa about their first year experiences.
I therefore can’t be having odds of 2/1 on Huddersfield making the top-six. That does appear awfully skinny to be backing a team that has been used to losing games for the past two seasons to turn just flick a switch again.
I do wonder if Jan Siewert really is the right man for them, too. It is tough to judge him on the job he inherited last season, as they looked doomed before he joined, but that never really kicked on. Clearly the club fancied him to be something of a David Wagner 2.0, and next season could be his time, but a slow start could see his job come under threat. They’re under new ownership after all.
Town are good enough to compete, but so are several others in what looks set to be a competitive Championship season for all.
Back Peterborough for League One Promotion (7/2 SkyBet)
It is fair to say that Peterborough are going to give it a right good go in League One in this upcoming season. From the outside looking in, you get the feeling that something special could potentially be brewing. Posh have certainly been very active in the transfer market, and we all know that they’re a club that can identify talent and move them on for big bucks in the future.
Frankie Kent, Dan Butler and Christy Pym, all aged 23-24, have impressed in League Two and Darren Ferguson believes they’re ready to step up a grade. Money has been spent on getting Mo Eisa through the door as he looks to return to the level which earned him a move to Bristol City in the first place. George Boyd has made an emotional return and he is an established Championship performer. Plus, with the likes of Marcus Maddison on your roster, you’ve always got a chance!
Since coming down from the Championship, Peterborough have had five seasons back in the third tier. They’ve finished 6th, 9th, 13th, 11th and 9th on those occasions. The last four seasons has seen them end up with point tallies of 63, 63, 62 and 64. They’re clearly consistent to a point but they’re looking to kick on again, and their recruitment alone suggests that they’ve got every chance of doing so.
Ferguson is of course back in the job for a third spell, but he did a decent job at Doncaster let’s not forget, with them winning promotion out of League Two. However, he clearly ‘gets it’ at London Road, and he is desperate to get this club back into the Championship; something which he has achieved before, as well.
The betting for promotion out of League One has something of an open look to things this time around. Naturally it’d be a case of a team relegated from the Championship being fancied, but the point deduction for Bolton gives them a mountain to climb just to avoid back-to-back relegations!
Sunderland are favourites, but they did draw so many matches last season and it remains to be seen if Jack Ross can get more out of this team. Losing Lee Cattermole is a blow, too. Ipswich will be there or thereabouts, and on paper they should be, but you just never know how a team will react to relegation, and playing at this level for the first time.
Portsmouth have lost and may lose more key players, so there are doubts surrounding them. Peterborough therefore could be one to creep up and up over time, and who would back against them.
They’ll be under pressure however, but none more so from within compared to the outset. We’ll ultimately know a lot about Peterborough in the first month or so of the new season. They have home encounters with Ipswich and Sunderland to look forward to, but following that they’ve got a particular favourable run of games which could easily see the 7/2 price on them to get promotion quickly drop.
No team will particular relish the trip to London Road next season. Ironically, their home record was what probably cost them last season, so they’ll be keen to make it a fortress again. Adding experienced Mark Beevers to their defence is another handy recruit which will assist in that regard.
Like all EFL leagues, there is something of an open look to it before a ball is even kicked, but Peterborough know this league inside and out, just like Ferguson and their chairman Darragh MacAnthony. This double act has worked in the past and there’s no reason why it can’t so again.
Lots of League One teams enter the new season with more questions than answers, but the Posh have answered some of them already, and will be a likely contender.
Back Plymouth to win League Two Outright (10/1 Betway)
I’m quite sweet on the chances of Plymouth in League Two this season. I also think there is a bit of value to be had on their claims.
Salford and Bradford have jostled for favouritism; I can only think the former are priced based on ‘The Class of 92’ connection more than anything else. They made awfully heavy weather of getting out of the National League last season, and whilst that was still some achievement, repeating that in the EFL is another kettle of fish, especially for a club playing at this level for the first time.
Bradford are also fancied at a shorter price than Plymouth. They had a season to forget last year and they looked relegated for quite a long while. They too have had off-field dramas which didn’t help matters. They’ll likely compete but there’s still a sense of the unknown about that.
Enter Plymouth, who whilst they too were relegated from League One there is still plenty of excitement around the football club. Derek Adams departed towards the end of last season. Whilst this change wasn’t enough to prevent Home Park hosting League Two football again, they were ultimately only relegated on goal difference. We all know that League One was incredibly tight last season, especially in the bottom half – that meant Argyle concluded only five points behind Gillingham, who ended up in 13th.
The main reason for optimistic for the Pilgrims is that a certain Ryan Lowe will be in their dugout next season. He guided Bury to promotion last season amidst all kind of off-the-field problems around the club.
With the future of Bury uncertain, Lowe decided to leave and move to Plymouth, heading back into the league he was just promoted from. That is probably a sign in itself that he has faith in this particular challenge. Danny Mayor, Will Aimson, Dom Telford and Callum McFadzean have all come with him from Gigg Lane, too.
Mayor especially is a big threat at this level and is someone who can fill the void left by Graham Carey, who has signed for CSKA Sofia. Freddie Ladapo and Ruben Lameiras are other notable departures from the football club, but Plymouth are a big club at this level and have generally had success in this league over the years.
They were last in League Two in 2017, and won promotion after finishing in second. The two years previous they made the play-offs. They were also champions in 2002 at this level.
Argyle's location is perhaps a big reason for their triumph in this league. They’ve been known to be strong at home and most opponents have very lengthy journeys to get to their Home Park base. A derby with Exeter next season awaits, but then Newport, Swindon and Crawley are the closest to them, and they aren’t really that close.
My big faith in Plymouth is mostly based around the Lowe factor. He got Bury playing the kind of football which looks well beyond League Two standard. They only found the ultra-consistent Lincoln too strong last season, and Bury were the only side at that level to score 80+ goals. They had the joint-best home record, and playing that kind of football on the lush Home Park surface next season will really get people talking.
I personally don’t think Salford should be considered close to favourites for the title, but I can half understand why they are in the eyes of the bookies. I’m much, much more bullish on the claims of Plymouth, who could be a club going places if they can get out of this league and build some momentum.