FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Peter Taylor (@BuryMeInExile) delivers his team-by-team League One verdicts ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, with a 1-24 rundown covering each club in-depth ahead of the new season.
1st) Ipswich (15/2 Blacktype)
Paul Lambert was unable to save the Tractor Boys from relegation to the third tier after 17 long years in the Championship, having been drafted in during October to at least make the Suffolk side put up a fight; up to that moment, they’d only won once in the league and were rooted to the foot of the table on single figures.
Town eventually came within a point of moving off the bottom, but more importantly for their future, the club were able to persuade most of their promising youngsters to stay at Portman Road.
Lambert has been very shrewd with the additions he’s made to the squad in the summer; goalkeeper Tomas Holy was always one of Gillingham’s better performers, Luke Garbutt will bring an assured presence at left-back, and James Norwood’s arrival offsets the loss of Ellis Harrison to Portsmouth and then some.
They look ominously strong in all areas; Toto Nsiala took time to adapt initially, but then became one of the key men. Andre Dozzell, Teddy Bishop, and Cole Skuse will have the measure of most midfields they come up against if utilised in a 4-3-3, and there are options on the flanks to supply Norwood, Kayden Jackson, and Freddie Sears.
Although they don’t have the same advantage other relegated sides to League One have had in terms of Premier League parachute payments, the pragmatic of their manager together with plenty of verve and endeavour on the pitch should prove too hot to handle for the opposition. Norwood is 10/1 to be top goalscorer once again, and he’ll doubtlessly get the chances to make that a fruitful punt.
2nd) Portsmouth (9/1 Spreadex)
A relatively poor 2019 put paid to Pompey’s hopes of promotion after being out in front for much of the first half of the campaign. Kenny Jackett’s charges endured a torrid January and February in the league, winning just once to surrender top spot. Sunderland then gained some revenge for the EFL Trophy final defeat in the play-offs, leaving them to settle for another crack at clawing back to where they were in the not too distant past.
Sensible targets have been acquired thus far; James Bolton arrives from Shrewsbury Town to slot in at right-back, the pairing of Sean Raggett (on loan) and Paul Downing add quality and depth in the middle, and Marcus Harness has been rewarded for an outstanding season with Burton Albion by being the hand-picked candidate to replace Jamal Lowe, should the latter leave as has been speculated.
88 points is a very high figure to not be in the automatic spots, and the roster has been augmented without the need for an overhaul. There is every reason to believe that even without Lowe, the remaining players are more than sufficient to avoid the extended blip they suffered earlier in the calendar year.
Bet Victor are currently offering 4/1 for a top two finish, and with fewer outstanding candidates in the field, everybody’s favourite bell could well be chiming around Championship grounds in 2020.
3rd) Rotherham (11/1 Bet365)
There is much to admire about the way both the board and Paul Warne have handled their yo-yoing over the past three years; the directors have kept faith with an improving, passionate manager, full in the knowledge that survival in the Championship for a club of The Millers’ size will always be a serious battle. Ultimately, they fell short by four points.
Incoming transfer activity to date has been mainly concentrated away from a leaky defensive unit – indeed, Semi Ajayi was still impressive individually, and has subsequently made the move to West Bromwich Albion. Will Vaulks’ departure to Cardiff City should see a scramble between Matt Crooks and Shaun MacDonald to fill the void. Elsewhere, Newcastle's Dan Barlaser will be looking to build on his positive loan spell with Accrington Stanley by trying his hand at The New York Stadium in 2019/2020.
Freddie Ladapo banged in the goals for relegated Plymouth in League One last term, and should profit from target man Michael Smith’s intelligent hold-up play and the incisive crossing from the flanks. The former is 25/1 with most firms to win the golden boot, and at the very minimum, he is a tempting each-way bet. If they can iron out the kinks in the backline, they’ll be there or thereabouts yet again.
4th) Coventry (33/1 Blacktype)
For the second time in recent history, the Sky Blues have been forced out of the Ricoh Arena and their own city after a long dispute between the much-hated SISU (their owners) and Wasps, the ‘local’ rugby union team. In 2019/2020, they will have to share with Birmingham, and it remains to be seen just how badly that will affect attendances and possibly results.
On the pitch, the West Midlands outfit settled into life back in the third tier with ease, not quite troubling the play-off places, all the while developing an exciting brand of attacking football that eventually came to match their shot dominance in most matches. Mark Robins has had to contend with not just the ground situation, but two key players both joining divisional rivals Sunderland. Kyle McFadzean’s signature means he’s the only centre back older than 23 on the books, and they should look to him to take the lead.
Bright Enobakhare looks to be staying at Wolves, and Conor Chaplin has just joined Barnsley in the Championship. Even bearing those in mind, there is still plenty of speed and movement in the forward areas to persuade opposition managers to dedicate more men to defensive duties, freeing up space for the likes of Tom Bayliss to pick dictate the tempo.
There’s more than a decent case to be made for a further season of improvement, despite playing over 20 miles away from home. A top six finish can still be found at 10/3 with bet365, with Robins truly having found his niche once more at CCFC.
5th) Sunderland (4/1 SkyBet)
Years of tumult and decline were only partially banished in the Black Cats’ first season down in the third tier since 1988. Jack Ross made them very hard to beat, losing the fewest matches in League One, but curiously not that hard to score against or dominant in many games to the extent where ‘Sunderland 1-1 Opponents’ became a meme amongst supporters when predicting the outcome of their next fixture.
Indeed, it was the extremely high number of ties that scuppered their attempts to bounce back to the Championship straight away, as well as Ross being unable to find the right formula to get more wins, tinkering with systems even in the run-in whilst all their rivals had tried and tested strategies that worked more often than not. Josh Maja’s mid-term move to Bordeaux offered a partial explanation for this, but even with his goals, it was very rare to witness them turning over their less fancied adversaries.
The close season has been dogged with speculation surrounding owner Stewart Donald potential investment into the club, which has had a huge impact on the north-east giants’ ability to assert themselves in the transfer market. Reece James and stalwart Lee Cattermole have left for different reasons, and only four new faces have come in – deputy goalkeeper Lee Burge and centre-back Jordan Willis from Coventry, Marc McNulty (on loan from Reading), and Conor McLaughlin from Millwall.
Whilst it’s true that the defence did look on the frail side, creative and finishing problems haven’t been addressed, externally at least. Elliott Embleton should provide a capable alternative option to the likes of Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire after a successful loan stint at Grimsby Town in the basement division.
Supporters will be hoping for much more from Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg, but history could repeat itself in the table. The Mackems are 9/4 with William Hill to make the play-offs, and there’s little evidence to suggest an automatic spot is within their collective grasp.
6th) Lincoln (20/1 Betway)
It’s no secret that Danny and Nicky Cowley have transformed The Imps, turning them from a side listing badly in The National League to one upwardly mobile with nothing to fear in their first campaign at this level in a generation, rebuffing interest from other clubs to remain loyal to a project and a city that exude positivity.
They got over their play-off disappointment the previous season extremely quickly, racing out of the blocks to sit atop League Two from almost the first gameweek to the last, holding off Bury and MK Dons to lift the title by a six-point margin despite hitting their one sticky patch of form right at the death, playing a style that suggests they can continue to mix it up with the best the third tier have to offer, adapting for the opposition with a level of nuance they weren’t always given credit for.
To date, they have retained every significant member of their championship winning squad except goalkeeper Matt Gilks, adding more quality to the midfield along the way. Jorge Grant blew hot and cold on loan at Mansfield Town, but the greater emphasis on discipline (in every sense of the term) of The Cowleys ought to glean more consistency from him than David Flitcroft could. Jack Payne’s exploits behind the strikers were one of the few highlights in a dismal year for Bradford City, and Joe Morrell will provide versatility from the bench.
There’s probably still some scope to bring in another striker and a right-back, but even without these additions, there’s every reason to believe Lincoln can reach new heights, and are 5/2 with SportPesa to attain a top six finish.
7th) Doncaster (28/1 Blacktype)
Grant McCann was rewarded for leading the South Yorkshire outfit to within a single penalty kick of the play-off final at Wembley with the gig at Hull City in the Championship. In his place steps Darren Moore, having been ousted from his role at West Bromwich Albion in the tier above whilst still in the same position.
Moore’s first task will be to demonstrate that he’s learned some harsh tactical lessons from his time in charge of The Baggies, where most of the fans remained deeply unconvinced despite their relatively high standing in the table. Donny have seen the influential Tommy Rowe leave for Bristol City, whilst Marko Marosi and Danny Andrew have signed for rivals with similar pretensions to their own. Reece James will slot into the latter’s shoes, and Ben Sheaf, on loan from Arsenal U23s, will be the pivot in midfield.
Hotshot John Marquis is still at the Keepmoat Stadium, as are most of the important figures in their excellent 2018/2019. The evergreen James Coppinger has signed on for another year, so expect the right flank to still be where the ball spends a lot of time, especially with Matty Blair backing him up.
Whilst they might just fall short of repeating their feat from last term, it should still be another good season for Rovers, providing Moore adapts quickly to life as manager there, having had little over 10 days at the time of writing to assess the squad.
8th) Peterborough (11/1 Blacktype)
Another close season, another roll of the dice by chairman Darragh MacAnthony in more than one sense, having brought back Darren Ferguson into the fold for a third time whilst sanctioning several fee-paying transfers in an attempt to break back into the top six. It was probably always going to be unattainable for Ferguson to recover their situation in three months, following on from Steve Evans’ reign.
Striker Mo Eisa endured an extremely frustrating year with Bristol City, but his permanent signing with Posh is a huge statement of intent from the club. Joining him at London Road are centre backs Mark Beevers and Frankie Kent, escaping the Bolton farce and making the jump up from Colchester respectively; Christy Pym, having been my personal choice for Goalkeeper of the Season in League Two at Exeter; Dan Butler was my choice for the left-back, too, and is of the age profile favoured in most instances by the Cambridgeshire outfit.
It would be remiss not to mention George Boyd’s return, although I’m unsure if he’ll be guaranteed to start every week, occupying the same area as Sirki Dembélé. Marcus Maddison remains at the club despite constant speculation linking him with Sunderland, so the talented strikers should still be very well supplied.
There ought to be fewer goals conceded in 2019/2020, so it will be a case of making that count in more matches than they were able to last term.
9th) Blackpool (33/1 Blacktype)
New owner Simon Sadler has an extremely low bar to step over to endear himself to a fanbase that’s been through the mill for years. Attendances will swell at Bloomfield Road from this season onwards, putting the focus firmly back on the football itself.
Simon Grayson has taken residence in the managerial hotseat, and will be looking to maintain or better the 10th-placed finish achieved by Terry McPhillips, who did a sterling job under extremely difficult circumstances for most of his tenure in caretaker charge,
The Tangerines haven’t lost many integral players over the summer, and instead have added to their ranks, Ryan Edwards aside, in attacking areas. Sulley Kalkai will be hoping to find the seaside resort a welcoming long-term.home, and is one of a plethora of versatile wingers and forwards acquired.
Jamie Devitt, Carlisle United’s standout performer over the past two years, even latterly had a ‘false nine’ role with The Cumbrians, and shouldn’t find himself with as many responsibilities in an orange shirt. Adi Yussuf will give Grayson a more varied deck to shuffle up top to change tight matches.
The feel-good factor will doubtlessly translate to the pitch. Grayson needs to demonstrate his qualities after his two most recent posts ended prematurely. Betfred still have ‘Pool at evens to finish in the top half, which is definitely worth considering.
10th) Fleetwood (28/1 Blacktype)
Joey Barton might want to keep a lower profile in the upcoming campaign; charged with ABH and bailed until October after an incident in a match against Barnsley, he will have to work extremely hard to restore both his and the club’s reputation; beforehand, he had drawn plenty of praise for his efforts with The Cod Army.
In terms of transfer activity, the only curious permanent deal out is Ashley Nadesan to Crawley Town, who I feel more than showed his attributes whilst on loan at Carlisle in 2018/2019. Three clever loan signings have been made – Harry Souttar will continue his development at Highbury for an additional 12 months; Jordan Rossiter proved his fitness and potential at Bury as a regista; Lewie Coyle will be in situ for a third spell in a row, forming one of a stable of full-backs that give Barton the tactical flexibility to go narrower in midfield.
Additionally, Josh Morris will be desperate to reach the heights he achieved for the two terms prior to the last one for Scunthorpe, where he regularly scored and contributed in double figures. The experience and vision of Paul Coutts might suggest a double pivot will be used on occasion to screen the defence in away games.
The Fishermen are more than capable of another high mid-table finish come May. Whether that represents sufficient progress is up for debate.
11th) Burton (20/1 Ladbrokes)
It was a strange campaign back in the third tier for Nigel Clough’s men in the sense that they never really put a run together of good form until the end, only for the squeak of a chance they had at making a late dash for the play-offs to be snuffed out by accruing just three points in the last four matches.
The summer has seen two of their best performers leave – Kyle McFadzean has headed west to Coventry, and Marcus Harness to heavy-hitters Portsmouth. Nigel Clough has drafted in Richard Nartey on loan from Chelsea U23s, who can play all across the back four; Manchester United U23s’ Kyle O’Hara to almost certainly be first choice goalkeeper for 2019/2020, plus midfielders Ryan Edwards and John-Joe O’Toole, who will offer bundles of energy and unpredictability respectively.
A replacement for Harness ought to be the main priority in the time remaining. Several individuals in the squad can operate there in a 4-1-4-1 that flexes into a 4-3-3 when required, but the versatile Lucas Akins found his niche as a striker, bagging eight goals during the run-in. Clough is unlikely to break the bank to do so, however, and will bide his time to find the right man at an agreeable price. It could mean the difference between a top-half finish or not.
12th) MK Dons (33/1 Bet Victor)
Almost from the kick-off in their ‘winner takes all clash’ hosting Mansfield, there looked to be only one outcome. Paul Tisdale was able to keep The Stags at arm’s length and gain the last automatic promotion place in the process, fulfilling the ambitions for the season.
The futures of Kieran Agard and Chuks Aneke were important to resolve one way or another early in the close season, but I think it’s reasonable to suggest that despite the goals the former scored in 2018/2019, if you’d asked fans which they’d rather lose, it would’ve been him rather than his teammate, who has joined Charlton.
Elsewhere, the roster looks to be stronger. Rhys Healey, so successful in his initial loan spell in the first half of last season, has rejoined on a permanent basis, and will provide excellent balance when Tisdale opts for three up front.
Regan Poole is an assured ball-playing centre back who will mesh well with the existing members in the same position; Brennan Dickenson will offer a more sprightly alternative to club stalwart Dean Lewington down the left; Jordan Bowery and Joe Mason don’t have the most prolific records up top, but will surely get chances to stake their claims. Finally, Hiram Boateng will be just what was missing from the midfield area, offering a dynamic presence to help in the transition from defence to attack.
In short, they should find life back in the third tier reasonably comfortable, and the policy of bringing through academy prospects and generally signing first team pros before their peak years ensures a blueprint to further progression.
13th) Rochdale (66/1 Bet365)
A return to what was once colloquially known as ‘the Rochdale division’ looked almost certain during the final weeks and months of long-serving manager Keith Hill’s tenure, a period in which they very often conceded at least four goals and looked resigned to their fate.
First team coach Brian Barry-Murphy, who’d played for the last eight years of his career at Spotland, stepped into the breach, almost immediately changing the group’s collective mentality. From thereon in, Dale only lost three more matches (all to top six sides), stopping the rot and escaping the relegation places with four points and several sides between them.
Recruitment this summer has been quite slow, only yielding three ins thus far: left-sided forward Rekell Pyke rejoins for his second loan spell from Huddersfield Town U23s, and he could link up down that flank with Rhys Norrington-Davies, who impressed for National League outfit Barrow in 2018/2019. Eoghan O’Connell’s capture from neighbours Bury suggests Barry-Murphy will continue to emphasise playing the ball out of defence, which makes sense in a technically adept squad.
Daniel Adshead, capped by England U18s, has made the move to Norwich, and in his absence will step up three more prospects from a deeply impressive but still overlooked academy in relative terms.
The paradox of a familar face but a new broom to sweep away the downward spiral should continue to pay dividends. Like most teams in this preview, their business hasn’t been concluded, but the retention of top goalscorer Ian Henderson was key, and if another name can be added to share the load, then they should be streets ahead of the other Greater Manchester teams.
14th) Gillingham (80/1 Blacktype)
Oft-criticised chairman Paul Scally openly flirted with bringing the extremely controversial figure of Steve Evans before the season had ended. The way the club handled sacking Steve Lovell two games prior to the conclusion was branded as a disgrace by fans, who then had the double-whammy of Evans’ eventual appointment weeks later.
The announcement likely precipitates a change (an increase) of budget in an attempt to both push The Gills into the upper echelons of the third tier and in order to make the Kent-based club more attractive to investment, which Scally has been pursuing for several years.
In terms of transfer activity, there has been the expected churn already. Tomas Holy and Tom Eaves were certs to seek pastures new, and Dean Parrett has rejoined former side Stevenage.
Jack Bonham will don the gloves in goal on the back of a successful loan spell at Bristol Rovers from Brentford during 2018/2019; Connor Oglivie has made his temporary stay permanent, and the midfield will have a whole new complexion – the most notable acquisition being Ousseynou Cissé, who has all the physical attributes to intimidate and dominate in equal measure.
There’s still an Eaves-sized gap to plug up top, and there are sure to be several further additions yet. The current post represents Evans’ last crack of the whip in the third tier, having rubbed almost everyone associated with Peterborough United the wrong way last season. His track record is nevertheless excellent overall, but rarely translates into even medium-term stability. Promising players such as Brandon Hanlan could find their pathways blocked by an emphasis on new faces and a style of football that will often bypass the midfield. I don’t foresee a brilliant conclusion.
15th) Accrington (100/1 Bet Victor)
The ‘little’ club continue to show up many of their peers both and off the pitch. The implicit trust between outspoken chairman Andy Holt and legendary manager John Coleman continues to pay dividends. The latter knowing that he won’t be sacked by the former helps to give him the space required to change tack when things don’t go to plan.
Stanley flew out of the blocks during their first season in the third tier since 1960 and dissolution, only to endure a huge slump of form and goals in the middle third. Accy rallied in the latter stages of the campaign to end up in a very respectable mid-table position.
Holt will have been pleased at the EFL’s decision to reverse the transfer window symmetry with the top two divisions, allowing more time for clubs on tighter budgets to still acquire some of the individuals on their shortlists. None of the departees from the Crown Ground have thus far proven to be body blows to their plans. Johnny Maxted, now at Exeter, had bouts of inconsistency in goal, whilst Ben Richards-Everton only latterly became a first-team regular.
New signings Zaine Francis-Angol and Joe Maguire will be in direct competition with each other at left-back; to their right, Ben Barclay will likely prove to be one of the first choice centre backs from the off. Coleman has taken advantage of the awful situation at Bolton to snag versatile midfielder Joe Pritchard on a free. Striker Colby Bishop makes a big step up from Leamington, and they’ll be hoping the mixture of graft and nous that Billy Kee possesses in abundance can have an effect.
As ever, the bookies take a negative view of their prospects, but they won’t care about that. The stability offered in that corner of East Lancashire is almost peerless, and it rubs off on the playing staff. Another mid-table finish would go down very well, and it is certainly achievable.
16th) Southend (66/1 Blacktype)
The Shrimpers survived by the skin on their collective teeth after a torrid campaign was continually made worse by the burgeoning injury list as the months wore on. Chris Powell was unable to garner much in the way of consistent form as a direct result, and he was relieved of his duties by the board at Roots Hall with little over a month remaining in 2018/2019.
Kevin Bond was his replacement, stepping back into management in England for the first time in over a decade. He preserved their third tier status on goal difference with an unlikely triumph over Sunderland.
So far, the squad has gotten a little lighter in numbers. Fan favourite Ben Coker was amongst those released, but his own lengthy spell on the treatment table was the main reason for that decision. The addition of Mark Milligan from Hiberian might help shore up the defensive midfield area, as well as making a 3-5-2 more of a go-to option for Bond.
Left-sided Nathan Ralph has plenty of gametime in a wing-back role prior to signing for the Essex outfit, and Brandon Goodship’s capture from Weymouth is yet another instance of an EFL club looking to the non-league for a prolific striker with a view to them repeating their heroics higher in the pyramid.
You’d still expect a couple more incoming players where depth is a little lacking, but the quality of the personnel was never the problem last term. To have three very different but talented forwards in the shape of Stephen Humphrys, Tom Hopper, and Simon Cox on the books is indicative enough that if the injury problems that beset the roster can be lessened somehow, a somewhat gentler season awaits.
17th) Tranmere (66/1 Bet365)
Micky Mellon’s Super White Army are riding on the crest of a wave, having secured back-to-back promotions via consecutive play-off finals at Wembley. The Birkenhead outfit rose from the depths of mid-table to embark on a seven-game winning streak, the conclusion to which was a slight drop-off in form mostly owing to playing fellow top seven sides in quick succession.
Inevitably, much (but far from the totality) of the most recent ascension was put down to League Two Player of the Season James Norwood’s excellent strike rate (enough to tempt Ipswich Town to successfully target him), but the defence as a unit were superb and all of them remain at Prenton Park. Sizeable cult figure Steve McNulty has moved due east to York City, and left-winger Ben Tollitt north to the lights of Blackpool.
Most positions have been added to over the summer. Sid Nelson has made his temporary stay away from Millwall permanent, and has been joined in the heart of the backline by George Ray, complete with glowing references from Crewe. The right flank has had the closest attention of all with no fewer than three additions to an already stacked area; Kieron Morris is a canny signing from relegated Walsall, and I’d expect him to get the nod for the role in the early going.
There is much to value about a very tight defence coupled with more options in attack. Perhaps Stefan Payne won’t even come close to replicating Norwood’s 2018/2019 haul, but there is still more than sufficient evidence to suggest that consolidation ought to be their minimum realistic aim.
18th) Shrewsbury (50/1 William Hill)
John Askey paid the price for Salop’s woeful first half of last season by losing his job. Sam Ricketts was drafted in from National League side Wrexham, and set about galvanising the squad to escape what appeared to be a likely relegation at the time.
Fortunately, he managed to improve their fortunes just enough to stave off the threat of any final day nerves, with a stalemate at home to Walsall rounding off their season.
As with most ‘new’ bosses, Ricketts has marked his territory with broad brushstrokes – 21 ins and outs have taken place to date, and more than a month remains of the transfer window. Of particular note departing the New Meadow are stalwart Mat Salder, who has made the short trip to Walsall; forward Aaron Amadi-Holloway’s new surroundings are halfway across the world at Brisbane Roar; James Bolton’s admirable displays at right-back have earned him a move to Portsmouth.
There’s a distinctive Bury flavour to the goalkeeping department – coach Brian Jensen has brought veteran Joe Murphy along with him, and the latter will duke it out with Bristol City loanee Max O’Leary for the jersey.
The monstrously physical Ethan Ebanks-Landell will patrol the right-sided centre back area next to Aaron Pierre. Most excitingly of all however is Luke McCormick (not that one) in midfield, with the Shropshire side developing a superb reputation as a destination to develop young players on temporary bases; lastly, Steve Morison has made a loan switch from Millwall, and should add an aerial threat in open play and dead ball situations to the XI.
Some sections of fans remain unconvinced by Ricketts’ methods, and it might be one of the cases where their standing is brought down by the manager, rather than up. Time will tell.
19th) Oxford (25/1 Paddy Power)
The eventual 12th-placed finish in many ways belies just how poor a season it was shaping up to be before the late revival provided a very different complexion. The U’s were living precariously until spring arrived, and several players such as Gavin Whyte stepped up in the almost vacant forward positions to distract fans from the winding-up orders off the pitch and the yawning predictability of Karl Robinson’s tactical setup on it.
However, the summer transfer window hasn’t been particularly kind to date. Tarique Fosu’s arrival from Charlton rises above an otherwise deeply underwhelming set of transactions. There’s still an argument to be that not a single out-and-out striker is in situ at The Kassam Stadium, all whilst shedding players in other areas like at centre back – Charlie Raglan, Curtis Nelson, and Fiacre Kelleher have left a big hole in the middle of defence, and Sam Allardyce Jr.’s signature is more aimed at the U23s squad for the foreseeable future.
None of the above is to say that there doesn’t exist some green shoots of hope – Shandon Baptiste should play a major role after suffering a major setback while recovering from serious injury in 2018/2019. John Mousinho is the cement that holds the side together when countered upon; goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is still a huge difference maker to the Yellows’ fortunes match by match.
Patience is a virtue in the modern market, and supporting cast members might need to diversify once more to curtail an unwanted repeat of last term to allow the opportunity for further additions to bed in. All in all, it doesn’t point to a memorable year, and you can somehow still get them at evens to finish in the bottom half with William Hill.
20th) Bristol Rovers (50/1 Blacktype)
The love affair with previous manager Darrell Clarke was starting to wane in the weeks leading up to his sacking in December 2018, but he is still highly regarded by most Gasheads for leading the club to two promotions during his four-and-a-half year tenure.
Graham Coughlan stepped in as caretaker from that juncture, tasked with leading them out of the relegation zone, which was he able to achieve during the almighty 12-team scramble in the final weeks of the campaign. The form of striker Jonson Clarke-Harris had a huge part to play in their survival, scoring not just frequently but decisively, too.
The former Coventry player’s commitment to stay at the Memorial Stadium was a huge boost at the start of the summer, especially with the likes of Tom Lockyer and Stuart Sinclair heading elsewhere. Left-back Luke Leahy was a rare ray of sunshine in Walsall’s demotion, and will be joined on the opposite flank by two new recruits – Mark Little from Bolton and Josh Hare from Eastleigh.
The central midfield area has been left untouched in terms of additions to date, whilst the goalkeeper department has had a complete overhaul, even though The Pirates only conceded 50, fewer than two of the top six could manage.
Despite Clarke-Harris’ goals however, the other end of the pitch was and might continue to be the bigger problem. The other options up top had woeful returns last term, and being so reliant on one player to maintain form and fitness is a dangerous policy. There should be fewer clubs involved in the relegation scrap this time around, but don’t be surprised if Rovers are still amongst them.
21st) Wimbledon (100/1 Bet Victor)
Wally Downes pulled off one of the greatest escapes of recent times in the EFL last season. With a dozen games left, The Wombles were still rock bottom, seven points from safety, and were still in the mire with two fixtures remaining.
However, four points from the remaining showdowns was just enough to ensure another year of third-tier football by virtue of goal difference over Plymouth Argyle, which was achieved despite scoring the fewest in the entire division by some distance.
Downes has had to let many of the 2018/2019 squad go, though some were not his choice – Deji Oshilaja has made the short trip to Charlton, and will be joined in the Championship at fellow promoted side Barnsley by young right-back Tony Sibbick.
Luke O’Neill has signed from Gillingham to replace the latter, but otherwise, business has needed to be a little leftfield. Mobile striker Adam Roscrow has swapped Cardiff Metropolitan University for Kingsmeadow (in what should be the Dons’ final season there); Michael Folivi will be hoping his second loan spell sees an improvement in front of goal, and Nesta Guinness-Walker’s rise through non-league is largely reminiscent of AFC Wimbledon’s.
The same struggles will probably manifest themselves again, and can be sadly argued to be the product of a sensibly run football club. Downes will ensure they’re combative and competitive in every single game, and they might still spring a surprise deal or two before the window closes.
Even so, they might be celebrating their move to the New Plough Lane in time for 2020/2021 back down in League Two. They are still 4/1 with SkyBet to be relegated.
22nd) Wycombe (80/1 Bet365)
The Chairboys rallied from a terrible 12-game winless sequence in the early months of 2019 to preserve League One football for another year, with much owed to the charismatic pair of manager Gareth Ainsworth and larger than life striker Adebayo Akinfenwa – although ‘the Beast’ wasn’t as prolific as previous seasons, six of his seven strikes gained the Buckinghamshire outfit precious points.
The small squad has been further eroded over the summer, with only right winger Paris Cowan-Hall securing another club at this stage.
Jack Grimmer is the oldest new face at 25, with everyone else still some way off the peak of their careers – QPR duo Giles Phillips and Paul Smyth will be performing duties at opposite ends of the pitch; Jamie Mascoll will look to learn from veteran Joe Jacobson down the left flank; Jacob Gardiner-Smith, if selected, will anchor the midfield in a huge step up from non-league Hendon Town, and in front of him, Alex Pattison will seek to carry the ball into the final third in support of the front three.
New Orleans-based investor Rob Couhig is, for now, just a minority shareholder in the club that is still fan-owned. Whilst that ought to be the ideal model, it can make it difficult to progress without growing the supporter base and other income streams.
Ainsworth is a loyal and intelligent manager who wears his heart on his sleeve, but there’s only so much he can do when the odds continue to stack up against him at Adams Park. In an ‘ordinary’ season, they might be propping up the table in May 2020, but as such, they are still 7/2 with Black Type and several other bookies to return to League Two.
23rd) Bolton (150/1 Bet365)
The inexorable decline of what was once a club in the top six of the Premier League has been horrible to witness, especially in the last few years under the auspices of Ken Anderson, the despised former chairman of the Trotters.
Relegation from the Championship was always probable with all the financial constraints and unrest amongst the staff, who hadn’t (and still haven’t) been paid in full. This reached its nadir at the very end of the campaign when the senior squad refused to play against Brentford, forcing the incompetent and negligent EFL to award the Bees victory.
The close season had seen them fall into administration, and at the time of writing, three friendlies have been cancelled as the situation only deteriorates further. Football Ventures’ takeover is still not complete, which starts to put serious doubt on fixtures being fulfilled. As it is, it’s impossible to do a ‘normal’ prediction for Bolton.
Assuming certain aspects are resolved in time for their opening game against Wycombe, there’s every chance Phil Parkinson (if he stays) can cobble together a makeshift squad to provide themselves an opportunity to battle against relegation. Nominally on -12 points, the cancelled game from last season is likely to constitute a further six-point penalty.
24th) Bury (500/1 Bet365)
In contrast to Bolton, the eerily similar off-field situation several miles eastwards had a galvanising effect on the squad, with Ryan Lowe miraculously managing to achieve a runners-up spot and automatic promotion despite no-one being paid in full for three months at that point.
Chairman Steve Dale, having only taken over ownership at Gigg Lane just prior to Christmas, quickly went from being perceived as a saviour to a villain.
The continuing shambles has seen virtually every member of both the staff and playing squad leave for more stable pastures complete with remuneration. Instead of administration however, Dale proposed a CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement), which was approved after initially being adjourned for a week. Meanwhile, he saw fit to appoint Paul Wilkinson as new head coach, having taken down Truro City when caretaker to the seventh tier of the pyramid.
Fewer than half a dozen pros remain from 2018/2019, and friendlies have been full of trialists as a result. Nine days prior to kick-off against MK Dons, their membership in the EFL is still not assured, with the competition organisers releasing a statement temporarily suspending notice being served to provide the stricken club time to meet their obligations.
The CVA meant a 12-point deduction, virtually condemning them to a swift return to League Two from the outset. The summer has been torturous for almost everyone connected to Bury, and the anguish shows no signs of diminishing, merely changing form. Success would now constitute remaining in the EFL at this time next year.