FOOTBALL LEAGUE boff Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on the Outright Winner and Promotion markets ahead of the 2019/20 League Two season.
WLB Season Preview 2019/20 | League Two: Promotion
The League Two title race appears as open as ever in 2019/20 with almost half (42%) of the division chalked up at quotes of 20/1 or shorter. Early interest in newcomers Salford has softened in the past fortnight with the Class of 92 club eased from 7/1 shouts to a best of 11/1 (Blacktype) as recently-relegated Bradford have taken over at the top of the market.
The Bantams (9/1 Blacktype) are fair front-runners, although their outright offering represents the second-biggest price available on an ante-post League Two favourite this century. With only two jollies taking the fourth-tier title since 2000/01, and only two relegated clubs topping the tree this century, the trends aren’t pointing towards Bradford.
A large churn of players at Valley Parade doesn’t inspire confidence – even if the calibre of personnel at Gary Bowyer’s disposal is substantial. It could take time for the Bantams to overcome their car crash campaign last time out, and whilst I fancy the West Yorkshire outfit to be in the mix, I’m more comfortable supporting alternative teams at kinder quotes.
Even if League Two favourites have often failed to land top honours, Bradford will be encouraged by the fact that 10 (53%) have clinched promotion this century – nine (47%) via a top-three finish – suggesting the Bantams could still play a major role in their hunt for a place on the podium.
Bowyer is just one of several standout coach’s plying their trade in League Two and Paul Hurst (Scunthorpe), Ryan Lowe (Plymouth) and Darrell Clarke (Walsall) will all have aspirations to guide their respective clubs to an immediate return to League One level. However, relegated sides have a dubious record when dropping to this level.
Relegated outfits average a 12th-placed finish in League Two this century with only 20 (26%) bouncing back at the first occasion. Overall, just 25 (33%) featured in the top-seven and a weighty 35 (46%) found themselves marooned in the bottom-half. But most alarmingly, four (5%) relegated teams have suffered a second successive demotion and exited the EFL.
On paper, Scunthorpe, Plymouth and Walsall all display enough quality on and off the field to mount a major challenge but the upheaval that relegation brings is severe enough for me to look elsewhere for my outright recommendations, in a supremely competitive betting heat this term.
Mansfield (10/1 Bet365)
Few clubs suffered end-of-season heartache quite like Mansfield last term. The Stags’ heinous collapse (W0-D0-L3) with the finishing line in sight saw the Yellows miss out on a top-three finish before Newport piled on the misery by eliminating Town in their play-off semi-final on penalties. Nevertheless, the ambitious Nottinghamshire club are back with a bang.
David Flitcroft was quite rightly dismissed and academy boss John Dempster was installed in the hot-seat for his taste of senior management. Widespread opinion outside of Field Mill centred around potential budget-cutting measures but the Radfords have responded with another major assault on the transfer market to bolster an already star-studded squad.
Mansfield ended the season with only one fit and available striker, and although 26-goal Tyler Walker is no longer about, the eye-catching arrivals of Andy Cook and Nicky Maynard surely make up for the offensive deficit. Elsewhere, the defence that recorded 18 clean sheets remains intact and exciting full-back Hayden White is back from long-term injury.
The football under Flitcroft was largely entertaining and Stags looked a force to be reckoned with. Former club skipper Dempster has promised an attack-minded approach and with Jacob Mellis impressing in an advanced central role in pre-season, plus the likes of CJ Hamilton still on the books, the Stags look well-equipped to launch a title-winning challenge.
Trend-spotters will also be encouraged by the fact that five (26%) of the past 19 League Two title winners failed in the play-offs the year previous.
Swindon (20/1 Bet365)
Swindon have finished seven points off the play-off places in each of their two League Two campaigns since dropping down to the fourth-tier. Last season’s 13th-placed effort was the Robins’ worst return since 1984, although there’s plenty of positivity around the County Ground ahead of 2019/20 with the club (and head coach Richie Wellens) targeting a promotion push.
Wellens replaced Phil Brown in the hot-seat last November with Town stagnating in 17th. The Wiltshire outfit bagged W11-D10-L7 in the Mancunian’s 28-game spell to conclude the campaign, and whilst results are fairly middling, the new boss implemented a more energetic approach that pushed Swindon to the fringes of the play-offs in April.
Ultimately, the Robins came up short but the no-nonsense manager is building a gritty side that’s athletic and physical across the park. Arsenal centre-back Daniel Ballard, full-backs Zeki Fryers and Tyler Reid, plus Jerry Yates are largely solid if unspectacular arrivals, but you get the impression Wellens is putting together an ultra-competitive outfit in his own image.
Swindon are still short of a standout leading striker, but the club are working hard to fill that void. Even so, the Robins displayed their potential when bagging W6-D6-L2 against League Two’s top-seven last time out; minor improvements in consistency, as well as tweaks to their County Ground form, should ensure a positive season for Wiltshire’s finest.
Exeter (25/1 Bet365)
Six (32%) League Two title winners were quoted at 20/1 or larger in the ante-post markets since 2000, whilst 11 (58%) of those 19 campaigns featured a team as big as 20/1 bagging top-three place money. Various clubs can stake a strong claim to fit that profile coming into 2019/20 but Exeter could be our best bet to make a serious tilt towards the top end.
The Grecians were expected to endure a season of regression following the departure of long-term boss Paul Tisdale last term. However, Matt Taylor made an almost seamless transition into the hot-seat, subtly tweaking City’s tactics to engineer a more forward-thinking approach. The adjustments worked well and Exeter came close to pinching a place in the play-offs.
The Devon club are a results-driven operation under Taylor, putting full focus on both boxes. His desire for a battle-hardened squad has seen almost all new arrivals stand taller than 6'0 bar the exciting capture of hitman Nicky Ajose. Nigel Atangana is a great replacement for Hiram Boateng, whilst Alex Fisher can fill the target man void.
Last term was supposedly a transitional year for Exeter; they gained plenty of plaudits for their tenacity and now the side looks ready to take another step forward with the play-offs well within reach. The Grecians will need to enhance a poor return against the league’s leading lights (W2-D3-L9) but the outlook remains largely positive and 25/1 quotes appeal.
Newport (33/1 Bet365)
Only three (16%) of the past 19 League Two campaigns since 2000 have seen a club chalked up at 40/1 ante-post finish inside the top-three, and whilst I anticipate the likes of Cheltenham, Crewe and Stevenage to outperform their outright odds, the most likely side to fit the bill for a potential promotion push outside the obvious is Newport (33/1 Bet365).
The Exiles exceeded all expectations to reach the play-off final and won plenty of admirers for the second season running in the FA Cup after exiting at the 5th Round stage to all-conquering Manchester City. Operating off one of League Two’s lowest budgets, Michael Flynn continues to make County a mightily tough and competitive opponent.
Newport aren’t interested in aesthetics. The Exiles are experts in the basics, dominate from set-pieces and boast a formidable forward pairing in Padraig Armond and Jamille Matt. Star stopper Joe Day, excellent left-back Dan Butler and dependable Regan Poole are no longer about, but Flynn has been active in the transfer market as he bids to bulk up his squad.
County are chasing a first appearance in League One since 1987 and could easily have achieved more without their FA Cup distractions last term. The fixture backlog created havoc with their league form so asking Newport to make an improvement on their points tally (and road record) should make the Exiles realistic top-seven contenders.