FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Peter Taylor (@BuryMeInExile) delivers his team-by-team League Two verdicts ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, with a 1-24 rundown covering each club in-depth ahead of the new season.
1st) Scunthorpe (12/1 Bet365)
An expensive rolling of the dice in the previous transfer window looked to have saved The Iron from relegation anxiety, only for the upturn in form to quickly dissipate, resulting in the sacking of Stuart McCall in March, the second manager to suffer that fate at Glanford Park in the same campaign.
Andy Dawson was put in temporary charge, but was unable to arrest the slide, gaining only two points in the last seven matches of 2018/2019. However, the board moved swiftly after the curtain fell on their disastrous term with the shrewd appointment of Paul Hurst, who has set about remodelling the squad in his image, with much of the focus to date being on the defence as a whole (they conceded an eye-watering 83 last season).
Andy Butler’s acquisition will be key in helping to shore up the backline, and although they have lost the likes of Funso Ojo and the mercurial stylings of Josh Morris have both left, there is still plenty of ability in more advanced areas on the pitch. Kevin van Veen and Lee Novak ought to have the beating of most of their markers in the fourth tier.
Still chalked up as long as 12/1 with bet365 to lift the trophy, the relative lack of need for a big overhaul of personnel should stand them in good stead to swiftly return from whence they came.
2nd) Plymouth (12/1 Blacktype)
Another relegated side that probably wouldn’t have expected to be in that position, the Pilgrims’ final day triumph over Scunthorpe wasn’t sufficient to preserve their League One status, having taken the unusual step of sacking Derek Adams with just one game to play; ultimately, they lost out on goal difference to AFC Wimbledon.
The summer has been marked so far by two big events – firstly, their patient and ultimately successful pursuit of Ryan Lowe from financially destitute Bury, and the increase in shares held in the club by chairman Simon Hallett to 94%. The stability behind the scenes was one of the big reasons for their new manager making the move. He has brought plenty of familiar but exciting faces with him – Danny Mayor being the obvious stand-out.
There have been a dozen departures from Home Park, and there is reason to suggest they won’t all be replaced. The sale of Freddie Ladapo does leave them a little light up top, but it would be no surprise whatsoever to see someone else come in before the first match kicks off. Lowe has promised a similar brand of attacking football to that witnessed at Gigg Lane, and the Green Army are 17/2 with Paddy Power to be the top scorers in the division. A year of excitement awaits supporters.
3rd) Swindon (20/1 Bet365)
The Witlshire outfit’s fans had been crying out for change prior to the departure of Phil Brown in November of last year, and their wish was answered in the guise of Richie Wellens. Well-known for favouring a passing style, with more often than not two wingers pushed up high alongside a single striker, especially on the counter.
During the close season, he has trimmed plenty of fat from the bloated squad, having finished seven points away from the play-offs. If Mathieu Baudry can shake off injury concerns, he ought to cement his place at centre-back and become an integral part of the XI. The loan signing of Jerry Yates augurs well in Wellens’ setup, and he should build on a fruitful stint at Carlisle United in the first half of 2018/2019 with ample support.
In what should be a more fiercely competitive League Two this time around, there is no reason why they can’t gatecrash the top three. 6/1 with SkyBet is a tempting price for the Robins’ quiet revolution.
4th) Carlisle (33/1 BetVictor)
The Cumbrians looked for good chunks of last season to be the eventual promoted sides’ equals, only for an abject February and March to put paid to their hopes of escaping in an upward trajectory. Stephen Pressley was appointed midway through January, and has yet to convince the majority of the Brunton Park faithful that he’s up to the task, eventually leading his charges to a disappointing 11th.
Star turn Jamie Devitt has left for Blackpool, but the defence as a collective were culpable for their lowly finish, shipping 62 goals. Byron Webster and Nathaniel Knight-Percival boast over 800 professional appearances between them, and the pairing should go a long way to addressing the frailties all too often on show.
Hallam Hope had his best campaign yet last time out, and should profit from the loan additions of Nathan Thomas and Harry McKirdy. Whilst they do have a little way to go in terms of signings, they can most certainly kick on this time round; 4/1 with Betfair to make the play-offs, they might go a little under the radar in establishing themselves in the top seven in 2019/2020.
5th Bradford (9/1 Blacktype)
An utterly miserable year for The Bantams on and off the pitch during 2018/2019 could be washed away if Gary Bowyer, appointed late on with relegation a nigh-on inevitability, can get his side firing quickly.
As expected given the combination of relatively new manager and unexpectedly dropping a division, there’s been a big churn of players. He will need to squeeze some real consistency out of new signings James Vaughan and Zeli Ismail to name but two; their talents bely their standing in the game, but there’s a reason they’re plying their trade in League Two.
There is plenty of depth in every position, and they’re unsurprisingly one of the favourites to seal promotion. The key will be maintaining touching distance with the pace-setters in the early weeks.
Collectively, they have all the ingredients required, but the number of changes in personnel in what is bound to be a strong fourth tier might mean the automatics are a step too far. Perhaps then, a punt on them to win the play-offs at 9/1 with Paddy Power would be a wise investment; Bowyer tasted success via the same route with Blackpool in 2017.
6th) Salford (11/1 Blacktype)
The current media darlings are competing in the EFL for the first time this season, and the backing they have received from their board stands them in good stead for a third straight promotion. The Ammies didn’t have it all their own way in the National League, being forced to settle for 3rd and an eventual play-off final triumph over AFC Fylde to make their entry into the top 92.
Graham Alexander has added sensibly to an already league-ready roster. Kyle Letheren will battle it out with Chris Neal in between the sticks; Richie Towell, having impressed in two season-long loans with Rotherham United, should be able to impose himself in the central midfield area with aplomb. Equally, the strike partnership of Adam Rooney and Rory Gaffney will have little trouble adjusting.
All that said, they will just be one of at least half a dozen sides with their eyes fixed firmly on the title, let alone promotion. Should things not go swimmingly, they’ll still be one of the better placed outfits to strengthen in January. A top seven finish would represent another campaign of excellent progress, and Rooney is a good shout to claim the golden boot at 10/1 with William Hill.
7th) Northampton (14/1 Bet365)
The Cobblers were disappointing in their first season back down in League Two, not losing too many but only conspiring to finish 15th. Keith Curle has rung the changes to seek a sizeable improvement in 2019/2020, persuading Nicky Adams to return for a second spell at Sixfields, together with fellow seasoned pros Alan McCormack and Chris Lines.
The older additions give a more balanced look to the squad’s complexion overall, but they still look a little weaker than the teams above them on this list at both ends, especially if they let Junior Morias leave. The additions in midfield seem designed to take the game to the opposition more, and that will be crucial if Curle persists with a 3-5-2.
Sadly, there isn’t a market for ‘top assister’, as Adams would likely have that sewn up yet again. Nicking a play-off spot is not beyond the current group however, and the odds of 7/2 with Paddy Power look reasonable to take a punt on, particularly if they make further forays into the transfer market before the closing of the window at the end of August.
8th) Stevenage (50/1 Betway)
Dino Maamria can take heart from how the Hertfordshire side fared last season, bloodying plenty of noses and only missing out on the top seven by a single point. This term, they’ll need to improve just to stand still. Recruitment thus far has been perfectly adequate, replacing the outgoing pair of Johnny Hunt and Joe Martin with Chris Stokes and Tyler Denton at left-back as an example.
Whilst some observers would argue there is still an Ilias Chair-shaped hole in the lineup, there is plenty for their opponents in League Two still to be fearful of. In the latter stages of 2018/2019, Kurtis Guthrie was arguably the best forward in the entire division, his movement and finishing causing no end of headaches. He’ll have returning fan favourite Dean Parrett pulling the strings for him in midfield this year, and a quietly impressive supporting cast alongside him, too.
Structurally, there’s more scope for tactical flexibility than in most other sides, and that ought to be to Stevenage’s benefit. Whether it will be enough to go one better is debatable, but the aforementioned Guthrie is a great each-way shout to be top scorer – 100/1 with William Hill for the outright.
9th) Colchester (20/1 William Hill)
A woeful second half of the campaign put paid to the U’s promotion hopes, and like Stevenage, agonisingly missed out on a play-off spot by a point.
John McGreal will need to demonstrate that he’s learned lessons from their eventual failure and dire form, and plenty of his young players have been picked off by sides higher in the pyramid. Sammie Szmodics moving to Bristol City was a grievous blow, but a lot of the fees recouped have been reinvested in the market, Omar Sowumni and Jevani Brown being the two most stand-out purchases.
Much will depend on Dean Gerken organising his youthful backline well to allow the array of talent in attacking areas to flourish, and McGreal must find a way to gain more points from games where they aren’t able to be on the front foot to finish higher.
10th) Crewe (40/1 Sportingbet)
David Artell has made just two additions to date to The Railwaymen, where it’s almost always about rebuffing advances or creating auctions for their young starlets. A couple of their older players (Jordan Bowery and George Ray) have climbed a rung on the ladder, and a similar level of experience has been drafted in.
Olly Lancashire is likely to be tasked with bringing on further Perry Ng and Harry Pickering, whilst Daniel Powell will provide a benchmark for the erratic Callum Ainley to try to meet if he wants to oust his teammate on the right flank.
Chris Porter will once again lead the line, and there are few more clinical inside the six-yard area at that level. The retention of most of their brightest talents to date augurs well for a top-half finish at the very least. Artell is not likely to deviate too much from his style, but he will surely be targeting better times on the round, and he can switch his side from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 with relatively little fuss. It will be intriguing to see just how they continue to mature throughout the season.
11th) Exeter (25/1 Coral)
Manager Matt Taylor has to contend with two of the leading lights for The Grecians leaving for pastures new early in the summer; Hiram Boateng’s injury early last season proved to be much more impactful than the transfer of Jayden Stockley to Preston North End, and Christy Pym has joined him through the exit door.
In their place are plenty of reinforcements; Nicky Ajose and Alex Fisher will further strengthen a deep-looking strikeforce, and the loss of Pym will be ameliorated by additions in goal and at centre-back to what was already one of the meaner defences in the league last time out.
The disappointment of falling out of the play-offs late on in 2018/2019 must be quickly forgotten to remain at least competitive in a stronger looking field.
Taylor still has most of the best performers at his disposal from the previous year and employs a crowd-pleasing passing brand of football, but the latter aspect is something shared by the overwhelming majority in League Two these days. He’ll be banking on coaxing the best out of Ajose, who looked distinctly mediocre during his loan spell at Mansfield Town. If not, Fisher and Matt Jay can certainly chip in. Upper mid-table would represent a good return under the circumstances.
12th) Mansfield (10/1 Betfred)
The Radfords wasted no time whatsoever in dispensing with David Flitcroft’s services after their play-off semi-final heartbreak. The Stags had the final automatic promotion place in their hands until the meek surrender at MK Dons on the last day of the regular season.
Whilst the long-term injuries to Hayden White and Bobby Olejnik were mitigating factors, the blame lay at one man’s feet. In his place immediately stepped up John Dempster from managing the academy after a five-year stint.
At the time of writing, he hasn’t suffered any major losses in the transfer window; indeed, he has picked up Nicky Maynard and Andy Cook to be the strike partnership, which would be the envy of some sides in the division above, let alone League Two. Strong interest in dominant centre-back Krystian Pearce remains, and it’s imperative he’s retained, being a massive part of a defence that only conceded on 41 occasions, a better record than even champions Lincoln City had.
For me, there’s still a missing ingredient even if Pearce does stay. Jacob Mellis aside, the central midfield doesn’t look particularly strong, and at 37, Neal Bishop probably won’t feature in every game. At 5/6 to finish outside the top seven, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for a slide down the table to occur – the pressure will be on Dempster to perform from matchday one.
13th) Forest Green (18/1 Spreadex)
Another side who failed in the ‘lottery’ of the play-offs to gain promotion, unlike Mansfield, they have seen key figures depart – Christian Doidge has joined Hibernian and Reece Brown has had his outstanding 2018/2019 rewarded with a move to Huddersfield Town two tiers above. The forward line has been further depleted with a double transfer to local rivals Cheltenham Town; right winger Kevin Dawson has arrived in the opposite direction, however.
Mark Cooper will be sincerely hoping his troops can maintain the possession-based style that dominated many of their adversaries last season, but he needs to come up with an alternative when that doesn’t come off, especially when the opposition press high on the ball-playing centre-backs.
Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the Nailsworth outfit have a large budget that will have been bolstered to a degree by the sale of Doidge. As ever, there comes with that an expectation of success. It’s difficult to envisage the same position in the table being achieved at this moment in time. Betfair are currently offering 6/4 for a bottom half finish. There are many superior looking teams on paper, and it could translate to a season of mediocrity.
14th) Newport (33/1 SkyBet)
A fantastic 2018/2019 in league and cup ended on a disappointing note in the play-off final against Tranmere Rovers, and already, it seems as though expectations are being played down for any chance of a repeat of that. Goalkeeper Joe Day, who was voted in the division’s Team of the Season, has gone to Cardiff City; excellent left-back Dan Butler has been snapped up by Peterborough United.
In an attempt to address the neutral goal difference last year, Mike Flynn has gone in heavy on signing defenders, with a total of six (five permanent) to date. In addition, Corey Whitely has been recruited to provide an alternative to the tried-and-tested duo up top of Jamille Matt and Padraig Amond, which will help to keep opposition scouts and managers guessing as to which of the three will start.
As favourable as The Exiles found home comforts (and the pitch) to be, they’ll be keenly aware that they must rectify their away record in order to have even the slimmest of hopes of cracking the top seven. They’ll need to mix their style, as well as personnel, up to a certain extent to avoid being a little too predictable. Mid-table would be no disgrace, and most of the signings have been made with development and selling on down the line in mind.
15th) Cheltenham (50/1 Betfair)
Boasting the best home record in the current calendar year, club legend Mike Duff was able to steer the Gloucestershire outfit away from the lower reaches of League Two, predicated on an effective wing-back system with two sizeable targets to aim crosses to. One of those strikers, Tyrone Barnett, has left the club, and Luke Varney has been joined by Reuben Reid and Tahvon Campbell from Forest Green.
Charlie Raglan’s stint from Oxford United has been made permanent, whilst Rohan Ince has made The Jonny-Rocks Stadium his home after a nightmare year out with injury; between the latter and Ben Tozer, they should win plenty of the aerial battles that occur in front of the defence.
Optimism for the season will be higher than this time last year, and they should be free of any strife this time around. Tying down the impressive Ryan Broom to a new deal was a big boost for Duff, meaning it will now take a sizeable bid to acquire the 22 year-old’s services. Chris Hussey on the opposite flank gives good balance to the XI, giving The Robins two outlets to turn defence into attack.
A predicted finish of a single place higher might not seem much, but it would still represent an improvement in a tougher environment.
16th) Grimsby (100/1 Blacktype)
Goals (or a lack of) were the chief reason for The Mariners’ travails last season, notching slightly less than one per game on average. Michael Jolley has attempted to remedy that by drafting in three strikers – target man James Hanson, the wilful figure of Matt Green, and Moses Ogbu, the latter being another foray into the Allsvenskan for talent.
Previous Swedish-based deals have worked out well for the club thus far, with Sebastian Ring earning glowing reviews down the left flank. The spine of the team looks stronger this term; James McKeown was and will undoubtedly continue to be a wall in goal, and Jake Hessenthaler omnipresent in central midfield. Further strengthening at full-back might see them play a bit wider this season, which would marry well with Jolley’s new acquisitions up front.
That said, they could well face the same issues several sides will encounter in the division – there isn’t a potent creative force, perhaps aside from Hessenthaler. The more diverse methods of finding a route to scoring should at least see them bag more over the course of 2019/2020, but probably still won’t result in a stratospheric rise up the table.
17th) Port Vale (50/1 Betway)
The biggest change in Burslem over the summer came back in May, with fans Carol & Kevin Shanahan taking over from the heavily derided Norman Smurthwaite. Since then, there has been an air of positivity surrounding the club that had seemed to be lost for a significant period of time.
John Askey signed a new three-year deal at the end of the season on the back of securing the Valiants’ survival with a more attractive brand of football than had hitherto been the case under legen Neil Aspin, who had tendered his resignation at the end of January.
All the signings thus far have been under 30, complementing the wealth of experience offered by the likes of goalkeeper Scott Brown and talisman Tom Pope. Wideman David Amoo has arrived from Cambridge United, and his pace and ability to cut inside will further aid them shedding a one-dimensional image. Fellow new arrival Mark Cullen will look to profit from Pope’s knock-downs, and Richie Bennett can offer an alternative alongside either of them, all of which should translate to easily surpassing the paltry haul of 39 goals in 2018/2019.
Coming full circle, it should be a more fulfilling experience for supporters to attend games and be associated with the club. That in itself is a huge filip, even if it might not directly manifest itself on the pitch just yet.
18th) Cambridge (51/1 10BET)
Another thoroughly disappointing year for the club saw them change managers once more. Colin Calderwood was appointed just before Christmas, and managed to guide them to eventual safety six points clear of the drop-zone.
However, some of the chief protagonists in their survival have signed for other clubs – the exciting Jevani Brown has swapped one CUFC for another, David Amoo is now at Port Vale (with Luke Hannant coming the other way), and right-back Brad Halliday is plying his trade with Doncaster Rovers in League One.
Elsewhere, fans will be hoping new goalkeeper Callum Burton is less error-prone than David Forde in providing competition for Dimitar Mitov. George Maris’ future remains in the balance at the time of writing, and Calderwood will almost certainly be looking to sign at least one more striker to address the chronic weakness in the squad.
Jabo Ibhere is now 36, and whilst he can still be a useful foil for someone else (perhaps Harvey Knibbs, a free transfer from Aston Villa U23s), it’s unrealistic to expect him to carry the burden of scoring.
The roster is still light in creative and attacking areas, and these holes must be plugged to halt the downward trend in the past few seasons. Treading water might become the norm.
19th) Walsall (18/1 Spreadex)
Back in the fourth tier for the first time in over a decade, the board immediately appointed Darrell Clarke, the former Bristol Rovers boss has taken a sledgehammer to the under-performing squad – both ins and outs are in double figures with over a month of the summer transfer window remaining.
High-profile departures include George Dobson, Andy Cook, Luke Leahy, and Joe Edwards, all four of whom have left for sides with loftier aspirations than the West Midlands outfit.
In their place are many familiar lower league faces; versatile left-sided defender Mat Sadler returns to The Bescot Stadium. Danny Guthrie and Scott Sinclair will form an experienced pairing in a completely new-look midfield. Elijah Adebayo has found a permanent home after several loan spells away from Fulham, and will join Josh Gordon in a decidedly unconvincing attack.
Such is the churn that it’s unlikely Clarke’s managerial acumen will come to prominence for sometime, and that’s assuming he’s given that long by the directors and fans alike.
Priced up by bookmakers as serious play-off contenders, I instead would place them at the corresponding other end of the table.5/4 to finish in the bottom half with Betfred looks too good to ignore in a division teeming with more settled sides with more widespread quality.
20th) Leyton Orient (25/1 Blacktype)
This preview for the National League champions cannot be written without first paying tribute to manager Justin Edinburgh, who tragically died aged just 49, weeks after securing the title and an outing at Wembley where the O’s lost out to AFC Fylde in the FA Trophy final.
His appointment in 2017 after an inexorable decline under previous ownership and a litany of bosses first halted their downward spiral, and then gave hope back to a downtrodden but loyal fanbase. His legacy is huge. Sensibly, the board have chosen to appoint Edinburgh’s assistant Ross Embleton on an interim basis, ensuring continuity is preserved in a grief-stricken but strong dressing room.
Strike duo Macauley Bonne and Josh Koroma have gone to Championship outfits, and in their place comes Lee Angol, who has plenty of gametime under his belt in the EFL in a similar vein to fellow new arrival Conor Wilkinson. Josh Wright rounds off the captures thus far, and he’s another player with excellent credentials who will have a big say in how their season pans out.
It’s difficult to say with real certainty what effect the terrible event will have on their upcoming campaign. Establishing a foothold in the fourth tier should be the minimum expectation, and perhaps anything above that will be a bonus.
21st) Oldham (40/1 Spreadex)
Controversial owner Abdallah Lemsagam will be hoping for a less tumultuous 2019/2020 after seeing three managers leave last year under different circumstances. The new man at the helm is Laurent Banide, whose background is mainly in the Middle East, but this will be a different kind of test altogether.
The prodigiously talented George Edumundson has completed his move to giants Glasgow Rangers for a sizeable fee. Centre back partner Peter Clarke has also left, as have the outspoken Jose Baxter and flair player Dan Gardner.
Thankfully, potent winger Gevaro Nepomuceno’s services were retained, and he’ll be tasked with providing chances for Scott Wilson and Desiré Segbé Azankpo, who will need to foster a rapport quickly to make an impression together, although Wilson is used to making the most of what comes his way.
The upcoming campaign represents ‘year one’ of Lemsagam’s five-year plan to take The Latics up to the Championship (where have I heard that before?). Unfortunately, allegations of constant meddling in first team affairs have continued to undermine his reign, and the intransigent situation with Boundary Park’s North Stand is a needless distraction.
Whilst that won’t have any bearing on football matters, it’s just another indication of a complicated financial web at the club that seems to prevent stability from occurring.
Ambitions are high but nothing about how the club appears on or off the field screams contenders for promotion. If anything, the opposite may be more accurate – the lack of quality in the middle of defence is in dire need of addressing.
22nd) Morecambe (100/1 Bet365)
Jim Bentley continues to confound the doommongers by keeping the Lancashire outfit in the EFL season after season. In 2018/2019, he did so by a double-digit margin, finishing five places and 13 points above hapless Notts County.
Budgetary restrictions always make life at the Globe Arena difficult, but can in turn offer a protective environment for young players to develop to then move on to bigger things later in their career if they prove to be a success.
Aaron Collins and Vadaine Oliver have left for divisional rivals, and in come the likes of John O’Sullivan and Cole Stockton, the latter of which will be hoping to recapture his predatory form for Tranmere Rovers during 2016/2017. Michael Howard displayed some potential last year in non-league loan spells, and adds depth to the forward line.
The evergreen figures of Barry Roche and Kevin Ellison will continue to lead the troops into battles they’re almost always expected to come off second best in, which helps at times to mask the ability in the group, left-back Jordan Cranston being of particular note. If possible, a tightening of the backline should be the priority in the remaining window; without that, things could on more of a knife-edge.
23rd) Crawley (80/1 Betway)
Gabriele Cioffi has been unconvincing during his Red Devils reign thus far, having taken over the cudgels when previous incumbent Harry Kewell was persuaded to go to Notts County for a very brief stint. However, he did ensure their safety reasonably comfortably, outscoring all of their bottom six rivals.
No notable departures have happened to date, but there is a stand-out arrival for certain. Ashley Nadesan had a very fruitful loan spell with Carlisle in the first half of 2018/2019, scoring nine and assisting six times. He will spearhead the attack of a very unbalanced looking squad at this juncture, with no fewer than nine recognised strikers but only three centre-backs.
Nathan Ferguson looks the pick of several non-league forays this summer, and shouldn’t look out of place in central midfield. Glenn Morris remains one of the better custodians in the division, but there’s only so much he can do when the high press doesn’t work, and teams cut through the poorly organised and weak backline.
Town have more players up top capable of scoring than quite a few in the division, and Cioffi will be banking on that being sufficient to stave off a return to the National League nine years after their first emergence. 11/2 for that to happen with Sky Bet is something I’d definitely recommend investigating.
24th) Macclesfield (125/1 Spreadex)
As seems to be the case with a whole host of north-west teams, the Silkmen are in serious financial difficulty, with the remaining players from 2018/2019 going as far as to sue the club over unpaid wages and being regularly in front of the high court over winding-up orders.
Against similar odds on the pitch last season, Sol Campbell finally got his first gig in management, with the vast majority writing both him and the Cheshire outfit’s chances of staying in League Two under his stewardship off; however, he masterminded a great escape, ensuring safety with a draw on the final day.
An even less enviable task is on his hands now. The squad is threadbare, having been whittled down by 15 outgoings and only seven oming in. Campbell will require the influence of characters such as Nathan Cameron and Peter Vincenti in keeping an angry dressing room even semi-focused on turning out at this juncture. Striker Joe Ironside might reduce the on-field impact of losing Scott Wilson to Oldham Athletic.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to envisage a positive outcome to the current malaise. Campbell will doubtlessly do his utmost to rally his players, but the reality is they need an injection of fresh faces just to make up a squad, let alone be truly competitive. 7/2 with bet365 for demotion seems unlikely to stay that way for much longer.