FOOTBALL LEAGUE boff Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) correctly called Coventry at 33/1 in the League One title race last term. He's back to share his thoughts on the Outright Winner and Promotion markets ahead of the 2020/21 League One season.
WLB Season Preview 2020/21 | League One: Promotion
Sunderland started 2018/19 as 3/1 ante-post favourites – the fourth shortest quote for a League One jolly this century – before succumbing in the play-offs. The Black Cats then went off as 7/2 jollies again last term but failed to even feature in the end-of-season play-off shake-up after the third-tier campaign was curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Continued market support for the Wearsiders was perhaps understandable after Football League fans saw the likes of Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham enjoy immediate bounce back seasons in preceding years. However, market leaders rarely top the tree at this grade with Sheffield United (2016/17) and Wolves (2013/14) the only third-tier jollies to dot up over the past 25 years.
Nevertheless, there are seeds of encouragement for Sunderland supporters elsewhere. Nine of the past 11 title winners were priced up at single-figure odds, whilst 10 (53%) of the previous 19 favourites have been promoted – eight via the automatic promotion places. Meanwhile, only one of the previous 13 jollies failed to finish finished inside the top-six.
The Black Cats undoubtedly remain League One’s big fish coming into 2020/21 with Phil Parkinson a canny promotion-winning boss capable of putting the Wearsiders back on the road to recovery. But with the club up for sale, a disconnected fan base and a squad lacking mobility and creativity, it’s difficult to justify 7/1 (SkyBet) quotes on Sunderland this season.
Elsewhere, in nine (81%) of the past 11 completed campaigns, a relegated club has made an immediate return to the Championship, with six (54%) sides taking top honours. Such trends should give Hull, Wigan and Charlton followers a boost, although it’s impossible to consider any of the demoted trio as league-winning material amidst their ongoing off-field issues.
Therefore, my ante-post angles focus on four sides I suspect can challenge for top honours at prices I feel are a little too generous to ignore at this stage.
Peterborough (10/1 William Hill)
Few clubs were as frustrated by the early end to 2019/20 as Peterborough, who ended up outside of the top-six after the EFL’s decision to implement a points per-game system to conclude the campaign. Irritated and exasperated, the Posh hierarchy’s complaints fell on deaf ears and Darren Ferguson’s outfit were forced to watch the play-offs from home.
Peterborough were in exceptional nick before play was suspended, taking maximum points in seven of nine League One outings from late-January, a run of results that moved Posh to within three points of automatically-promoted Rotherham. Ferguson’s troops had also completed 20 of their 22 contests against top-half rivals and appeared to have (on paper at least), one of the kindest run-ins.
Outspoken director of football Barry Fry was candidly bitter about the decision to permanently holt regular league football, insisting the club were “cheated”. And the larger than life character has been full of intriguing soundbites in the off-season also, proclaiming that Peterborough will use the resentment as “revenge” ahead of a title challenge this term.
It’s easy to see why Posh could produce a promotion-winning campaign. Last season’s leading League One goalscorers also topped the charts for Expected Goals (xG) and xG open play ratio, providing a surprisingly solid platform in Ferguson’s preferred high-pressing 3-4-3 system that’s complimented by an effortlessly dominant and destructive forwardline.
Of course, losing star striker Ivan Toney to Brentford in a deal that could be worth £10m to the club is far from ideal but the Peterborough supremo is adamant his side can succeed in the 2020-21 season despite the loss of his 26-goal hitman. Jonson Clarke-Harris has already arrived and should supplement Mo Eisa and Siriki Dembele in a devastating front three.
Talks to bring loan ace Sammie Szmodics back to London Road continue and should a deal be completed, Peterborough undoubtedly boast the third-tier’s most fearsome squad and definitely deserve to be shorter in the market than their current 10/1 (William Hill) with Ryan Broom already on-board following another eye-catching campaign with Cheltenham.
Traditional fast-starters and maddeningly mediocre around Christmas, Peterborough supporters will be hoping Ferguson can find season-long consistency to match the pedigree at his disposal. The Scot has delivered promotion-winning seasons in his two previous stints with Posh and 2020/21 presents the club with an excellent opportunity of prevailing once more.
Oxford (12/1 Paddy Power)
Lockdown and last season’s League One suspension possibly came a touch too soon for fast-improving Oxford. The U’s had pocketed five successive league victories before the campaign was halted and produced the division’s best work from early September onwards (W16-D7-L5), to finish fourth – only two points outside the automatic promotion berths.
Karl Robinson’s troops squeezed past Portsmouth in the play-offs before being downed by giant-killing Wycombe at Wembley. United have had less than two months to recover from the anguish of that final hurdle reverse but the club’s ambition appears undimmed and Oxford are a club capable of setting the standard at the top of the table in 2020/21.
The mood of the club was lifted when ace midfielder Cameron Brannagan agreed a contract extension and Robinson’s been fortunate to keep the foundations of last term’s squad together. Key defender Rob Dickie has departed as expected, although Elliott Moore, Rob Atkinson and John Mousinho give the U’s options in central defence. Sean Clare also comes in to strengthen arguably the side's weakest area at right-back.
A strong spine is underpinned by the tenacious and dogged Alex Gorrin at the base of the midfield, canny wide creator James Henry, and prodigal son Matty Taylor who has completed a permanent deal to provide Oxford with elite-level finishing ability for the third-tier.
Continuity is clearly key at the Kassam and Robinson believes three more additions are needed before his squad is complete – a striker, a left winger and another left back. Dickie’s sale has given the gaffer cash and reports this week have suggested the U’s have tabled a bid for a forward that’s “as good as it gets at this level”, according to Robinson.
Having tabled the team’s highest finish for over two decades last time out, Oxford appear better set for a strong assault on promotion and ending a 22-year itch without second-tier football. A stronger start to the season should put the Yellows right amongst it and Robinson’s troops deserve to be taken very seriously in the Outright market. A much more appealling each-way offering at almost twice the price of Sunderland.
Fleetwood (16/1 SkyBet)
Fleetwood produced their best work leading up to lockdown last season. The Cod Army were unbeaten in 12, performing prominently in both boxes, and showcased an ability to mix it with League One’s elite by suffering a solitary reverse against top-eight rivals. With a reasonable run-in, hopes were high that Joey Barton’s boys could feature in top-two contention.
However, Championship dreams came to an abrupt end as the Trawlerman paid the price for a shocking 4-1 home play-off semi-final defeat to Wycombe. Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns endured a dreadful evening and the Cod Army ended the encounter with nine men, giving Town a mountain to climb in the reverse contest just three days later.
Nevertheless, a wounded Barton remains undeterred, making all the right noises as he bids to engineer another promotion assault. The wealthy coastal club have backed their manager again in the transfer market with Callum Camps strengthening an already solid midfield structure, whilst goal-hungry forwards Paddy Madden and Ched Evans lead the line.
Joel Coleman comes in to provide strong competition for Cairns as the Cod Army’s number one, whilst links to the likes of Charlie Mulgrew could only bolster Town’s backline with loanees Harry Souttar and Lewis Gibson no longer about and Lewie Coyle jumping ship. Standout left-back Danny Andrew is still in tow and links to James Norwood exemplify the ambition shown from above as Fleetwood target top honours.
The Lancashire outfit were rated as a top-six side across all the major performance data rankings in 2019/20 and should prove to be just as strong when the new season rolls around should they bolster their backline in the coming weeks, suggesting their outright price is a couple of ticks too big as we approach the big kick-off.
Blackpool (20/1 Bet365)
A little over 12 months ago, Blackpool fans were boycotting home matches as the toxic Oyston regime threatened to cripple one of the country’s oldest established clubs. The Seasiders went into receivership in February 2019 before a long battle in the High Court eventually led to the abhorrent family ownership being ousted.
Step forward, childhood supporter Simon Sadler. The Hong Kong-based businessman purchased 96% of the Lancashire club, in addition to Bloomfield Road, the training ground and Blackpool Football Club Hotel Limited. Estimating that a minimum of £10m was required to rebuild the ruins inherited, there was masses amounts of work to be done.
While the Oystons built a hotel next to the stadium, the first team had been training for years on two local pitches which did not even have a changing block or any permanent buildings. Extraordinary and eye-opening for an established EFL outfit, Blackpool’s new ownership have slowly put the building blocks in place to turn the Tangerines around.
Even so, on-field progress was nominal under Simon Grayson’s safety-first approach and interest from returning fans soon began to wane. Bemoaning the lack of adventure, Sadler took the bold decision to dismiss the experienced Grayson mid-season, changing tact completely to appoint highly-rated Liverpool U23 coach Neil Critchley as the club’s new boss.
Critchley had little time to get his feet under the Bloomfield Road furniture before lockdown but will have benefitted from the extended time away from competitive action as he moulds a squad capable of challenging. Eight new arrivals were sourced and sealed before rival clubs had even begun thinking about summer recruitment as Sadler and co took a proactive lead in the market.
Leading forward Armand Gnanduillet might have departed for Turkey, though Blackpool have bolstered the ranks with the additions of Jerry Yates, Keshi Anderson, CJ Hamilton and Bez Lubala as Critchley beds in his high-intensity, high-pressing offensive game plan that promises plenty to disillusioned Seasider support.
Pool probably still require an upgrade at left-back, and possibly another body at centre-half, but the foundation of a top-six squad is certainly there. If Critchley – one of 16 coaches worldwide to have obtained UEFA's elite badge – can seamlessly transition into the head coaches hot-seat, expect Blackpool to make a strong fist of things at the top end of the table.
League One 2020/21 – Peterborough to win outright (10/1 each-way William Hill)
League One 2020/21 – Oxford to win outright (12/1 each-way Paddy Power)
League One 2020/21 – Fleetwood to win outright (16/1 each-way SkyBet)
League One 2020/21 – Blackpool to win outright (20/1 each-way Bet365)