LEAGUE ONE specialist Oli Walker (@OliverMPW_) delivers his team-by-team verdicts ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, with a 1-24 rundown covering each club in-depth ahead of the new season.
1) Oxford (12/1 Paddy Power)
Oxford fell at the final hurdle in losing the promotion play-off final to Wycombe at Wembley and Karl Robinson will have to rally the troops in order to mount another challenge at the top of the table.
This time they’ll be doing it without key defender Rob Dickie whose steady improvement saw him become a very well-rounded centre back, dominant in both boxes but equally comfortable on the ball, and his move to the Championship was inevitable.
Elliott Moore will be looking to step up in Dickie’s absence and he could be partnered by the inexperienced Rob Atkinson, signed from non-league Eastleigh last January, though you suspect Robinson would like a more established option to compete with those two.
Otherwise, the squad looks in good shape. Convincing Cameron Brannagan, a class above League One level, to sign a contract extension was excellent business and the U’s look like they might have the best midfield in League One once again, with Brannagan supported by the dogged Alex Gorrin and Nottingham Forest loanee Marcus McGuane, who has impressed in pre-season.
Sean Clare, one of the best ball-carrying full backs in the Scottish Premiership in 2019/20, replaces a dynamism from right back that was missing when Chris Cadden departed last January, whilst Matty Taylor signs on permanently to continue providing the goals at the top end of the pitch.
Another top-six finish will be the aim, but Robinson’s stock is high right now and you’d back his ability to coach this talented side to go one better this time out.
2) Peterborough (10/1 William Hill)
The club were shouting it the loudest, but you’d be hard pressed to find a neutral that didn’t think Peterborough were well on their way to securing a play-off place when it mattered last season – and that’s at minimum.
Ivan Toney had served a suspension and was back in the side and Posh had found the perfect foil for him in January loan signing Sammie Szmodics who provided goals and assists from the #10 position. An automatic place was far from out of the question.
As it was, just three points behind second-place Rotherham, Peterborough missed out on the chance to go up by virtue of being seventh when the season was curtailed. The perceived injustice has left the club in a bullish mood to right those wrongs this time around.
They’ll have to do it without the complete forward Ivan Toney – far and away the best player in League One last season – though that was to be expected and a portion of the sizeable fee received from Brentford has already been spent on his replacement Jonson Clarke-Harris, who’ll certainly replicate the physicality that Toney possessed. Posh will be hoping he can find similar goalscoring form too.
The question is whether Toney’s departure leaves Peterborough a weaker side, or whether the team will improve enough as a collective to counter his departure – it’s a lot to expect Clarke-Harris to replace the best player in League One on his own and he’ll need help from those around him.
Rumours that the club are making a play to bring Szmodics back to the Weston Homes Stadium will certainly enhance their promotion credentials, such was the impact he made on the side last season.
There's no doubt what the ambition is for Posh and it’d be no surprise to see them even more aggressive in their approach to achieving it this season.
3) Portsmouth (10/1 Bet365)
Portsmouth once again fell just short of promotion, agonisingly losing their play-off semi-final against Oxford on penalties in a tie that genuinely could’ve gone either way.
This will be Kenny Jackett’s fourth season as Pompey manager and you sense that this may be his last should he fail to get them up. Not that he hasn’t been close; in 2018/19 his side were in the top two for the first half of the season before falling away and failing in the play-off semis, whereas last season it was a slow start that meant they had to make do with a consecutive top six finish.
It should be said that from 1st October onwards, Portsmouth collected the most points in the league – it was the first eight games of the season that left them with too much to do.
With little turnover in the squad this time around there’s been little to do in the transfer market: centre back Christian Burgess was the only key departure although loanees Cameron McGeehan and Steve Seddon needed replacing in central midfield and left back respectively.
Burgess’s replacement was already in the building as Jack Whatmough returns from a long-term knee injury hoping to live up to the potential he showed before his absence but a replacement for McGeehan is yet to be seen. His performances were an upgrade on what was seen from Ben Close and Bryn Morris before January but it’s possible one of the two could step up to replace McGeehan. Cameron Pring signs on loan from Bristol City to replace the attacking intent Seddon displayed from left back.
Ronan Curtis will be key once again providing goals and assists from the left, but Jackett needs to get more from Ellis Harrison and John Marquis up front after spending sizeable fees on the pair last summer.
No one doubts that Pompey will go close again, but it’s avoiding the dips in form that’ll make the difference between a long-coveted automatic place or yet another play-off duel.
4) Fleetwood (16/1 Bet365)
Fleetwood will be looking to match and possibly even go one better than their failed play-off campaign in 2019/20.
There’s been a sense of a real project being underway on the Fylde coast under Joey Barton with the team seemingly refreshing, regenerating, and improving season-on-season under Barton’s stewardship so far. The same can probably be said of the manager himself, with lessons being learned and adjustments made as he gains more experience in the job.
A notable evolution has been the move to a more attacking side that was clear from the off last season, as players poured forward from full back and the midfield line to support the front players. Likewise, Barton finally seems to have cooled on the mind games he was playing on an almost weekly basis with his opposite numbers after pre-match jibes at Ipswich and Blackpool resulted in two defeats for his club.
We’ll see what changes have been made this time around but both club and manager seem to be moving in the right direction. Lewie Coyle is a real loss at right back after they accepted a bid from Hull, and the centre of defence looks very light on numbers right now with none of the back three that ended the campaign – Callum Connolly, Harry Souttar, or Lewis Gibson – still at the club.
Clearly reinforcements are needed in that area but the addition of Callum Camps to the midfield line looks shrewd. A good performer in attacking midfield for Rochdale over the last few League One campaigns, he adds a creativity and goal threat to Fleetwood’s central midfield that was missing last season and will provide support to clichéd guaranteed goal getters at this level in Paddy Madden and Ched Evans.
A play-off push looks to be on the cards once again for the coastal outfit.
5) Sunderland (7/1 Bet365)
Whilst Sunderland remain in League One, there’ll continue to be a lingering atmosphere of discontent in the stands as the years of underachievement have continued despite being at a level they should have the clout to rise out of with minimal fuss.
The Black Cats fell some way short of the pre-season target of 100 points in 2019/20 and would’ve done so even without the season being cut short – the eighth-placed finish was the lowest final position in Sunderland’s history.
Phil Parkinson has set about galvanising the squad and fanbase for another assault at achieving promotion and there were flickers that Parkinson was beginning to get the Black Cats purring after a wretched start following his October appointment. From 1st January, Sunderland had the best record in the league, albeit having played more games than some of their rivals.
John McLaughlin, arguably Sunderland’s best player since relegation to League One, has departed and leaves tough gloves to fill in goal. Lee Burge was already in the building and Remi Matthews has been signed to compete with him for the #1 spot. Both have had previous spells in this division where they’ve come under scrutiny for some questionable performances.
Josh Scowen, George Dobson and Max Power are good options for this level in central midfield, but more creativity is needed from Lynden Gooch who had spells of good form but didn’t deliver on a regular enough basis in 2019/20, all-too-often leaving Chris Maguire to do it all on his own in the final third. It needs to be more a team effort this time around but the signing of Aiden O’Brien from Millwall looks to be a good one, the wide forward should be a physical specimen at League One level.
Once Parkinson got his feet under the table, there were signs that Sunderland could compete at the top end of the table under him, but it’s worth remembering this is still his first full season in charge in the North East. Other clubs seem to be further ahead in their evolution thanks to more prolonged spells of stability on and off the field.
6) Blackpool (20/1 Bet365)
A change in the tide at the Seasiders as rookie manager Neil Critchley embarks on a maiden campaign with a squad virtually unrecognisable to that which played under Simon Grayson last season.
Much has been said about Critchley’s appointment, hired after seven years coaching in Liverpool’s development setup, and the speed at which the board have turned the squad over to suit the style the new man wants to implement will have undoubtedly attracted a jealous glance or two from colleagues at other League One clubs.
What was a pretty solid spine at this level has been cast out: Mark Howard, Ryan Edwards, Ben Heneghan, Jay Spearing, and top goalscorer Armand Gnanduillet all departed to free up wages and room in the squad with the incomings all arriving with a pretty clear trail of thought behind them.
There’s been particular emphasis on adding speed, agility, and dribbling prowess in forward areas, with CJ Hamilton, Bez Lubala, Oliver Sarkic and Gavin Ward all fitting that template. Forwards Keshi Anderson and Jerry Yates come in having both impressed in Swindon’s promotion campaign, whilst Ethan Robson has already impressed with his positional sense and passing range at the base of the midfield.
Clearly the idea is for Critchley and assistant Mike Garrity, who was also Critchley’s assistant at Liverpool U23’s, to improve and develop the signings they’ve brought in, and it could be that this is a project that really takes off in a year’s time as the management duo take a season to get their feet under the table and make a few mistakes.
Everyone can see the potential in this side, it’s how quickly it’s realised that will determine the degree of success in Blackpool’s campaign.
7) Ipswich (14/1 Betfair)
A brilliant start to last season saw Ipswich four points clear at the top after collecting 27 points from their opening 11 fixtures. It looked as though Paul Lambert had kicked the relegated Tractor Boys straight out of reverse and quickly through the gears – an instant return to the Championship was well on the cards.
Form of that heat – they were on pace for 108 points if they kept it up – was never likely to last but the drop off that ensued rang more than a few alarm bells as to Lambert’s ability and whether he was the right man to get Ipswich out of League One. The next 25 league games before lockdown returned just 25 points, the 15th best form in League One in over half a season’s worth of fixtures.
The decision to award Lambert a five year contract at the start of that downturn was a questionable one by Marcus Evans, though it was apparently agreed earlier in the season when things were far more rosey, and the pressure on the manager’s shoulders will only rise should Ipswich not get off to a good start in this campaign.
There’s undoubtedly quality talent within the squad. Tireless midfielder Flynn Downes has been subject to bids from Premier League clubs this summer, whilst the return of flying wing back Kane Vincent-Young provides Lambert a real boost – his form was key to their good start last season and his injury removed a huge amount of creativity and thrust down the right.
Tomas Holy, Luke Woolfenden, Jon Nolan, and Kayden Jackson make up a good spine at this level and there’s plenty of squad depth provided by the Suffolk clubs academy. Given their age, it’s hoped that the clubs younger players will be one year older and wiser and can continue to improve and contribute to the team’s cause.
Whilst the wheels haven’t totally come off Lambert’s reign just yet, there’s certainly a few things that need tightening up and it’ll take a reverse in the medium-term trends at the end of last season for Ipswich to achieve their ambitions this campaign.
8) Lincoln 25/1 (SkyBet)
Michael Appleton has wasted no time in rebuilding Lincoln City in his image since taking over last September. This summer alone, forgetting the business done in January, there’s been 10 in and 10 out at the time of writing and there’s yet more expected. There are scarcely any reminders left within the squad that the Cowley brothers had ever been in charge.
Appleton’s Lincoln will be a different beast to the one we got to know under the Cowley’s. A more expansive and possession-based brand of football is being bred and the recruitment has mostly focused on bringing in players fresh out of development football and with the potential to improve under Appleton’s coaching. Liam Bridcutt is the exception to that at 31, but he’ll bring quality and experience at the base of midfield and should stand out in League One as he did in a wretched Bolton side last season.
Of the younger group, Anthony Scully is tipped to be one to watch, full of running and energy up front, whilst Theo Archibald was a standout on the wing at Macclesfield and defender TJ Eyoma is a World Cup winner with England Under 17’s.
Being Appleton’s first full season in charge, more emphasis will be placed on picking up results now after little progression in that regard last season. With the average age and freshness of the group, this could be a project that really takes off in a season or two, but there’s enough there for the Imps to fancy themselves to have an outside chance of a play-off push.
9) Plymouth (40/1 SkyBet)
Ryan Lowe will be looking forward to testing his managerial chops at League One level after repeating his promotion trick with Plymouth, 12 months after also getting Bury out of League Two. His side’s clearly demonstrated Lowe’s ability to coach a team that can play football that’s both attractive and effective.
The summer business at Home Park has seen some interesting comings and goings. Replacements were needed for player of the season Antoni Sarcevic, opting to stay in League Two with Bolton, as well as left wing back Callum McFadzean, whilst loanees Alex Palmer and Josh Grant left vacancies in goal and at the base of midfield respectively.
Argyle have taken energetic central midfielder Panutche Camara up from League Two with them from Crawley, whilst Ryan Hardie and Frank Nouble come in to the front line to compete with last season’s breakthrough star Luke Jephcott. There’s still a goalkeeper to come in but Lowe is seemingly happy to give the highly-rated Michael Cooper a chance protecting the net to start with.
They also pushed to boat out to make George Cooper’s loan from Peterborough a permanent deal, with Lowe stating that he sees Cooper’s delivery from the left in the 3-1-4-2 shape to be a crucial part of Argyle’s attacking arsenal this season after the wing back created 12 assists in their promotion campaign.
It’s unlikely they’ll be able to punch their way past the heavyweights, but neutral observers will be keeping a watchful eye on the foundations being laid at Home Park.
10) Charlton (12/1 Bet365)
Under normal circumstances, it’d be tempting to back Charlton to mount a strong attempt at bouncing straight back up to the Championship. Manager Lee Bowyer and assistant Johnnie Jackson are held in high regard for their success under difficult off-field circumstances in recent seasons, supported by consistently good recruitment led by Steve Gallen.
However, the current and latest farce regarding the ownership of the club threatens to derail, at the very least seriously hamper, any ambitions the staff may’ve had at achieving such aims.
A transfer embargo has slowed business at the Valley and consequently little progress has been made to strengthening the side. Talisman Lyle Taylor has long departed, talented West Ham loanee Josh Cullen leaves a vacancy in central midfield, and centre back Tom Lockyer has decided to stay in the Championship and moved to Luton.
Arguably the worst news of all though, on a personnel basis at least, is that ‘keeper Dillion Phillips -one of the Addicks’ best performers the past two seasons – is likely to leave the club should an acceptable bid come in. He will be a tough act to follow.
On the bright side, Bowyer and Jackson continue to work miracles and whatever state the squad is in come the close of the transfer window in early October, you’d back them to wring every last bit of performance out of what’s available and push them to heights they shouldn’t really be reaching for.
Alex Gilbey and Conor Washington look to be decent replacements for Cullen and Taylor respectively, but there’s more important matters for Charlton to be focusing on right now.
11) Doncaster (30/1 Paddy Power)
It was memorably competitive at the top of League One last season and Doncaster could justifiably consider themselves the best of the rest at the tail end of the campaign. They had the makings of a good team and quality in all areas of the pitch but couldn’t quite find the consistency required to break into the top six.
Unfortunately for Darren Moore, he faces another rebuilding job this summer. The squad was filled out with loans in 2019/20 and their departures along with the usual clearing of deadwood at the end of their contract’s mean that there’s a thin base for Doncaster to build on.
The goalkeeping position was a key one after loanee Seny Dieng’s impressive performances saw him return to compete for a start at QPR. Joe Bursik, capped by several England age groups, signed for the season from Stoke as his replacement and will be familiar to League One observers having had an up-and-down spell at Accrington Stanley in 2019/20.
Importantly, Ben Whiteman remains despite demonstrating his excellent quality at this level at the base of the Doncaster midfield for two seasons, whilst centre half Tom Anderson improved last campaign to establish himself as a key member of the team. Both will be important again if Doncaster are to have a good season.
Brighton loanee Taylor Richards could be the latest central midfielder to impress after the loan successes of Ben Sheaf and Jacob Ramsey last season. Richards has already stood out in pre-season with his passing range and desire to push forward from a deep midfield position.
There’s potential for Doncaster to be a good side with Brad Halliday and Reece James capable full backs at this level, Jon Taylor and Jason Lokilo have quality out wide whilst there’s a sense that there’s still more potential to be unlocked in striker Fejiri Okenabirhie.
Adding sufficient depth in the remainder of the window to support them in what’s going to be a congested season will make or break whether Donny will push on or consolidate again.
12) Gillingham (35/1 Paddy Power)
Steve Evans’ charm offensive seems to be paying off as Gillingham fans have started to get behind the manager and his methods. Performances on the pitch have helped of course: the Gills lost just one game in 17 between December and the season close and the development of the side has given fans cause for optimism going into 2020/21.
Typical of a team managed by Evans, the transfer business has been eye-catching, though necessarily so with several heading out of the door this summer. Jacob Mellis and Kyle Dempsey are recognisable names at this level and add technical quality to the midfield, whilst winger Jordan Graham has previously displayed the potential to play a division higher but has struggled for fitness and form in the last couple of years.
There’s serious physicality up top with aerially dominant Vadaine Oliver signed to compete with John Akinde, whilst Zech Medley, Robbie McKenzie and Christian Maghoma make up a trio of inexperienced signings in central defence that Evans will be looking to develop. There’s still a defensively minded midfielder missing from the squad though after Alfie Jones returned to Southampton.
The atmosphere between the club, manager and fans appears to be in a good place from the outside looking in, and another push at the play-off places will be the aim. The Gills may fall short in the face of bigger fish, but we all know Evans will relish the challenge of competing in those waters.
13) Hull (14/1 Paddy Power)
There’s been plenty of bad written about Hull since January, so let’s start with the good.
Recruitment has been positive overall as the club continued to bring in players who’ve stood out at League One level in recent seasons to add depth and pedigree in this division to the squad.
Lewie Coyle has been one of the standout full backs at Fleetwood over the last three seasons and is the type of plug-and-play signing that you’d expect to hit the ground running. Greg Docherty still has unfulfilled potential after his dribbling and energy earned positive reviews from a loan spell at Shrewsbury in 2018/19, and Richie Smallwood is a shrewd signing to add knowhow and bite to the Tigers midfield.
On paper, there’s the makings of a decent-if-unrefined League One squad there and it should be remembered that it was Grant McCann’s success at this level with Doncaster that got him the Hull job in the first place.
However, it remains to be seen whether McCann still has the dressing room – clichéd though it is – after what can only be described as a pathetic relegation in 2019/20, taking just six points from their final 20 games to fall through the trap door. When a team produces form like that, question marks will be asked over the mentality of the players and manager that can only be answered on the pitch this time around.
The squad churn could be just what the dressing room needed to turn the tide and begin to push the club forward again, but this is a post-relegation rebuild that looks like it’ll take more than one season to complete. Sunderland and Ipswich will attest to that.
14) MK Dons (40/1 SkyBet)
After a torrid start under Paul Tisdale, Russell Martin was able to steady the ship and there were signs that MK Dons could become a decent outfit under his management given time and backing in the transfer market.
The first-time manager achieved his first objective in guiding the club to safety after a run of 1 point from 11 games between September and November left them in the relegation zone, and since his appointment on 4th November, the team had the 14th best record in League One. Things were moving in the right direction.
Hopes of building on that and continuing to improve have been dashed by the summer departures of Alex Gilbey and Rhys Healey, though the club received fees for both. Gilbey was the class act in the side last season, running things from central midfield, whilst Healey once he was fit showed goalscoring form that would’ve put him amongst the favourites for the golden boot this season had he stayed.
There’s still quality left in those positions though; strikers Carlton Morris and Joe Mason have decent pedigree for this level whilst Sam Nombe made a positive impression in his breakthrough campaign in 2019/20. Martin has also stated his preference for bringing one more forward in with more mobility.
In midfield, Louis Thompson, Ben Gladwin and Jordan Houghton have all performed at this level before and there’s said to be more help on the way in the transfer market too.
Staying well clear of a relegation battle and continuing to mould the side in Martin’s image would represent a season of progression for the Milton Keynes club.
15) Crewe (40/1 SkyBet)
So far, so good for Crewe in this summer’s transfer window.
The big question over the Railwaymen’s business was always going to be about who they could prevent going out, rather than who they could bring in. It’s well documented now how David Artell’s team of academy graduates bore the fruit of playing together for several seasons on end, culminating in a cohesion and an attacking identity that powered them to League Two promotion.
Crewe developed as a team but the individuals within it also demonstrated they were too good for League Two and had potential to play at a higher level. Full backs Perry Ng and Harry Pickering provided width, Ryan Wintle anchored the midfield to great effect, whilst Charlie Kirk added wing wizardry in the final third and excellent combination play with Pickering on the left. All have remained at Gresty Road so far this window and that means there’s perhaps cause for optimism going into this season.
With key players retained so far, there are areas of the squad that needed strengthening. Offrande Zanzala and Mickael Mandron have both played in this division before but not quite delivered as yet – Artell will be hoping to unlock their potential as focal points for the side to play around.
There are still some question marks over the quality available in central defence too, at least in comparison to other areas of the squad, though Donervon Daniels adds physicality to this area that was missing after Michael Nottingham’s return to Blackpool.
With time still remaining in the transfer window, Crewe would perhaps do well to cease all communication with the outside world in order to keep the squad together. They could go well if they do.
16) Accrington (66/1 BetVictor)
There’s no two ways about it: whilst John Coleman and Jimmy Bell keep Accrington in League One, they continue to overachieve.
On the division’s smallest budget, the management duo continue to innovate and identify players who can come in on relatively cheap wages and outperform opposition players that are sometimes on several multiples of salary and have spent the majority of their career at this level or even higher.
The incomings tend to be rough diamonds from non-league, such as forward duo Colby Bishop and Dion Charles identified last year, discards from clubs higher up the pyramid, such as midfielder Matt Butcher released by Bournemouth, or loanees from Premier League clubs that can develop under their coaching.
That’s the case with winger Tom Allen who comes in from Newcastle to replace the Jordan Clark-shaped void on the right of Stanley’s midfield, hoping to replicate the success Dan Barlaser achieved when arriving from Tyneside two seasons ago.
Despite Clark’s exit, undoubtedly a blow but a natural part of the process, the spine of the team remains largely intact with Mark Hughes and Ross Sykes now having decent competition in Cameron Burgess for a place in central defence, midfield general Seamus Conneely and Duracell-bunny Sam Finley will marshall the centre of the park, whilst Bishop and Charles will be looking to develop further after their maiden League One campaigns last time out.
Despite Coleman challenging the squad to follow in the footsteps of Luton, Coventry and Wycombe, whom they were promoted with from League Two in 2017/18, you’d fancy that privately Stanley would shake pre-season on a second consecutive 17th placed finish.
17) Swindon (33/1 SkyBet)
Sealing promotion with a swagger earned Richie Wellens a reputation as one of the bright young managers in the EFL, coaching Swindon into an energetic and attacking outfit.
Any thoughts of a possible play-off push at the first attempt have been quashed by the turnover in the squad this summer as many of last season’s key performers have departed or not returned.
League Two Player of the Year Eoin Doyle opted to stay in the fourth tier with Bolton, whilst Keshi Anderson joined Jerry Yates at Blackpool. Contract offers were made to both Lloyd Isgrove and Kaiyne Woolery, but Isgrove has also opted to move elsewhere and time is running out before Wellens withdraws the paper from Woolery’s side of the table without a signature.
Clearly attacking reinforcements are required and the acquisition of Jack Payne could be a shrewd one if Wellens can unlock the obvious potential the attacking midfielder has displayed in previous campaigns. Tyler Smith comes in on loan from Sheffield United as a pacey forward, already with experience of League One and room to develop further, as does Diallang Jaiyesimi who signs on to continue his progress under Wellens.
More attacking players are still to come in, but fret not as the likes of Rob Hunt, Mathieu Baudry, Michael Doughty, and Anthony Grant remain to keep the spine of the side intact. Wellens will be looking to prove he can build a side at a higher level but it may take a season before we start to see the new iteration hit their full potential.
18) Bristol Rovers (22/1 Paddy Power)
Ben Garner’s first half-season as manager didn’t exactly go to plan, but it was always going to be a period of transition for Bristol Rovers.
Taking over mid-season after Graham Coughlan’s eyebrow-raising move to Mansfield, there was some inevitability that the Gas would struggle to repeat their early season form that saw them fourth after 19 games even if Coughlan had stayed, let alone under a new, rookie manager who would also seek to simultaneously change the tactical approach of the West Country side.
It’s reasonable to expect that the Rovers board would’ve accounted for this, but the return of W2-D4-L9 from his 15 games was an alarming start to his reign, albeit Garner was absent for a sustained period of that run due to a family illness.
The slate gets wiped clean for the burgeoning manager and there’ll be more expectation on his side to step it up a gear this campaign. Finnish goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola will be key once again, but talisman Jonson Clarke-Harris’s transfer to Peterborough does leave a physically-imposing hole at the top end of the pitch. Neither of current forwards James Daly nor Jonah Ayunga have scored an EFL goal before.
Looking light up top but very bottom heavy, there’s genuine competition for places defensively at Rovers. Alfie Kilgour impressed in his first full season in blue-and-white checks last time out, whilst Max Ehmer and Jack Baldwin come in as established League One campaigners. Cian Harries has a reputation for superior ball-playing abilities to his peers, and there’s also Tom Davies, impressive in the first half of 2019/20 under Coughlan, still to return from injury.
It’s been a busy window, but another season of turnover, transition, and development could be on the cards for the Gas and the patience of the Rovers board will be tested should results not improve at the start of this campaign.
19) Shrewsbury (66/1 SkyBet)
From a fan’s perspective, the jury remains out over boss Sam Ricketts. The FA Cup run was the highlight in 2019/20, beating Bristol City in a 3rd Round replay before taking Liverpool to a replay at Anfield in the 4th Round, but in the league the Shrews fell flat, failing to impress and trending downwards before lockdown brought the season to a halt, winning just 2/14 games from Boxing Day to March.
The biggest concern going into this season was whether Ricketts would set the side up so defensively again, his 3-5-2 shape last season was compact and solid but failed to produce exciting football and the team struggled to create chances, often leaving home fans going home disgruntled with the perceived lack of entertainment on offer.
Word on the street is that the manager has made moves to address that over pre-season though, switching to a 4-3-3 shape with the intent to defend higher up the pitch and get more players into the final third. Music to the ears of the Shrewsbury fanbase, but the proof will be in the pudding.
They’ll miss Josh Laurent’s engine in midfield after he moved to Reading, but have retained the solid defensive base that provided Ricketts with some credit: Ro-Shaun Williams, Ethan Ebanks-Landell and particularly Aaron Pierre all impressed last season and will now be competing for two places at the back which could raise their levels further.
As long as there’s more creativity and goals scored, Shrewsbury fans may be willing to allow Ricketts a bit more time to mould the side but it’s difficult to envision them making a strong impact on League One in 2020/21.
20) Burton (40/1 BetVictor)
A new era is brewing at Burton after Nigel Clough’s reluctant resignation at the height of lockdown earlier this year. Clough was undoubtedly a success at the Staffordshire club, overachieving to lead them into the Championship and then keeping a thin squad performing to a good standard to stabilise in League One.
You knew what you were getting with Clough’s Burton, whereas the appointment of Jake Buxton, a centre back in the squad last season, leaves a lot of question marks over what exactly the Brewers might be this time around.
That said, the rookie has hundreds of EFL games under his belt, including over a century for Derby in the Championship, and was reportedly being groomed to take over the manager’s position one day anyway. Watching Clough operate on a tight budget year on year will have prepared him well for the current landscape and previous first-time managers given their chance at Burton include Gary Rowett and Nigel Clough himself, both of whom turned out alright.
Signings Michael Bostwick and Neal Eardley are the wrong side of 30 but could turn out to be important players in this climate – Buxton can rely on the pair to deliver a level of performance week in, week out. Joe Powell, a January signing, will replace the creative output of the departed Scott Fraser in the centre of the park, and winger Steven Lawless arrives from Scotland to add depth out wide.
It’s unlikely Burton will be harbouring ambition any greater than just surviving what will be an expensive season for EFL clubs and then rebuilding again next summer. The years of overachievement under Clough are behind them, we’ll soon find out if Buxton is able to replicate that.
21) Northampton (80/1 SkyBet)
Keith Curle wasted no time in getting his squad ready for their return to League One, plundering eight new signings in an attempt to raise the bar for the step up in class.
They’ll be lining up with an entirely new back three after Scott Wharton, Jordan Turnbull and Charlie Goode all departed in the summer. Goode in particular will be tough to replace having stood head and shoulders above his colleagues last season and a move to Brentford was well deserved. Replacements Cian Bolger, Fraser Horsfall and Luka Racic played together for the first time in a recent friendly versus Luton.
Curle has been quite bullish in his approach to the league, stating he will not be abandoning his attacking principles and challenging his players to be brave again. It’s a risky strategy and one that could leave the Cobblers overexposed at the back.
A lot of key performers from last season have departed; particularly Goode, midfield general Alan McCormack, and inspirational loan forward Callum Morton. It’s yet to be seen whether their replacements can mimic the good work they did through the spine of the side with most of them relatively unproven at League One level.
It could be a season of acclimatisation and it may not be the smoothest ride at times. 20th place in May would be a good result for Northampton.
22) Wimbledon (150/1 SkyBet)
There’s a sense of déjà vu about Wimbledon now who seem to have mastered the art of the great escape. Albeit last season’s effort didn’t transpire to be as dramatic as the 2018/19 last day survival on goal difference, but again they had to drag themselves out of it having picked up a measly three points from their opening 11 games of the 2019/20 campaign.
Glyn Hodges, assistant to predecessor Wally Downes, took over the reins and managed to steer them to survival – a run of 32 points from the 24 matches he had in charge represented a reasonable return and enough to see them above the danger zone in 20th place come the season’s curtailment.
Recruitment also tells a familiar story. Once again, it’ll be loan gems and non-league talent to bolster the squad and established free transfers such as battering ram Ollie Palmer and midfield lynchpin Alex Woodyard.
Cheye Alexander comes in with positive feedback from non-league Barnet to compete with Luke O’Neill at right back, whilst they’ll be hoping loanee Connall Trueman from Birmingham can repeat the success that fellow borrowed-gloves Aaron Ramsdale and Nathan Trott have provided in recent seasons.
The south-west London side struggled for goals last season and it was encouraging to hear Hodges talking up the need to improve on set plays this season, an area they really struggled to capitalise on in 2019/20 despite playing with three centre backs and having the delivery of Luke O’Neill or Anthony Hartigan in the side.
It's hard to predict anything other than another struggle for the Dons, particularly with fans having to wait to fill out their new Plough Lane stadium they’ve been waiting so patiently for.
23) Rochdale (250/1 SkyBet)
Although clearly being run sensibly in this climate, and with a popular manager in Brian Barry-Murphy engendering a playing philosophy on the team that encourages technical players, there’s right now little to cause optimism for Rochdale’s hopes of bettering 2019/20’s 18th-place finish.
Of most concern is that their two best players last season have left the club. Ian Henderson was just seven goals shy of the all-time record for league goals in Rochdale colours, a target he surely would’ve been highly motivated to reach this campaign, but has departed for League Two Salford City depriving Rochdale of their only reliable source of goals.
Also leaving is the most reliable source of creativity in Callum Camps who has moved to promotion-chasing Fleetwood, whilst a transfer away for energetic central midfielder Ollie Rathbone remains a strong rumour.
Ins are of course expected, with the top end of the pitch being the biggest priority – with just a week left to the season’s curtain raiser, Dale have no senior striker on the books. Any new forwards coming in now will have to get up to speed and create a wavelength with the team in double quick time.
On the positive side, there are experienced heads in the squad and decent depth defensively with Paul McShane, Jimmy McNulty and Eoghan O’Connell all offering a stern-if-not-mobile test for League One forwards.
Added to this, Barry-Murphy’s commitment to playing possession football can frustrate the opposition and there are the technical players in the squad to execute this correctly. Should Aaron Morley develop further he could have a real controlling influence in the midfield if protected well by Jimmy Ryan and Matty Lund.
Rochdale are looking a weaker side than last year though and replacing Henderson’s goals will be a tough ask on a virtually non-existent budget.
24) Wigan (22/1 Paddy Power)
Just starting and finishing the season will be seen as a success from the point Wigan Athletic find themselves at right now.
It seems they will be able to start the season with the administrator’s actively negotiating the sale of the club, but the state of the squad going into the campaign will depend on when that goes through and it’s hardly the top priority for either the potential buyer or the seller at this point.
At the time of writing, the best case scenario is that a sale is done quickly and signings are made in time to at least put out a senior XI for the opening fixture versus Ipswich, but it’s likely that the majority of the Wigan side we watch this season aren’t even contracted at the club yet.
Focusing on matters on the pitch, it’s impossible to say at this point what Wigan will be this season but whoever comes in at board, management, and playing level, they’ll be starting from an incredibly awkward base that’ll put them right up against it in terms of competing with the rest of the division. It’s starting to feel distinctly similar to the ordeal Bolton went through just 12 months ago.
You sense fans will be happy just to make it through to May 2021 with a club still to support in the next campaign, regardless of what division they’ll be in come that time.