FOOTBALL LEAGUE boff Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) correctly called Swindon at 20/1 in the League Two title race last term. He's back to share his thoughts on the Outright Winner and Promotion markets ahead of the 2020/21 League Two season.
WLB Season Preview 2020/21 | League Two: Promotion
League Two has traditionally been the Football League’s most open and competitive renewal. Only two seasons ago, ante-post favourites Notts County suffered a shock relegation from the fourth-tier, whilst 12 months ago moneybags Mansfield and Class of 92-backed Salford failed to even penetrate the play-off positions in the curtailed campaign.
Indeed, 13 (68%) of the past 19 League Two title winners during completed seasons were priced up at double-figure odds, whilst only two pre-season jollies have taken top honours since 2000/01. Relegated clubs have also found the going tough; just two teams have topped the tree this century to earn an immediate bounce back to League One level.
Premier League mainstays eight years ago, Bolton (5/1 Bet365) now find themselves at the foot of the EFL pyramid following a prolonged period of dreadful mismanagement and financial turmoil that saw the Trotters plummet down the divisions. Taking up almost 17% of the Outright Winner market, the raw ingredients for a promotion push could be in place.
Appointing Barrow’s minor miracle maker Ian Evatt in the managerial hot-seat should ensure Wanderers play an exciting and expansive style of football, whilst the eye-catching addition of prolific poacher Eoin Doyle suggests Bolton will have few issues in finding the back of the net. But questions and concerns remain over the extent of the rebuilding job.
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.
The Whites are worthy favourites and could quite conceivably walk the league should punchy new signings settle and players immediately adapt to Evatt’s idealistic system. But his success at Barrow took time to build – the National League champions finished 10th in his first campaign in charge – and there’s no guarantee Bolton slip straight into gear.
Even if League Two favourites have often failed to land top honours, Bolton supporters will be encouraged by the fact that 10 (53%) have clinched promotion this century – nine (47%) via a top-three finish – suggesting the Trotters could still play a major role in their hunt for a place on the podium. However, at the odds offered, Bolton aren’t for me at this stage.
For the same reason, Salford (13/2 Bet365) aren’t a side I can fully support at the prices. The Ammies splashed the cash in pursuit of promotion ahead their debut EFL campaign but to no avail. Graham Alexander’s outfit took time to get going following the summer overhaul and were eight points off the play-off places when football was halted in mid-March.
Further strengthening has allowed Salford to put together a formidable star-filled squad, although scepticism persists over Alexander’s ability to find the right style and system to suit. A more aesthetically-pleasing approach is craved by supporters, with punters possibly preferring a more streetwise option in the dugout before pursuing off-putting prices.
Mansfield (12/1 Spreadex)
Expected to make a major assault on League Two silverware, the mishaps of Mansfield last term burnt many ante-post punters, including yours truly. The Stags suffered a disastrous season, concluding the campaign in 21st, a full 20 points off the top-seven and earning only two points more than relegated Macclesfield (before points deductions were applied).
The decision to give academy boss John Dempster his first taste of senior management ended miserably in December with the Yellows already out of title contention. However, the subsequent appointment of Graham Coughlan highlighted the club’s ambition with the Irishman departing a Bristol Rovers side fourth in the third tier to take over the reins.
Progress was admittedly slow under the new regime at Field Mill but with a full pre-season under their belts, the expectation is for Mansfield to enjoy significant improvement, particularly following another raft of notable additions that include the likes of George Maris, Ollie Clarke, Jamie Reid, Rollin Menayese, Marek Stech and Jordan Bowery.
Coughlan has built a Stags squad capable of covering all areas – potentially crucial in a condensed forthcoming campaign – and the Nottinghamshire outfit already boast the foundations of a title-contending team, spearheaded by the always-excellent finisher Nicky Maynard and underpinned by standout left wing back Malvind Benning.
Mansfield made a mess of things last season but there’s no reason why the Stags can’t right those wrongs this time around, especially so with a more trustworthy boss overseeing proceedings and at a bulkier pre-season price.
Cheltenham (16/1 Bet365)
Cheltenham were one of the Football League’s most consistent and competitive sides throughout 2019/20 and Michael Duff’s troops appeared genuine contenders for automatic League Two promotion before the campaign was cut short. The Robins then squandered a two-goal first leg advantage in their play-off semi-final in a forgettable finale.
Town are now planning and preparing for their 12th successive season outside the top-three tiers but there’s hope well-respected Duff can continue the club’s ascent under his expert tutorship. The Gloucestershire group average over 1.50 points per-game during the 41-year-old’s stint, excelled defensively and proven prominent in performance data rankings.
The core of Cheltenham’s squad remains bar Ryan Broom, and although goalkeeper Scott Flinders is out of action until the New Year, the Robins have recruited smartly. Already boasting the division’s best backline, Duff’s squad possess an enviable mix of youthful exuberance, promotion-winning experience, set-piece protagonists and a clinical edge.
The major question surrounding the Whaddon Road outfit is whether the Belfast-born boss can use last season’s heartache as fuel to fire a major top-three challenge. Past trends suggest so with five (26%) of the past 19 League Two title winners failing in the play-offs the year previous with 14 (25%) teams involved in an unsuccessful play-off campaign bouncing back to win promotion the year after.
Cheltenham proved devilishly difficult to beat during the regular season and conceded more than a solitary strike on only four occasions. The best defence (or joint-best) in League Two has been crowned champions in 11/19 (58%) seasons this century, winning promotion in 16/19 (84%) campaigns, adding extra evidence to support the Robins’ case.
Port Vale (18/1 William Hill)
Continuity and unity are rare words in Football League vernacular but after seemingly endless years of instability during Norman Smurthwaite’s chequered chairmanship, Port Vale are reaping the rewards of such attributes since local businesspeople and diehard supporters Kevin and Carol Shanahan took over ownership of the club in May 2019.
Having guided the Valiants away from relegation trouble during a 16-game spell in charge at the back end of 2018/19, former Macclesfield manager John Askey was handed a three-year contract by the Shanahans to oversee continued improvement. But few outsiders foresaw the Vale Park outfit coming close to play-off contention last term.
Before League Two football was abruptly ended, Port Vale sat a solitary point outside of the top-seven with the Burslem boys’ consistency in selection and system, plus the Valiants ability to mix it with the league’s elite particularly impressing. With Askey keeping the foundations of last season’s overachievers together, Vale could kick-on again in 2020/21.
Local boy Tom Pope’s influence might be waning – the outspoken forward would do well to step away from social media to avoid further suspensions – but the Staffordshire side are well stocked with attacking options, particularly from the flanks in David Worrall and David Amoo, as well as Theo Robinson's arrival to ease the overreliance on bad boy Pope up top.
If Askey can inspire marginal gains in the final-third, progression could well be on the cards. After all, Vale suffered only two defeats in 2020, endured a sole home reverse in the curtailed campaign and posted an eye-catching W9-D4-L2 when taking on top-10 rivals, indicating a capability to compete on a grander scale.
League Two 2020/21 – Mansfield to win outright (12/1 each-way Spreadex)
League Two 2020/21 – Cheltenham to win outright (16/1 each-way Bet365)
League Two 2020/21 – Port Vale to win outright (18/1 each-way William Hill)