With the Football League season starting this weekend we have cast our eye over all of the divisions this season and made our ante-post picks for the season ahead.
League Two looks as competitive as ever with the increasing quality of the National League meaning the gulf in class is ever closing and the promoted sides can immediately become a force in the division. There appears to be a few stand-outs this year, with Luton and Mansfield vying for favouritism in the market and having the largest budgets in the division, but there are others working on smaller budgets who could be capable of challenging towards the head of the table.
We’ve taken a look at all of the sides in League Two this season, trying to provide a little insight to aid with betting and to give a loose ranking of chances for the year ahead.
Challenging for Promotion:
Coventry City: Undoubtedly the big name in the division but it might not be so straightforward for Coventry to bounce back given all of the off-field issues they have. Last season was a disaster, like pretty much every other season under the current owners, but the return of Mark Robins offered some hope with results dramatically improving, but all too late, following his return. Though they’ve made some experienced signings this summer, the squad still looks young and you fear they could be bullied at this level and lack consistency. They showed what they were capable of at the end of last season and have a quality manager, but I struggle to see them being strong enough to mount a challenge for automatic promotion.
Exeter City: Losing play-off finalists last season it might be tough for Exeter to repeat the highs of that performance with a number of key players having since departed. Twenty-one goal David Wheeler has been retained but key forwards Ollie Watkins and Joel Grant have left and will be tough to replace, though the reported £1.8m fee for Watkins and additional sale of Ethan Ampadu could give them opportunity to strengthen at key points in the season. They should be up with the pace for most of the season but whether they are strong enough to push for automatic promotion is another thing.
Lincoln City: National League champions and an historic cup run, last season couldn’t have gone any better for Lincoln and they’ll be looking to take that momentum into their first season back in the football league. Lincoln showed they can be a force for anyone on their day and the step-up from the National League isn’t that great these days, so you could easily see them making an immediate challenge for promotion, whilst they’ve added league experience to the squad with new signings like Michael Bostwick. The title could be out of reach but a top-six finish is realistic.
Luton Town: Fourth place and beaten in the play-offs might have been short of expectations but last season was a definite step-up for Luton and showed that manager Nathan Jones has made positive progress. Tactically it would have taken time for his ideas to bed-in at this level and to identify players who can play the way he wants, so I expect them to step-up again this season. They have lost a couple of key players in the close-season but they have been readily replaced, with James Collins a very positive signing who can provide some of the goals they lacked at key times last season. Automatic promotion should be the minimum aim.
Mansfield Town: Mansfield would definitely win the title of having the most unpopular manager in League Two, if not English football, but whether they can win the League title is another question. Despite being such a loathsome character Steve Evans is very successful at this level and with increased transfer investment, you can see why they’re favourites for the title. Thirteen players have come in so far, and eleven have left, with a number of solid players for this level brought in. Providing it doesn’t take too long for changes and new players to bed-in, they will be challenging for automatic promotion.
Cambridge United: Narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season and will be looking to build upon the positive work of Shaun Derry. Failed to win in their first eight games last season and had a poor patch in January/February, so with a stronger start you could easily see them pushing higher this season. The squad looks a little stronger this season, with some solid performers like Jabo Ibehre brought in alongside younger hopes like Emmanuel Osadebe, who showed promise at times for Gillingham in League One. With more consistency the play-offs should be within reach.
Carlisle United: After a storming start to the season form fell away dramatically late on, picking-up just one win in twelve from February through to April, and lost out in the play-offs after just scraping in. The squad looks marginally weaker this season after the goalkeeper Mark Gillespie and forward Jabo Ibehre left, and goals could be a problem this season with no apparent prolific goal scorers in the team. If they can avoid a seasonal slump again they could be in a stronger position but the play-offs are probably a more realistic ambition.
Chesterfield: Relegated from League One after finishing well adrift in bottom place. Gary Caldwell came in as manager in January and only won two in nineteen, so will need to improve but he previously did well at Wigan and it’s tough to turn around an already sinking ship. Big changes to the squad have taken place with fifteen departing, most notably Ched Evans, and nine coming in. New signings Chris O’Grady from Brighton and Gozie Ugwu, who looked a handful at Woking, alongside Kristian Dennis should give them goals at this level, which should give them a decent chance of bouncing back.
Colchester United: A young squad, they naturally struggled for consistency with away form letting them down throughout the season and costing them a play-off place. The squad still looks young but with a full season now behind most of the young squad the hope is that they can now push on. Eleven players have come in, mostly young, but the signing of Mikael Mandron could be a coup; with the young Frenchman arriving after a short spell at Wigan having previously impressed at Eastleigh. If this young side can gain a bit more resilience and consistency the 22/1 on offer could be a good each way bet with The U’s dark horses for promotion.
Forest Green Rovers: The eco-club have had massive investment over recent years and promotion to the Football League was only a matter of time. Now that they have reached their destination I don’t expect them to slow down and look potentially overpriced at a best price 33/1, as they have strong foundations to build on and we often see the step-up from the National League isn’t that big. The squad lacks a little depth at the moment but plenty have league experience and if they can continue their momentum they could challenge for the play-offs. Christian Doidge, who scored 21 last season will be key.
Grimsby Town: A mid-table finish in their first season back in the football league was a decent enough achievement but Grimsby might have been hoping for slightly better at the start of the season. Paul Hurst leaving for Shrewsbury perhaps destabilised the side and the appointment of Marcus Bignot didn’t work, however, the return of club legend Russel Slade might have them returning to a positive footing. Changes have been made to the squad but it’s not been a radical transformation and the hope will be that Slade can get more out of the existing players who maybe underperformed last season. A top half finish should be achievable.
Notts County: Although for large parts last season would have been classed as a major disappointment, fortunes were transformed after the appointment of Kevin Nolan and County will take plenty of promise into the new season. Despite finishing with three losses in four, their form from February onwards was up there with the best, but the ten losses on the bounce between November and January gave them no chance. Twelve new players have come in so far to add depth to the squad, so if they can continue their momentum of the second half of the season under Nolan, who has made a good start to his managerial career, they could make a play-off push.
Stevenage: Overall, last season was a positive for Stevenage as they made progress under Darren Sarrl and were it not for a late season slump, failing to win in their final six games, they would have achieved a play-off place. A mid-season run of eight wins in nine showed what they are capable of at their best and they should be able to progress this season after strengthening in pre-season. The signing of Danny Newton from Tamworth is perhaps most interesting, after he scored 29 in the National League North last season. If they can avoid the damaging slumps in form that were a little too frequent last season, they could challenge the top seven.
Swindon Town: The Tim Sherwood experiment failed emphatically last season, which was hardly a surprise given they were relying on one of the biggest charlatans in football to transform their fortunes. David Flitcroft has come in as manager and he did well enough at Bury for large periods to suggest it could be a good appointment. The squad has been reliant on youth in recent seasons, which was probably part of their downfall, so it is a positive to see Flitcroft bring in more experienced players in pre-season to give them a bit of strength. They should push for the play-offs but might just lack the goals to aim any higher.
Wycombe Wanderers: Wycombe had a strong season last season but would have been slightly disappointed to miss out on the play-offs by just one point. There has been little change to the squad with just the experienced pair of Nathan Tyson and Adam El-Abd coming in, so a repeat performance of last season should be within reach. Though Ade Akinfenwa and Scott Kashket both hit double figures last season, Wycombe did lack goals compared to others around them; so they’d need a step-up on that to have a chance of reaching the play-offs.
Mid Table at Best
Barnet: Last season was somewhat derailed by the departure of Martin Allen, yet again, with Kevin Nugent eventually taking over as permanent manager but leaving just two months later after a poor spell in charge. The Bees will be hoping for a more stable season with Rossi Eames now in permanent charge after picking up an almost 50% win rate across 14 games and two spells as temporary manager. The squad hasn’t seen much change, but Shaq Coulthirst could be a very good signing, and much will depend on the goals of John Akinde, who bagged 26 goals last season. A safe mid-table finish with an outside shot at the play-offs looks the most likely.
Crawley Town: Crawley have made an interesting managerial appointment in Harry Kewell and will be hoping the big-name rookie can improve on last season’s 19th place finish. There hasn’t been major changes to the squad, but the loss of top scorer James Collins (20 league goals last season) to Luton will be a big loss. Thomas Verheydt who has scored goals in Holland has come in and will be an unknown quantity as a replacement, whilst Kewell will probably be hoping to use his links to bring in some good loan signings. Providing Kewell isn’t a complete disaster as a manager, they should be comfortable and aim to edge a top half finish.
Crewe Alexandra: A 17th place finish last year would have been a disappointment for Crewe, but looking at the squad it’s hard to see them going much further this season. Results didn’t change a great deal after David Artell took over as manager, though it is tough to change too much midway through a campaign, and there hasn’t been large scale changes to the playing staff in the close season. The signings that have been made look solid enough with Chris Porter likely to provide goals, so they should fare slightly better but a top half finish looks the limit of their ability.
Port Vale: Relegation from League One would have been a big disappointment with a positive start to the season not capitalised on and a late season slump costing them dearly. Michael Brown had ample enough time to turn things around last season and if anything results got worse after he took over, so it’s hard to be convinced that he can make an impact this season. A number of players the previous manager brought in have been released and replaced with more solid league experience, with the return of Tom Pope a big positive, so it will at least be his own squad he works with this year. Mid-table is probably about their level this season.
Accrington Stanley: Punching above their weight with a comfortable mid-table finish last season, just surviving in the Football League each season is a big achievement for such a small club. They are well organised and have a manager who knows both the club and the league incredibly well, so with a bit of stability there is always a chance of overachieving. The squad looks small and they’ve lost Shay McCarton, who scored ten last season, to Bradford, so it will be a struggle but they should just secure safety.
Cheltenham Town: Struggled for large parts of the season, possibly not helped by the manager Gary Johnson taking time-off to undergo heart surgery, with goals and consistency a big issue – they only won back-to-back games twice. There looks to have been major changes to the squad with twelve departing and seven coming in, so they may need further signings to strengthen and they don’t seem to have solved the goal scoring issue. Survival would have been the aim last season, so they will be looking to build on that achievement but it looks like it will be a tough season ahead.
Morecambe: Did the hard work early last season, after a flying start of four wins in five their form gradually fell away, winning just one in the last fourteen. The Shrimps will be working on one of the lower budgets in the division, so consistently punch above their weight, and last season wouldn’t have been helped by off the field ownership issues. They’ve made a few changes to the squad with a number of players with experience at this level coming in but it will be the departure of forward Paul Mullin to Swindon that they will feel most. It could be a struggle this season with fortunes maybe reliant on Jim Bentley getting his side ready early and getting points on the board in the opening ten games.
Newport County: Dodged relegation last season after looking dead for the vast majority of the season. Mike Flynn worked a miracle to keep Newport up after the disastrous spell of Graham Westley in charge, turning around a side who had won just one in eighteen games to win five in the last seven and stay up by just two points. Despite the great work Flynn did, it will be tough to keep Newport up again with their limited resources and no basket case like Leyton Orient to take one of the relegation places this season. Small changes have been made to the squad with Frank Nouble the most notable arrival but they’ll be more reliant on the coaching talents of Flynn to avoid the drop.
Yeovil Town: A 20th place finish last season reflects what a struggle it was at times in the last campaign, as they find themselves down at their more natural level. Goals were a big problem last season, only Leyton Orient scored fewer and the top-scorer bagged just eight, and it’s hard to see that changing this year. The squad looks small and features a lot of young players, so another season of struggle looks to be on the cards.
It’s hard to get away from the big spenders of the division who head the market for the league title, with Mansfield and Luton probably a cut above the rest. It might just be due to my natural aversion to Steve Evans but I can’t be having Mansfield from those two, as despite an increase in spending, large scale changes to the playing squad and having a manager with a record of success at this level, they will need a big step-up from their twelfth place finish last season, which is a big ask.
LUTON TOWN on the other hand have made steady progress under Nathan Jones and only narrowly missed out on promotion last season, so with further improvements to the squad and Jones’ ideas having time to take hold, it could finally click for The Hatters and there could be potential for them to run away with the title.
There is definitely some each way value out there in this division with some of the bigger names in the league perhaps a little shorter than they should be and therefore inflating the rest of the market. Lincoln could easily continue their momentum but at 12/1 look a little short, especially compared to the 33/1 on offer for fellow promoted side Forest Green Rovers. However, the best each way value could be with Colchester United at 20/1; they are a young side but showed glimpses last season, so with a little more experience and consistency they could improve markedly, whilst I expect Mikael Mandron to score goals at this level.
At the opposite end of the table, there doesn’t look to be a great deal of value out there but Yeovil might be worth playing at 9/2.
Luton Town to Win League Two @ 6/1 (Bet365)
Colchester to Win League Two – Each Way @ 22/1 (Ladbrokes, ¼ odds 1,2,3)
Mikael Mandron to be Top Goalscorer in League Two – Each Way @ 40/1 (Bet365, ¼ odds first 4)