Predicting League Two is a fickle business. Who would have pegged Accrington Stanley as promotion contenders last campaign? Luton looked a sure bet to make a run at the top three but instead fell to mid-table obscurity. Perhaps the only constant is Exeter City’s mediocrity, Paul Tisdale’s questionable fashion choices providing the only touch of unpredictability to a side eternally suspended between 10th and 16th place.
This season begins with two traditional powers reduced to lowly basement dwellers looking to rebuild their tattered legacies. League Two veterans Portsmouth and newly relegated Doncaster Rovers are the bookies’ favorites to return to the glitz of League One. For now, Paul Cook and Darren Ferguson can only dream of a glamorous away day at the Ricoh Arena. They’ll have to make-do with blustery Tuesday nights at Brunton Park watching Russell Penn dive into two-footed challenges. At least Gary Roberts will relish that reunion.
Donny and Pompey are the odds-on favorites to go up next season and have recruited admirably. Duncan Ferguson’s snaring of Tommy Rowe, a talented utility man of Championship and League One pedigree, signals the intent of the Yorkshire club to make quick work of the division. Portsmouth, sick of Paul Jones’ gaffs, finally have a safe pair of hands in goal after the loan capture of Millwall’s Ireland international David Forde. The south coast club have also added Milan Lalkovic and Carl Baker, consistent performers in League One and the Championship respectively, in the hope of returning the feel-good factor to Fratton Park.
However, League Two is never kind to its preseason golden boys. Carlisle, Luton, and Leyton Orient all look strong enough to usurp the two preseason favorites for an automatic promotion spot. Carlisle have been savvy in the transfer market, improving a strong squad with the additions of the deadly Shaun Miller from Morecambe and the impressive midfield lynchpin Nicky Adams from last year’s champions Northampton. If the Cumbrians can get Jabo Ibehre firing, they look an outside bet for the title.
Luton are a changed side under Nathan Jones, and the addition of Danny Hylton from Oxford to compliment the striking talents of Craig Mackail-Smith could push the Hatters to the top of the table. The former Brighton gaffer used some Amex connections to secure the services of keeper Christian Walton and promising centre-back Glen Rea, both of whom will challenge for minutes in the first eleven. Leyton Orient managed to keep last term’s 25-goal striker Jay Simpson on board while the arrival of Jordan Massey from Colchester and Dean Cox’s return from injury mean O’s supporters will be treated to the division’s most explosive attacking triad next season.
Cambridge could also be a decent punt to challenge for a top-three spot, although playoff qualification looks more likely. Mingoia’s signing from Stanley adds a bit of continental flair on the wing for the U’s, and he will supply bullets to the convalescent Barry Corr. Plymouth, beaten play-off finalists last term, have retained the services of midfield maestro Graham Carey and hope to once again crack the top seven. The addition of David Goodwillie could provide the spark the Pilgrims desire in attack, although high player turnover could mean a disjointed start to the new season.
Although the departures of Josh Windass and Matt Crooks to Rangers damages Stanley’s creativity and steel in midfield, a solid defense and proven goalscorer in Billy Kee could keep them within a shout of the top seven. John Coleman’s men can aspire even higher if promising players like Shay McCartan can step into the shoes of his outgoing charges. Barnet and Mansfield could mount plucky assaults on the top of the table, Mansfield showcasing a surprisingly talented and creative midfield, while Barnet boast a proven goalscorer and imposing target man in John Akinde. However, both sides don’t look deep enough to withstand the relentless nature of the League Two fixture list.
Colchester aren’t as well equipped for an immediate return to League One as Doncaster, but John McGreal’s men are capable of troubling the upper end of the table if a few results go their way and their confidence builds. Tom Eastman anchors a decent defense and Denny Johnstone will want to reinvigorate his career after swapping Birmingham for East Anglia. Despite the loss of George Moncur, Colchester’s side is stable if not inspiring, a feat of management considering George Elokobi’s occasional presence in their back-four.
Grimsby return to the Football League after six years in the Conference wilderness and bring with them a squad brimming with non-league muscle. Despite the loss of key performers Padraig Amond and Aristote Nsiala to Hartlepool, Grimsby should have enough quality to be top half pretenders. Omar Bogle will provide hard running and presence up front, unusual attributes for a lower-league center forward, and at times might be bothered to score too. Behind him, Antiguan international Rhys Browne, from the far-flung Caribbean outpost of Romford, will provide a turn of pace on the flank after joining from Aldershot.
Izale McLeod, the Jermaine Defoe of lower-league football, guarantees goals for Notts County. Jonathan Forte, a recent signing from Oldham, provides the Magpies with another experienced presence in attack. John Sheridan will hope his two veteran marksmen will provide some quality mentorship to Adam Campbell, the promising England youth international who has seen his progress stall a bit over the past few seasons. Meadow Lane will also welcome Adam Collin’s move from Rotherham, the keeper was the first choice at the Championship side until last season and should be among the best netminders in the league after dropping two divisions. With no friendly against an Italian giant scheduled for this preseason, Notts can focus on glamorous results instead in what looks a promising year for the old lady of the East Midlands.
Wycombe look the most uninspiring side in the division. The long ball merchants have recruited to their strengths, however, securing the services of football’s strongest man Adebayo Akinfenwa presumably through a conversation on Whatsapp. Exeter will just about squeak into their vaunted 13th place, a welcome one spot improvement over last season, albeit with a bit more class than the Chairboys. Paul Tisdale’s charges lost Tom Nichols to Peterborough last winter and have replaced the striker with Wolves youngster Liam McAlinden and Cambridge veteran Robbie Simpson. The follically challenged coach is also encouraging promising youngsters Ollie Watkins and Jamie Reid to step up, presumably in the hope of flogging them to a middling League One side in January and reinvesting in a new fedora.
Hartlepool have done an impressive job of convincing Grimsby’s top performers to swap the newly promoted Lincolnshire club for County Durham and all the trappings of Victoria Park. Despite these positives, Hartlepool remains a squad thin on creativity and shouldn’t trouble the true contenders this year. Newly promoted Cheltenham Town have also gotten themselves a top Conference marksman in Dan Holman, signed last January from Colchester after a prolific spell on loan at Woking, and their solid squad should secure a mid-table finish. Stevenage have done decent business in bringing in veteran winger Jobi McAnuff from Orient and hope for progression from young forward Rowan Liburd, prolific at the reserve level for Reading. The club will likely experience another season treading water after relegation from League One in 2014.
Morecambe, despite the arrival of Dean Winnard from Stanley, looks desperately short of firepower and defensive stability. The departure of Shaun Miller to Carlisle robbed Jim Bentley’s men of their one true goalscoring asset. The Shrimpers are the odds-on favorites to succumb to the drop, and look hopeless going into the season. Only utter incompetence from fellow relegation favorites Crawley and Newport can save the Lancaster club from the Conference, a possibility given the failure of either club to recruit impact players.
Blackpool are a promotion outsider in the eyes of the bookies, however, the well-documented turbulence at Bloomfield Road means the Oyston’s pet project will likely be scrapping closer to the bottom of the Football League than aspiring toward an instant return to League One. Encouragingly, Colin Doyle’s much-vaunted sale to Bradford has provided a war chest for Gary Bowyer to mold a side in his image. Huish Park, once the stomping ground of a prolific Paddy Madden and Gary Johnson, will be treated to far more meager fare this season.
At least the Yeovil faithful will be able to amuse themselves betting on Omar Sowunmi’s starting position, the massive 20-year-old splits time between centre-back and centre-forward. Crewe are another side who have seen better days. Ignominiously slipping out of League One in 24th place with few homegrown players coming through, the talent flow from the Chesire La Masia looks to have run dry.
While favorite sons Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood go from strength to strength, Crewe find themselves desperately short on talent and acknowledging the prospect of a relegation dogfight at the foot of the Football League. The side should have enough stoicism to ward off the flirtations of the Conference, their likely survival as much a virtue of sharing a division with Morecambe, Crawley Town, and a team managed by Warren Feeney as it is a testament to human perseverance.
Five Players to Watch
Finally, the ex-Arsenal man delivered on his undoubted talent, netting an impressive 25 goals in his breakout season last term. Now 27, the journeyman forward looks to have found a home at Leyton Orient and will be key if they are to deliver on pre-season expectation. While consistency isn’t his forte, Simpson showed his quality is far too great for League Two defenses. A manager can never be sure what they’ll get from the striker, his spell at Buriram United in Thailand yielding a single goal, but Simpson looks settled at Brisbane Road and content tearing apart inferior opposition.
The catalyst of Stanley’s run up the league table last year, the Northern Irishman will have even more responsibility on his shoulders this campaign. The departure of some key attacking players puts more onus on the 25-year-old frontman to provide the cutting edge in the final third. John Coleman will hope for a 20-goal season from his striker, something not out of the question after Kee hit 17 last year while in an attacking tandem with Josh Windass. It will be interesting to see how Kee will cope with the responsibility of sole attacking focal point. If Stanley can get it right with their main man they could turn heads yet again this season.
Plymouth’s playoff aspirations rest on the shoulders of their creator in chief, and Derek Adams has performed a minor miracle in keeping him at Home Park. The Pilgrim’s number 10 is blessed with poise in the final third, a rare trait in this route-one division. His presence allows Plymouth to play through him and create gaps in opposition rear-guards more comfortable with aerial battles than tactical sparring. Serving as a wingback at Huddersfield and St Mirren helped hone his deadly crossing ability, an asset used to great effect by the roaming midfielder who tends to drift out left. His deadly set-pieces are among the best in the division, the reigning League Two Fans’ Player of the Year’s nuances showing shades of a lower-league Dimitri Payet.
Now 32, Portsmouth’s main man has a point to prove. Division champion in 2014 alongside manager Paul Cook at Chesterfield, the winger followed his boss to Portsmouth in 2015 hoping to repeat the trick. Things did not go quite as planned on the south coast for the hotly-tipped duo, but a summer of reflection after playoff semi-final agony could mean a reinvigorated Roberts. Nearing the end of a decorated lower-league career, the winger doesn’t want his move to Pompey to be a blot on his admirable record. Portsmouth are even more fancied for promotion this campaign, and one feels that a vintage Roberts will give the division one last encore before departing into the League One sunset.
Another Portsmouth old head, Baker’s signing is a coup for Paul Cook’s side. A perennial starter at recently relegated Championship side MK Dons, Baker’s decision to drop two divisions to rejoin his former boss is a testament to Pompey’s renewed financial muscle and imperishable historical stature. Cook will bring composure to the Portsmouth attack, and Fratton Park will purr at his every touch. Capable of dictating the play from the wing or attacking midfield, the thirty-three-year-old will be a class above his League Two contemporaries. Baker’s move south represents his last major payday, but one feels he’s also playing for his legacy. What a last act it would be to help propel the fallen giants back into the upper reaches of the Football League.
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