Poor, beleaguered Doncaster Rovers, Championship dwellers three seasons ago, start their League Two slog at one of the division’s most boisterous cauldrons. Crown Ground, an old bear-pit of a stadium, will channel a bit of Ali Sami Yen fervor on opening night to remind their fellow basement dwellers exactly why this is football’s most arduous division. For Accrington, another season in the Football League will be met with acclaim. The Lancashire club, from a town of under fifty thousand residents, have shown admirable resolve in becoming part of League Two’s furniture.
Sadly for them, that pride will be tinged with disappointment at the start of this campaign. Last season saw them finish 4th and lose out to fellow fairy-tale mercenaries Wimbledon in the playoff semifinals, a cruel end to an odd-defying campaign. Fortunately, Stanley will begin their 11th consecutive season in League Two with much of the backbone of that overachieving squad.
Stanley was rocked by a few notable departures. Piero Mingoia’s free transfer to Cambridge United leaves a hole at right wing which Benin international Romuald Boco will look to fill. Ex-Blackburn teen Luke Wall is another good option on the flank, although he is more suited to the left. Dean Winnard’s departure will be a moral setback for the club, but the newly minted Morecambe defender took a back seat during much of last term’s run up the table, collecting only 15 of his 250 Stanley caps in that time.
The departure that will wrench the heart of Stanley supporters is Josh Windass’s move to Rangers. The young attacking midfielder came into his own last season, netting fifteen goals in twenty-eight appearances to push Stanley to the brink of playoff glory. Matt Crooks will follow him north of the border to team-up with Mark Warburton in the Ger’s return to the top flight. The imposing defensive midfielder leaves a hole Coleman hopes to fill with the arrivals of Bastien Hery, Steven Hewitt, and Patrick Lacey. Former PSG youth-teamer Hery looks a good signing from Carlisle, but he will still have a tough time usurping last season’s preferred midfield pivot of Seamus Conneely and Scott Brown.
Upfront, Stanley have retained the services of striker Billy Kee, the former Northern Ireland youth international sparked into life last season with 17 goals in the league. Coleman will hope for a repeat of last season’s goal-scoring exploits, and will likely turn to McCartan to help shoulder the burden. McCartan, a left winger, and a second striker is a good fit to fill Windass’s floating role behind Kee. Terry Gornell will likely perform a backup role to Kee, the Liverpudlian failing to find the net in nine appearances last term. Promising young forwards Max Hazeldine and Brayden Shaw have chances to move past the misfiring Gornell in the pecking order, although Hazeldine made little impression in his loan spell with Stockport last season.
At the back, Tom Davies’ move to Portsmouth opens the door for newcomers Beckles and Callam Jones to step into the fold. Beckles, signing on a free from Aldershot, has performed decently in an otherwise disappointing preseason and would expect to partner Hughes come the start of the new campaign. Left back Buxton and the versatile Pearson have signed on for another year, with Frazier Shaw offering competition after a move from Leyton Orient.
John Coleman will fancy his chances taking Stanley to the unprecedented heights of League One, this time, around, and the result against Doncaster will be a good barometer for the quality of this year’s squad. In Kee they have a proven lower-league goalscorer, McCartan looks as a ready-made replacement for Windass, and their defense remains largely unchanged from last term. Against Doncaster, Coleman will likely roll out his preferred 4-4-1-1. New signing Parish looks nailed on as the side’s number one. Ahead of him, Buxton and Pearson will fill in at left back and right back respectively, although Frazier Shaw may nip in to take Buxton’s spot. Hughes is likely to partner Omar Beckles in the center of defense, with Conneely and Brown sitting ahead of them.
Sean McConville looks set to resume service in his usual role on the left wing while Boco will get a run in the first eleven on the right. McCartan will roam ahead of the midfield four, with Kee given the onus as chief-goalscorer. There is obvious pedigree in this side, Doncaster and the rest of League Two should beware as Stanley bid to defy the odds and go one better than last season.
Featured Image – All Rights Reserved by StevenRittey.
Were these Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley stars unlucky to miss PFA recognition?
It is that time of season where clubs and their players get recognised for what they have done throughout the season. The Championship, League One and League Two PFA team of the seasons were announced last week, but there isn’t space for everyone.
Here are players from each of the three Football League divisions who didn’t quite get the votes from their fellow professionals to make it into their respective teams of the year but are certainly worthy of a place.
Fernando Forestieri – Sheffield Wednesday
The Italian joined The Owls from Watford in the summer window as Carlos Carvalhal looked to build a side to battle at the top end of the Championship. It was quite a statement from Wednesday to bring someone in who wasn’t going to be cheap, but they took the gamble and it has certainly paid off.
Forestieri has certainly gone some way in showing that he was worth the gamble, as he has hit 15 goals and provided 6 assists in his 35 league appearances this season. Consequently, a top six spot is all but secured for Wednesday as they look ahead to the drama of the play-offs where the dream of returning to the Premier League could still turn into reality.
There is no doubt that the Italian has been a crucial cog in the Wednesday machine, both when asked to play out wide, as well as through the middle. No matter where he has been positioned, the goals and assists have kept on coming and he is currently the club’s top scorer this season.
He stands out like a sore thumb in the Championship due to his sheer quality on the ball, as well as his vision and end product. Crucial goals and assists in tight games against the likes of Hull, Birmingham, Cardiff, Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest have been the difference and with someone like Forestieri in your team, you know that you can rely on him when needed.
Perhaps his only downfall, though, is his discipline. He has two red cards to his name this season and both have included yellow cards for simulation. That is what he is now known for when he comes to play at other grounds – referees will take a second look at him when he goes down.
His reputation might be slightly tarnished as a result, but no one can deny him of the great campaign he has had. He has been consistent and contributed throughout, so is very unlucky not to be in the Championship Team of the Season.
Without him, Sheffield Wednesday might well be looking at a finish in the mid-ranges of the second division, rather than reaching the play-offs stages, with the Premier League still in sight.
Sam Winnall – Barnsley
After struggling to make the grade in the first team at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sam Winnall has wasted no time in making an impact in League One for Barnsley.
His 19 goals and six assists this season have been a major factor in helping the club lift themselves off the bottom of the table at Christmas time to now occupying a play-off spot.
In fact, he scored 10 goals in seven games at the turn of the New Year to really get their season back on track and they haven’t looked back since.
He had been the subject of a bid from Leeds United in the January transfer window, which was rejected, so there could be bigger and better things in the pipeline for Winnall.
The Tykes and Winnall can also boast winning a piece of silverware this season, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, where they beat Oxford 3-2 in the final at Wembley.
The two strikers in League One’s Team of the Season are Wigan’s Will Grigg and Coventry’s Adam Armstrong. You can’t really argue with Griggs’s inclusion as he is the leagues top goalscorer and is leading Wigan to the title.
However, perhaps Winnall could have a case for challenging Armstrong for his spot in the team. They have both scored 19 goals, but the Barnsley man has two more assists than the on-loan Newcastle striker.
Armstrong started the season on fire, but hasn’t scored in his last 11 games as the Sky Blues have really fallen off the pace when, at one point, it looked like they would get at least a play-off place.
But, in reality, I suppose 19 goals in a season for a 19-year-old can’t be questioned and it must’ve been a tight vote between the two for a striker spot in Team of the Year.
Billy Kee – Accrington Stanley
Kee joined Stanley on an initial 12 month contract in the summer, following a frustrating short spell with Scunthorpe United.
He has had an outstanding season so far, scoring 17 goals and contributing 14 assists, and it could get even better for the striker as the club currently occupy 2nd place in League Two and are looking good for automatic promotion.
He had some huge competition for the striking places in League Two’s Team of the Season, as the bar was set very high by the two that eventually made it, Leyton Orient’s Jay Simpson and Bristol Rovers’ Matty Taylor.
But, what can be admired most about Kee is his impressive goal tally as well as the amount of goals he provides for others as well.
He is one of the main reasons Stanley are where they are and I am sure there will be a few clubs making phone calls asking to see if Billy Kee is available for transfer this summer.
A club like Accrington Stanley need someone to step up when they are needed and Kee is certainly that man.
With Wycombe and Stevenage their final opponents this season, I wouldn’t back against Kee being the man to secure promotion to League One for them.
Have Wimbledon, Exeter and co. been the stand-out League Two sides this season?
After the annual Football League awards took place in Manchester last Sunday, it seems an appropriate time to take a retrospective look back at the current season and pick out those sides in League Two that have been a cut above the rest throughout all 46 games.
For a league that not many people bat an eyelid at most of the time, this League Two campaign has pretty much had it all; it’s had entertainment, had clubs survive from the brink of extinction, and had ex-Premier League players stamping their marks on the lower league.
Even with three games left there’s still a lot to play for, especially in the case of the battle for automatic promotion, where just two points separate second from fifth. A memorable League Two season looks set to have some last day drama to shout about – a fitting end perhaps.
Below are what I believe have been the sides that have, by their standards, had seasons to put them apart from the rest of the league.
The fairy-tale story of AFC Wimbledon began almost 15 years ago now, entailing five promotions in nine years of non-league football before reaching the heights of League Two again.
Unfortunately, in their four seasons in League Two the Dons haven’t quite been able to recapture this promotion form, narrowly avoiding relegation twice and finishing below mid-table on the other occasions.
This makes it all the more impressive then that they’re flying as high as they are this campaign. Led by perennial League Two front man Adebayo Akinfenwa, Wimbledon are four points clear in the last play-off place with a game in hand over the chasing Wycombe behind them. ‘The Beast’ himself has provided vital goals at key points this year – none more so than a last minute winner at promotion chasing Plymouth Argyle to distance themselves from the other play-off hopefuls.
It’s another striker that has been making all the headlines this season though, with Lyle Taylor topping the Wimbledon goal-scoring charts with 19 goals which, bar a horrific collapse in the last four games, have all but certainly given the Dons at least two extra games after the end of May.
Accrington Stanley have, by all accounts, exceeded any pre-season expectations by a long distance.
In their tenth year in League Two, the football league’s smallest club have launched themselves into the midst of an exciting and tense battle for automatic promotion to League One, and currently find themselves in pole position by virtue of being in second place with three to play.
With games against relegation certainties York City and lowly Stevenage to come, Accrington know that two wins will secure them a place in the highest league in the club’s relatively short re-formed history.
Stanley boss John Coleman has performed miracles to get his team playing good quality football, getting the most out of midfield duo Josh Windass and Matt Crooks (who were both recently announced in the top ten League Two players of the year) as well as striker Billy Kee.
More importantly, Coleman has had Accrington playing as a unit for the whole year, and has instilled a workmanlike mentality into a side that has pulled off the key results when needed. Big wins against promotion rivals Plymouth Argyle, Oxford United and Bristol Rovers have come since January and it’s this, combined with other promotion contenders dropping points, that have aided the club hugely in their push for League One.
If Stanley manage to see the job through and do go up to League One, it would be a very popular promotion amongst the footballing neutrals.
Why the League Two title race could go down to the wire?
Plymouth Argyle, Northampton Town, Oxford United and Portsmouth. If you picked any of these names out of a hat in an office sweepstake, you wouldn’t be left disappointed no matter who you had chosen.
That shows just how close and just how competitive the League Two season has been so far as we approach the halfway point. The race to become champions is as close as can be remembered in previous years, and has all the marks of going right down to the wire come May.
Plymouth Argyle are the side in control at the turn of the New Year, sitting three points above of Northampton Town (by virtue of playing a game more), with Oxford United filling the last of the automatic promotion places a further point back. Portsmouth, leading the chasing pack, are four points further adrift. But it’s Plymouth’s charge to the top of the league that has been as surprising and unexpected as it has been impressive; since their demise from the Championship six years ago, the Pilgrims haven’t finished above seventh in the League Two table, twice avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth.
Yet Plymouth’s form in the first half of the season hasn’t shown any signs of this past haunting them, as a Reuben Reid inspired side have dominated the league. If it wasn’t for a late November loss of form which saw them take only two points from a possible twelve, it would be hard to see anybody catching them. However, their ability to lose form in such a manner does cast questions over their title credentials; as the campaign enters its most poignant few months, another dip in results like this and they could find themselves free-falling down the table and facing a battle for the other automatic promotion places instead.
A huge game in the race for the title comes next week when Argyle face second place Northampton Town, arguably the league’s form team coming into January. The cliché of a relegation six-pointer is used frequently in football, but this game carries the same connotations; a Plymouth win and they stretch their lead over the rest of the title contenders, a Cobblers’ win and they will be level pegging with the leaders with the luxury of a game in hand.
As alluded to, Northampton’s run of nine victories in their last eleven league matches leaves them as possibly one of the most feared sides to play against at present. Chris Wilder’s men’s rise to the top is even more remarkable considering the off-field issues that the club have faced since September, and the team seems to be playing with such confidence at the moment. You only have to look at their second round FA Cup tie against non-league Northwich Victoria to see this, where three goals in the last five minutes of the game saw them overturn a two-goal deficit.
Wilder’s old side, Oxford United, are perhaps the slight underdogs out of the four, but their level of consistency in results this year leaves it hard to count them out. With star-man Kemar Roofe seemingly starting to pick up a bit of form after his stoppage time goal against Notts County, and League Two’s perennial goal scorer Danny Hylton partnering him upfront, there’s no doubt that they have the firepower to keep them in and around the top four come the end of the season. Time will tell though whether Oxford can surmount their push for the title as the season goes on, with vital games against both Northampton and Portsmouth to come over January.
Portsmouth, albeit slightly further back than the top three, came into the campaign as pre-season favourites and it would be foolish to count them out just yet. Their recent victory over Northampton, which ended the Cobblers’ unbeaten run, showed that they can easily compete with the best of the teams in the league, and their ability on the counter attack would be a problem for the best defences in League Two. Yet it’s still even too early to count out those sides chasing the top four, such as Accrington Stanley who are, to coin a phrase, hot on their heels. As the season begins to enter the final few months, they could start to pose a serious threat if one of the current top four has a dip in form.
Although Stanley may be ten points adrift of Plymouth at the top of the table, the recent storms across the country have meant that a handful of their games have fallen foul to the weather; and as a result, Stanley have three games in hand which, if victorious in them, could catapult them to within touching distance of top spot.
The latter stages of a League Two season, aside from the Christmas period, are known for being the most testing. With over 20 games left in the league, a congested fixture list becomes a problem for every club due to midweek league matches, and because of this squad rotation and depth will almost inevitably determine the outcome of the title. Forget the Premier League for a second, as we could be set for one of the closest and most dramatic title races for a long time.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Ichabod Ipswich
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