I follow all standards of football, but I’m probably most qualified to talk about League One and Two. My club, Oldham Athletic, is about to embark on their 20th consecutive season in the third division. I’ve seen us play hundreds of times against future Premier League winners, and clubs that are no longer in existence. Check out my preview of Oldham’s season here.
Here, I’ve put together some predictions for who I think will be involved in the races for promotion, the play-offs, and for relegation in Leagues One and Two. I’ve looked at the bookie’s prices to find some tips – but these bets probably have as much chance of coming in as Oldham have of finally getting out of League One!
The third tier is notorious for keeping big clubs from getting promotion back to the Championship. In recent years, Leeds, Charlton, Coventry and both Sheffield clubs have struggled to return to the second tier at the first attempt. However, clubs like Leicester and Southampton have used a stay in League One to lay the foundations for a rise to the top of the Premier League. Likewise, Wigan, Swansea and Bournemouth slowly built teams in League One before establishing themselves in the top division.
League One isn’t just a holding pen for bigger clubs while they sort themselves out. Burton surprised everyone and gained a second successive promotion last season, while clubs like Rochdale are enjoying the best spell in their history at this level. However, the third tier is tough – you have to be strong and organised to get out. I’ve found this out the hard way, as my club Oldham have been residents in the third tier for 20 years straight.
Millwall lost the play-off final to the unstoppable force of Barnsley last season, but manager Neil Harris should go one better this time. The New Den is a notoriously hard place to go, and Millwall have Lee Gregory and Steve Morison who got over 40 goals between them last season.
Bradford have lost manager Phil Parkinson, but they have appointed familiar face Stuart McCall in his place. Having sneaked into the play-offs last season, McCall is backed by new owners and over 17,000 season tickets at Valley Parade. Bradford play a physical and organised game, which is exactly what is required to get out of League One.
Charlton should be looking at automatic promotion, but off-field problems between fans and owners will probably undermine their season. Despite that, a combination of Russell Slade as manager with Nicky Ajose and Lee Novak upfront will be enough for at least a play-off finish. Similarly, Sheffield United have two matchwinners in Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke upfront. I’m unconvinced by Chris Wilder’s appointment though – Sheffield United have completely different expectations to previous club Northampton, and Blades fans will turn on Wilder as soon as anything starts to go wrong.
Completing the play-offs should be MK Dons and Coventry. As much as everyone dislikes MK Dons, they have a good squad for this division. Similarly, Coventry have slowly rebuilt a squad to challenge the top 6, while Tony Mowbray is an experienced and respected manager for this level.
In with a shout of the top six will be Rochdale, who are a close and talented squad well managed by Keith Hill, and Peterborough, who should do well under Grant McCann.
Walsall, who so nearly got automatic promotion last year, have lost top scorer Tom Bradshaw and midfield man Romaine Sawyers, and I can’t see them making the grade again. The bookies have Bolton as favourites for promotion, but this is another club with problems that will probably result in a few years at this level. Phil Parkinson will ensure they don’t suffer another relegation though.
Oxford have lost influential players Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda. Without adequate replacements, they will struggle. Port Vale have seen an influx of foreign players join new manager Bruno Ribiero – it might work in the Championship, but history suggests it’s a recipe for disaster.
Bury have lost key players Peter Clarke and Leon Clarke, and were close to falling into the relegation picture last season. Wimbledon have done well to reach this level, but it will probably be a step to far. Saying that, everyone said exactly the same thing about Burton last season, so who knows what Wimbledon are capable of.
There are a few good options for top scorer, but I’d look no further than Nicky Ajose (9/1) or Lee Gregory (10/1). Behind them, Billy Sharp, Leon Clarke, and Paddy Madden are all priced between 8/1 and 9/1, while Nicky Maynard and Matty Taylor could be worth an each-way bet at 16/1.
Bradford are a very generous 4/1 for promotion, while Oxford are 12/1 for relegation. AFC Wimbledon are 12/1 to repeat Burton’s success and gain promotion, and they are 40/1 to win the league outright. Stranger things have happened.
I enjoy League Two – what it lacks in quality, it more than makes up in excitement, passion, and unpredictability. Burton, Stevenage and Crawley will tell you it’s the place to gain successive promotions, while Tranmere might tell you of their successive relegations. Other clubs, like Portsmouth or Notts County, will lament the time it’s taken them to leave the division.
Last season, League Two’s unpredictability struck again. Accrington were stoppage time away from an unlikely automatic promotion, while Wimbledon upset favourites Plymouth in the play-off final to make it to League One. This all happened as Northampton ran away with the division with ease.
This should be Portsmouth’s year. They have a strong squad backed by thousands od fans just happy to still have their club. Now, they’ll be looking to climb back up the leagues. Doncaster suffered an embarassing relegation last season, but have a manager and squad who should have enough about them to get back to League One at the first attempt. Leyton Orient have made some impressive signings, and manager Andy Hessenthaler is a good appointment.
Plymouth came so close last year, and should be competitive again. Notts County have an experience manager in John Sheridan who dropped down a division to take over at Meadow Lane. He won’t be intending to spend more than a season in League Two. Crewe have a young squad who will probably be reinvigorated by relegation. They were easily beaten in League One, but the fourth tier should allow them to play with freedom again. Finally, the loss of key players like Josh Windass won’t cause Accrington’s team spirit to disappear just yet. Expect them to surprise again.
Newport and Stevenage are my tips for relegation. League Two is tough, and another season of struggle for both teams could prove too much. Just look at York and Dagenham last season.
Jay Simpson is the bookies favourite for top goalscorer (9/1), but Doncaster’s Andy Williams is tempting at 11/1 if he can stay fit. Similarly, Jonathon Forte will score goals at this level, but is a player plagued with injuries. This is reflected in his 50/1 price.
My outside tip would be Curtis Main for Portsmouth. He was a key player in helping my club Oldham escape relegation last season and scored crucial goals to reward his endless hard work. If Portsmouth are going for promotion, expect Main to be in the goals.
Notts County are generously priced at 6/1 for promotion, while Accrington and Crewe are both 5/1 to reach play-offs. Curtis Main is priced between 25/1 and 66/1 for top goalscorer, so is definitely worth backing him each-way at the very least.