On the back of yesterday’s Championship preview, here are our thoughts on Leagues One and Two.
League One Winners/Promotion
Back to back relegations have seen Sunderland slip into the third tier of English football and a lot has happened at the Stadium of Light since May.
Stewart Donald lead a consortium into buying the club off Ellis Short, so it’s fresh beginnings for the club off the pitch, which will be welcomed by the fans.
Donald has experience of owning football clubs having owned Eastleigh and he bought shares in Oxford United back in 2015.
They quickly appointed Jack Ross as manager from St Mirren and have gone about rebuilding their squad.
The Black Cats will be boosted by the parachute payments they’ll still receive and so far they’ve undergone a bit of an overhaul in terms of shifting the aging players on big wages.
John O’Shea, Billy Jones, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Jack Rodwell have all left along with Paddy McNair, Wahbi Khazri and Callum McManaman meaning Ross has had to dip into the well.
Experienced defender Glenn Loovens has joined on a free along with Dylan McGeouch, Reece James and Tom Flanagan. They’ve paid fees for Jerome Sinclair, Luke O’Nien, Jack Baldwin and yesterday they bought Charlie Wyke from Bradford.
Those are a few good signings for the club with Wyke getting 15 goals and seven assists last season for Bradford and Baldwin is another excellent player in this league.
They are building a good squad but I don’t think there’s much scope in their price in backing them to win the league or get promoted, so I’d be happy enough to swerve them at the prices.
I’d be looking towards a few teams that did well in this league last season but just failed in either getting promoted or making the play-off’s.
The first of those is Southend, who improved under Chris Powell when he replaced Phil Brown.
Powell took over in January and in this division, only Plymouth took more points than the Shrimpers during the closing months of the campaign.
Towards the end of the season, they kept eight clean sheets in their last 12 league games, so are strong defensively and having kept hold of their backline, including keeper Mark Oxley then they should be difficult to beat.
This squad has a fine blend of experience and youth with the likes of Simon Cox leading the line, he bagged ten goals last season, Michael Kightly operating down one side while Anton Ferdinand and Michael Turner can marshal that defensive line.
With 18-year-old Dru Yearwood taking some of the burden off in midfield and 23-year-old Harry Lennon able to cover at the back then this team is taking shape.
Throw in the strong Timothee Dieng plus younger forwards in Tom Hopper and Sam Barratt then there is a lot to like about the squad Powell is assembling.
Plymouth narrowly missed out on the play-off’s but had a really good middle part of the season.
From the start of December until the end of March, they played 19 games and lost just twice to Charlton and promoted Wigan respectively.
Derek Adams has kept the majority of his squad intact and he’s finally got his man in getting goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne on loan.
They’re a strong side in midfield with David Fox, Jamie Ness and Antoni Sarcevic with Graham Carey likely to run to the show.
The Pilgrims look set for another solid season but the slight doubt about them is the lack of a goalscorer.
Ryan Taylor is a menace to opposition defences but just nine goals scored in the last two seasons isn’t a great record.
That puts pressure on those around him to take chances that fall their way and if they want to go a few places better this time around then they may need to get another body in through the door.
Portsmouth were below Plymouth last season but they have got a goalscoring presence up front with Brett Pitman.
Pitman netted 24 goals last season and with Ollie Hawkins chipping in then they will be thereabouts once more.
Kenny Jackett is a shrewd operator at this level but progress on the pitch is steady and looking at their squad there could be too much reliance on youth in midfield areas.
Pompey’s problem last season is they didn’t know how to draw or shut a game out. They drew just six of 46 games and let leads slip in crucial games. It has to be a worry this time around too given the youthfulness in this team.
Charlton started the season with Karl Robinson in charge but he was gone by the end of the season with Lee Bowyer and Johnnie Jackson steering the ship.
They lost in the play-off’s to the surprise package in Shrewsbury and it could be a difficult season for the fans at the Valley following a number of last season’s loanees moving elsewhere.
The squad may be weaker on paper but the experience of Darren Pratley could prove pivotal in midfield while signing Lyle Taylor from AFC Wimbledon after he scored 18 last season will help the goalscoring burden with Billy Clarke and Nicky Ajose.
Tarique Fosu was a revelation in the early part of last season when having scored eight goals by October. If he can continue his improvement and development, he could prove a key player along with Jake Forster-Caskey.
Robinson is now at Oxford and they are an outside bet in making the play-off’s this time around despite finishing 16th last season.
He steadied the ship when he replaced Pep Clotet and he’s built a much better squad this time around.
Jamie Mackie will work hard in forward positions while Jonathan Obika has enjoyed a fine pre-season, so there is quality and goals in the forwards.
Luke Garbutt is a good player and should thrive in this set-up while midfielders Samir Carruthers and James Henry add creation plus mobility.
Robinson could be on to something with this side and if they are able to play on the front foot in games then they could well be thereabouts come May. A Top 6 Finish (5/1 – Betfair/Paddy Power) looks to be the way to go with them.
Southend to be Promoted: 17/2 – Betfair/Paddy Power
League One Relegation
There are two prime candidates to look at this time around and both finished just above the drop last season.
Walsall are the first side to consider after losing their star man Erhun Oztumer. The Turk scored 15 goals and got seven assists last season, so was influential in all the Saddlers did well in the attacking third.
When you look at forwards in this squad then there is likely to be a reliance on Andy Cook, who signed from Tranmere.
The 27-year-old has been excellent in the National League but this is a big step up so I doubt that he can repeat his past four seasons where he has scored 20+ goals in each.
They struggled at the back last season shipping 66 goals and they’ll need someone to partner veteran centre-back Jon Guthrie to lower the damage this season.
When they replaced Jon Whitney with Dean Keates, the board and fans would have expected an upturn in fortunes but that didn’t really happen.
Keates has a very youthful squad and that reliance on youngsters could be problematic with the lack of experience.
I look at this side and question where the quality is going to come from, so it could be a long season for Walsall supporters.
The other team that looks bound for a dismal campaign is AFC Wimbledon.
It has been a fine journey to reach the third tier but a drop back to the fourth looks on the cards with their lack of depth being a real worry.
The fact that two of their key players last season aren’t there is another concern for Neal Ardley’s side.
Keeper George Long returned to his parent club while top scorer Lyle Taylor, who had a hand in 20 goals last season has moved to Charlton.
Take Taylor’s goals and assists away from what they scored last season then they would have only bagged a measly 27 as a team and their route one approach could see them caught out in games this season.
With them not scoring enough the burden this season falls on James Hanson, who has had a difficult few seasons himself. Just 14 appearances in two seasons with Sheffield United saw him end last season with Bury, where he failed to net in 17 appearances.
They have a few good midfielders at this level with Tom Soares, Liam Trotter and Anthony Wordsworth but the style of play doesn’t necessarily see them in their best light, so a change of approach could be one that takes time to work out, so there has to be real fears about the Wombles.
Accrington Stanley are understandably favourites for an immediate return to League 2 given they have one of the smallest budgets in the Football League.
John Coleman is a shrewd operator and will make his side difficult to beat but they do lack depth, which could catch them out.
There are bright sparks in this team like Billy Kee, who has bagged 55 league goals over the last three seasons while they have battlers in the middle of the park that will keep them in games.
I wouldn’t be surprised if their home form managed to keep them up but I definitely prefer to be backing others at bigger prices.
AFC Wimbledon to be Relegated: 5/2
League Two Winners/Promoted
This is a division where the sides who made or narrowly missed out on the previous seasons play-off’s go well and that can be said about Lincoln.
The Cowley brothers have continually tried to improve the squad and build season on season and that has been the case this time around.
The Imps finished seventh last season before losing to Exeter in the play-off semi-final and look set for another sound season.
Last season they had Scott Wharton on loan from Blackburn who excelled and they’ve managed to get him in on a permanent deal, which boosts continuity in the squad.
Goals came from Matt Green (13) and Matt Rhead (8) but now they’ve added John Akinde, who is excellent at this level, and Bruno Andrade will chip in with goals from midfield after getting 22 for Boreham Wood in the National League last season.
They’ve added strength to areas where they lacked it last year and now with the experience of losing out in the play-off’s, they’ll be stronger and more determined to make sure they get into the automatic spots this time around.
Notts County are expected to be thereabouts and everyone knows what Kevin Nolan’s side is about after last season’s play-off disappointment but one side that got relegated that I keep seeing being written off is Bury.
Ryan Lowe didn’t exactly hit the ground running when he took over as manager and the club is operating on a shoestring budget but there are players in this squad that could play at a higher level.
Up front, the likes of Byron Moore, Jermaine Beckford (if staying fit) and summer recruit Chris Dagnall can all scored goals at this level. Dagnall got 21 in two seasons at a Crewe side that finish in mid to low table.
The signing of Dom Telford from Stoke gives them a bit of youthfulness to the attack and he’s a young player that should do well in League 2.
The combative Stephen Dawson in midfield with Neil Danns and Jay O’Shea gives you plenty of experience. If the quality can come from some of the younger players around them then they could well be in for a very fruitful season.
Chris Stokes coming in from Coventry helps sure up that backline and with what they have in other areas of the pitch, then there are plenty of ticks in the right boxes for this Bury side.
If Ryan Lowe gets a formation that works well from the outset and gets the confidence flowing then I do believe they will make the play-off’s at the worst.
Lincoln to be Promoted: 9/4 – Betway
Bury to Finish Top 7: 7/4 – Bet365/Sky Bet
League Two Relegation
It’s a tough call for the two relegation places this time around given there are plenty of cases that can be made for certain clubs.
Macclesfield won the National League quite cosily in the end last season but manager John Askey has gone to Shrewsbury, so the change in manager could be a slight worry.
Mark Yates did well in keeping Solihull Moors in the National League but this is a much sterner test.
Incoming signings have given a hint that they’ll look to play direct football. Michael Rose is a solid addition from Morecambe while Nathan Blissett has joined permanently after his loan last season.
You look at their squad and worry about its lack of depth on paper, so the Silkmen may not have the smoothest of campaigns on the return to the Football League.
You’d imagine both Morecambe and Yeovil will feature in the lower third of the League 2 table once more, especially the latter who have a limited squad and don’t spend a lot of money.
With Yeovil, lots of talk suggests that defender Tom James will be on his way out of Huish Park and if they lose him then that will be a huge blow, so they look set to struggle.
However, I’m taking a chance on Newport County’s run in the Football League coming to an end.
Michael Flynn did well stabilising the club but they struggled following their FA Cup exit at the hands of Tottenham.
They won one in four from February and they look a midfield-heavy based side that with a few older midfielders will need pace around them not to be exposed.
Paddy Amond and Jamal Matt will have the burden of pressure in terms of scoring the goals. Amond got 13 last season but top scorer Frank Nouble has gone to Colchester.
They had a threat from set-pieces but also long-throws and with Ben Tozer going to Cheltenham, they’ve lost that angle of attack.
With those aging players, the legs will start to tire as the games get later and the longer the season grows, so they could be a side that starts well and fades.
There is enough concern about this side in terms of balance in backing them to drop down.
Cheltenham are the weird side. They were 17th last season and reliant on the goals of Mohamed Eisa, who kept them safe.
Eisa has moved to Bristol City, so those goals won’t be there and with Gary Johnson in charge, I feel that his ‘old school’ approach is one that many teams can counter in this day and age.
It’s hard to make a lot of pre-season but four games and four defeats with 13 goals conceded has to be a worry for Robins fans going into the start of a new campaign.
Ben Tozer is a good signing for them at the back but they don’t look to have enough goals in the side.
30-year-old Brian Graham got five in 27 appearances last season for them and hasn’t hit double figures since 2012/13 when in the Scottish Championship with Raith.
It just looks like a goal-shy side on paper, while the midfield doesn’t scream too much creativity.
Last season they had a good spell where they went five games unbeaten in February and March, which was enough to keep them up because after that run, they lost seven of their final eight games.
There is obviously still time in the transfer window to add to your squads and I’m sure Johnson will know a striker is a must but as it stands, they’ll be built to keep clean sheets and defend rather than scoring, which is a dangerous mentality.
Newport County to be Relegated: 8/1 - Various
Cheltenham to be Relegated: 9/1 – Ladbrokes/William Hill
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