Controversially, when League One was curtailed back in May, it threw up some bizarre positional changes that ultimately affected both promotion and relegation. Wycombe Wanderers jumped from 8th to 3rd, simultaneously paving the way for a fairytale ‘against-the-odds’ promotion to the Championship for the first time, and enraging Peterborough owner Darragh McAnthony, whose side moved to 7th and outside the playoff places altogether. Coventry were promoted to the Championship and Rotherham performed their once every other year return to that level. I imagine there’s every chance we will be previewing their season back here next year again…
At the other end of the table, Tranmere were relegated based on the PPG algorithm. A ‘mutant’ one, perhaps? Alongside financially stricken Bolton and sorry Southend, they went to League Two. Let’s also spare a thought for Bury fans, whose side went out of existence, a really sorry state of affairs which could only be the start of much turmoil in lower level football since the Coronavirus affected all our lives.
So, to this season, and we already have tales of financial hardship, dodgy owners and the newly enforced salary caps for clubs to deal with. I agree with the salary caps, it should force more clubs to live within their means and create a level playing field, whilst giving young players opportunities to make it in the game. But what will it mean for the 2020/21 league season.
Let’s start with Peterborough, a club I greatly admire for their opportunistic signings of lower league or non-league players. Sadly for them, this season will be without the 26-goal Ivan Toney, last year’s standout player, who has moved to Brentford in the hope of Premier League football in the not-to-far distant future. He leaves behind though, a more than capable squad including attackers Mo Eisa, Jonson Clarke-Harris signed from divisional rivals Bristol Rovers, and one of the division’s standout players in Siriki Dembele. With recruitment taking place throughout the squad, we can expect Peterborough to push on and make Darragh MacAnthony’s intriguing Twitter posts even more interesting, if that’s possible.
Oxford missed out in a play-off final that, on paper, they should have won. Despite this, they have kept most of their squad together aside from Rob Dickie. Manager Karl Robinson is experienced, if not always ultimately successful, at this level and the permanent return of talisman Matty Taylor has proved popular with fans. Portsmouth were another to miss out in the playoffs, for a second season in a row. A third missed opportunity, or poor early season form, could see the end of manager Kenny Jackett, whose star is starting to fade for many Pompey fans. They have kept the bulk of their squad together for another push, but much will depend on getting the best out of John Marquis, in my opinion a player who I have always thought could play at a higher level, but had an inconsistent goalscoring record in 2019/20.
Fleetwood make up the triumvirate of teams missing out on promotion via the playoffs. Joey Barton has well and truly cut his managerial teeth now, and the way he has progressed the Cod Army has been impressive. They have retained experienced goalscorers Ched Evans and Paddy Madden, and have added classy midfielder Callum Camps from Rochdale. Expect them to run close once more. Having just missed out on the playoffs last time round, Sunderland will be hoping to return to the Championship this time around. There’s no doubt that on paper they have the squad (and experienced manager in Phil Parkinson) to do it, but sometimes togetherness is more important and until they can get the ownership issues and the whole club is pushing together, I can see a further season of ‘nearlies’ for the Black Cats.
Usually, we might expect to see teams relegated from the Championship to feature among the promotion favourites, but each of these clubs are in turmoil this time around. Charlton have ongoing ownership issues, resulting in losing the crown jewels such as Lyle Taylor and Tom Lockyer. Further departures are expected, although recruiting Alex Gilbey from MK Dons is a smart move. Lee Bowyer has done an outstanding job despite choppy waters, and out of the three to go down, they are best positioned to at least not struggle down the bottom end of the table. Hull unsurprisingly went on an abysmal run last season after the sales of Kamil Grosicki and Jarrod Bowen. Manager Grant McCann had his hands somewhat tied, nonetheless it was a fall of epic proportions for a team that found themselves 8th in December. Another club seemingly tied up and gagged my madcap owners, it is hard not to feel for their fans. The saving grace may be a range of players who are good enough for this level – George Honeyman, Tom Eaves, Josh Magennis and Martin Samuelsen to name but a few.
Wigan can probably lay claim to the dubious crown of ‘most fucked relegated side,’ – at the time of writing we are not even sure if they will survive and exist in the 2020/21 season, which would be a shame given their recent exploits in the Premier League and FA Cup. It always seemed likely the halcyon days weren’t going to last forever, but the ownership issue is a disgrace, and something that needs looking at by the FA. Speaking as someone who has visited the DW on several occasions, I have always found their fans warm and welcoming, and I hope a resolution is found. Having sold the likes of Cedric Kipre, Antonee Robinson, Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore, perhaps the best they can hope for is surviving – as a football club and in League One.
For Ipswich, it is perhaps an unexpected second season in League One, after they got off to a barnstorming start to last season under Paul Lambert. However, a sharp decline left them languishing in 11th. Their squad is clearly capable at this level, particularly if they hold onto starlets Luke Woolfenden and Flynn Downes. It remains to be seen if they have the stomach or stamina to perform consistently over the whole season. Lincoln, under Michael Appleton, will expect a higher finish this year. Liam Bridcutt is a smart signing who brings experience and leadership, and the pair of Toms, Scully and Hopper, will hope to fill the void left by Tyler Walker’s loan spell ending.
Blackpool are finally able to see the light ahead now Karl Oysten’s toxic ownership is becoming a more distant memory. Their inexperienced manager Neil Critchley is in the ‘unknown’ category; given his experience at Liverpool it could be a masterstroke. Having lost the goals or Armand Gnanduilliet, their transfer activity appears smart on paper. They’ve signed ex- Man Utd full back Demetri Mitchell and attacking duo Jerry Yates and Keshi Anderson. They find themselves probably a little short of a strong promotion push, but consolidation won’t be a disgrace for a club that has needed some stability.
Kieran Sadlier’s departure leaves a gaping hole in Doncaster’s front line, with the talented Irishman joining Yorkshire rivals Rotherham this summer. Manager Darren Moore is well liked by Rovers’ fans and he enjoyed a decent first season, finishing 9th. Having taken punts on strikers Fejiri Okenabirhie and Congolese Jason Lokilo, it remains to be seen whether they will challenge nearer the top again. Erstwhile veteran James Coppinger has signed for another season, the 39-year-olds experience will help those around him. Gillingham, under League One’s omnipresent Steve Evans, face a tough task surrounded by clubs with bigger budgets and better players. But the Gills are Evans kind of club, an underdog which he will try and get a tune out of. Stuart O’Keefe and Jacob Mellis are strong midfielders, but it is hard to see where the goals are coming from in a small squad.
Of the promoted teams, expect both Swindon and Plymouth to stay up and make steady progress. Despite Swindon losing top scorer Eoin Doyle to Bolton, highly-rated manager Richie Wellens has recruited well, getting players in who should adapt to his style such as Jack Payne and Hallam Hope. Last year’s loan star Diallang Jaiyesemi has signed from Norwich on a free transfer. Brett Pitman is also an excellent and astute acquisition. Plymouth also have a well-respected manager, Ryan Lowe, who has won consecutive promotions from League Two with different clubs. Journeyman striker Franck Nouble is an awkwardly effective physical presence, but Danny Mayor, Ben Reeves and loan recruit Ryan Hardie are good technical players who should help keep Argyle in the goals.
Crewe were another club to win promotion to the third tier under bespectacled boss David Artell. Typical for the Railwaymen, they have a bunch of young academy starlets who should make the step up like Perry Ng and Charlie Kirk, who despite their tender years have racked up plenty of career appearances already. Add the experience of Olly Lancashire, Daniel Powell and returning hero Luke Murphy, Alex could well surprise a few ‘bigger’ sides this year. Finally, Northampton make up the new sides at this level. Few would have expected their promotion, and few will expect their survival. However, they dealt with playoff pressure well with an impressive win against more-fancied Exeter and boss Keith Curle has years of experience in the lower leagues. Nicky Adams and Sam Hoskins are consistent midfielders of quality, and Curle has used the loan market well, recruiting Luka Racic and Joe Nuttall. Keen an eye out too for Benny Ashley-Seal, signed from Wolves, who scored plenty at youth levels.
MK Dons were indebted to Russell Martin, their talented young manager, for turning their season around and avoiding relegation. He has managed to use his contacts well, getting Louis Thompson and Carlton Morris from Norwich for second loan spells, as well as signing veteran Richard Keogh from Derby. It’s doubtful Dons will rise too high up the table, but Martin should keep them stable. Bristol Rovers will be reeling from the departure of pacey frontman Clarke-Harris and in Ben Garner, they have a manager whose inexperience showed last term. Jack Baldwin could be a key signing, whose experience alongside Ed Upson could be key for The Gas.
Shrewsbury, under Sam Ricketts, enjoy a sixth consecutive season in League One, which is a good feat in itself. Oliver Norburn is an attacking midfielder I admire, capable of grabbing important goals. In Jason Cummings and Daniel Udoh, they have a good potential strike partnership, although they will want to bag more goals than last season if the Shrews are to avoid a struggle. Rochdale have lost long-serving striker and captain to Ian Henderson as they try to balance the books post-Covid. They will miss his goals and influence for sure. Boss Brian Barry-Murphy has credit in the tank and will rely on the likes of Matt Done and Oliver Rathbone for the kind of quality to keep them in the division.
Accrington Stanley continue to confound the doubters and stay in League One level, claiming several scalps along the way under John Coleman’s long-term stewardship. Coleman has utilised the loan market well, bringing in attackers Tom Allan and Ryan Cassidy. Young striker Colby Bishop came of age last season, grabbing 12 goals to keep Stanley up. He might need to do the same again to keep them up.
Burton forlornly had to let Nigel Clough leave as manager and bona-fide club legend due to club finances. Just how much his leadership will be missed remains to be seen as they turn to rookie former player Jake Buxton. They have plenty of experience across the pitch in striker Lucas Akins, midfielder Jon-Joe O’Toole and defender Neal Eardley, and they will rely on these more canny players to see them through what could be a tough season. AFC Wimbledon will temporarily play at Loftus Road whilst the new Plough Lane is tested for safety, and fans will be delighted at their return to their spiritual home. They will hope to bring back the spirit of yesteryear, but in reality it could be tough for them. Glyn Hodges managed well to scrape League One survival last season. In Will Nightingale and Callum Reilly they have classy midfielders and new signing Ollie Palmer needs to provide a big goal threat.
After a calamitous season in League One last time round, bookended by the expulsion of Bury and the PPG fiasco, all many fans of the sides will hope for is a more calm season. With many under financial pressure, it will be interesting to see which teams can rise above it and have a successful season.
League One Final Table Prediction 2020/21