I’m pretty sure that even in Sam Allardyce’s worst nightmares from 2006, when his all-conquering Bolton Wanderers team were playing the likes of Sevilla in the UEFA Cup, he couldn’t have imagined that in 2020 they would be facing the likes of Barrow and Harrogate Town in front of an empty stadium in League Two during the midst of a global pandemic. But they are. Tellingly, though, Bolton have been proper bastards and stolen the very manager that helped Barrow to play them in the first place, Ian Evatt. His attacking style and smart recruitment with the likes of Eoin Doyle and Antoni Sarcevic should pave the way for Bolton to begin ascending back up the league ladder.
Of course, last season ended early in Leagues 1 and 2, and after a bit of jiggery pokery with points-per-game coming into view, Tranmere were also relegated to League Two along with the forlorn Southend. Neither club is looking in great shape after Micky Mellon’s departure from Rovers and Southend’s dire record last season and equally shocking financial situation. By similar means, the League Two playoff places last year were eventually occupied by Cheltenham, Exeter, Colchester and Northampton, with the latter surprising many by gaining promotion. Those that missed out will all expect to have another decent crack of the whip at promotion, particularly Cheltenham whose manager Michael Duff can now add a year’s management experience at this level to his CV.
Exeter themselves should challenge again. After years of Paul Tisdale, Matt Taylor has performed well in his first two seasons in charge as they narrowly missed out on promotion. Now, he needs to strike third time lucky. With midfielders Nicky Law and new signing Randell Williams, they should have a decent go at it. Colchester perhaps over-performed overall last season but John McGreal is a solid manager and will hope to push on again. They have a reasonably strong squad with a mixture of youth and experience, having added Paris Cowan-Hall to their attacking line-up.
Out of the other ‘bigger’ sides at this level, Bradford could come back stronger having reunited with Stuart McCall for the third time. He’s like the divorced wife they can’t help go back to when things go sour with the new beau. Walsall, who have typically stationed at a higher level in the last ten years have a decent squad and recruited early in the summer. Manager Darrell Clarke and their fans will expect a playoff push.
Forest Green Rovers are a team who seem to be making a slow and steady rise as a whole, backed by a passionate (and slightly madcap) chairman and managed by the impressive Mark Cooper. With Ebou Adams, they have the division’s standout midfield player – expect them to be strong this season. After several strong campaigns, Mansfield struggled badly last year, only narrowly escaping relegation. Having released influential captain Krystian Pearce, it could have seemed a difficult season, but they’ve recruited well – adding a range of ambitious signings, hoping it will result in a leap up the table.
In the North West, neighbours Salford and Oldham could be expected to have very different seasons. Oldham are a club going nowhere fast, apart from downhill. Despite star name Harry Kewell being appointed as manager, fans are sceptical of his quality and ability to lead them out of their malaise. Salford City, on the other hand, were progressing nicely when the season was curtailed. They have added some real quality and experience in the likes of Ian Henderson, Darron Gibson (yes, him) and Bruno Andrade.
Newport County started last season in barnstorming fashion, but collapsed in equal measure in the second half of the season. However, they do possess the highly regarded Mike Flynn as manager and some good firepower and experience up front in Padraig Amond and the newly recruited Tristan Abrahams and Ryan Taylor. Scunthorpe are a team who have recently tasted football in both League One and the Championship, but have fared much worse in the last couple of years. They have a new manager in Neil Cox, who will hope to breathe some life into the team.
Port Vale are boosted with relatively new owners, who seem determined to stabilise the club and get them promoted. With the evergreen club legend Tom Pope, despite being suspended for the first six games, now joined by the likes of Devante Rodney and Theo Robinson, I’d expect them to challenge in a stronger way than for some time. In David Worrall they have one of the league’s most creative forces, too. Leyton Orient, without having to go through the tragic turmoil that surrounded the club prior to last year, will also want to push towards the top half, but appear to still be a work in progress with a group of mainly young players and a still inexperienced Ross Embleton at the helm.
Grimsby are an interesting team, now managed by the ‘character’ that is Ian Holloway. Love him or hate him, he brings personality and verve to every club he manages, and could well push them towards challenging this season, although perhaps describing signing Bilel Moshni as ‘League Two’s Virgil Van Dijk’ was a little too much. Carlisle are a side who seem a little ‘stuck’; in League Two, in an old, uninspiring stadium – probably a little too strong to go down but not good enough to build a serious bid for promotion, it is hard to see where their goal threat will come from. Taking £750,000 from Everton for youngster Jarrod Branthwaite may just boost their coffers though, and youngster Gimi Toure looks a talent.
Crawley Town are another team who seem a little ‘stagnant’ now in their sixth successive season in League Two. Having lost their main goal threat in Ollie Palmer to Wimbledon, they might need to find a new goalscorer to have any chance of a top half finish. Morecambe came perilously close to the drop last season too, and despite having experienced boss Derek Adams at the helm, they have also lost talisman Kevin Ellison. Another season of struggle awaits for The Shrimps.
Down to East Anglia, and Cambridge United have some renewed hope after several seasons of struggle. Despite having a small and young side overall, manager Mark Bonner has added the mercurial talent of Wes Hoolahan to boost his otherwise young side. Despite being aged 38, the former Irish international should inspire his side to push on. Stevenage might feel like they don’t quite deserve to even be playing League football this season, after their reprieve due to PPG. But here they are…and possibly just delaying the inevitable. They have an inexperienced manager but some decent experience in the team with the likes of Scott Cuthbert and Romain Vincelot at the back, it remains to be seen if they can recover from a frankly dire 2019/20.
Harrogate Town enter League football for the first time in their 106-year history, and face the immediate disadvantage of having to play their home games in Doncaster, as their 3G pitch is ineligible at league level. After two promotions in three seasons to reach the league, they will be keen not to press the reverse pedal straight away. It is a big step up, but I feel the confidence of a Wembley win and excitement of promotion should maintain some momentum for the club from the town previously famous more for Betty’s Tea Shop than it’s football club.
Back to the start and Barrow. After a near on 50 year absence from league football, they’re back and now have David Dunn at the helm after Evatt’s aforementioned departure. Dunn’s previous job at Oldham ended in disaster. They have a relatively small squad still and lost the talented Randell Williams to Exeter. However they have also brought in some league experience with the likes of Mike Jones and Luke James.
With the new salary caps introduced, which I think is a good move to protect many clubs at this level, it will be interesting to see if it creates a more level playing field in time. For now, league two still has some ‘big hitters’ and minnows who should conform to that order over the course of the season. Many fans and clubs will just be hoping they can get back into their old-fashioned grounds, grab a cuppa and a pie and watch football soon enough.
H&V’s League Two Prediction