My Ultimate Championship predictions – League Two
Reminder: the deadline for Ultimate Championship predictions (for the Premier and Football Leagues) is Friday 17th August at midnight. Entries will be accepted after but will be subject to points penalties.
League Two, the all-important league for myself on a personal level. Always unpredictable, and yet there is a rough hierarchy which most teams usually slot into, although there are a couple of floaters (Torquay, for instance) and always a couple of teams that don’t fit the patterns. Calls here will range from spot on to “oh fuck”. But at least this year I won’t get any abuse from Hereford fans.
1. Rotherham United – #whoatealltheplayers
New stadium, new manager, new players. Rotherham are favourites for a reason, Mr Evans. After a huge spending spree in which they added some solid League Two players to what was already a solid squad. After a few years at the dire Don Valley Stadium in neighbouring Sheffield, which must have put off a few hundred fans at least, it seems the club is banking on the New York Stadium being a hit. I think it will. Promotion at least.
2. Southend United – #bilelmohsniisatwat
This smacks as a bit of a safe choice, since form from season to season tends to vary, but given that Southend have assembled arguably the best strike-force in the division, it’s hard to look past them as promotion contenders. Building on a successful campaign last season under the experienced (some would say wily, if they wanted to include as many clichés as possible) Paul Sturrock, you’d fancy them to go one better this time as Shrewsbury did last year.
3. Bristol Rovers – #thegasworks
A bit of a gamble. Rovers, who I tipped for promotion last year, had a disastrous first half of the season, leading to the dismissal of Paul Buckle. Mark McGhee was entrusted with turning around the poor form and he did so, recovering the Pirates to a safe mid-table position. Since then, it has been about rebuilding (again). Buckle signings like Mustapha Carayol (to Middlesbrough) and Chris Zebroski (to Cheltenham) have gone out for differing reasons, and he has added to the squad. They could be contenders, though this time it would be a bit of a surprise.
4. Gillingham – #youaintnothingbutamaddog
Like him or not, Martin Allen gets results, and results are what Paul Scally wants right now. After a couple of near-misses, club hero Andy Hessenthaler has been sacked again, and Allen, a controversial, divisive figure in lower league football, has been brought in after a harsh dismissal at Notts County last year. You would think they’ll be in the play-offs this time.
5. Oxford United – #odear
Speaking from experience, Chris Wilder has once again made Oxford a difficult place for visiting teams to get results. These days they are one of those teams you would pencil in for at least a top half finish. But in recent years, there are a couple of teams who have found it difficult to bridge the gap from top half finish to play-off position, and Oxford are one of them. I fancy them to do it this year, though.
6. Fleetwood Town – #areyoucrawleyindisguise
Make no mistake, Fleetwood are this year’s Crawley – they’ve spent big in their march up the leagues. There are a few questions, granted – Micky Mellon, the former Tranmere and Blackpool player who has been their manager since 2008, has no FL experience, and it’s fair to say they haven’t spend as much money as Crawley. Their attendances may still be quite low too, although they have been growing as the club has become increasingly successful. So I think it would be unfair to predict them as high as JESUS SHITTING CHRIST LOOK AT THAT SQUAD LOOK AT IT
7. Chesterfield – #istillhaventforgottenlukebeckett
Chesterfield’s return to League One last only one season. I had expected them to do better but after losing Craig Davies to Barnsley, I should imagine it wasn’t that big a surprise. Either way, they’ve come down with a slightly weaker side than the one they went up with, but you would still think that they are likely to be contenders for a play-off spot at the very least. With striking options of Craig Westcarr, Marc Richards and Jack Lester, goals are unlikely to be a problem.
8. Port Vale – #thereisnoportvaletheyplayinburslem
On the one hand, Port Vale have been in financial trouble and have gradually lost a couple of their better players, including captain and 11-12 top scorer Marc Richards. On the other hand, the takeover is in the process of going through (although at the time of writing, doubts had resurfaced), Micky Adams is still in charge, they still have the core of a good side, incoming players include Jennison Myrie-Williams, David Artell and Richard Duffy, and they are still one of the biggest clubs in the division. Always a solid bet for a top 10 spot, and could sneak into the play-offs.
9. Northampton Town – #putabootthroughit
After a couple of seasons stuck in the mire, Northampton should recover this year – I say should, because it’s never guaranteed in this division. They’ve certainly got plenty of options going forward – Adebayo Akinfenwa was one of the division’s leading scorers last year, and he has been joined by the experienced Clive Platt, while winger Chris Hackett joins from Millwall. But there are two question marks – one is the defence, and the other is Aidy Boothroyd, who’s one of those managers who keeps promising so much and then fails to deliver.
10. Bradford City – #avoidodsalatallcosts
Bradford are one of those clubs everyone seems to predict to finish high up the table but then struggle; certainly that was the case last year. However, they did pick up form after the arrival of Phil Parkinson as manager, and this summer has seen the former Colchester manager initiate a massive clear-out. In have come former Rochdale veteran Gary Jones, Swindon’s Alan Connell, former Hull winger Will Atkinson, and five other players, all on free transfers. While I think the play-offs might be a bridge too far, this could be the season where finally Bradford avoid a struggle.
11. Cheltenham Town – #whaddoyouknow
Last season, Cheltenham confounded all expectations by reaching the play-off final at Wembley. Like Torquay in 2010-11, it wasn’t the prettiest way of getting to the top but it was effective and relied on a great midfield playmaker. Somehow they’ve managed to hold on to Marlon Pack, who impressed me in the play-offs and certainly impressed whoever decided to include him in the League Two Team of the Year. Jermaine McGlashan and Kaid Mohamed are also still there on the flanks. They’ve lost Spencer and Burgess, who were both on loan last year, but have brought in Chris Zebroski to compliment Daryl Duffy and Jeff Goulding, two good League Two level strikers. However, it is still difficult to see them repeating last year’s feats.
12. Wycombe Wanderers – #sitdownshutup
The Chairboys are one of those clubs that usually bounce straight back after relegation, at least with a positive campaign even if they miss out on promotion. This time, though, it looks like it’ll be difficult. Financial trouble, though not totally crippling, has left them with a lack of striking options in particular – with Stuart Beavon inevitably on his way sooner rather than later, that leaves with Dennis Oli and Richard Logan. It would be wrong to totally underestimate them – they’ve even managed to tempt Gary Doherty down to League Two – but I think this year they’ll just be happy with a top half finish, which is just about what I’ve given them.
13. Aldershot Town – #theyvehad20yearsofthisshot
Aldershot have been a mid-table side since promotion from the Conference, and I can’t see that not continuing. On the one hand, they have added to a side that was already reasonably strong – two former Torquay players have arrived after poor 2011-12 seasons in Craig Stanley and Guy Branston, while Guy Madjo and former Stevenage and Newport striker Craig Reid are interesting acquisitions up front. I’m struggling to get excited about the squad but I see no reason why they’ll struggle.
14. AFC Wimbledon – #undergroundoverground
Last year, the aim for The Dons was survival in their first season back in the Football League. 16th was good. This year, the aim is surely consolidation, and they look like they have a squad that should achieve this. Although I did suspect they might struggle in what will be a more competitive league this year, they’ve made some good signings and some of their Conference heroes have left; I can relate to that, since that was pretty much the same process that we went through after we struggled in our first year back in the league. The squad has a really solid feel to it, and retaining the league’s joint-top scorer Jack Midson is key. They could surprise people.
15. Exeter City – #greekfinancialcrisis
Paul Tisdale is quite possibly the best manager in the lower leagues. Look at his record – he is the most successful manager in Exeter’s history, taking them from the Conference to the top half of League One in five years, and has done it all on free transfers. This alone is what Exeter has going for it this year – surely a Tisdale side won’t struggle again. Of course the alternative scenario is that it isn’t a Tisdale side at the end of the season, but I still think the players they have, with all the experience of the likes of Cureton and Doherty, should see them to a solid mid-table finish.
16. Torquay United – #mydingaling
Ouch. 16th, really? Well, where do I start? With O’Kane and Olejnik gone, Torquay are down two of their most important players in 2011-12 – fans can talk down O’Kane’s contribution for the sake of being optimistic, but I think that’s detracting from the wider issue. O’Kane also hasn’t been replaced (and the potential in-squad replacements aren’t too convincing), two centre-backs have been replaced by one (at the moment), the squad also lacks striking options, and end-of-season form, often a sign of things to come, was poor. It’s hard to see another play-off challenge coming out of this. The form of lead striker Rene Howe is going to be key.
17. Rochdale – #colemansteamnotcuttingthemustard
Past form suggests at least one of the clubs relegated from League One goes on to have a poor following season in League Two too. My money’s on Rochdale, who overachieved in their first year in League One, and then plummeted down the table after losing their manager and key players, and finished well adrift at the bottom. Having lost more players, I can’t see how anything positive can come from this. I actually have family connections to Rochdale so I don’t want to see this, but this was one of my early calls.
18. York City – #ivelostmytrainofthought
No club has yet made an immediate return to the Conference after promotion from it, and I can’t see it happening this season either. Despite this, it’s fair to say that York weren’t the second best team in the Conference last season; in fact, the table suggests they were the fourth best. Such is the quirk of the play-off system. I think they should be safe as they have a solid squad but I don’t expect huge feats from them. I may have underestimated them putting them this low but it’s a competitive division this year.
19. Plymouth Argyle – #warrenfeeneylol
When I did my first rough draft of my predicted league table, I had Plymouth quite a bit higher, with the expectation that their reputation would draw in some quality players that would help erase the memory of a dire 2011-12. However, it simply hasn’t happened. It’s pretty much the same squad that struggled last year, although Nick Chadwick has been signed permanently which at least gives them someone who can score. They are relying heavily on the form and development of youngsters like Luke Moore and Conor Hourihane. That’s not me as a biased Torquay fan – I’m not really all that bothered. I just can’t see how it’s going to be that much better if the players are the same.
20. Burton Albion – #disappearinginacloudoftyresmoke
Burton’s form dipped horrifically in the second half of the season, and they would surely have been relegated had they not had such a positive start. This was despite having Justin Richards, Billy Kee and Calvin Zola all leading the line. After this, it’s safe to say Burton have settled as a bottom-half side, and I can’t see this changing with the side little changed after that spiral out of control and an inexperienced manager in Gary Rowett. But I think the talent they’ve got going forward should be just enough to keep them from the drop.
21. Accrington Stanley – #thewrathofkhan
Accy have been punching above their weight for a couple of seasons now, but lost long-term manager John Coleman to Rochdale last year, and chairman Ilyas Khan also resigned. Instability like that often prepares the way for a struggle, and I have a feeling they will find it tough this year. Looking at their results towards the end of the season, they picked up only 2 wins in the last 9 matches, with 6 defeats. A side that was virtually unbeatable at home in 2010-11, they may once again be banking on their form at the Crown Ground to keep them safe from relegation.
22. Morecambe – #actuallyericwasalutonfan
Last season started so well for Morecambe, but in the second half of the season, like Burton, they fell away dramatically, finishing 15th. That’s never a good sign going into a new season. Of course, they may recover and I could be totally wrong. But this is Morecambe, not a traditionally big club. Do they have the resources to stop the rot? Jim Bentley doesn’t have a huge of amount of experience. I’m really not sure which way this could go, but past form suggests it won’t go well. I think they could struggle this year. But I predicted that last year too.
23. Barnet – #floatlikeabutterflystinglikeabutterfly
Perennial strugglers Barnet avoided relegation on the last day of the season again thanks to another Martin Allen intervention. Can anyone see that being any different, aside from the lack of a Martin Allen intervention? Even if they don’t go down, you’d still expect them to be towards the foot of the table – last year they nearly went down despite having Izale McLeod, one of the best strikers in League Two. Jon Nurse isn’t exactly a comforting replacement, even if he is a good striker. I get the impression Barnet may play their first season at The Hive in the Conference but don’t rule out another miraculous escape.
24. Dagenham and Redbridge – #keepstill
After a double promotion, the team the videprinters call Dag & Red have come back to Earth with a bump over the last two seasons. They ended the season relatively well, with only 1 defeat in the last 10 to a Shrewsbury side cruising into League One. It wasn’t an easy run-in either. Having said that, I still don’t fancy their chances for this season. I’m sure most Daggers fans would be willing to admit that they’re not a big club for this division and so they’re always going to be up against it. Maybe it’s harsh, maybe I’m going to get abuse from Daggers fans, but I’ve got to put someone bottom, and ideally not Barnet since they’ll probably scrape survival again. Having said that, if they carry their form over, they could ‘do a Morecambe’, although that may only last them until halfway through the season. So I’m open-minded.
Note: I’ve made some late changes to this, because I have no spine. Originally the bottom 8 was going to be: