The Race For Promotion

Mansfield Town (1st) blew it last season, plain and simple. Promotion was in their hands, but three straight defeats to end the campaign, the last in a promotion shootout against MK Dons, scuppered the Stags’ dreams.

David Flitcroft paid the price, and in his place comes academy boss John Dempster, who I’m backing to guide Mansfield to the league title.

Their squad last season was strong, and so far it’s been kept together, but the signing of Nicky Maynard, whose 29 goals fired Bury to promotion in this division last year, might be the tonic the club needed to reach new heights. The return of goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik from injury is another significant boost.

I’ve been impressed with how Mansfield have conducted themselves this summer, and I’m hopeful about their chances.

In second place I have a side who have performed well in this division for a number of years: Exeter City (2nd).

The Grecians, who have lost two play-off finals in the last three seasons, will be desperate to finally return to League One after eight years in the fourth tier.

Matt Taylor replaced the long-serving Paul Tisdale as manager, and his football, which is generally quite pleasing on the eye, has won him many friends in the South West.

Alex Fisher and Nicky Ajose come in to finally replace Jayden Stockley, and with most of Taylor’s talented League Two squad remaining at St. James Park, I’m quietly hopeful for this club to finally make that leap back to the third-tier.

After their dramatic relegation last season, costing Derek Adams his job, I have Plymouth Argyle (3rd) bouncing back at the first attempt.

The acquisition of Ryan Lowe, following his heroics at Bury last season, is a fantastic piece of business, and he’s in turn brought in some of his very best performers from the Shakers: Danny Mayor, Callum McFadzean, Dominic Telford and Will Aimson – all players who will improve this Pilgrims side.

Lowe is a brilliant manager, and I expect big things from him at Home Park, so long as Freddie Ladapo’s exit is accounted for properly, which I believe it has.

Deciding where Bradford City (4th) will end up this season was tough, but I’ve plumped for a play-off finish, primarily due to their manager: Gary Bowyer.

With a manager as experienced as Bowyer—who has plenty of experience at a much higher level than League Two—having players like Clayton Donaldson and James Vaughan at his disposal, you’d expect a play-off finish at the very least.

The Bantams have a fairly bulky squad, but a high turnover of players could cause a few early teething problems, and for that reason a 4th place finish looks fair.

My next play-off place is being filled by Swindon Town (5th) who, under Richie Wellens, play some of the best football in League Two.

The locals would’ve been happy with a strong mid-table finish last term, particularly because the club were just starting to flirt with relegation by the time Wellens took over last winter.

We’ve seen 15 players leave the Robins this summer, but quality arrivals such as Zeki Fryers and Jerry Yates will enable Swindon to continue improving.

After their terrific FA Cup campaign last season, many outsiders started to sit up and take notice of Newport County (6th).

It’s fair to say Michael Flynn turned Rodney Parade into a fortress: the club possessed the joint-best home record in the division—losing just three times—and if they can maintain that fear-factor this time around, another play-off finish is well within reach.

In Padraig Amond, Newport have a proven goalscorer at this level, and with seven defenders coming through the door this summer, Flynn is evidently keen to improve on a back line which conceded 37 league goals on the road – only five clubs conceded more.

Team of the Season stopper Joe Day has departed for Cardiff, while Dan Butler has joined Peterborough. It’s up to Flynn to ensure the loss of these two key players is fully accounted for; goalkeeper Tom King has particularly big boots to fill.

Though Cheltenham Town (7th) haven’t finished higher than 17th in their last four seasons in League Two, I’m going to stick my neck out and back them to finish in the top seven.

Michael Duff—who notched up over 300 appearances for the club as a player—looks to be a cracking manager, and ended the season with seven victories and three draws from his last 10 home matches.

Duff has the respect of everyone associated with Cheltenham, and signings such as Rohan Ince—who, not so long ago, was Brighton’s best player in the Championship—will surely help push Cheltenham into the top half.

Ending a season on such a high note is a real bonus for the club, and they’re my left-field pick to enjoy a great season.

When I first saw Forest Green Rovers (8th) play in League Two a couple of years ago under Mark Cooper, I was so impressed by their style of football: death by possession.

Spearheaded by Christian Doidge, who has since left for Hibernian, Rovers were good value for their play-off finish last year, but with Reece Brown also departing for Huddersfield, it’s hard to know what to expect from Cooper’s men this season.

With a few sides starting to work Rovers out, a top half finish may be the best fans can hope for.

Unlike Bradford and Plymouth, I don’t feel quite so hopeful about relegated Scunthorpe United’s (9th) promotion hopes this year.

Paul Hurst, despite his fairly rotten time at Ipswich, is still a talented manager who has been tasked with picking the squad up after a horrendous campaign last year, in which the Iron conceded 83 goals. Horrendous.

Veteran Andy Butler returns to Glanford Park, the place where it all began for him, and he’s just the sort of player Scunthorpe needed, but Josh Morris in particular looks a big loss, and ultimately the squad (and Hurst) have a huge point to prove, and right now I can’t see them bettering some of the teams I’ve picked to finish above them.  

Mansfield Winner - 1.5pts @ 9/1
Exeter Promotion - 1pt @ 6/1
Plymouth Promotion - 1pt @ 13/5
Cheltenham Play-Offs - 1pt @ 7/1

The Mid-Table Mire

Colchester United (10th) agonisingly missed out on the play-offs last season, finishing a single point behind Newport, and while I’m not convinced about a top seven campaign this year, I’ve been quite impressed with the John McGreal’s dealings this summer.

Dean Gerken returns to the club and will be one of League Two’s finer goalkeepers, with Omar Sowunmi and Jevani Brown possessing some good experience despite their relative youth.

I like how Colchester’s squad is shaping up, and a solid campaign is once again on the horizon.

10th place for Stevenage (11th) last year was a job well done, and I’m excited to see where Dino Maamria takes this talented squad.

Though Ilias Chair returns to QPR after a barnstorming loan spell last season, Boro can still rely on Kurtis Guthrie to find the net regularly, and Chris Stokes’ arrival from recently-promoted Bury will help the club tighten up their defence.

A satisfactory summer for the club, and a competitive top half finish should be the aim.

Grimsby Town (12th), while comfortably securing survival, looked pretty stagnant last season, and young manager Michael Jolly has taken to the transfer market to remedy this.

Moses Ogbu, James Hanson and Matt Green all come in to add to the Mariners’ ranks up top, as Jolly seeks to improve on his side’s 45 goals last season (only Port Vale, Cambridge and Yeovil scored fewer).

If these new signings fire, Grimsby could be in for a much-improved campaign, as they’re pretty solid at the back, conceding as many times (56) as promoted Bury.

I’m not a fan of Salford City (13th) one bit (that’s not impacting this prediction, of course), but I don’t believe they’ll do as well as many think. With some boldly claiming they’re destined for yet another promotion, I can see them playing out a rather middling campaign – not that it would be a failure.

Yes, Richie Towell is a very good signing who has Championship experience, but I’m not sure their squad possesses enough hardened faces which will guide you through a gruelling League Two promotion campaign.

While Lincoln made the move from Non-League to League Two look relatively simple, I don’t think Salford will find things quite so straightforward this year; everyone will give an extra 5% to beat them, and it takes just a few key players to fail to adjust and promotion is out of the question.

Since their relegation in 2016, we’ve seen steady improvement from Crewe Alexandra (14th).

17th, 15th and 12th place finishes in their last three seasons looks to be a solid platform from which to build, and I expect a similarly fruitful season this year.

Only Olly Lancashire and Daniel Powell have come through the door this season, but that won’t concern fans, due to their squad still remaining competitive. I like veteran Chris Porter up top, and with just six of their 25-strong squad aged over 25, we could see much more from this exciting Railwaymen outfit in the future.

With 12 bodies already through the door this summer, it’s evident Keith Curle is looking for a quick fix after Northampton Town’s (15th) pretty ordinary campaign last year.

Well, unfortunately Cobblers fans, I think we’ll see much of the same. Many of these new additions aren’t exactly spring chickens—an example being 35-year-old Alan McCormack joining from Luton—and I don’t see how Curle can effectively acclimatise so many new first-teamers into an already-erratic side who scored 64 and conceded 63 last term.

Winning just six of his 18 games as Carlisle United (16th) boss last season—putting an end to any play-off aspirations—I’m not convinced Stephen Pressley is the man to take the side forward.

Losing the talented Jamie Devitt was a big blow, but it does look like Pressley has addressed the Cumbrians’ defensive issues from last season, snagging the experienced Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Byron Webster.

However, Carlisle’s seeming refusal to spend money this summer may come back to haunt them, as I don’t believe many of the current squad will respond well to their manager this season.

Walsall (17th) have done the right thing by appointing Darrell Clarke for the upcoming campaign, but I’d expect a season of transition under the former-Bristol Rovers boss first and foremost.

23 have departed the club this summer, with 16 coming in, and it’s clear Clarke has his own ideas about the direction he wants his team to head in.

Such a major overhaul rarely yields instant success, and that’s exactly why I expect a bottom-half finish for the Saddlers; I just hope they give Clarke as much time as possible.

Grimsby Top Half - 1pt @ 9/4
Salford Bottom Half - 1pt @ 3/1

The Relegation Battle

After the truly tragic loss of Justin Edinburgh, there’s no club in the Football League I want to see succeed more than Leyton Orient (18th).

Edinburgh transformed that football club after a dreadful couple of years, and the appointment of Ross Embleton as interim-manager shows the board are keen to continue the legacy laid down last season.

It’s incredibly hard to say how Orient will do this season given the circumstances, but their squad, while fairly inexperienced, have the potential to secure safety over a number of sides in this division.

Though I don’t particularly rate them, Crawley Town (19th) will have enough to stay up – perhaps virtue of some sides below them.

The Red Devils, finishing 19th last year, have a manager in Gabriele Cioffi with a sub-30% win ratio, and it’s fair to say he’s not convinced too many fans.

Striker Ashley Nadesan is an exciting arrival, but Cioffi’s main area of concern is reducing the burden on the overworked Glenn Morris in goal; if Crawley don’t improve their defence which conceded 68 times last season, they could be in trouble.

Cambridge United (20th) were absolutely woeful last season, and while I’m backing them to stay up, I don’t expect much better than that.

Wes Hoolahan is certainly a marquee signing (whether he can still cut it, I don’t know), but I do struggle to see where the goals come from – just like with last season.

Is young Harvey Knibbs the man to solve the goal problem? Perhaps, but he’s unproven.

There’s just an underwhelming feeling around Abbey Stadium, and I’m not sure this summer’s business will rectify it, particularly with Colin Calderwood at the helm.

Good old Morecambe (21st) keep chuntering on with the legendary Jim Bentley at the helm.

Every year the Shrimps are tipped for relegation, and yet for the last nine seasons, they’ve spat in the faces of those who doubted them…and you know what, this season they’re going nowhere.

Despite very little in the way of financial clout and a tiny squad, it’s crazy to write Bentley off; he knows the club inside-out and will squeeze every last drop of quality out of his players.

Smart, sustainable business—such as bringing in the former-Blackburn and Carlisle winger John O’Sullivan—is what continuously keeps the club afloat at this level.

Narrowly avoiding the drop, I have Oldham Athletic (22nd).

While their unorthodox approach to overseas transfers is certainly interesting, huge discontent between supporters and the owner Abdallah Lemsagam will prove an unsavoury background for the Latics.

While I don’t think Oldham’s squad is one of the worst three in the league, particularly with Zak Mills and Jose Baxter coming in, off-field issues might just create an unnecessary distraction for everyone associated with the club, leaving me concerned.

My first relegation pick is Port Vale (23rd).

For the last two seasons, the Valiants have seriously flirted with relegation, and it’s looking like this is the season they go, despite a change of ownership.

The club were turgid last year, scoring just 39 times, though John Askey has brought in big Tom Pope to ease his side’s goalscoring woes, who should link up well with fellow new arrival Mark Cullen.

However, Askey struggled at previous club Shrewsbury, and failure to improve his side’s goalscoring fortunes could spell huge trouble.

And rounding-off this preview, in last place: Macclesfield Town (24th).

Though Sol Campbell completed the greatest of escapes last season—losing just two of his last 10 league matches—I simply cannot see a repeat.

Unfortunately, a string of first-team exits and crippling financial constraints has seen Campbell left with a tiny, depleted squad, with most of last year’s top performers, such as Harry Smith, whisked away.

Last season can never be taken away from the Silkmen, but I can’t see them being remotely competitive this time around.  

Final Table Prediction

1. Mansfield Town 

2. Exeter City

3. Plymouth Argyle

4. Bradford City

5. Swindon Town 

6. Newport County 

7. Cheltenham Town 

8. Forest Green Rovers

9. Scunthorpe United

10. Colchester United 

11. Stevenage 

12. Grimsby Town

13. Salford City

14. Crewe Alexandra

15. Northampton Town

16. Carlisle United 

17. Walsall 

18. Leyton Orient 

19. Crawley Town

20. Cambridge United

21. Morecambe 

22. Oldham Athletic 

23. Port Vale

24. Macclesfield Town 

Follow @RyanEJourno

Port Vale - 2pts @ 11/1
Macclesfield Bottom - 3pts @ 11/2