The Race For Promotion

At the top of the tree I have Cheltenham Town (1st). The Robins were by far the best defensive team in the league last season, conceding just 27 goals all campaign. I’ve been impressed with their manager Mike Duff who has clearly learnt from his time at Burnley with Sean Dyche as he possesses a few similarities to him. They’ve kept their defence and will also be expecting striker Alfie May to start where he left off after coming to Gloucestershire in January.

Ryan Broom has departed to Peterborough which is a blow, however there’s quality with the likes of Connor Thomas and Liam Sercombe in the middle of the park as well as a mix of youth and experience with Tahvon Campbell and Andy Williams up front. If they can notch a few more goals they will be right in the mix.

Joining them in the automatic promotion places I have perennial underachievers Mansfield Town (2nd). What makes me think this is the season when they will finally realise there potential? Well, it’s been a summer of a relatively quiet nature for the Stags which should finally mean there’s some continuity in the group, which can only be a good thing.

They look to have goals in their team with trio Nicky Maynard, Andy Cook and Danny Rose all still in situ, whereas Jamie Reid has joined from Torquay to further bolster the attacking ranks. I’m a big fan of George Maris who has come in from Cambridge, he’s a goal threat as well as a creator from midfield whereas Ollie Clarke has shown he is one of the best in this division after his positive spell with Bristol Rovers. I also really like defender Farrend Rawson who has come in from Forest Green Rovers, he will add steel to the backline that was poor last year. It looks a relatively poor quality league this year so the Nottinghamshire club will fancy their chances of success.

The last of the automatic places I have given to the harshly relegated Tranmere Rovers (3rd). The Super White Army will no doubt feel aggrieved at their relegation last season given the strange nature of it and that should fire them up to go again this campaign.

James Vaughan has signed on a permanent deal which is a big boost. Stefan Payne and Morgan Ferrier are alternative options at the top of the pitch. Paul Lewis can also supply goals from midfield, winger Otis Khan can provide creativity and an injection of pace, whilst Jay Spearing will bring quality on the ball and leadership to the middle of the park. They look well set up to challenge once again.

Into the play offs we go and in 4th place I’ve plumped for moneybags Salford City. I like Graham Alexander as a manager and they were favourites to go up last season despite it being their first season in the EFL. The Ammies finished in mid-table but another strong summer of recruitment should see them push on and threaten promotion this time around.

Jordan Turnbull is an astute signing at centre half and one of my favourite players at this level, Ashley Hunter, has arrived on a permanent deal from Fleetwood after bagging 5 goals in 11 games whilst on loan in the second half of last season. The evergreen Ian Henderson joins from Rochdale and he’s consistently scored goals at third and fourth tier levels and will add a wealth of experience. Salford arguably have the best right-back in the league with Ibou Touray.

In 5th we have Bolton Wanderers. I’m surprised the Lancashire club are favourites for the title given the raft of changes at the club that have happened all this summer. Ian Evatt did a great job at Barrow leading them to automatic promotion to the EFL, however in his first season it was slightly underwhelming with a 16th place finish in the National League. Evatt plays a distinct style of possession-based football in a 5-3-2 formation but it looks like it will take a while for the players to get used to it.

Centre halves George Taft and Alex Baptiste are far from the quickest and if teams can target their lack of pace they could get caught out quite often.

The league’s top scorer Eoin Doyle is their marquee signing but you have to build an entire team around him to get the most out of him. Richie Wellens opted for a 4-2-3-1 whereas Evatt has plumped for 5-3-2 so it will be interesting to see if they get the Bradford Eoin Doyle or the Swindon Eoin Doyle. I think they’ll grow into the season though and should have enough for a top 7 berth.

In 6th place I’ve plumped for Bradford City. The Bantams had a pretty poor season by their standards last year but club legend and now manager Stuart McCall has had a summer to trim down a squad with plenty of dead wood from previous regimes and it’s a tight knit squad, which I’m happy to view as a positive in this case. McCall has talked about building a team spirit that simply wasn’t there the last two seasons and he’s brought in players with the right character as well as the ability.

City fans have been fretting over the perceived lack of goalscorers in the team but if pre-season is anything to go by it seems as the West Yorkshire outfit will be attacking in their approach. Billy Clarke has returned and he is a clever player who can create and crop up with a few goals. Callum Cooke has also returned and is looking at building a strong central midfield relationship with young Elliott Watt who has joined from Wolves. Connor Wood is arguably the best crosser in the league and with the physical presence of Lee Novak, Clayton Donaldson and Kurtis Guthrie in the box, teams will have a hard time.

McCall managed to steer the Bantams to a play-off place in League One after having some time to settle down and get his ideas across, there’s no reason that they can’t do it in a weak looking League Two.

My wildcard pick for the final play-off spot is the team shortest for relegation, which I find completely bizarre. Morecambe (7th) have always successfully battled against the drop on a shoestring budget, and great credit has to go to former long-standing gaffer Jim Bentley for the work he did at the west coast club. It looks like the Shrimps have loosened the purse strings a little this summer though with the likes of Kelvin Mellor, Ben Pringle and Liam McAlinden all coming in. Adam Phillips has returned on loan from Burnley and could be one of the best players in the division. Spaniard Carlos Mendes Gomes adds spark to the frontline and could have a breakthrough season.

Derek Adams is the man in the dugout and his record in management is superb on the whole. He oversaw promotions at Ross County and Plymouth and also got them competing towards the top of the Scottish Premiership and League One respectively. He knows what it takes and the unfancied nature of the small side may work as a motivational tool for Adams to use. Expect them to outperform their odds.

Finishing just outside the play offs I’ve plumped for another side who I think can outperform their odds. Grimsby Town (8th) saw a real uplift when the charismatic and loveable Ian Holloway stepped foot into Blundell Park. From what you hear about his time at Blackpool, Holloway prefers a more relaxed and fun atmosphere where the players can really enjoy their football. It’s a way of working that a lot of players can get behind as it naturally fosters a team spirit which can prove pivotal throughout the season.

James Hanson was the player with the highest WhoScored ranking in the entire league last season and he’s such a threat in the air and a joy to play next to if you’re the other striker. Sean Scannell and Owura Edwards can provide direct running and balls in from wide whilst Harry Clifton, George Williams and Max Wright are neat and tidy in midfield. They showed what they had in the locker last season when Ollie came to the club and I expect them to kick on again.

Forest Green Rovers (9th) are a peculiar side in many ways. Chairman Dale Vince has an aim of making the club self-sustainable and the Green Devils have drawn a lot of admirers for their approach as well as some who fail to be convinced. Mark Cooper has done a decent enough job there but if they fail to kick on from last year I do fear for his future, although Vince has backed him in the media.

Jamille Matt is a good signing up front, he was always a handful for Newport in this league. Jordan Moore-Taylor is an excellent addition at centre half, comfortable on the ball and will suit the style Cooper opts for. Nicky Cadden is one to watch on the wing with his direct running and electric pace whilst Elliott Whitehouse is an all-round midfielder who can slot in alongside the excellent Ebou Adams in midfield.

I do worry about where the goals will come from though, Aaron Collins and Matty Stevens didn’t showcase too much in front of goal last season and that could be the difference between a play-off place and missing out for FGR.

Exeter City (10th) have always been contenders and play-off regulars but I do think they can be a bit of a soft touch whenever I have seen them in the flesh. I’ve always liked their midfield and the four of Nicky Law, Matt Jay, Archie Collins and Jake Taylor is a nice one, if lacking a bit of physicality. Ryan Bowman is a steady striker at this level but there are question marks over the fitness of Nicky Ajose, who hardly featured last season.

Rory McArdle comes in at centre half, he was outstanding in that famous Bradford City team that went on two epic cup runs but he struggled at Scunthorpe United. There’s two new full backs with Lewis Page a good pick up from West Ham and the energetic Jake Caprice can stretch the pitch out at right back. Randell Williams was arguably their player of the month too. I’m just not wholly convinced by how they will do in both boxes.

Cheltenham to be promoted - 2pts @ 10/3

The Mid-Table Mire

There’s finally some stability at Port Vale (11th) who have left the frustrating ownership of Norman Smurthwaite and now have lifelong Valiants Carol and Kevin Shanahan calling the shots. The couple have the club’s best interests at heart and have made positive decisions that have got the Vale faithful firmly back onside.

They’ve done little in the transfer window though. Theo Robinson has returned and he’s decent enough at this level. They’re an experienced bunch but looks like they’re lacking spark in attacking areas. I expect another mid-table finish for the Burslem boys.

If we pop down the road from Vale we have Walsall (12th). The Saddlers were pretty disappointing last season and I’m not sure their defence is good enough to get them into the play-off picture. Josh Gordon and Elijah Adebayo linked up well from what I saw of them and new signings Emanuel Osadebe and Rory Holden can provide additional threats going forward.

Hayden White has come in at the back but let’s not forget he was part of a porous Mansfield backline and has a questionable disciplinary record. Cameron Pring has gone to Portsmouth and they’re looking light at the back. I expected them to marginally improve on last season’s showing.

Into the bottom half we go and Newport County (13th) are expected to outperform their odds under the tutelage of Mike Flynn. Flynn has masterminded several strong cup runs which has boosted the coffers at the right time, he also go the Exiles to a play-off final the season before last, narrowly losing out to Tranmere Rovers.

They’ve kept the majority of their squad that has been with the club the last few years. Padraig Amond is always good for a goal up front whilst Micky Demetriou, Scott Bennett and keeper Tom King make a solid spine. They’ve always been stout defensively and direct in their approach. Jamille Matt was the target man but he’s departed, however Flynn has moved to replace him with the clever Ryan Taylor who is great at bringing others into play.

There’s plenty of options for Flynn at the top of the pitch with Saikou Janneh and Scott Twine joining from Bristol City and Swindon respectively. Ade Azeez is still at the club as it the pacey Tristan Abrahams whilst the ageless Kevin Ellison, a teammate of Flynn’s at Bradford, has come in on a one year deal. They shouldn’t be involved in any relegation trouble so mid-table looks fair enough for the side from South Wales.

In 14th place we have Leyton Orient. The O’s finished 17th last year which is about where many expected them to end up but I think they can do a bit better this season. Jordan Maguire-Drew has raised eyebrows on the data side of things for his efforts last season whereas Ruel Sotirou is primed for a breakout season up front after agreeing a new 2 year contract last month.

I do think they’ll score goals but their defence looks far from solid with Dan Happe the best of a pretty poor bunch and conceding too many may be their downfall this season.

Carlisle United (15th) are fancied by many to be a dark horse this season under Chris Beech. It’s been a busy summer for the Cumbrian outfit who have recruited no fewer than nine new players. It’s always the worry that too many additions could mean a greater time to gel and I do think that will be the case here. A lot of people get excited when there’s such a churn of players but it usually takes a year or two to get that team spirit and knowledge of how everyone fits into the system.

George Tanner is a nice pick up as is Brennan Dickinson at full-back but I can’t see any of their strikers banging in a load of goals as they’ve all still got quite a bit to prove at this level.

In 16th we have EFL new boys Harrogate Town. The Yorkshire club have been excellently managed by long-term boss Simon Weaver and their stable way of operating has eventually paid dividends. They don’t spend beyond their means but are savvy in their recruitment, they like to get the ball down and play but it will be interesting to see how they cope with playing on actual grass rather than their 4G pitch.

Josh Falkingham excelled last season and will be looking to form a nice partnership with new signing Connor Kirby in midfield. Jon Stead adds vital experience whereas Jack Muldoon could be an outside shout for top scorer at 50/1. It’s not a massive squad but that’s not what Weaver likes to work with. They should have enough to stay clear of danger; few teams go straight back down after promotion to League 2.

Crawley Town (17th) have lost three key players in Panutche Camara, Ollie Palmer and Bez Lubala to Plymouth, AFC Wimbledon and Blackpool respectively and that’s changed my view on how they will do this season. If the trio stayed around then I’d be fancying the Red Devils for a top-half finish but that will be a struggle now.

Tom Nichols has failed to convince for a few season and I doubt he will replace the goals of Palmer and Lubala. Ricky German banged them in for Hendon in non-league but has yet to prove himself at this level. A lot of the goalscoring burden will rest on him and Ashley Nadesen. John Yems has a job on his hands getting a play-off push from his squad.

Morecambe top half finish - 3pts @ 7/2

The Relegation Battle

The vibes coming out of Scunthorpe United (18th) aren’t great this summer. Key striker Kevin Van Veen is out injured for the foreseeable future and it’s still a bloated squad that Neil Cox has.

Alex Gillead is a direct winger who will look to beat his man and get crosses into the box for new signing Ryan Loft. Olufelu Olomola has only made six starts for the Iron since joining two years ago and Abo Eisa is hit and miss. I’m expecting them to struggle again this season, it seems to me like a bit of a mish-mash of players without any stability or distinctive style of play.

Colchester United (19th) may raise a few eyebrows after their decent campaign last season. The Essex side were reliant on their strong defence (2nd best in the league) however they have lost centre half Luke Prosser and replaced him with Tommy Smith who hasn’t played much in the last two years. Ryan Jackson has gone to near neighbours Gillingham. They do have some interesting forward players in Jevani Brown and Callum Harriott but neither did too much last season. Theo Robinson is no longer at the club, and he was their top scorer with 11 goals whereas Frank Nouble has also left leaving them a tad light at the top of the pitch.

There will be a lot of pressure on the talented youngster Kwame Poku who plenty is expected of but it may be a bit of a stretch to do so this early on. It’s more of a hunch this than anything, I’m just not sure they have the goals in their side at the minute.

Below them I have Oldham Athletic (20th). Unfortunately, due to the financial pressures EFL clubs are under post-COVID some face uncertain futures and the stories coming out of the Lancashire club make for worrying reading. Owner Abdallah Lemsagam has come in for criticism from Latics fans for his mismanagement and players not being paid on time upon three occasions.

Gaffer Harry Kewell hasn’t done anything to convince me he will be a good manager and the club are looking very light in terms of depth. David Wheater and Carl Piergianni have experience at the back whilst the promising Zak Dearnley is likely to partner former non-league hotshot Danny Rowe at the top of the pitch. They have next to no midfielders though and Johnny Smith is no longer at the club after impressing last season. With the amount of Saturday/Tuesday games as well as the EFL trophy they will find it hard going with such a thin squad.

In 21st we have Stevenage, they can count themselves lucky to have stayed up last season, any other year and they’d be back in the National League. I’m not expecting an easy ride for them again this season. They don’t have the biggest of squads and did look a little lightweight last season, especially in midfield.

They do welcome back leader Romain Vincelot after a terrible injury ruled him out of the entire 19/20 campaign. They have taken Prosser from the aforementioned Colchester and him alongside Scott Cuthbert looks a solid enough partnership. They should have enough in the tank to dodge the drop but they need a decent goal output from new signings Inih Effiong and Elliott List as well as striker Danny Newton. Watch out for attacking midfielder Artur Iontton who will hopefully get a few more starts.

Just avoiding the dreaded relegation places I have Cambridge (22nd). They haven’t inspired me for a few seasons and that stagnation could fester into a real struggle of a season. The U’s have brought in the experienced playmaker Wes Hoolahan but it feels like he hasn’t played for years now and fitness could be a worry. Harvey Knibbs has something about him and young defender Harry Darling looks one with potential.

However, looking through their squad it’s badly lacking a goalscoring and any kind of creativity after Paul Lewis and George Maris left. It’s been a wholly underwhelming summer for Cambridge and gaffer Mark Bonner is relatively untried at EFL level. Plenty of questions marks surround them.

Not many sides that come up from the national league go back down but I fear for Barrow (23rd) this season. They implemented a possession-based system under now Bolton manager Ian Evatt but with him gone and the largely unproven David Dunn now in situ it could be a long season. Dunn had a tumultuous time as manager of Oldham and not much can make me have faith in him getting them out of the mire if it starts badly.

Their squad still looks like a 5th tier one to me. Harrison Biggins is an interesting loan signing from Fleetwood but the addition of Luke James looks a strange one. He’s struggled since his first spell at Hartlepool and his goal record isn’t great. It’s not a massive squad either and with plenty of long trips it could be difficult for the Bluebirds.

It’s always harsh to but anyone rock bottom but I’m really struggling to see any light at the end of the tunnel for Southend United (24th). The Shrimpers went down with a whimper last season and there’s major financial worries for the Roots Hall club that are more than disconcerting. The current owners are looking to sell the ground in order to pay off debts to HMRC and a transfer embargo has meant new gaffer Mark Moseley has his work well and truly cut out to keep Southend up. It’s likely to be a very young squad and although the likes of Charlie Kelman, Terrell Egbri and Brandon Goodship promise much they may struggle with the physicality of League Two.

Main striker Stephen Humphrys looks likely to move on with a few clubs interested. It’s basically an under-23 side and given the sorry state of affairs upstairs it wouldn’t be surprising to see a points deduction or something of the sort, as sad as it is to say.

Full League Two Table Prediction

  1. Cheltenham Town
  2. Mansfield Town
  3. Tranmere Rovers
  4. Salford City
  5. Bolton Wanderers
  6. Bradford City
  7. Morecambe
  8. Grimsby Town
  9. Forest Green Rovers
  10. Exeter City
  11. Port Vale
  12. Walsall
  13. Newport County
  14. Leyton Orient
  15. Carlisle United
  16. Harrogate Town
  17. Crawley Town
  18. Scunthorpe United
  19. Colchester United
  20. Oldham Athletic
  21. Stevenage
  22. Cambridge United
  23. Barrow
  24. Southend United
Southend relegation - 2pts @ 13/2

Top Goalscorer

Alfie May - 0.5pts e/w @ 66/1
Ruel Sotiriou - 0.5pts e/w @ 66/1