24 runners are about to be loaded into the stalls at the start of the League 2 handicap. In true racing terms it is not a handicap but increasingly, year on year, level of support and size of budget seems to be a guide when considering who will be the front runners approaching the finishing line next spring.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Bristol Rovers at the bottom of the table and Rochdale at the top were the best examples last season, one in which relegated Rovers gathered only 12 fewer points than Oxford, who finished 8th. Never has the middle of League 2 extended so far, or made predictions for the months ahead so difficult.
One factor to bear in mind is that managerial changes have been few and far between. Given that Andy Awford was in caretaker charge at Portsmouth for the last month of the season, only Oxford, Shrewsbury and Tranmere have made new appointments. Moreover, only Bury, Carlisle and Northampton have made changes since the first ball was kicked a year ago. The table may therefore hinge on how much progress clubs have made.
At the top, the three teams to stumble in the play offs finished nine points better off than the rest, and that’s a big gap. Burton have almost exclusively recruited players who were in League 1 last season, York finished strongly and have done some useful business and there has been minimal change at Southend. All three ought to be in the leading group again.
With the immense knowledge of manager John Still, I would expect newly promoted Luton to be with them, and if they start well Portsmouth will be carried on a sea of support on the south coast. Bury improved post Christmas under David Flitcroft and of the relegated clubs, Shrewsbury have virtually rebuilt their squad from scratch. If the reputations of the signings is anything to go by, play-offs will be a minimum requirement in Shropshire.
Bury aside, there will be a small clutch of clubs thinking there were enough good signs towards the end of last season to suggest a play off challenge is not out of the question.
Northampton and AFC Wimbledon may have been in the lower reaches of the table, but the Cobblers did well to survive at all and the Dons have added two proven goalscorers in Adebayo Akinfenwa and Matt Tubbs.
Plymouth I would put in in this group, especially if Reuben Reid can maintain his form from last season, and Oxford, who haven’t done much business yet but have time to do so. In handicap terms, these teams look each-way bets for the top seven.
That leaves just about half the division who would probably take a mid table season with no drama right now. That includes three of the teams coming down – Tranmere, complete with Rob Edwards in his first managerial job, Carlisle, and Stevenage, under the command of Graham Westley for a second time.
Dagenham arguably over achieved last season by being in the top half and Newport were never a threat or threatened. Mansfield, I suspect, will lean on the methods that ensured their survival, even if they were hardly pleasing on the eye to the neutral. It would be a surprise to me if these teams got close to the top.
At the back of the field, seven clubs look to have the most daunting months ahead. I saw promoted Cambridge once last season, when they had been on a good run. They lost and I wasn’t overly impressed. Exeter have been unable to make any signings because of a loan from the PFA, and Hartlepool slid alarmingly last spring. Morecambe and Accrington are always dodging bullets to stay up, and Wycombe escaped by the skin of their teeth last time.
That leaves Cheltenham, who were 17th last May. They have the second longest serving manager in the Football League and a new coach, but on the evidence of the signings made and pre season form, the management team of Mark Yates and Shaun North have a lot on their plate.
The squad is sizeable in numbers but thin on experience outside a small core of about 14 players. The team at this stage has only has one recognised central striker in Byron Harrison. I’m sure Yates and North will try and extract all they can from those available but collectively, the group looks weaker than a year ago. It could be a long hard slog, and not a pretty one at that.
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