Eyes down for a full house. Ignoring for a moment the circus of the Premiership, the football season proper starts tomorrow. Out of deference to this, I’m sticking my neck on the line again with a complete set of predictions for this season’s Football League. God help me.
Going into the new season, there are reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be depressed about the state of English league football. On the upside, the apocalyptic predictions of twenty or thirty League clubs going bust hasn’t come to pass. Crowds across the three divisions of the league have risen year-on-year, as Premiership crowds have tailed off. There are many possible reasons for this: more competition, lower prices, an increasing feeling of alienation towards the bigger clubs, who seem more interested in chasing the mythical foreign dorrar than maintaining their community links at home. Even the supposedly unbridgeable gap between Division One and the Premiership isn’t as big as people might think. All three of the teams relegated two years ago failed to get back up last season, and only one of the teams promoted into the Premiership went straight back down (although what team, Sunderland, did do it style).
On the downside, the gulf between the top clubs and the rest has never been greater. The likes of Manchester United and Chelsea care little for anything other than the Champions League, and things are likely to get worse rather than better. The upwards mobility of smaller clubs seems to have a finite level. There is also still plenty of mismanagement of clubs going on in the League. The Football League has weathered the storm of the ITV Digital collapse extraordinarily well, but a lot of Football League clubs are still technically insolvent.
But this isn’t a time for getting depressed or worrying unduly. Unlike Premiership supporters, many supporters of League clubs can start the season with a sense of wild optimism. After all, if Watford can get promoted into the Premiership, why shouldn’t it be…?
Division One: I surely can’t be the only person to have noticed that there hasn’t been a genuinely exciting First Division title race for a few years now. A pattern seems to have emerged, in which two of the perennial “nearly” teams hit a golden run of form and sew it all up before Easter. For automatic promotion, I’m tipping Birmingham City & Coventry City. Birmingham must have been wondering what they’ve done right to persuade Wigan Athletic to splash out £5m on Emile Heskey. Couple that with the £6m that Liverpool have spunked on Jermaine Pennant and the fact that they have a Premiership parachute payment, and anything less than the championship for Birmingham will be under-achievement. The obvious thing to do here would be to go for Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion for the other automatic place, but Sunderland have the dreaded words of “owner/chairman” associated with them, and West Brom are likely to lose their star man Curtis Davies, and looked as if they just couldn’t be arsed for most of last season. Doubt remains over Bryan Robson’s abilities, too. Coventry, though, finsished last season flying, and they’ve managed to keep hold (for now) of in-form striker Gary McSheffrey. They almost made the play-offs last season, and will be starting the season for the first time ages in a confident mood. For the play-offs, perm any two from Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Preston North End, along with Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion. At the foot of the table, things are muddier still. Cardiff City have got “financial implosion” written all over them, and Luton Town have lost their two best players in Steve Howard and Kevin Nicholls. The “star” replacement, Adam Boyd, has come from Hartlepool United, where he wasn’t an automatic choice. The third relegation spot is really tricky to call. Of the promoted teams, Colchester United and Southend United have probably (and somewhat surprisingly) got enough momentum behind them to stay up. Barnsley make a less convincing case, and we can expect them to be involved in a struggle with Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley and QPR.
Division Two: An open season, last season, and we can expect more of the time. If the lunatic Lee Trundle can keep scoring, Swansea City should be there or thereabouts this time around. They were surprisingly knocked out of the play-offs last season, and we can expect them to go one better this time around. The other team I expect more from this season is another team that fell just short last time round, Nottingham Forest. Forest finished last season brilliantly and, although money is still extremely tight at The City Ground, an open division may just suit them. For the play-offs, I’ll go for Huddersfield Town, who were unfortunate last season, Millwall, the most likely contenders of last season’s relegated teams, Bradford City, who are on the up after a near-cataclysmic brush with insolvency, and Bristol City, who finished strongly last season and are, frankly, overdue a serious promtion push. To be honest, though, any two of those six teams could go up. At the bottom, the prognosis looks critical for Rotherham United, who are still in a desperate financial state. I can’t help but think that this promotion is a step too far for Cheltenham Town, who, from what I can see, haven’t carried out the required squad strengthening to stay up (three non-league signings), and Oldham Athletic have lost their best striker, Luke Beckett, and their manager, Ronnie Moore over the course of the summer. Careless. Elsewhere, I’ll go for this to be a step too far for Leyton Orient.
Division Three: Another tight division. Hartlepool United, though, were dreadfully unlucky to relegated on the last day of last season, and have managed to hold onto more or less their entire first team squad. I fully expect them to go straight back, and to do it quite comfortably. Swindon Town, also relegated last season, have taken on Dennis Wise and (to my enormous surprise) Gus Poyet as their management team, and they’ve registered themselves as players too. Surely Poyet is still too good for this level? Finally, Wycombe Wanderers beat themselves last season to miss out on promotion. They’re clearly good enough to go up this time around. For the play-offs, it’s something of a lottery, but I’ll select Hereford United, Walsall, Lincoln City (four play-off finishes in a row without going up), and there’s something incurably romantic about the idea of Shrewsbury Town leaving Gay Meadow with a place in the play-offs. At the bottom, the detritus of the Football League can expect a long, hard, unforgiving winter. Torquay United, Barnet and Notts County will all be going into the new season with trepidation, but things look even worse for Bury and Stockport County. Bury are haemorraging cash left, right and centre, and Stockport are in the midst of an ominous looking long-term decline.
There we go, then. That’s my tuppence-worth. Feel free to mock me at your leisure.
(Not least for my computer spacking out and posting this message three times – stupid laptop)