We’re taking a brief break from our lengthy (and, let’s face it, exhausting) series of Premier League previews for a couple of days in order to bring you some round-ups on the state of the Football League, prior to its kick-off this weekend. Rob Freeman will be bringing you our (or, if they’re hopelessly inaccurate, “his”) predictions for the coming season over the next three days, but first of all here’s a brief synopsis of the state of play as League Two prepares to gird its loins for the new season.
If the Premier League is a soap opera in which everybody plays a role and the Championship gives every impression of being football’s equivalent, then what, precisely, are we to make of League Two? Over the last couple of decades or so, the identity of the basement division of the Football League had changed considerably more than many ever seem to give it credit for, whilst, to the leagues below, it retains a sense of glamour that is perhaps wholly disproportionate to the reality of life within it. There are dozens – if not hundreds – of non-league football clubs that may, to a lesser or greater extent, get through their existence with something akin to the motto, purloined from Oscar Wilde, that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, but what might clubs actually get should they actually manage to attain this holy grail? A place in League Two is obviously progress from the Blue Square Premier, but there is a case for stating that its importance is, in this day and age, over-stated.
We could, for example, pause to consider the examples of the two clubs promoted into the Football League at the end of last season if we want to gauge what “Football League status” means in the twenty-first century. For Wimbledon, promoted through the play-offs after a penalty shoot-out win against Luton Town in May, there was of course a feeling that last season’s team was setting right the disgraceful decision of the FA’s three man committee, which effectively handed the Football League place of Wimbledon FC to a consortium because of a strong sales pitch. In the realpolitik of lower division football, though, such goodwill counts for little on the pitch and they may pine for the loss of Danny Kedwell and Steven Gregory this season. So, if Wimbledon ecstasy at getting their place in the Football League back was as understandable as it was predictable, what are we to make of last season’s Blue Square Premier champions, Crawley Town? It doesn’t seen unreasonable to suggest that, while the clubs performance last season on the pitch last season was outstanding (and we noted on here that the Steve Evans sideshow performed a disservice to the players of the club) they got lucky in some respects.
Regardless of their performance in the FA Cup at Old Trafford or the run that got them there, that the draw should have sent them to such a money-spinning venue was fortuitous in itself, and this will have greatly assisted them in reaching the League Two salary cap of sixty per cent of annual turnover. Still, though, questions remain over what the investors in the club – about whom we still know nothing and seem unlikely to at any point in the immediate future – and the question of what they are getting out of it remains unanswered. This says as much about League Two as it does about Crawley Town and their opaque finances. There was a time when the distinction between league and non-league football were clearly defined. There was next to no media coverage of the non-league game in the national media and access to the Football League was by invitation only. Since the introduction of automatic promotion and relation, though, the line between the two leagues has become increasingly blurred.
Still, though, the fear of this particular drop looms large in the minds of the supporters of League Two clubs. Supporters of Stockport County had a long time to prepare for this fall from grace last season, but for Lincoln City the shock of slipping through the trap door was put into sharp focus by the speed of their descent down the table during the last few weeks of the season. It was Barnet that survived by the skin of their teeth last time around, though their supporters will likely start the new season with a familiar feeling of trepidation. Meanwhile, several other clubs – including perennial pre-season favourites for relegation Macclesfield Town, Cheltenham Town and Morecambe – may also be glancing nervously over their shoulders as the new season starts, though on the basis of the events of recent seasons it wouldn’t even necessarily be a major shock to see one of these teams make the play-offs.
As ever, there are several clubs for whom offering much of a prediction for the coming season may prove dependent upon factors that we cannot currently account for yet. Plymouth Argyle, for example, could find themselves near the top or the bottom of the table depending on how their – still not formally concluded – financial travails pan out. Simliarly (yet at the same time very differently), Gillingham’s remarkable £14m debt hangs around the neck of the club like an albatross, and with Paul Scally having tabled a resolution to “amend the company’s articles of association “so as to remove the requirement for the company to hold AGMs”, it seems simultaneously unlikely that there will be a great deal of openness coming from the club in the near future and considerably more likely that civil war could well break out there at some point over the coming months. For all of this, though, some have tipped them for promotion this season.
There is also the potential for volatility elsewhere, as well. The decision of newly-relegated Swindon Town to hire such a divisive manager as Paolo Di Canio as their manager may, one day, be regarded by the history books as a masterstroke. On the other hand, however, it may not, and Bradford City may still seem like “too big a club” (as many will doubtlessly mutter over the coming months), but Bradford have found to their cost that reputations count for little at the sharp end of the Football League and are starting their fifth consecutive season at this level. They have felt good enough for promotion for most of the previous four seasons, but a lengthy stay in this division occasionally feels as if it has drained the colour from Valley Parade.
All of this leads us to an inevitable conclusion. Still waters run deep, and despite a facade that sometimes feels calm and placid, this year’s League Two has plenty of capability for upset, volatility, good and bad over the course of the coming season. It carries a mixture of clubs with memories of considerably happier days and those who may still be standing, blinking in the daylight and wondering exactly how it was that they ended up where they are. There lies within the potential for crisis and scandal, but also the potential for glory and delight. In other words, League Two carries with both the blights and the treasures of English football in a broader sense, and it is all the better for it.
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