Well, there are less than twenty-four hours to go until the start of the new football season, and I managed to get distracted somewhat by Ken Bates last night. Now, there’s a statement that I wouldn’t care to have to repeat in this lifetime. On Wednesday, I gave you my, ahem, “expert” analysis on the Premier League and the Championship. Tonight, it’s the turn of Leagues One and Two, the Blue Square Premier, and the Blue Square North and South. That’s the Conference, in old money, in case you were wondering.
The one thing that I can guarantee is that this season, as with last season, the lower division will provide at least as much interest as the top divisions, if not more. Each of this evening’s leagues are fascinatingly tightly poised, and the chances that they will all go to the wire. Honestly, if you completely eschew this stuff in favour of Big Football, you’re really missing out. Each division always turns out to be a mini soap opera in itself and, this season, there will be as many chisel-jawed heroes and pantomime villains as ever. Last season was absolutely brilliant in each of these divisions, and there’s no reason to think that this season won’t be just as good as ever.
League One: Looking down the list of clubs in this year’s League One, I can’t help but think that it’s a very aesthetically pleasing line-up this season. There’s an interesting mixture of very big clubs (Leeds United and Nottingham Forest) and very small clubs (Cheltenham Town and Yeovil Town), stopping off at all points in between. There are clubs here that have won the League (Huddersfield Town and Leeds United), made Wembley cup finals (Swindon Town, Brighton & Hove Albion, Luton Town and Millwall), and teams that are so anonymous that they’re not even named after anywhere in particular (Port Vale). It’s the purest cross-section of clubs that there is in English (possibly even European) football. At the top of the table, this year must surely be Nottingham Forest’s year. Casting aside for a moment the insane delusion of grandeur that is their proposed 50,000-seater stadium, Forest have signed Neil Lennon (a player surely too good for this division) and shipped out much of their dead wood (John Curtis, for example, continues the downward trajectory that is his career with a move to QPR – up one division, but most likely for one season only).
Picking a team to join them is a bit of a lottery. Many of the teams that I would have picked (such as Swansea City and Carlisle United) have lost key players, but I’ll go for Luton Town to take the second automatic spot. Kevin Blackwell (one of football’s ultimate “wrong men in the wrong place and at the wrong time”) will be desperate to start rebuilding his reputation, and the squad that he has assembled is brimming over with experience. Darren Currie, Paul Furlong, Paul Peschisolido, Chris Perry and Don Hutchison have all pitched up at Kenilworth Road, and if they can all roll back the years one more time, they’ll be a tough nut to crack. The play-offs could feature any four from a dozen clubs. I’ll go for… Doncaster Rovers. In their first full season in a new stadium, and decent players like Neil Sullivan, Richie Wellens and Sam Hird coming in, they are very well-placed to build on last season’s mid-table finish.
Relegation is equally tricky. None of the promoted sides look like doing much but, with many of last season’s relegation favourites managed to save themselves last year, so a massively undignified rush to avoid the drop could be on the cards. I’m going to pick Leeds United, and for purely practical reasons. A threadbare squad, considerable discontent around Elland Road, a manager who seems to have survived the last couple of seasons on his reputation and his links to Ken Bates and the fifteen point deduction must surely do for them (if they make it past the middle of September, that is). Other than that, I fear for Leyton Orient (whom I have an inexplicable soft spot for), Bristol Rovers are on a very limited budget, and Southend United lost Freddy Eastwood and Efe Sodje during the summer, and they could well turn out to be very costly losses.
Random League One Prediction: Ken Bates designs a third kit for Leeds United which is all-black and has a cape attached to the back of it.
League Two: I don’t need to say much by way of a introduction to League Two, except to say that strength and professionalism in such depth is the one thing that English football can be genuinely proud. I fear that the forces of darkness could conspire against all right-thinking people and promote Franchise this year. With a bit of luck, no-one checked properly and their new stadium (or, should I say, multi-purpose entertainment arena) will turn out to be built on an ancient Indian burial ground or something. Lincoln City’s failure to go up through the play-offs has become a lower division joke. They have strengthened their squad again, and should be good enough to go up this time. The rest are much of a muchness. Peterborough United are inexplicably amongst the bookmakers’ favourites, so I’ll go for them (scientific, huh?), and Wycombe Wanderers, who have responded to the fact that they collapsed in the second half of last season by signing eleven new players – the stand-out of whom is Gary Holt, from Nottingham Forest. The play-offs are real Pin The Tail On The Donkey territory, so I’ll go for Shrewsbury, on the basis that they only fell one place short last season in the play-offs.
At the bottom of the table, the biggest fear that the clubs have to conquer is fear itself. Relegation to the Conference is not the end of the world and, with Setanta showing 80 live Conference matches per season from this year on, the fifth division might even get a higher profile than the fourth. That said, of course, no-one wants to get relegated, and Macclesfield Town & Accrington Stanley (who are, coincidentally, the new proud owners of AFC Wimbledon’s Roscoe D’Sane) are plenty bad enough to go down. Mind you, Bury, Bradford City, Brentford and Barnet are as well.
Random League Two Prediction: Chester City and Chesterfield to merge, forming a new club called “Chesterchesterfield City”.