For the purpose of our Football League reviews, we will be taking a look at the respective divisions in an overall sense rather than trying to make predictions or inspecting the clubs concerned too closely. If you are here looking for in-depth predictions made by the supporters of each of the seventy-two clubs of the Football League, we would recommend the venerable When Saturday Comes and its annual pre-season preview, which is available now from all good newsagents, or alternatively this collaborative project between two Football League blogs, The Seventy Two and The Two Unfortunates.
League One is the junction at which all of English footballs avenues meet. At one end of the spectrum are the likes of Charlton Athletic and the two Sheffield clubs, who have fallen from their once lofty perches and are now trying to figure a way to get back to where they feel that they deserve to be. At the other sit the likes of Stevenage, who joined an increasingly lengthy list of the clubs that have shot their way into the Football League and then found that League Two wasn’t quite as much of a challenge as they might have thought that it would be. The big and the small, the young and the old – Wednesday were formed in 1867, Stevenage in 1976. It can be, as Norwich City have found, a launchpad to a return to the Premier League. Alternatively, it can be the start of a rocky descent. Clubs are theoretically – or, in the case of several clubs in recent years, literally – only two relegations from non-league football.
Last season in this division was dominated by the south coast. Brighton & Hove Albion’s sunny optimism (brought about in no small part on account of the club’s now-completed move to Falmer) were, coupled with the managerial stylings of Gus Poyet, enough to sweep them to the championship with room to spare while Southampton, who had started the season with the jolt of having to mourn the loss of the man that had bought them from the brink of bankruptcy, Markus Liebherr, came through strongly during the second half of the season to eventually find themselves in the runners-up spot with a points buffer to spare. The promotion of Peterborough United through the play-offs was a little more of a surprise, but there was also plenty of over-achievement to be seen in League One last season, and for a handful of clubs the question to be asked as we kick off again is perhaps that of whether last season’s adventures can be repeated.
Both Exeter City and Leyton Orient came within touching distance of making the most unlikely of play-off appearances, and Orient also had the windfall of an FA Cup run which saw a last minute goal force a replay against Arsenal, and all the attendant financial benefits that come with it. They may be quietly confident of repeating last seasons successes, but for Exeter to manage as much will be a tall order. Making up a trio of pre-seasons relegation favourites who found themselves unexpectedly glancing at the league table with half an eye on the play-off places were Rochdale, for whom another comfortable mid-table finish would be more an achievement than they would be given credit for. It took Dale thirty-six years to finally get themselves moving in an upward direction, and to say that they have made the most of this opportunity would be something of an understatement.
For many, though, this year’s key battle will be the internecine war of attrition between the two Sheffield clubs. For both, League One football may be considered a low point in their recent histories and the arrival of childhood Wednesday supporter Danny Wilson at Bramall Lane has added a little extra bite to an already bitter rivalry. While it is not completely implausible to see them completing a one-two finish in the division, there are sounds reasons why one or other of them might fail – on the one hand, the itchy trigger finger of Wednesday’s new owner Milan Mandaric, with the hangover from an unexpectedly terrible season last year for United – and there will be other strong contenders this season. It may yet prove to be that one or both of them may miss out this time around. The other promotion candidates may include Preston North End, whose relegation at the end of last season marked the crowning point of a disastrous ten months both on and off the pitch, Huddersfield Town, those defeat to Peterborough United in last year’s play-off final may have left their supporters wondering whether they are destined to be ever the bridesmaid and never the bride in League One, and Charlton Athletic, who have taken something of a gamble in appointing a club legend in the form of former defender Chris Powellas manager, but seem to be in a stronger position than before after an underwhelming last couple of seasons.
Last season, a considerable number of the Football Leagues gravest financial crises were centred upon League One. Both Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday sailed close to extinction, whilst there were also unsavoury rumours from other clubs in the division. Plymouth were relegated but Wednesday survived and are, in the medium term, probably more likely to flourish again than not. Other likely stories to continue to rumble on over the course of this season may include Leyton Orient’s ongoing battle against West Ham United’s acquisition of the Olympic Stadium and the circumstances surrounding Wycombe Wanderers’ proposed relocation from their ground. There may well be, of course, plenty more that we do not yet know about that may (or, perhaps taking the more realistic attitude towards this, will) find out about over the coming months.
That these crises have, in recent years, seemed to hit League One with such regularity proves both something and nothing. It is entirely reasonable to argue that the constiuency of this division, which comprises larger clubs that have fallen on fallow times on the pitch but may be hamstrung by contracts agreed with players during happier times mixed with smaller ones for whom the tendency to overspend to keep up with them, means that there is a likelihood that insolvency or near-insolvency will be a fact of life in League One. On the other hand, though, although there have been certain common themes between clubs finding themselves in severe financial difficulty in recent years, the truth of the matter is that there are as many different reasons for clubs getting into financial trouble as there are clubs getting into trouble in the first place. Those amongst us looking in from the outside should hope for a quieter year of things during the 2011/12 season, but there is little evidence, on the basis of recent years, to merely expect that this will happen.
The good news is that the clubs in League Two that have been prudent have often been rewarded. Exeter City, owned by a Supporters Trust which turned the club to such an extent that it is not far from unrecognisable from the shell of a club that it took over in 2003, for example. It is to be hoped that more clubs will follow their example, though there is not much reason to believe that they will. The “smaller” clubs of the division, broadly speaking, had a relatively successful time of things last year, but it remains likely that financial management will only get more and more difficult as time moves on and the temptation to keep up with the Jones gets greater and greater. There are plenty of stories that demonstrate the folly of this, though. Notts County were perhaps the most extreme example of it during their promotion-winning League Two season two years ago. The financial reality that swept in after that particular party had ridden out of town left a hangover which meant that the club came perilously close to getting relegated back at the end of their first season. They now seem to be back on an even keel and at least they will now get to see their one hundred and fiftieth anniversary next year.
At one end of League One, then, lies the possibility of being one season from the Premier League whilst, at the other is the possibility that two bad seasons could end with the curtailment of a tradition of League football that, for some clubs, may go back as far as the nineteenth century. Within this environment sit twenty-four clubs, any of whom could have tales of glory or disaster to tell by next May. There are favourites and there are outsiders, but League One promises, yet again, to be a fascinating division to watch over the coming months.
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