The 2021 Pre-Season State of Play: League One
So, the new season is upon us, and it’s time for a quick preview of the three divisions of the EFL (League Two is here, for those of you who missed it). There will be plenty of these floating about, so I’m going to be focusing – as I have before – on these being a ‘state of play’ series, with a focus on two clubs in each division which might well be worth keeping an eye on – and not necessarily for the best of reasons – this season.
It says something about the the financial structures of football in this country that one-third of the teams competing in this year’s third tier have, at some point or other, played Premier League football. Of those eight – Wimbledon (or Milton Keynes – argue amongst yourselves over that), Bolton, Charlton, Ipswich, Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland and Wigan – it seems fair to say that almost all of them have been at least partially mismanaged during that time.
Relegation from the Premier League into the Championship is a fact of life for three clubs every year. Relegation into League One following this, however, isn’t, and such state of affairs usually hints at deeper issues within the running of a club. Fortunately, though, it does tend to be as far as most troubled former Premier League clubs fall. Of the 24 clubs in League Two, only Swindon Town and Bradford City have played in the Premier League, and there remain no clubs that have fallen from the Premier League into the non-league game, despite the apparent best efforts of some clubs’ owners at time to make this happen.
League One is perhaps best understood as the intersection at which the whole of professional football in England meets. There are former European trophy winners, FA Cup winners and league champions in here, as well as stalwarts who never seem to have strayed from their current positions and those that have journeyed up from the non-league game and managed to hang around. There are clubs which have new owners with grandiose plans, and there is a club that is owned by its own supporters. There are clubs on hard times and clubs living their best lives. All life is here, and it’s a division which doesn’t always play by the socially stratified rules of wild west capitalist football. Yeovil Town, Wycombe Wanderers and Burton Albion are among the smaller clubs who’ve managed to outshine the bigger clubs in League One in recent years.
The top end of the table is likely to be stuffed with clubs holding lofty ambitions. Ipswich Town, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Wigan Athletic and Charlton Athletic will all start the season with aspirations of promotion. Even a couple of who may be considered ‘the smaller’ clubs, Wycombe Wanderers and Lincoln City, have had a taste of the Championship or a close shave with it, and there are others too, such as Portsmouth and Oxford United. Ipswich have spent heavily and start as favourites, but nothing seems guaranteed in a tight-looking division.
Sheffield Wednesday are the first of my picks as the division’s ‘interesting’ clubs to watch in League One. It’s now been 21 years since Sheffield Wednesday were in the Premier League, and people may already have forgotten just how big a club they were. Certainly the number of people who can remember their previous triumphs is dwindling. They were The Wednesday, a club so grand that they didn’t even add a location to their name until they’d been in existence for six and a half decades. They won the First Division Championship in their first year as Sheffield Wednesday, in 1929/30, with the FA Cup following five years later. They’ve won neither since, though – just one League Cup, in 1991.
Placed within this context, being in the third tier is a sign of something having gone very wrong at Sheffield Wednesday. At the end of last season, The Athletic’s Nancy Frostrick was describing Dejon Chansiri’s time in charge at Hillsborough as ‘Rudderless and not fit for purpose’. She makes a persuasive argument, outlining how a big a psychological fracture the club had suffered after losing the semi-final of the 2017 Championship play-off to Huddersfield Town, mixing with serious mismangement going on behind the scenes at the club.
There have been transfer embargoes, players getting paid late, and a points deduction for selling their ground at over market value to themselves to try and skirt around the EFL financial rules which limit their permitted annual losses. Last month, the club posted its accounts for the year to the end of July 2020. They reported a loss of £24m after player sales over the twelve months to this date, and revealed that the club is now paying £2.5m a year to Chansiri in rent.
With no match day revenue over the last eighteen months, it’s not difficult to believe that they could be even worse next time around, and the prognosis for the future doesn’t look much better, either. Their revenues will have dropped with relegation, both in commercial terms and the amount they receive in television money. They’ve also had to accept a suspended six point deduction for this season, should they build up any wage arrears before January.
Over the course of the summer, though, something interesting has happened. The transfer embargo against the club was eventually lifted, and manager Darren Moore hoovered up almost an entire team’s worth of new players… and the supporters have rallyed around the manager. Moore was seriously ill with complications from Covid earlier this year. There was a substantial outpouring of love towards him when he was ill, and bringing in nine (at the time of writing… I think) new players seems to have breathed fresh life into the club’s support.
He now really has a challenge ahead, though. A couple of weeks is not a long time to get an entire professional football team playing as… a team, and much may come to depend on how they start and ow they might react, should things start slowly, which would be completely understandable. If he can pull this off it will be a significant achievement, both from a coaching perspective but also in getting the club back in the direction that it needs to be going, if they are to ever get their finances in order again without a huge injection of someone else’s money.
But the ultimate questions regarding Sheffield Wednesday’s season are what make them interesting. Has the mismanagement just… stopped? If the club’s accounts looked pretty bad this time last year, what on earth might they look like by now? What happens if the team doesn’t gel, and how firm is the commitment that the players will be paid on time every month? Is there a plan, in the event of the six point deduction being triggered? Will the owner resist the temptation to get trigger-happy, should the team start slowly? To what extent can Sheffield Wednesday’s team defy odds that didn’t look great, just a few weeks ago? We can only hope that a media company is behind the scenes, making a movie of it all for distribution to a streaming platform once the dust has settled.
And then there’s Sunderland, a club who have been labouring under a cloud for more than a decade. They’re under new ownership now, in the form of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, who took control of the club in February after a protracted takeover bid. Louis-Dreyfus’ vision for the club is ‘data driven’ and pre-season form hasn’t been too bad, but Sunderland are now starting their fourth season in League One, and the pressure to get promoted doesn’t seem to have dissipated at all.
That pressure comes with the territory. Sunderland had sold 21,000 season tickets for this season by June, but the atmosphere within the club’s support may be best described as “jumpy”. Consider, for example, this thread from the long-running fans’ forum Ready To Go. It’s eleven pages long at the time of writing, and there are numerous references throughout to it not being the only one to have been posted in the last few days.
Manager Lee Johnson stated a couple of weeks ago that he still needed more players for this season, and these reinforcements not arriving have prompted another wave of skittishness ahead of tomorrow’s opening match at home to Wigan Athletic. Twelve players – nine on contract and three loanees – left the club during the summer and tetchiness has been growing among the club’s support that they’re not quite ready for the new season to start yet.
Yet, despite apparently not having any full-backs worthy of the name and not having replaced Charlie Wyke, who scored 31 goals for them in all competitions last season and will start, ironically enough, against them for Wigan, Sunderland remain joint-favourites with the bookmakers alongside Ipswich to win League One this season. The new owners at both Ipswich and Wigan have spent money this summer, and Sunderland’s relative transfer market inertia may be leaving the club at a significant disadvantage to at least those two, but still the levels of expectation remain.
The transfer window doesn’t close until the end of the month, but this air of skittishness could pose a problem should Sunderland start their season more slowly than their fans expect. It already feels as though patience is likely to be extremely thin on the ground this season across the board, and that poses a particular problem for a club at which transfer activity has not been as great as many would have liked, and where the club is already in a position that most consider to be below its station.
There is going to be disappointment for a lot of clubs in League One this season. The numbers don’t add up. It’s a highly competitive division and there remain only three promotion places on offer, one through the relative lottery of the play-offs, of course, and both Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, despite their radically different levels of optimism, both sit within this pack. And such is the madness of the EFL at the moment that all of this worry, all of those churning feelings in the stomach, are in the pursuit of a place in the Championship, where the desperation becomes all the greater, as the Premier League starts to sneak into view on the horizon. It should come with a health warning, really.