The 2021 Pre-Season State of Play: League Two
So, the new season is upon us, and it’s time for a quick preview of the three divisions of the EFL. 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 end up in a bit of a pickle this season.
No-one would deny for a moment that the last eighteen months have been difficult, but the new EFL season starts this weekend with a full compliment of clubs, and a buzz of fevered excitement in the air. In some cases, the reasons for this are specific. Sutton United make their EFL debut amid considerable praise for the manner in which they upended a number of former League clubs to win last year’s National League title with a little to spare, while among the managerial coups of the summer of this division have been the appointment of Derek Adams – who surprised everybody by taking Morecambe up last season – by the recently underperforming Bradford City and the arrival of the experienced Kenny Jackett at Leyton Orient.
Generally speaking, though, there is something in the air at the start of a season which promises to be a little more like normal than the previous two. Despite the excitement at the new season starting with fans present (and a sense of relief at most clubs seeming to have gotten through an extended period without match day income relatively unscathed), though, there remains a feeling of peril for some clubs in League Two, and not all of these negative feelings have even been caused by the pandemic.
Last season saw Southend United and Grimsby Town tumble from the League, with both clubs ultimately being fundamentally hamstrung by poor ownership. Grimsby are now under new ownership and have cause to look forward to their return to the National League with some degree of optimism. Southend United, on the other hand, do not, and that’s a subject we’ll be returning to in the next few days. With these two clubs gone, though, who will be looking over their shoulders with a nervous look their faces?
We’ve covered Oldham on these pages before, of course. It’s now been twelve years since the club finished above halfway in a league table, and last season they ended up in 18th place in the table, nine points above the relegation places, but there remains considerable unhappiness at the ownership of Abdallah Lemsagam.
The club’s last set of company accounts (PDF) showed debts of £3.6m (down from £3.9m the year before), but with a warning that “The company’s ability to remain a going concern is dependent on the on-going support of the Chairman of the Board of Directors”. This, of course, was for the year to the end of June 2020, and with no match day income since then it’s unlikely that the club’s financial position has improved since then.
This ‘dependence’ upon the chairman’s financial goodwill doesn’t exonerate him from criticism of his running of the club, of course. At the start of June, an open letter was sent to the club, co-signed by 3,000 Oldham supporters, calling on Lemsagem to resign, and the entirely predictable lack of response from the club means that the uneasy feeling that has hung over Boundary Park for the last few years hasn’t lifted.
There are causes for cautious optimism. Manager Keith Curle replaced Harry Kewell in March, and he does at least know his way around League Two, but the trigger-happy nature of Lemsagam’s chairmanship with regard to managers – Curle became Oldham’s ninth manager in the last three years – means that there are few guarantees that he will still be in charge of the club by anything like the end of the season.
In addition to this, the club lost the services of their head of Academy Paul Murray last month. Murray had been one of the club’ few high spots of the last season, with his work in the club’s youth system leading to several players being fast-tracked into the first team. Considering that the development of young players is one of the few ways in which a lower division club can give itself real financial stability, his departure looks like yet more short-sighted thinking from a club which looks as rudderless as ever. Oldham have been hovering just above the League Two relegation places since falling from League One in 2018 and last season conceded the most goals in the division. Until new ownership can right this listing ship, Oldham seem as likely as not to have another season of struggle.
Swindon Town: There are, at least, some causes for optimism at The County Ground (there definitely weren’t at the start of the summer), but this doesn’t mean that Swindon are necessarily out of the woods just yet. Just a few weeks ago, the club had just nine players, no manager and a skeleton staff, but now that hated former owner Lee Power has now left the club and new owner Clem Morfuni’s arrival at the club has been extremely well-received by supporters, but no-one should underestimate what a terrible condition the club was in when he arrived, and the two weeks since then hasn’t been long to start fixing the club’s multitude of problems.
Morfuni’s first job was to find a head coach, and Ben Garner, whose previous employment came with Bristol Rovers, was appointed into that position almost immediately upon the takeover completing. Garner has been scrambling to build a squad for a 46 match league season since then and there have been movements into the club since his appointment, with further changes on the club’s commercial side as well. The announcement of new shirt sponsors and the appointment of legendary former striker Don Rogers as a club ambassador will breathe new life into the club, but the condition that Swindon were left in by Power and the short amount of time left to fix all of this damage means that Swindon’s primary job this season will be to avoid a second successive relegation.
Swindon’s lowest league position since joining the Football League came in 1960, when they finished second from bottom in Division Four. It’s possible that Garner’s team could gel immediately and that, with a wave of optimism behind them from a potentially large support, they could sail straight back into League One, but the odds at present seem to favour a season of restructure and transition. Still, ding dong the witch is dead, eh?
Honorable mentions: Bristol Rovers have made some decent signings this summer, but retain the services of Joey Barton as manager, and Barton has court cases coming up in the next few weeks which threaten to turn the club into a soap opera. I have a lot to say about Scunthorpe United and won’t spoil that for you by summarising that here, now. You’ll have to wait until next week for that. For now, though, suffice to say that they’ve finished 23rd (in League One), 20th and 22nd over their last three seasons, and there seem few signs of any improvement for this season.