The Absolute State Of Things – League One, 2019/20
When we talk about inequality in football, we tend to talk in pretty broad brush strokes. The gap between the top six in the Premier League. The gap between the Premier League and the rest. The gap between the Championship and the rest. Inequality, however, exists within all divisions and this this is just as apparent in League One as in any other division, and this summer it feels all the more accentuated for the plight of the two clubs who will start the new season at the bottom of the table and will stay there for at least a few weeks, at best.
At the time of writing, we know that Bury will not be starting their season on the opening day, and are awaiting confirmation of whether their second, against Accrington Stanley, will go ahead. The deadline is noon today for the club’s owner Steve Dale to confirm how it’s going to fund the CVA agreed a couple of weeks ago to save the club. Dale’s response to missing the first deadline of last Monday evening, a rambling, barely coherent rant in which just about everybody apart from Dale himself was blamed for Bury’s current plight, didn’t fill that many people with optimism that he’ll come good on the League’s demands by today. We shall see.
Bolton Wanderers, meanwhile, will at least start the season, though it is obviously concerning that they had to rely upon a £2m loan from the PFA in order to do so. Their position could, however, yet deteriorate further. The club still hasn’t been sanctioned for failing to play its last fixture of last season Brentford yet, and it would be completely unsurprising to see a further points deduction added to the twelve already deducted over their insolvency. After all, what would be the point in fining them?
On top of this, the club’s first team squad remains as threadbare as ever, and these continuing extra-curricular activities can only be having a disruptive effect upon their current players. Considering everything, though, most Bolton fans would likely be happy with the modest return of completing the season without too much further humiliation, which doesn’t seem like too much to ask of the Football Gods.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, former Premier League names are jostling with each other to do something about wiping out the memories of a 2018/19 season that didn’t exactly go according to plan. Sunderland’s defeat at the hands of Charlton Athletic in the play-off final last May put the seal on a season that didn’t live up to expectations. The problem was a failure to kill off games, of which nineteen league draws was a fairly clear symptom.
Dropping £4m on Will Griggs in the January transfer window was presumably supposed to correct this, but four goals in eighteen games wasn’t the return that the club would have expected for such an outlay and Griggs will be expected to beat that goals to games ratio comfortably this time around. Everybody knows that everything should be in place at the Stadium of Light, but with that knowledge comes the burden of expectation. Sunderland couldn’t quite cope with that last season, and the margins are usually thin, and the best that can be said about that is that last season was their transitional year.
Still, at least Sunderland did better than Portsmouth in the end last season, but the atmosphere around Fratton Park feels a little more relaxed than it does on Wearside at the moment. They’ve had a summer of modest recruitment, and the biggest question mark hanging over the club had been concerning Jamal Lowe, who attracted the interest of several Championship clubs before finally departing for Wigan Athletic yesterday. It’s tough to lose a player son influential over the team as Lowe had been last season, but keeping him at the club when he didn’t want to be there would have been a spectacular mis-step, and at least Portsmouth have opportunity to rearrange whilst avoiding further stability-troubling speculation bleeding into their first few games.
Completing the Triumvirate of Big Clubs™ expected to be challenging near the top of the table come the end of the season are Ipswich Town, who are playing at this level for the first time since 1957 following their relegation and will be hoping for a quick return to the division that was their home for such a long time. Last summers frantic transfer activity under Paul Hurst was about as abject a failure as one could expect, but most of the players brought in at that time are still at Portman Road now, with the opportunity to prove themselves at a slightly lower level. If they can grasp this particular nettle, Ipswich supporters should get a welcome break from the torpor that coated their last few years in the Championship, but both Sunderland and Portsmouth serve as warnings that getting promoted from this division will not be as straightforward as some may believe it to be.
Two returning heroes may prove to be the keys to whether Peterborough United can challenge for a return to the Championship after a break of seven years. Manager Darren Ferguson returned to London Road in January for his third spell in change of the club, and his previous record of three previous promotions and a Football League Trophy during his previous times there bode well for an improvement upon last seasons seventh placed finish. The other returnee is George Boyd, who returns to the club at which he built his reputation after a gap of six years. Boyd will be 34 years old in October and was never the quickest player on the pitch, but he’s also an intelligent and creative player, exactly the sort who should be able to put his considerable experience to good use this time around.
The man who Ferguson replaced at Peterborough United was financial irregularities’ Steve Evans, who has now arrived at Gillingham. Arguably more concerning for Gills supporters is the departure of last season’s top goalscorer Tom Eaves for Hull City. Eaves scored twenty-one league goals last season, and that his replacements haven’t exactly set hearts a-fluttering is something of a concern, as are the persistent rumours that chairman Paul Scally, who hasn’t always been great for the club but is at least a known quantity, might yet be quitting because of the amount of abuse he’s been receiving from supporters (unverified) also add a small amount of doubt to the start of their new season.
Another crisis club du jour, Coventry City, face another year away from home – their second, of course, following the club’s toy-throwing decampment to Northampton Town’s Sixfields in 2013. That journey was 34 miles each way whilst their journeys for home matches gris season will be just the 18 miles each way this time, but that feels like small consolation, considering everything. Coventry supporters have responded to this by buying – as confirmed by the club earlier this week – 2,800 season tickets for this season, but what sort of crowds the club will be attracting in total this season remains anybody’s guess, for now. Hedge fund owners Sisu will be pretty pleased with the way that all of this is panning out. They still haven’t provided anything more than optimistic-looking drawings of new homes so far, though, so the club’s long-term future remains as uncertain as ever. Nice kit for this season, mind.
There’s considerably more optimism going into the new season, meanwhile, at Blackpool, where the Oyston family have finally been cauterised from the club and the small matter of the football can finally start occupying everyone’s minds again. Simon Grayson, last seen with a rictus grin as Sunderland continued their implosion around him two years ago and then failing to to stabilise a listing Bradford City on a short-term contract last year, has returned as manager to the club that he took into the Championship more than a decade ago, and there is further cause for optimism with the arrival of Sullay Kaikai. Kaikai was an extremely highly-rated as a youth player at Crystal Palace before his career lost its way a little, but if he can fulfil a proportion of his undoubted potential, Blackpool could have uncovered a hidden gem. If the power of positive thinking counts for anything, Blackpool could be the surprise package of the year season in this division.
There’s also considerable optimism at Doncaster Rovers upon the appointment of Darren Moore as the club’s new manager earlier in the summer, it doesn’t look as though the rebuilding of his squad has yet been completed and matching last seasons achievement of making the semi-finals of the play-offs will be a considerable challenge. Just up the road at Rotherham United, meanwhile, relegation from the Championship at the end of last season was no great surprise – the recent history of this club may be best described as unable to decide whether a Championship club or a League One club – and the £400,000 signing of Freddie Ladapo from Plymouth Argyle is certainly eye-catching. Ladapo scored nineteen goals for Plymouth last season despite their relegation from this division, so he may well be capable of building upon that excellent return. Burton Albion, meanwhile, reacted very positively to their 9-0 humping in the semi-finals of the League Cup in January at hands of Manchester City and ended their season in ninth place in the table, and with a little tweaking they might even be good for a play-off place this time around.
Then, of course, there’s the assortment of clubs who it might not be surprising to see either pushing for a play-off place or looking over their shoulders at relegation. Shrewsbury Town have had a curious couple of seasons, almost getting promoted to the Championship two years ago before almost getting relegated last time around. Still the arrivals of Steve Morison and the young Chelsea player George Caulkin both look like interesting acquisitions for a club that could probably do with the relative peace and quiet of a season in mid-table.
Fleetwood Town, meanwhile, do much right (their cheapest season ticket for this season, for example, is a mere £170) but have misstepped on appointing Joey Barton as manager, and he will prove a distraction again in October when he appears on court on charges of assault. Josh Morris is the star signing of the summer, an experienced player at this level whose permanent signature for the club this summer demonstrates the ambition of this particular club to maintain their upward trajectory. They could make the playoffs, providing Barton doesn’t prove to be too much of a distraction.
It’s been said that they’ve been trying to maintain calm heads in Lincoln following two consecutive promotions, but the Cowley brothers are still there and City have made potentially one of the best transfer moves of the summer in persuading Jack Payne to Sincil Bank. Payne was impressive during Huddersfield Town’s promotion season three years ago, but the Premier League squeezed him out and he’d been attracting strong interest from a lot of clubs.
Tranmere Rovers were promoted with them from the National League and they were again last season, though a third successive promotion looks like a slightly taller order for them. Having made the round trip from this division to the National League and back again in six seasons – two successive relegations, three years in the National League and then one season to get promoted again – a comfortable mid-table season would probably be good for them.
Then we come to the bottom of the the table. Bolton Wanderers seem to be doomed (and yes, it would be one of the greatest achievements of the season should manager Phil Parkinson be able to defy the laws of gravity and keep them up this season, whilst the biggest question facing Bury (who have, in addition to everything else, already lost promotion-winning manager Ryan Lowe and most of his team) is whether they’ll start and/or finish the season.
All of this leaves just the two relegation places. Wimbledon’s escape at the end of last season was one of the most remarkable of recent years, but this doesn’t alter the fact that the club is at a huge financial disadvantage compared to most other clubs in the division and that there’s still a chance that last year’s top goalscorer Joe Pigott could leave the club before the closure of this transfer window. The condition of Bolton and Bury boosts their hopes somewhat, but anything above the lower reaches would still represent something of an achievement.
Another relative minnow that swam against the tide last season was Accrington Stanley, whose biggest summer cost was redevelopment work to their ground. Still, the combination of manager John Coleman – who’s now been the club’s manager for all bar two of the last twenty years – and Andy Holt, who remains probably the clearest thinking and most honest club on social media, know the club inside-out. It’s likely to be a tall order for them to stay in the division, but any failure to manage this seems unlikely to stop the club being exactly what it should be, an outstanding local asset run for the benefit of the local community by people who really care about it.
Jonson Clarke-Harris scored eleven in sixteen games to steer Bristol Rovers clear of relegation last season, and repeating their fifteenth place finish this time would likely considered reasonable return this time around. Rochdale have also had a couple of difficult seasons, and will be glad of somewhere closer to a quiet life. Southend United, however, don’t seem to have strengthened a great deal over the summer and they cut it extremely fine, last time around. Wycombe Wanderers are limited by budget, and may well be dependent upon Bolton Wanderers and Bury performing down to expectations if they are to pull through again.
But perhaps that’s the ultimate takeaway from this chaotic start to the League Two season. For the remainder of the twenty-two clubs in the division, two of the relegation places are almost certainly occupied – there’ll be a story or two in it should either not at least end this season with relegation, from the positions they’re in right now – but this can’t be completely taken for granted, whilst the idea of something like this making a team fatally complacent sounds far-fetched. But it’s a cloud over the division that shouldn’t be airbrushed away. The plight of these two clubs do anything about it emerges with a great deal of credit.
The previous owner was reckless to the point of… well, we see what happens with regard to that. What happened to Lendy and to Stewart Day should be thoroughly investigated. The current owner has been ill and wasn’t fully aware of the scale of the club’s problems, but he has now been there for for than eight months and that is plenty of time for someone who claims to be good at this sort of thing to start being good at it. That he is even in place should redden the faces of every single person at the EFL.
A flagrant breach of their Owners & Directors Test – a document that has already been criticised for being too weak – has been completely disregarded, with no apparent sanctions having been taken. The share transfer just went through, and the EFL just stood by, until the very start of the season. It’s pathetic. And complete radio silence from the FA only drags their names through the mud as well. The peer-to-peer lending company failed by putting such a huge liability against one person, and that person was… the reckless former owner. This is a systematic failure and the victims, the staff of the club – both playing and non-playing – and the supporters, are the least to blame at all.
But that’s where we are now. The lower divisions of the Football League increasingly feel like a playground for would-be robber barons, inhabited by wild west capitalists, regulated in the loosest sense possible and funded by a combination of pay TV, gambling companies and an increasingly alienated group of supporters who don’t trust any of them to do the right thing by either them or the clubs they represent. League One kicks off tomorrow afternoon at three o’clock, and we’ll all be there regardless.