The Absolute State Of Things: League Two, 2019/20
It’s difficult to believe that the events of the summer at Gigg Lane and The University of Bolton Stadium haven’t sent a cold chill through the entirety of League Two. If what the Bury team last season achieved last season results in the current state of the club, then what does that say about the benefits of getting promoted in the first place? It’s a simplistic explanation, of course. The Bury story doesn’t begin with Stewart Day, Steve Dale, or any of the current cast of miscreants involved in this miserable denouement. But it’s a fair point to raise. We all consume ourselves with obsessing over results, the hope of winning and the fear of relegation, but what is any of this worth if we all have to behave like prey animals over their continuing existence, always nervily looking over our shoulders for the next existential threat?
League Two last season proved that some assumptions can be upturned, under the entirely wrong circumstances. Bury might have got promoted, but that’s worth precisely nothing if the club is effectively unable to start the following season. At the other end of the table, the relegation of Notts County proved that size counts for nothing if the management of the club is riddled with incompetence. For middle-aged Notts supporters, the club’s ‘rightful’ position is probably in the top two divisions, but tradition and history count for little in the face of the likes of Alan Hardy, the Midas in reverse who broke that particular football club. Reputation, history and tradition count for little if the bills aren’t being paid on time.
Bury’s collapse has benefited some, though. Last season’s manager Ryan Lowe and five of their players have pitched at Home Park, strengthening last season’s relegated Plymouth Argyle team and making them amongst the favourites to get promoted back to League One again this season. Similarly placed are Scunthorpe United, who’ve appointed Paul Hurst as their manager. Hurst’s managerial career thus far has been been a bit of roller-coaster, with successful spells at Grimsby Town and Shrewsbury Town somewhat eclipsed by his decision to decamp to Ipswich Town at the end of the 2017/18 and pack the squad there with lower division players that he believed had the talent to thrive in the Championship. They didn’t, and he paid the price with his job. Now installed at Glanford Park, he has an excellent chance to start rebuilding with a squad plenty capable of making its current stay in League Two a brief one.
The decline of Bradford City over the last couple of years has gone relatively unreported. After reaching the League Cup final and then spending three years knocking on the door of a place in the Championship, the club found itself under the new ownership of Stefan Rupp ale Edin Rahic but listing badly. With Rupp barely attending matches, though, Rahic had been in control of the day-to-day running of the club and his decisions were accused of being self-serving. There were points at which he assumed the the roles of Chairman, Chief Executive and Director of Football all at the same time, while he appointed his wife as the club secretary despite her having no previous experience in such a position. It was also rumoured that he was interfering in team selection issues, whilst there was a steady flow of backroom staff out of the club reflecting what were widely reported as poor management skills.
The return of former chairman Julian Rhodes was a final nail in the coffin for Rahic, who finally quit his position in December, and manager Gary Bowyer has been embarking on a building project since then. James Vaughan, formerly of Everton, is an impressively high profile signature, whilst veteran striker Clayton Donaldson has arrived fro the sinking ship that is Bolton Wanderers. Not a player who has had that many problems scoring goals throughout his career, and a layer of experience that Bradford could do with this season.
Mansfield Town have been knocking on the door of promotion for the last couple of years now, and the arrival of Nicky Maynard, Andy Cook, Dion Donohue and Aidan Stone provide extra strength this time around, even if the arrival of Maynard – another refugee from the HMS Bury – at the club was a pretty embarrassing piece of PR by Mansfield, it will all be considered worthwhile if he can nudge them up a division this season. The two newly-promoted clubs both have reasonable hopes of further progression this season, but they come into the Football League off the back of very different experiences last time around. Leyton Orient’s achievement in winning the National League title was significant, but the shocking and premature death of manager Justin Edinburgh during the summer cast a pall over those celebrations. Orient have a legacy to honour and may be capable of grabbing one of the automatic promotion places, but even a place in the play-offs would be remarkable for a club that looked all but dead and buried just two or three years ago.
Money’s Salford City, we might think, should be a little disappointed at all their investment not leading to the National League title at the end of last season, but winning the play-off final seems to have postponed the feeling that Project Manchester United Junior Clone remains on track. It’s difficult not to wonder what we should make of so much money being poured into this club while Bury, for whom director Gary Neville’s late father worked for as the general manager and Club Secretary for many years, flounder on the brink of oblivion.
Another arriviste in the Football League is Forest Green Rovers, who may have had planning permission for an entirely wooden stadium turned down but are still harbouring hopes of promotion after having narrowly missed out at the end of last season. The loss of Christian Doidge to Hibernian and Reece Brown to Huddersfield Town, however, cant really really be played down and managing better than a play-off place might turn out to be a tall order this time around. Current League Two under-achievers Walsall and Swindon Town will also be hoping on an improvement upon last season, when Walsall were relegated and Swindon trod water when they might have hoped for better. Another team that only just fell short last season was Exeter City, and manager Matt Taylor has been one of the busiest of the summer, bringing in no fewer than nine new players. If they can find a winning formula from those resources, Exeter could be a decent bet for at least a play-off place.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, the field looks pretty open, this season. Macclesfield Town’s financial problems haven’t gone away as a result of their Sol Campbell-related miracle in avoiding relegation at the end of last season, and they may face as much of a challenge to stay up as they did last time around. Morecambe have been suspending gravity in the midst of ownership-related shenanigans for the last couple of years, and this season looks like being more difficult than the last turned out to be. The combination of issues over the last couple of seasons at Oldham Athletic, when coupled with the appointment of a Laurent Banide, a manager who has no experience of coaching in this country but who did once coach Monaco, starts to look the ingredients for a garbage fire waiting to catch light. Crawley Town, meanwhile, have run out of steam a little since the money well ran dry and might find themselves looking over their shoulders as the season progresses should they not get off to a strong start.
Like every other division of the Football League, however, the overwhelming feeling accompanying the start of this season is one of uncertainty. Who will be the next club to “do a Bolton” or “do a Bury”? Will either of those two clubs manage to save themselves over the course of the coming months? What new incredible innovations will the EFL come up with yet? What other ways will they find to piss clubs off? Who will be the leaders of this year’s revived “breakaway to form a Premier League 2″stories? Might we actually get a season when we can focus on the game itself rather than the chancers, carpet-baggers and speculators who routinely seek to strip it clean? The game is changing, and that doesn’t feel like good news for the smaller clubs of the Football League.