The wait is nearly over. Although the Premiership may not kick off for another week, the real action of the football league starts this weekend, and the race for the respective titles is, in most cases, as close as it’s ever been.
So, leaving the Championship aside for one moment, let Soccerlens be your guide to the runners and riders in Leagues 1 and 2 and the Blue Square Premier.
Promotion: It’s hard to look past Leeds United for the title this season. They’ve got the money, the players and – in Gary McAllister – a very canny manager. Had it not been for their points deduction they would have been joining Swansea in the Championship this season and, if anything, have strengthened their squad over the summer rather than seeing any of their best players go. The title is theirs to lose.
The other big beast of the division is Leicester City, in the third tier of English football for the first team in their history. Chairman Milan Mandaric won’t tolerate this for long and promotion is a must for the Foxes; in manager Nigel Pearson they’ve got a serious, focused boss who has made some strong signings. There’s a good mixture of youth, experience and the additions of Jack Hobbs and Kerra Gilbert on loan gives them a couple of future Premiership stars. They may hit a few sticky patches but if everything clicks, Leicester’s stay in League One should be a short one.
Play-offs: Beyond the division’s ‘big two’, there’s a whole host of teams who will fancy themselves for promotion or, in a couple of cases, to snatch the second automatic slot. Huddersfield United should be in the mix, with several experienced and big name signings this summer, plus an old head in charge in the shape of Stan Ternent. Fans of other sides are increasingly referring to Huddersfield as this season’s surprise package, but it should come as no surprise if they end up in the mix come the end of the season.
Southend United have become a bit of a yo-yo team in recent years and could consider themselves unlucky to miss out on the play-offs last season. But with the nucleus of that Shrimpers young, hungry squad still intact, a few astute signings should see Southend comfortably into the play-offs.
Staying in Essex, ex-Championship side Colchester should also be in the hunt for a play-off spot as they chase an immediate return to the second tier. The U’s have always had a fantastic togetherness about them and while there may not be too many names in the squad that leap out at you, there’s enough strength and depth to make Colchester contenders.
Finally, there’s always one of the promoted teams that carry through the form that saw them go up, and Peterborough are the most likely of the four new boys to achieve this. They have money and ambition and a a supremely dangerous set of attacking options in Aaron McLean, George Boyd and Craig Mackail-Smith. The MK Dons may have taken the title last season, and should have a solid season, but the Posh are the side that looks most likely to achieve a back-to-back promotion.
Watch out for: Oldham Athletic have been the nearly men of League One for several seasons now, always threatening the play-offs but never quite making it. The Latics have been quietly going about their summer business with a few understated, but solid, signings. Could this finally be the year they crack the top seven?
Relegation: Cheltenham Town struggled last season, only avoiding relegation of the last day of the season and 2008/09 looks like it’s going to be another long season for the Robins. They lack a quality striker up front (although have been linked with Steve Brooker, Lloyd Owusu, and Marc Richards) and their defence still looks suspect. Manager Keith Downing is building for the future with young players, but for many of these it may be a season too early.
Crewe Alexandra were another team who narrowly avoided relegation last season and are still looking short in a couple of areas. Striker Nicky Maynard has been sold to Bristol City and has been replaced by the enigmatic Anthony Elding. Meanwhile, Gary Roberts’ disciplinary problems leave the Railwaymen looking light in the centre of the park. Crewe’s saving grace, as ever, is their fantastic youth setup that could yet yield another gem to save them from the drop, but it’ll be a big ask.
Meanwhile, Hereford United fans were ecstatic after securing the final automatic promotion spot from League 2 last season but there may not be as much to cheer about this season. Manager Graham Turner has stated the Bulls still need several more players to improve the squad, and although Gary Breen will add experience in defence, it looks like it may be a long season on the Welsh border.
As ever, there’ll be a host of terms hoping to avoid the dreaded fourth relegation spot from League 2. Newly-promoted Stockport should have enough to keep them out of trouble, Leyton Orient could well surprise bigger teams, while Hartlepool may find this season a bit close for comfort.
But, for me, the club making a return to League 2 will be Yeovil Town. The Glovers have never really recovered from their play-off loss to Blackpool two seasons ago and have struggled to replace several of the stars from that season. Many of manager Russell Slade’s signings are raw and unproven non-league talent and while they could come good next season, that season looks likely to be in League 2.
Promotion: There’s no nailed-on certainty for the title in the fourth tier with a number of sides capable of challenging for the honours this season, making a title prediction difficult but, sticking out my neck, Bradford are my tip for the top. The biggest club in the team, in terms of recent history and support, the Bantams had an indifferent season last time around but have spent money and made some astute signings. The Boulding brothers will add a touch of quality and their defence looks a lot tighter than last season.
But Bradford will have plenty of challengers for that top spot and Shrewsbury Town will be one of those. The Shrews had a cash injection over the summer and have brought in plenty of new faces – a mixture of youth and experience – in the close season. If manager Paul Simpson can get these signings to gel then Shrewsbury will be a real force in League 2 and should nab an automatic promotion spot at the least.
The final automatic spot will be tightly contested but Chesterfield will be quietly confident of bagging third. In Lee Richardson they have a young, intelligent manager and Jack Lester is a good bet to finish as the league’s top scorer. Injuries will be key, as the squad is lacking in depth, and the defence could do with tightening but, regardless, they will be a hard team to beat.
Play-offs: Darlington are another team tipped for promotion this season and they have a wise head in Dave Penney as manager. However, their squad is looking a bit thin and although there’s been a few strong summer signings they may have to settle for the play-off lottery.
Wycombe are a team that knows all about play-off lotteries, having lost in the semi-finals last year. They have a new manager in ex-England caretaker boss Peter Taylor. His record has been mixed in recent years, having failed to guide Stevenage into the play-offs last season, so he will have a point to prove. Chris Zebroski will add pace to the attack and the Choirboys are well placed to equal or improve on last season’s 7th placed finish.
Port Vale will be looking to bounce straight back after last season’s heroic efforts to avoid relegation from League 2 failed. Lee Sinnott has been slowly assembling a squad that may not be flashy but is compact and will be hard to break down. Don’t expect the Valiants to come out all guns blazing but after a slow start they could well sneak into the top seven.
The final play-off place is nigh-on impossible with several teams all in with a decent shout of finishing in the top seven. Gillingham will fancy their chances of making an immediate return to League One, Lincoln fans seem confident about their chances this season and Brentford may also sneak in.
But somewhat predictably, perhaps, I’m going for Rochdale. Last season’s beaten play-off finalists may suffer from an initial hangover but there’s still enough quality and experience running throughout the side to suggest they’ll be pushing for promotion again and perhaps another trip to Wembley.
Watch out for: Notts County have been battling at the wrong end of League Two but the Magpies look to have turned a corner. New signing Jamie Forrester oozes quality and while this season may be a bit too soon for the fans to be thinking about promotion they may well surprise a lot of teams and could even briefly flirt with the play-offs.
Relegation: The bottom of League 2 is hideously skewed due to points deductions. Luton are already on minus 30, while Rotherham – assuming they start the season – look like they’ll have 20 points deducted, along with Bournemouth, although the latter two deductions haven’t yet happened. This makes predicting the strugglers difficult, but it shouldn’t be assumed that just because these teams start with a handicap that they’ll be relegated. Leeds showed that a points deduction can be overcome.
Bournemouth should have easily enough quality with or without points deduction and will probably finish mid-to-upper-mid table. Similarly, Rotherham would have been in the play-offs last season were it not for a points deduction and could well avoid relegation with some to spare. Luton have more of a struggle and while they may surprise many with their tenacity, 30 points may just be too much of a deduction to overcome.
So, assuming Luton fill one of the bottom two spots and Rotherham aren’t kicked out of the league, then Accrington Stanley are the most likely candidates to fall through the Conference trapdoor just three seasons after fighting their way back to the football league as a reformed club. Stanley have never really got started in League Two, and with low crowd numbers and a squad that looks average at best, their stay in the league could be a short one.
If Luton do pull off the great escape, then expect one of Chester, Dagenham or Macclesfield to fill the other relegation slot. All have struggled in previous seasons and there’s nothing to suggest they won’t be in the bottom half of League 2 again this season.
Blue Square Premier
Champions: Non-league’s top tier has gotten even tougher over the summer and there are a number of strong teams in the mix for the title. Stevenage may be the bookies’ favourites, but my tip is Torquay United, assuming their play-off semi-final defeat doesn’t give them a hangover.
Paul Buckle has now had his first full season of management and has been tweaking his squad, resulting in a depth that many other teams at this level will be casting envious glances at. Buckle also has an eye for a good loan signing, and the nucleus of the squad who challenged for the title last season are still there; adding Wayne Carlisle and Lee Hodges makes them a formidable team to beat. Not being favourites for the title this season may take some of the pressure off.
Play-offs: Stevenage should finally put seasons of underachieving behind them and firmly nail their place in the top 5 by some distance. The return of Graham Westley was controversial but he’s assembled an attack that will terrify most defenders at this level, with Lee Boylan, Steve Morrison and Iysden Christie all capable of scoring for fun and Westley seems to have plugged last season’s defensive frailties. Nonetheless, the pressure of being favourites may see them falter at the last.
Rushden and Diamonds are another team that have spent heavily – no surprise when Garry Hill’s your manager. Lee Phillips, Sagi Burton and Gareth Jellyman will all add quality and experience to Rushden, while Alan Marriott will be a presence in goal. Daryl Clare is a proven goalscorer at this level, although he will be missed with a broken jaw for the first two months, which will be a big blow to the side.
Wrexham have been quietly going about their close season business after relegation from the football league and many Dragons fans will be expecting an immediate return. Like Torquay and Oxford before them, Wrexham may find the conference harder than they anticipated but that doesn’t mean the Welsh side won’t be in the mix come the end of the season, although they’ll probably have to settle for a top five finish.
Finally, Oxford United look to have put a disastrous last season behind them with manager Darren Patterson building a team that should be looking up the table. The U’s were the Conference form team towards the end of last season and have added sensibly to the squad, while they have several exciting young prospects looking to break through at the Kassam this season. Oxford aren’t title challengers but the play-offs are definitely within their grasp.
Watch out for: Ebbsfleet United will be looking to build on last season’s FA Trophy victory by finally snatching a play-off place. This is assuming the MyFC project doesn’t go spectacularly wrong, but in Stacy Long and John Akinde they have two of the best players in the Conference.
Relegation: Lewes are currently an absolute basket-case of a club at the moment, having sacked title-winning manager Steve King and replacing him with former commercial manager Kevin Keehan. Virtually all of the Blue Square South title-winning squad have also departed and the mixture of journeymen, youngsters and the odd player from lower leagues don’t look strong enough to get the Rooks anywhere near safety.
Altrincham have won reprieves from relegation for the past three seasons but this year could be too much for them, when even their chairman has stated a spell in the Blue Square North would have been good for the club. The Robins will try manfully, and will, as always, pull off a couple of shock results, but they’re odds on to be finally saying goodbye to the Conference this season.
Barrow have returned to the non-league top flight after nine seasons away but their stay could be a short one. Joint boss Dave Bayliss has already launched a tirade about their poor effort preseason and while there’s a decent spine through the team, they may just be lacking the quality needed to stay up, but expect them to give all that they’ve got trying to avoid the drop.
Out of the other teams, Eastbourne may just have enough in them to beat the drop, Weymouth look and lot stronger proposition than last time around while Northwich look good enough to avoid a relegation battle at all. But one team that could find themselves unexpectedly in the bottom four is Woking. They have an inexperienced manager in Kim Grant and despite plenty of positive noises, the Cards have been on a slow downward slide for many years. Their defence still looks shaky and if Grant can’t get off to a winning start, Woking may find they’ve simply run out of steam.
But, of course, everybody has their own predictions for the start of the season, and we’d love to hear yours. Agree? Disagree? Think we’ve missed out a potential sleeping giant for promotion, or underestimated your side? Get stuck in in the comments below.