League One preview 2011/12: Steel City rivals battle for supremacy

League One really is the league that keeps on giving. Well, for the fans of the smaller clubs anyway.

While England's third tier has lost the likes of Leeds, Norwich and Southampton to the more glitzy Championship in recent years, the two Sheffield clubs and Charlton fill the mantle of recent Premier League names fallen on hard times. And that’s not to mention the perma-tanned karaoke king that is Phil Brown at Preston North End.

Other new additions to the league, basking the glory of promotion rather than the shame of relegation last term, are the four clubs that have made the climb from League Two.

Champions Chesterfield, automatically promoted Bury and Wycombe, plus Stevenage –whose first-ever league season ended in play-off triumph – will all have survival as the basic aim but may look to push on into mid-table and beyond.

The season starts on Saturday so while the match-day pies are brought out of the freezer and the excitement of many a fan is ready to burst, why not whet the appetite with a little run through the possible Title Challengers, Dark Horses, Mid-Tablers and Survival Hopefuls? You’re going to need that enthusiasm come the torrential downpours that greet a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie on a Tuesday night in windy November.

TITLE CHALLENGERSThis season’s League One campaign sees the resumption of one of England’s biggest rivalries, the Steel City Derby, although both Owls and Blades will attest that the third tier really isn’t the arena where the two clubs want to do battle.

The last time these two met at this level, in the 1979-80 season, the two fixtures drew a combined attendance of 94,465, illustrating just how big this rivalry is to the people of Sheffield – and the challenge facing the South Yorkshire police at the teams' two Sunday summits on October 16 and February 26.

The summer started explosively at Sheffield United as fans, furious with the appointment of former Wednesday manager Danny Wilson, reacted with contempt to their new manager. Malcontent, although sure to re-surface should the season not start well, seems to have been submerged by the optimism surrounding the shrewd signings of Chris Porter and Ryan Flynn as well as the promises to integrate the stars of the club’s youth team – Jordan Slew, Harry Maguire and Matthew Lowton – into the senior squad.

Bramall Lane: Danny's new home...

City rivals Sheffield Wednesday will also be targeting promotion back to the Championship as they embark on their second season in the third tier. Manager Gary Megson and chairman Milan Mandaric have been active throughout the summer holidays in changing the make-up of the Owls squad. In comes Jose Semedo from League One rivals Charlton and David Prutton to form a new core to the midfield. Anything less than promotion should be seen as a failure.

Of the other challengers, Charlton Athletic and Huddersfield Town are the closest things to  surefire bets for success, with relegated Preston North End and play-off qualifiers MK Dons hoping to flex their muscles.

After racking up 87 points only to taste defeat in last season’s play-off final, Lee Clark's Huddersfield will hope the permanent signing of former Bolton loanee Danny Ward will help offset the departure of exciting winger Anthony Pilkington.

Meanwhile, Charlton will hope to arrest an eight-year slide after a summer of rebuilding. Local lad Chris Powell has added several men to complement his fellow south-east Londoner Bradley Wright-Phillips, who bagged 21 last term in a mid-table side.

Preston will hope that the apparent cash shortage that has led to the loss of Keith Treacy to fierce rivals Burnley and Billy Jones to West Brom won’t hinder the rebuilding process that manager Phil Brown believes can catapult them back from whence they came. And, with the firepower of Iain Hume and Neil Mellor up-front, they’ve got every chance.

MK Dons, under the stewardship of 30-year-old man-child Karl Robinson, will look to improve on the play-off defeat last season with the signings of wingers Jay O’Shea and Angelo Balanta providing them with plenty of forward thrust.

DARK HORSESAny league’s dark horses are notoriously hard to predict as, in essence, it’s a game of predicting the unpredictable. Into that mix comes a range of teams, both new to and established in League One.

Lee Bradbury’s Bournemouth overcome the loss of manager Eddie Howe to Burnley to reach the play-off semi-final. They still have the mix of youth and experience that has, for the past few years, given them the feeling that anything is possible. Is it?

London geezers Brentford and Leyton Orient spent last year consolidating, but they've taken different approaches over summer. Brentford have made major changes over the summer, with former Manchester City striker Uwe Rosler taking the helm and bringing in a raft of new signings, including influential midfielder Jonathan Douglas. The sense of optimism around Griffin Park may just bring about a climb up the table.

Uwe Rosler chews over his options

But while Brentford have changed direction, Leyton Orient don't really need to after finishing seventh, their best finish in 18 years. Manager Russell Slade has kept hold of key players like fiery captain Stephen Dawson and brought in the solid if unspectacular Scott Cuthbert and David Mooney.

The other two sides worthy enough to throw a few pennies at are Scunthorpe United and Chesterfield, with the former falling into League One through the Championship trap-door and the latter climbing the League Two victors' stairs.

Scunthorpe manager Alan Knill seems to have used the lower-league knowledge he gained with Bury to bring in the players he thinks can secure the Iron's minimum aim of a play-off place. In comes Jimmy Ryan from Accrington Stanley and Andy Barcham from Gillingham, although United fans may hold concern for their attacking line-up, as interest in Rotherham’s Adam Le Fondre and Bury’s Ryan Lowe has been rebuffed by both clubs.

John Sheridan’s Chesterfield dominated League Two from early on last season and the capture of Arsenal midfielder Mark Randall, combined with the progressive football played by a confident and strong squad at the fairly new B2net stadium could see the Spireites upset the apple-cart somewhat this campaign.

MID-TABLERSThe mediocrity of a mid-table finish will disappoint some who had hoped for a flirtation with promotion but give cheer to others who managed to avoid a dance with relegation.

Carlisle, Oldham, Hartlepool and Yeovil, all established at this level, have each made suitable additions to already decent squads. Those additions, however, look good enough to avoid a fall down the table but may lack the quality to push on towards the end of the season. Whilst each side has certain outstanding traits – Carlisle’s flamboyant Francois Zoko, Oldham’s coup in capturing defender Zander Diamond, Hartlepool’s excellent home support and Yeovil manager Terry Skiverton’s unconventional press conferences – they all lack the consistency throughout the season and the squad to really strive for those play-off berths.

Skiverton: "Anyone got Twitter on their phone?"

Meanwhile Exeter City and Rochdale, fresh from exceeding expectations last season, would take comfort in another term safely avoiding any thought of possible relegation. The Grecians, who have steadily progressed each year of manager Paul Tisdale’s reign, have steadied the ship somewhat this summer, bringing in keeper Lenny Pidgeley from Bradford and attempting to cover for the loss of veteran striker Jamie Cureton to Leyton Orient.

Meanwhile the screwdriver's out again at Spotland as another name is put on the Rochdale manager’s office door: Keith Hill has jumped ship to Barnsley, replaced by former Manchester City youth team coach Steve Eyre. The new manager has already made his mark on the playing squad, bringing in Preston defender Neil Trotman and striker Ashley Grimes. He will also be hoping to make his mark on the Rochdale faithful.

The last and most treacherous looking of my mid-tablers is Notts County. Gone are the days when such names as Sven-Goran Eriksson would walk the corridors at Meadow Lane, with last season’s final-day survival bringing a reality check to the long-suffering Pies fans. Many have tipped them to struggle but the sure management of Martin Allen and nigh-on guaranteed goals of Lee Hughes could see the oldest professional club in the world enjoy a comfortable – if not easy – season.

SURVIVAL HOPEFULS Among those battling to avoid the drop into the basement division this season are League One newcomers Bury, Stevenage and Wycombe Wanderers.

Bury, last season’s League Two runners-up, have found transfer dealings difficult this summer, bringing former Northampton centre-back Mark Hughes back from exile in Australia and the pacy Mark Cullen in on loan from Hull City, but seeing wave after wave of trialists disappoint rookie manager Richie Barker. Much will rest on last season’s key players, captain Steve Schumacher and League Two Player of the Year Ryan Lowe, if the Shakers are to stay in the division.

Schumacher and Lowe measure up

Stevenage, meanwhile, would be excused for still finding themselves in a state of delirium as after two promotions on the bounce they find themselves battling for points with former Premier League sides. Talented manager Graham Westley will have to earn his salary if he’s to maintain club’s record of not being relegated since 1988.

Wycombe return to League One at the first time of asking, although much has changed since they went down two summers ago. They have a different manager in Garry Waddock, a stack of new signings in Elliott Benyon, Scott Donnelly and Joel Grant and an uncomfortable debt of £6 million. There may be trouble ahead at Adams Park.

Those three promoted sides may find themselves battling with third-tier stalwarts Tranmere Rovers (in their 11th successive season at this level), Colchester United and Walsall.

After losing key midfielder David Perkins to Barnsley, John Ward’s Colchester look set to struggle for creativity, which the signing of Karl Duguid unlikely to alleviate the problem. To add to the creative woes, United have very little to play with up front, meaning that a tough season could be in the offing.

Tranmere manager Les Parry has moved this summer to bring in left-sided player David Buchanan as well as winger Martin Devaney from Barnsley, but a mediocre squad at Prenton Park may need to see some more additions before the transfer window slams shut at the end of August. After all, even Ian Goodison can’t go on forever at the heart of the defence.

It’s always difficult to tip teams to struggle in any league but Walsall lack sustained quality throughout the squad. Manager Dean Smith has insisted that his side can challenge higher up the league but the signings of Anton Peterlin and Adam Chambers don’t disguise the defensive frailties that meant they only narrowly escaped the drop last season.

FourFourTwo.com predicts...

1 – Huddersfield2 – Sheffield Wednesday---------------------------------3 – Sheffield United4 – Charlton (play-off winners)5 – MK Dons6 – Preston- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -7 – Leyton Orient8 – Scunthorpe9 – Brentford 10 – Chesterfield11 – Bournemouth12 – Carlisle13 – Oldham 14 – Exeter15 – Hartlepool 16 – Rochdale17 – Yeovil 18 – Notts County19 – Bury20 – Colchester---------------------------------21 – Tranmere22 – Walsall 23 – Stevenage24 – Wycombe

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