League One Preview: Italians, icons, Iron and Tony Blair

The Football League's middle tier kicks off this weekend, and Ian Perkins will be keeping a keen eye on proceedings...

The disparity in football finance is evident even in the third tier of English football. Surprisingly, though, it’s not the big boys with the dough. Portsmouth, Coventry and Doncaster all face financial uncertainty, whereas the promoted Towns of Swindon and Crawley are truly chasing the dream. With FFP officially in place, League One clubs have to live within their means.

Enough seriousness. Fans of real football will be travelling thousands of miles for the next nine months. From Huish Park and Meadow Lane to the new haunts of the Ricoh Arena and Fratton Park – assuming Pompey's participation isn't curtailed by their fiscal problems – the League One lifers should have some great journeys ahead, and probably some shockers too.

TITLE CHALLENGERSSheffield United’s 90-point haul last season would have brought promotion in any of the previous 10 seasons, but the Blades were denied by Charlton’s dominance and – painfully – Sheffield Wednesday’s resilience. That leaves United with the notoriously tricky challenge of recovering from play-off final defeat, and without the goals of Ched Evans they could again have to settle for the play-offs.

Paolo di Canio will be demanding successive promotions for Swindon, and with strong additions including Andy Williams, James Collins and Gary Roberts, the Italian’s team are in with a shot of doing exactly that.

MK Dons have strengthened again this season. Karl Robinson will be hoping former Newcastle United striker Alan Smith can get the Dons over their play-off hoodoo.

Despite ownership issues at Coventry, the Sky Blues should be taken as serious contenders to return to the Championship. Rangers refugee John Fleck has the potential to be a key player for them.

A shoddy April cost Carlisle a play-off place but if Lee Miller returns to the form he showed last season they’re more than capable of competing near the top.

Keith Curle made an immediate impact when he arrived at Notts County last season and despite wholesale changes during the summer County could break into the top six.

PROMOTION HOPEFULSStevenage had an impressive League One debut last season but former gaffer Graham Westley has taken Scott Laird and John Mousinho to Preston over summer. Providing Gary Smith can maintain the job he started in January, Stevenage could enjoy another season in the top half.

Bournemouth have put a turbulent 2011/12 season behind them and will be hoping for a smoother ride this time. Paul Groves has taken the reins from Lee Bradbury and their Russian owners have thrown more cash in. If the focus remains on the football they can mount a play-off push.

By contrast, Brentford failed to pull away from mid-table last season. Inconsistent form at home in the first half of the campaign and then away in the second saw them finish ninth. They should consider it a successful season if they’re in that position come May.

Doncaster’s squad will have to gel quickly if they want to return to the Championship. David Cotterill will be pivotal for them – but conversely, if his ability shines through Rovers may struggle to keep hold of him by the time January rolls around.

Graham Westley’s methods upon his January arrival saw chaos ensue at Preston. 2am texts, leaked starting XIs and public bust-ups nearly saw them dragged into a relegation tussle. Still, he has bought well and if his vision is shared by the players they have an outside chance of finishing in the top six.

Crewe’s cash boost of up to £6m from the sale of Nick Powell can see them consolidate in mid-table this season. It be could disastrous if manager Steve Davis is picked up by a bigger club, though.

PLAY-OFF HOPEFULSGary Johnson’s astute summer has provided Yeovil with a squad of contracted players rather than the usual loan signings. James Hayter, Reuben Reid and Marek Stech have all signed for free and a blend of youth and experience gives the Glovers a good chance of looking up rather than down.

Hartlepool scrambled over the 50-point mark last season and will probably do the same again this year. Jonathan Franks is a good signing and Neale Cooper will be hoping that veteran North-Eastern target man Steve Howard will get goals at this level.

Colchester are another club who’ve had a good summer in the transfer market. Freddie Sears will be key for the U’s as they attempt to get back to the Championship after half a decade.

Crawley suffered a disruptive preseason with departures and arrivals at the top. Rotherham-bound Steve Evans was replaced by Sean O’Driscoll who was then earmarked as the ‘iconic’ manager that Nottingham Forest wanted at the helm. Richie Barker has been appointed but after an unsettled summer Crawley should be happy with a mid-table finish.

Tranmere and Scunthorpe will be hoping they don’t spend a season battling relegation but realistically neither will reach the play-offs. After a couple of miserable seasons the Iron toughened up last term and drew nearly half their league games, but they need to change deadlocks into victories if they're to challenge.

DROP-DODGERSPortsmouth could cease to exist before the season begins. Even if they don’t fold, another administration will hit hard. Liam Lawrence and Tal Ben-Haim’s departures will help finances but administration means they'll start 10 points behind the rest. As the big boys have often found, League One isn’t as easy as they think – and that's without even considering Pompey's need to cobble together a team.

Coming from the other direction, promoted Shrewsbury will find their own challenge significantly harder without the goals of the departing Jim Collins. Graham Turner has suffered relegation before and his side will have to be prepared to cope with the demands of a long fight around foot of the table.

Walsall and Leyton Orient finished just above the drop line last time. Although they both ended up seven points clear of relegation, they'll have to pick up their game with moneybags Crawley and Swindon and savvy Crewe gaining promotion.

Oldham have been in the third tier since Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, but again last season they flirted with relegation. They'll be hurt by the Bosman exits of Chris Taylor and Kieran Lee, but Paul Dickov’s acquisitions of Jonathan Grounds and loanees Lee Croft and Jordan Slew should help in a survival scrap.

Just round the M60, Bury’s preseason has hardly been normal. In June they were linked with a takeover bid by Glasgow Rangers, and at the start of August Richie Barker fled Lancashire to fill the vacancy at Crawley. After just one season in League One they’ll need to roll the sleeves up if they don’t want to find themselves back in the basement once again.

Ian Perkins is a writer and football fan: http://ianperkins.co.uk/

TITLE ODDS from FourFourTwo's betting partner, Coral6/1 Sheffield United 7/1 MK Dons9/1 Swindon Town10/1 Preston North End12/1 AFC Bournemouth12/1 Coventry City14/1 Brentford14/1 Doncaster Rovers14/1 Notts County20/1 Crawley Town25/1 Tranmere Rovers28/1 Carlisle United33/1 Colchester United33/1 Crewe Alexandra33/1 Portsmouth33/1 Scunthorpe United33/1 Stevenage40/1 Shrewsbury Town50/1 Bury50/1 Hartlepool United50/1 Leyton Orient50/1 Oldham Athletic66/1 Yeovil Town80/1 Walsall

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