League Two preview 2011/12: The 'other Red Devils' already set to challenge

The fight for promotion in the fourth tier appears all set to be one of the most competitive and closely-fought in recent years.

The rise of cash-rich Crawley Town coupled with the descent of South West duo Bristol Rovers and Swindon Town means that, before a competitive ball has been kicked, there are a plethora of sides eyeing automatic promotion places, let alone play-off spots.

However, while the top end of the table should be so keenly contested, it leaves more than half of the division – possessing only a smidgen of the budget of some of their wealthier counterparts – already considering a mid-table finish a realistic ambition.

Whereas in recent years the likes of Aldershot Town, Accrington Stanley, Dagenham & Redbridge, Hereford United, Morecambe and Stevenage have surprised many by snaking up the division to snatch at least a play-off place, 2011/12 looks – on paper at least – a tough territory for the underdog to have its day.

TITLE CHALLENGERS

Bookmakers have universally backed the ‘other Red Devils’, CRAWLEY TOWN, to take League 2 by storm, in a similar manner to that which saw them steamroller their way through the Conference last term. And Steve Evans’ men, however disliked, look well placed to mount a second successive title tilt.

The Broadfield Stadium outfit topped the Blue Square Bet Premier by 15 points last season, scoring 93 goals and losing just three times in the process, and the colourful Scot appears to have used the wealth available to him wisely as his gunship prepares to enter uncharted waters.

Finding the net shouldn’t be a problem. Thirty-seven goal Matt Tubbs has been joined by Tyrone Barnett, John Akinde and Wes Thomas, while 19-year-old former Everton midfielder Hope Akpan has been added to an already strong midfield.

Steve Evans' Benny Hill impression needed some work...

Having endured a nightmarish campaign in League 1, BRISTOL ROVERS prepare for life back in the bottom tier with renewed optimism following a near-complete overhaul under new boss Paul Buckle.

The 40-year-old guided Torquay to the play-off final last term, and has steadily assembled a squad that will be expected to seal promotion at the first time of asking. Former Gulls Scott Beavan and Chris Zebroski – and ex-Torquay loanee Craig Stanley – have followed Buckle to the Memorial Stadium, where they have been joined by former Brighton defender Adam Virgo, Shrewsbury front-man Matt Harrold and talented wide-men Mustapha Carayol and Joe Anyinsah.

Like their South West rivals, SWINDON TOWN only have eyes on automatic promotion. Having been a game away from the Championship a little more than a year ago, the Robins find themselves back in the fourth tier for a second time in six seasons and don’t plan on staying around for long.

But a slight feeling of the unknown is circling the County Ground club ahead of the season, following the appointment of managerial rookie Paulo Di Canio. Town arguably possess one of the strongest midfields in the division with Alan McCormack and Etienne Esajas arriving alongside Matt Ritchie and Simon Ferry.

However, slight question marks hover over striker Alan Connell’s scoring record in the Football League – despite a prolific season with Grimsby last term – while only time will only tell if Di Canio’s fellow countrymen Mattia Lanzano, Alberto Comazzi, Raffaele De Vita and Alessandro Cibocchi and Algerian forward Mehdi Kerrouche will sink or swim in English football.

The County Ground side will also be looking forward to league meetings with arch rivals OXFORD UNITED for the first time in 10 years. The U’s enjoyed a solid opening season back in the Football League last term and will also have their sights set on the bigger picture of promotion, particularly considering their summer transfer activity.

An already strong squad has seen it bolstered by the experience and nous of defender Michael Duberry and midfielder Peter Leven, while strikers James Constable and Tom Craddock – who both bagged 17 goals last term – will have former Chesterfield forward Deane Smalley and ex-Wycombe and Crawley goal-getter Jon-Paul Pittman to keep them on their toes.

Di Canio vs. Duberry - an unlikely A420 derby face-off?

SHREWSBURY TOWN will hope that this season is finally their year as they look to escape the fourth tier once again. Lady Luck didn’t shine on the Shrews last term, as they narrowly, and controversially, fell a point short of third-placed Wycombe before two flat performances against Torquay in the play-off semi-finals sealed their fate.

With a squad already capable of challenging again, Graham Turner has added extra quality to his ranks in the form of ex-Aldershot striker Marvin Morgan, Accrington’s top scorer from last season Terry Gornell, defenders Joe Jacobson and Reuben Hazell and former Walsall midfielder Matt Richards.

PROMOTION OUTSIDERS

At the end of November last season, all was well with PORT VALE. Micky Adams’ men had just stuffed Stockport 5-0 to return to the top of League 2, with the Valiants looking well set for at least an automatic promotion place. But when Adams left to take over at boyhood club Sheffield United at the turn of the year, Vale sank like a stone.

But with Adams now back at Vale Park following an equally-disastrous stint in charge of the Blades, supporters are hopeful lightning can strike twice, without their manager jumping ship this time. The majority of the team that started last term so well remain in place, with Stoke-born striker Tom Pope recruited to replace Justin Richards.

Having arrived in April tasked with transforming ROTHERHAM UNITED’s ailing hopes of snatching a play-off place, manager Andy Scott will be targeting an automatic passage to League 1.

After play-off final heartbreak against Dagenham & Redbridge in 2009/10, the Millers began last season strongly, with in-demand striker Adam Le Fondre hitting 16 goals in 19 games. But as his form dipped, so did Rotherham’s, ultimately costing Ronnie Moore his job and the team any hope of going up.

The former Brentford boss has brought in Danny Schofield, Gareth Evans, Chris Holroyd and Lewis Grabban having seen Ryan Taylor depart for Bristol City. But, as in the past two campaigns, Le Fondre – who has been linked with a move to Coventry – will prove key to the club’s chances of success.

Andy Hessenthaler will again be expected to return GILLINGHAM to the third tier, after a poor end to last season cost the Kent club a play-off place on the final day of the campaign.

Last season’s strike-pairing is no more, with 25-goal Cody McDonald ending his loan spell from Norwich and Adebayo Akinfenwa going back to former club Northampton. But the arrival of strikers Adam Birchall, who netted 64 goals in 78 league games for Dover, and Danny Kedwell of AFC Wimbledon have revitalised the Gills’ attack, although the former will miss the opening months of the season with knee ligament damage.

Further additions in the form of Millwall’s Andy Frampton and Peterborough duo Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale should ensure the Preistfield outfit are there or thereabouts come May.

Like a man with poorly made shoes, Akinfenwa returns to the Cobblers

Despite knocking Liverpool out of the League Cup at Anfield, NORTHAMPTON TOWN only escaped relegation on the penultimate weekend of last season, but they are many punters’ dark horses for success in 2011/12.

Gary Johnson replaced Ian Sampson in March, but could not stop a winless run of 18 games that left the Cobblers staring down the barrel. Winning their final two matches spared their blushes, and Johnson now has his sights set on replicating the success he enjoyed with Yeovil at Sixfields.

Bringing in bulky front-man Adebayo Akinfenwa to partner ex-Shrewsbury striker Jake Robinson may prove a shrewd move by the former Latvia national team manager, as could the captures of wingers Arron Davies and Lewis Young from Peterborough and Burton.

MID-TABLERS

John Coleman continues to perform miracles on a minuscule budget at ACCRINGTON STANLEY but his record of improving the Crown Ground side’s league position for 12 consecutive seasons looks in jeopardy heading into 2011/12.

After a fifth-placed finish, Stanley fell short in the play-offs against Stevenage, with failure to gain promotion costing the club dear as the vultures swooped for their star performers.

The likes of Alex Cisak, Joe Jacobson, Phil Edwards, Jimmy Ryan and Terry Gornell have all departed, leaving Coleman to effectively start from scratch. Classy midfielder Ian Craney and skipper Andrew Proctor remain, however, and few doubt that Coleman will form a side capable of competing at the very least.

CREWE ALEXANDRA harboured hopes of automatic promotion at one stage last season, only to finish 11th, and they may have to lower their expectations for 2011/12.

Dario Gradi’s side proved spectacular at home – scoring the third highest number of goals at the Alexandra Stadium in 49 – but disastrous away, at one point losing 11 games in a row on their travels.

Products of the Alex’s famed academy will prove crucial, with talented teenagers Max Clayton and Nick Powell tipped to shine, while the loss of 29-goal talisman Clayton Donaldson to Brentford and Joel Grant to Wycombe means Shaun Miller will be under pressure to add to his 19 last term.

Shaun Miller (centre) will shoulder the goalscoring burden for the Alex

Having reached the play-offs a year before, ALDERSHOT TOWN fans would have headed into 2010/11 hopeful of kicking on and climbing a rung to League 1. But the Shots’ form nose-dived between October and January, costing boss Kevin Dillon his job.

Former Crazy Gang striker and Newport County boss Dean Holdsworth stopped the rot, meaning Town were looking up and not over their shoulders as the season drew to a close.

Having shed several members of last season’s squad, the up-and-coming manager has placed his faith in younger players with a desire to succeed. Whether or not their relative inexperience holds them back at the business end of the season remains to be seen, but a mid-table finish will be the minimum expectation at the Recreation Ground.

SOUTHEND UNITED boss Paul Sturrock performed heroics at Roots Hall last season, amassing a squad almost from scratch in the summer before transforming them into a side still in the hunt for a play-off place as late as March.

The side preparing to start 2011/12 is a far more settled one. Barry Corr – last season’s top scorer with 21 – remains, as does highly-rated Frenchman Bilel Mohsni. And with the additions of record Millwall scorer Neil Harris, Jemal Johnson and Alassane N'Diaye, they will be looking to push on from last term’s 13th-place finish as plans to move into a new stadium progress off the field.

Another season in League 2, and another season where expectations are high for BRADFORD CITY. The club’s 10,000 season ticket holders endured a campaign to forget at Valley Parade in 2010/11, with the Bantams flirting with relegation out of the Football League for long periods.

Hometown favourite Peter Jackson replaced namesake Taylor and did just enough to steer City to calmer waters, but will now be expected to make Bradford a side capable of challenging for a play-off place.

Former Torquay centre-back Guy Branston has been brought in to marshal the defence, while ex-Manchester United trainee and Hartlepool United midfielder Ritchie Jones should add quality alongside last season’s top scorer Dave Syers.

Guy Branston - insert 'pickle' pun here...

Like the Bantams, both HEREFORD UNITED and BURTON ALBION narrowly avoided the drop into non-league in the closing weeks of the season, and will be hoping to – at the very least – enjoy a more comfortable ride in 2011/12.

The Bulls looked doomed early on after losing seven of their opening 10 league games under Simon Davey, costing the former Barnsley boss his job. Former Hereford player and physio Jamie Pitman made the extra step up into management seamlessly, so much so that, had the Bulls’ form under him been stretched over the entire season, they would have been challenging for the play-offs.

Making the top seven this season would be an optimistic target for the most rose-tinted Bulls fan, but, having retained the services of the players who performed well from January onwards, Hereford will be hopeful of steering clear of danger. A small squad, partly due to Davey’s lavish spending a year ago, could prove a problem should injuries to key players kick in.

Paul Peschisolido’s Brewers will be praying for a kinder winter as Christmas approaches. Last term, Burton accrued so many games in hand over the New Year period that, at one stage, they dropped in and around the relegation zone but had enough extra games over their rivals to reach the play-offs.

Despite insisting his side were too good to go down, a loss of form, coupled with the fatigue caused by playing so many games in quick succession, caused havoc, and only a strong finish to the campaign saved their bacon.

With former Port Vale striker Justin Richards on board to partner Calvin Zola, along with wingers Cleveland Taylor and Chris Palmer, they will be confident of achieving bigger and better things this term.

Down in Devon, TORQUAY UNITED prepare to meet Plymouth Argyle in league competition for the first time since Boxing Day 2001, experiencing a different type of turmoil than their near neighbours.

Having lost the play-off final against Stevenage at Old Trafford in May, the Gulls were given a severe kicking while they were down, as manager Paul Buckle left to join Bristol Rovers, taking goalkeeper Scott Bevan and top scorer Chris Zebroski with him.

With experienced central defender Guy Branston departing for Bradford, United fans’ hopes of kicking on from last term’s promotion charge have been tempered. Nevertheless, new manager Martin Ling still has a talented squad at his disposal, adding to it by bringing in forwards Rene Howe, Chris McPhee and Taiwo Atieno and midfielder Ian Morris.

The loss of Chris Zebroski could hit Torquay hard

At CHELTENHAM TOWN, manager Mark Yates is glad to be starting afresh after failing to halt a slide down the table last term that could have resulted in an unlikely return to non-league.

The Whaddon Road outfit made a strong start to the campaign with strikers Wes Thomas and Jeff Goulding firing in a team that played a decent brand of football.

However, the wheels came off at the turn of the year, with Town triumphing just three times in their final 21 league games of the campaign, as victory over Lincoln City proved vital in the closing weeks of the season.

Front trio Darryl Duffy, James Spencer and Kaid Mohamed have arrived following Thomas’ departure to Crawley, while experienced centre-back Alan Bennett and midfielders Russell Penn and Marlon Pack should provide a combination of graft and guile to keep Town competitive.

DROP-DODGERS

A fairytale was realised in May as AFC WIMBLEDON overcame Luton Town on penalties to seal promotion to the Football League, nine years after forming the club in the aftermath of the Dons’ move north to Milton Keynes.

Former Aldershot Town boss Terry Brown – who twice led the Shots to the Conference play-offs – has worked wonders at Kingsmeadow, with his young, hungry side a blueprint as to how sides should play and football clubs be run.

But having reached League 2, staying there will prove a different challenge altogether, particularly having seen strikers Danny Kedwell and Kaid Mohamed join Gillingham and Cheltenham Town respectively, while midfielder Steven Gregory has been snapped up by Bournemouth.

Charles Ademeno and Jack Midson have arrived to try and keep the goals flowing and ensure AFC don’t suffer an immediate exit from the Football League, which they shouldn’t so long as they continue to play their way.

They may have lost a star or two, but the spirit at Wimbledon will remain

BARNET must be sick of plotting merely to survive in League 2, but with such a small budget they are left with little option.

The Bees have stayed up on the final day in each of the past two seasons, with home victories over Rochdale and Port Vale respectively ensuring Underhill remains a Football League venue.

After Martin Allen provided the spark to Barnet’s end-of-season turnaround, former Bees striker Giuliano Grazioli and ex-Fulham and Northern Ireland boss Lawrie Sanchez completed the job, and it is they who are tasked with making 2011/12 a more comfortable ride.

That alone will prove a challenge, with defenders Danny Senda and Ryan Watts and striker Jason Price the only new recruits at the time of writing. Keeping strikers Izale McLeod and Steve Kabba fit and firing will prove pivotal to their hopes.

Making a swift, but not unexpected, return to League 2 are DAGENHAM & REDBRIDGE. Retaining their League 1 status was always going to be a near-impossible task for John Still’s side, but they gave it as good a crack as they could have hoped for, taking it to the final game of the season where a win at Peterborough would have kept them up.

Still could yet prove to be the Daggers’ best signing of the summer, with the 61-year-old courted by Bradford at the end of last season. But losing key players could harm the East London outfit’s hopes of success, or survival, this term.

After star striker Paul Benson moved to Charlton Athletic a year ago, winger Danny Green has followed suit, while central midfielder Romain Vincelot has joined Brighton & Hove Albion and veteran goalkeeper Tony Roberts has retired to become a full-time coach at Arsenal.

In the incoming Richard Rose, Kevin Maher, Luke Howell and Sam Williams, Still has shown once again that he is a shrewd operator in the transfer market, and should at the very least keep the Daggers in the Football League for another season.

Peter Reid - he used to have hair, you know...

PLYMOUTH ARGYLE, on the other hand, will probably take anything other than a third straight relegation which would leave the club languishing in non-league. Pilgrims fans, for now, are just thankful that they still have a team to support.

To ensure they remain a League 2 club, for the short-term at least, manager Peter Reid will still need another striker or two, after agreeing a deal for Warren Feeney, but otherwise the acquisitions of Robbie Williams, to assist Stephane Zubar and Carl Fletcher in defence, and former Norwich winger Luke Daley appear a step in the right direction.

MORECAMBE’s 2010/11 campaign was a largely forgettable one, as the Shrimps coasted along with promotion hopes a distant dream and relegation never a genuine prospect.

But the Globe Arena outfit have been revitalised with idolised central defender Jim Bentley taking over from the increasingly unpopular Sammy McIlroy. Whether Bentley’s managerial experience poses a problem remains to be seen, but the former skipper’s never-say-die attitude should rub off well on the players and undoubtedly will on the fans.

The former Manchester City trainee has added no-nonsense defender Nick Fenton to his ranks alongside Izak Reid and former Oldham forward Lewis Alessandra, with an upper mid-table finish likely to be seen as a positive in Bentley’s debut season at the helm.

At Moss Rose, MACCLESFIELD TOWN continue to defy the bookmakers’ tags as one of the favourites for relegation.

The Silkmen have had to overcome terrible tragedies in each of the past two campaigns, with midfielder Richard Butcher unexpectedly passing away less than a year after manager Keith Alexander’s death.

Alexander’s assistant, Gary Simpson, successfully led the side through last season to ensure Macclesfield retained their league status. However, despite retaining the majority of the players, their cause has not been helped by the departures of Algerian midfielder Hamza Bencherif to Notts County and powerful 13-goal striker Tyrone Barnett to Crawley.

Emile Sinclair and Waide Fairhurst, a summer signing from Doncaster, will have to step up and replace Barnett’s goals, while former Stockport County striker Tom Fisher has also been brought on board to try and fire Town to relative safety once again, but this season could prove one too far for the Cheshire side.

FourFourTwo.com predicts...

1 - Oxford United2 - Bristol Rovers3 - Crawley Town               4 - Swindon Town          5 - Shrewsbury Town6 - Gillingham (play-off winners)7 - Northampton Town     8 - Rotherham United9 - Port Vale10 - Southend United11 - Burton Albion12 - Crewe Alexandra13 - Aldershot Town 14 - Bradford City15 - Hereford United 16 - Accrington Stanley17 - Torquay United 18 - AFC Wimbledon19 - Dagenham & Red20 - Cheltenham Town21 - Plymouth Argyle22 - Morecambe              23 - Macclesfield Town24 - Barnet

Topics

SHARES
comments