I’ve decided to throw some predictions out there, because what is the point of having an opinion if you don’t express it, right?
You won’t find me hiding behind my choices though, and I know I won’t be spot on with all of them. However, I’ve studied League Two very carefully this pre-season, I’ve watched the comings and going across the division and I’ve delved back into last season as well. There are big names in our league such as Coventry and Swindon, there are big spenders too such as Luton and Mansfield. There are those who have had good pre-seasons in terms of recruitment such as us and Cambridge, those looking to carry good finishes last season forward such as Colchester and us (again). It’s going to be interesting, so without further ado here is my alphabetical predictions, starting out with John Coleman’s Accrington.
Stanley are one of those sides that perhaps should not do well. They don’t have the fan base to generate good income, they’re not a big name by any stretch of the imagination and therefore they shouldn’t attract the best players. Everything about them screams relegation fodder, but they never seem to become embroiled in the scrapping.
One of those reasons is manager John Coleman, a wily old figure who knows exactly how to set his teams up to be tough to beat. Last season they lost just twice in 18 outings after Valentine’s Day after looking in trouble at one point. They beat Doncaster, Luton and Exeter at home and managed to beat promoted Plymouth away. They’re the plucky underdogs, but they do what they do effectively. They don’t have the resources to challenge at the top, but they’ll avoid being dragged into any relegation battle again. At one stage before Christmas though they won just one league game in 12, something they’ll need to ensure doesn’t happen again.
One of the main reasons for their great form at the end of last season was Billy Kee. He bagged six during the run, 15 throughout the season and they’ll need him firing properly if they’re going to push on again. They’ve brought in Kayden Jackson to partner him up front, he had a spell at Grimsby last year and bagged just two in 24 outings. In the middle of the park midfield general Sean McConville has signed a new deal, he’s an aggressive tackler with 12 yellows and a red to his name last time around.
I think they’ll be lower mid table, always just having enough to keep their head above water, but never really riding a wave of form onwards towards the play offs. It’s going to be a tough league with a lot of teams able to spend big, and if Kee continues to score he could be a target in January, something they need to avoid.
Stacey West Prediction for Accrington Stanley: 13th
It has been a relatively quiet summer for Barnet, and that doesn’t bode well given their terrible home form last season. They only won six times at the Hive, that was one game less than relegated Hartlepool won at home. There are positives though, they won as many away matches as play-off semi-finalists Carlisle and promoted Blackpool.
Shaquile Coulthirst has joined from Peterborough, but they’ll be relying on the goals of John Akinde to give them any chance of troubling the play-off race. He bagged 26 last time around, if they hadn’t had him in top form they would have been relegation candidates for sure as no other player scored more than six. Tom Champion formed a crucial part of their midfield after returning from his loan from us, perhaps giving you an indication of the quality they have. John Louis Akpa-Akpro didn’t start as many games as you might think though, and he’s always got a surprise or two in him.
They always seem to have a bit of cash though, and Sim Akinola might just come good this time around. He struggled to settle after his move from Braintree with two goals from 14 starts, and much depends on him reaching his potential. If he doesn’t, don’t be surprised to see him on the move in January as Barnet cut their losses, losses which might just be our gain.
One thing Barnet have in their favour is location, they have the capacity to attract London-based players both on loan and from the lower leagues. There are a lot of good footballers in the National League, and as with Akinola last year often location is a factor in a move. I would be surprised if they didn’t add to their squad before the transfer deadline, and whilst they won’t be setting the world alight this year I don’t think they’ll be fighting relegation either.
Stacey West Prediction for Barnet: 17th
The U’s finished last season in 11th place, a sturdy if not spectacular finish. That was in no small part due to a terrible start to the season, no wins in the first eight games had fans panicking, unduly as it turned out. Another terrible spell with two wins in ten after Christmas paints a picture of a good side struggling with consistency. Bear in mind with those stats they still only finished four points shy of the play-off spots.
The key might be consistency, and manager Shaun Derry hopes some of his new faces might be able to bring that to the Abbey Stadium. Aside from pinching Ade Azeez from under our noses, they’ve also recruited Jabo Ibhere from Carlisle. His 14 goals were one of the reasons the Cumbrians found themselves contesting the end of season lottery, and he’s no mug at this level of football. Exciting winger David Amoo has also joined from Partick Thistle, another player who should do well in League Two.
Quite often it isn’t just the players you sign that should be mentioned though, and in Luke Berry Cambridge have one of the best midfielders in League Two. 17 league goals, 22 in total is a fine return from their former youth team product, and despite one failed season at Barnsley he still has his best years ahead of him. Coupled with tricky former-Gillingham man Emmanuel Osadebe I think they’ve got the class to be in with a shout of promotion, and not just via the play-offs.
Much will depend on them eradicating the inconsistent spells, but if they do that then they’re definitely my dark-horses for an automatic promotion push. They are a classic example of how a club invests FA Cup money wisely, their rise from the National League and the Manchester United money has given them a sound basis for the next few years. They’re where we should aspire to be, and they’ll be a tough nut to crack for anybody in League Two.
Stacey West prediction for Cambridge United: 2nd
I’m afraid all is not well up in the North-West. Keith Curle has already had a dig about us signing Matt Green and them not having the budget to compete, and if internet chatter is to be believed money may be tight for them. Last season they contested a thrilling play-off semi-final with Exeter, losing 6-5 on aggregate.
Much of their top-seven finish was due to a great first half of the season. They didn’t lose a competitive game over 90 minutes until November 12th, and that included an eight game winning streak finally ended by Newport County. That would seem like the sort of foundation a promotion challenge is mounted on, but the turn of the year brought significantly different fortunes. They won four in 21 before rallying with back to back wins in the last two games which only just secured their play off spot. Ironically for them their final game of the season was a 3-2 win at Exeter, a side they then failed to beat to secure promotion.
Jabo Ibhere bagged 15 goals and Charlie Wyke added 18 in league and cup to help their cause, but neither player will be wearing blue next season as they’ve joined Cambridge and Bradford respectively. Much will rest on the shoulders of former-Boston man Jason Kennedy, the only other player to hit double figures, and new faces such as Ritchie Bennett brought in from Barrow. Bennett had a decent season in the National League, but can he lead the line alone as the Cumbrians attempt to (at the very least) consolidate?
I don’t think he can, and I certainly can’t see a play-off assault from them this time around. Keith Curle looks a tired manager, one that has never truly been a success and perhaps guarantees only mid table finishes at this level. You know things are not good when your gaffer gets his excuses in before July is out, and I’m afraid they have nothing more than mid-table nothingness to look forward to.
Stacey West prediction for Carlisle United: 16th
Cheltenham didn’t exactly set League Two on fire after romping to the National League title, their blueprint is one we will want to avoid as much as we can. They finished on 50 points, just four clear of relegation in an ultimately successful bid to avoid being one of the first clubs to plummet straight back into the fifth tier after promotion. Only a summer of strong recruitment could give them any hope of change, and that hasn’t been the case.
The brightest star they’ve picked up is former Villa winger Jerrell Sellars, a player rumoured to have trained with us for fitness during the close season. Aside from that it has been a miserable few months, 16-goal Billy Waters left for Northampton and he hasn’t been replaced with anyone of stand-out quality. Midfielder Nigel Atanga was drafted in from Leyton Orient, he turned out 27 times for the relegated O’s and at least has experience of a League Two battle for survival, albeit an unsuccessful one. Sudanese-born Mohammed Eisa has scored 57 times for Greenwich over two years, but he’s completely unproven even at National League level and represents a risk, perhaps a desperate throw of a dice loaded against the Robins.
I’m going to be brutally honest here, I cannot see one positive for them in the coming campaign. Gary Johnson has signed a new deal in the summer which I suppose is one thing, and Daniel Wright hasn’t left after experiencing a tough campaign in League Two. If, and it is a big if, he can start scoring maybe they can find something to build on, but at present it looks like being a long and arduous 2017/18 for them. I think they’ll just avoid relegation, if not exclusively due to the aggressive nature of the likes of Harry Pell. They can fight and battle and I think they’ll (just) survive by virtue of two teams being worse.
Stacey West prediction for Cheltenham Town: 22nd
The Spireites had a stinking season last time out, 37 points left them rock-bottom of League One. They won just twice away all season, and won just three of 25 league and cup games in 2017. They were flushed down the toilet and into League Two without so much as a whimper, depressing their fans and leaving them concerned as to what the future holds.
If there is one thing that you can guarantee as well as taxes and death though, it is Chesterfield being competitive in League Two. It often used to sicken me the ease with which they’d dust down after relegation and go again. They always seem to find enough in the tank to finish in the top half at worst, and in the promotion frame at best. I’m going to predict this season will be no different.
Why do I have cause to consider that they’ll do well? Good recruitment is one reason. Gozie Ugwu is a big unit signed from Woking, a player many Imps identified as worthy of a bid from us this pre-season. He isn’t the most refined footballer on the planet, but he’s big, nasty and can put the ball in the back of the net. He’s been joined by Chris O’Grady too, an experienced campaigner with knowledge of football at this level, if not a proper goal scorer.
There’s Jack McCourt, a former Northampton man brought in on a two-year deal, experienced keeper Joe Anyon as well as Jordan Sinnott, a tough midfielder stepping up from Halifax Town. They’re assembling a squad that will battle and fight for everything, and if you need any further indication of that they’ve rid themselves of battle-shy Jon Nolan.
The final piece of the jigsaw has been found off the pitch, Graham Barrow has joined as assistant to manager Gary Caldwell to provide some experience to the young manager. It isn’t a world-beating set up, they won’t be running away with the league or anything like that, but they’ll be tucked in somewhere near the top seven. I suspect inexperience at this level for Caldwell and a need for consolidation will see them miss out on the play-offs, but only just.
Stacey West Prediction for Chesterfield: 8th
Colchester are another one of those sides that always seem to do well at this level, but unlike Chesterfield they’ve got the platform to build on as well. If anything they are in the position that the Spireites want to be in next season, they finished strongly last time out (8th and just a point outside of the play-offs) and they’ve had a decent summer too,
I’ve already stated the importance of keeping a squad together though, and Colchester are a fine example of that. Kurtis Guthrie and Ben Dickenson both hit 12 goals last season and both line up for them again this time around. They have lost Chris Porter who scored 16 in 39 outings, but at 33 it might be argued he is approaching his sell-by date anyway.
In his place comes a familiar face to those who studied our league last season, at least until January. Mikael Mandron was at Eastleigh before a big move to Wigan, but just one start and two further outings from the bench was the extent of his Latics career. He’s a big, strong boy but he’s quick too and he really impressed me at Sincil Bank last year. If he can find his feet in League Two he’ll be a real handful.
One thing that dogged Colchester last season was their away form, and they’ll definitely need to improve on the road. At the Colchester Community Stadium they bagged 14 wins and four draws, the same as champions Plymouth, and with 43 goals only the Pilgrims scored more. Away from home they won just four times, less than relegated Leyton Orient, and scored 24, less than both Orient and Hartlepool who also went down. Maybe they need a few more overnight stays before a game, or a better coach company, but if they can sort that out then there is no reason why they can’t go one better this season.
Stacey West Prediction for Colchester United: 5th
Part Two tomorrow