You know what this is, predictions for the upcoming League Two season. Although I’m always a man of many words, it is pointless me adding any more. On with the show.
As any League Two fan looks down the fixtures for the upcoming season, there’s no doubt the Sky Blues are the name they are looking for. They’re the 1987 FA Cup winners, a team that enjoyed the best part of half a century as a top-flight team. They’re the big draw this season, make no mistake about that. They’ve replaced Portsmouth as the former Premier League club languishing in the basement division.
On paper they should be a shoe-in for the title. They’re managed by former Man Utd striker Mark Robins, they’ve got a potential five-figure fan base and they should be able to cherry pick the very best players from around the lower league scene. Most bookies have them in the top two or three for promotion, and they’re a tight price to win the league outright. Sadly (for them, not us) football isn’t played on paper, and name alone cannot carry you far in this division.
Marc McNulty is a great signing, he’s a striker recently released by Sheffield United that should score goals for fun at this level. He’s been joined by Sutton striker Maxime Biamou and Rochdale midfielder Peter Vincenti. They look decent signings, but in truth they’re only as good as the likes of Lee Angol or Ritchie Bennett.
Coventry’s fall from grace has been almost exclusively down to poor management at board level, and the end still isn’t in sight in that respect. The fans are still fighting SISU, and those fans lost a little respect when a majority turned out for the Checkatrade Trophy final previously boycotted by most clubs. Coventry will be everyone’s cup final, the team we all want to beat and I’m not sure they’re up to that challenge.
They were relegated early last season and they will feel the pinch going to places like Accrington and Crawley. They’ll also get quite a tough ride at Mansfield, Luton, Sincil Bank and Notts County. They might be a big name, but with fans staying away and only half-decent faces arriving in the summer, I’m not sure they’ll do as well as many are predicting.
Stacey West Prediction for Coventry City: 10th
Whenever a team buy their way up the Football League, there is always a fan somewhere sat muttering the words ‘wait until it all goes bang’. We saw it with Rushden and Diamonds, we’ll see it with Forest Green one day, and right now that is what is happening at Crawley.
Steve Evans hopped it when the money went and since then Crawley have struggled to progress. Last season they finished 19th, a position achieved on the back of 20 James Collins goals. This season the striker will be in the white of Luton Town, and they’ll need to find goals from somewhere else. I’m not quite sure where though, Thomas Verheydt has come in from the Dutch second tier as has Moussah Sanoh, but will they be prepared for the English fourth tier?
Then there’s the manager, Harry Kewell. Harry is a big name, there is no doubt about that, but my sources tell me he wasn’t the most popular of managers at Watford where he coached the under 23’s. He’s a big name in the rough and tumble of League Two, a level he knows nothing about. Anyone remember us trying something similar back in 2009/10?
All of the components together don’t paint a good picture for Crawley. I remember Oxford bringing foreign players ill-equipped for the rigours of December away trips to Newport, and that ended in relegation. I remember when we brought in a previous-inexperienced big-name coach and that (ultimately) ended in relegation. When you’ve also lost your main striker, failed to adequately replace him and have lost your previous buying power too, I think there is only one outcome.
Stacey West Prediction for Crawley Town: 24th
They’re a bit nondescript Crewe, one of those teams that might spring a bit of an upset but not amongst the favourites at either end of the table. It isn’t entirely relevant to the predictions, but their family club image has been rocked by the revelations around their former youth coach, the vile Barry Bennell. You have to feel for the current administration there, inevitably linked with that heinous man despite being a separate entity completely. Once renowned for producing great young players, that image is now tarnished.
They limped to 17th last season, although they have had an active summer. Brad Walker is a really good signing, he’s a midfielder with lots of promise whom previously played for Hartlepool. I had hoped we might invest in him, he was once on the FourFourTwo list of young players to watch and he might have a big impact. They’ve also Chris Porter from Colchester, he bagged 16 and he’ll join 14-goal Chris Dagnall up front for the Railwaymen.
It looks to me like a season of nothingness once again for Crewe though, despite the two impressive signings. In Dagnall and Porter they’ll have a few goals, but at 33 and 31 respectively they may lack the legs in the final 20 minutes of games. They didn’t have unusually good form at home or away last season, there was no Achilles heel that seemed to hold them back. Their form was indifferent, they almost epitomised averageness and I can’t see that changing.
Stacey West Prediction for Crewe Alexandra: 14th
If I’d been writing this a couple of weeks ago I would have had Exeter as my dark-horses for promotion. They had a thrilling play-off semi-final against Carlisle last season and were desperately unlucky to lose out to seventh placed Blackpool in the final. In Ollie Watkins they had a real gem, a home-grown striker with the potential to light up their 2017/18 season. I often say ‘consistency is king’, and with just the odd new face added to their play-off side they could well have been up there once again.
Unfortunately they haven’t had the summer they might have liked. 13-goal Rueben Reid ventured deeper into Devon to sign for Plymouth Argyle, and just a couple of weeks ago Ollie Watkins got his big move to Brentford. Joel Grant also went to Plymouth, and promising teenager Ethan Ampadu has gone to Chelsea. It isn’t a mass exodus, but it is probably enough to rule them out of another play-off push.
That said they do have a good manager in Paul Tisdale, I believe he is the longest-serving after Arsene Wenger and the Grecians board stuck with him despite a bad start to last season. That decision reaped rewards ultimately, but will he survive this season if they are seen to be taking steps backwards, rather than pushing on further? I hope so because I quite like Exeter, something I know I won’t be saying on August 19th. It’s a club not dissimilar to ours, they’re off the beaten track for signings, they’re a family club and they even play in red and white stripes. They have the right ethos and that loyalty they’ve shown to Tisdale proves they have integrity. I like that, and respect that too.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though, former hero Dean Moxey has come back after plying his trade in the higher divisions, and that in itself is a real positive for the club. Luke Croll has joined from Palace and striker Ryan Brunt has come from Plymouth, but I have a nagging feeling that the departures haven’t been covered sufficiently to sustain another play-off push.
Stacey West Prediction for Exeter City: 11th
Urgh, I wasn’t looking forward to getting to this one. From a team that I respect to one that make me angrier than an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys. It makes me sick seeing them being face-mapped for the upcoming FIFA 18 game as they’re the ‘fairy tale’ story. Yeah, £2.5m losses every season and buying success however they can, I read that fairy tale every night as a kid. Whatever.
Anyway pushing on from the bitterness I can’t see Forest Green pulling up any trees in League Two. The main problem is manager Mark Cooper, a man who lost his dressing room last season (twice) and simply farmed all the dissenting voices out and brought in new faces. With a strict transfer window he won’t be able to do that, and for all his bleating about ‘nice football’, he came across as tactically naïve last season.
I’m not sure he has the know-how to take FGR up a level, and his bullish man-management skills won’t wash with the level of player he needs to bring in. He failed at Notts County and had he not scraped through the play-offs at Tranmere’s expense he would be sat watching proceedings this season from his armchair. He’s a lucky man, but I suspect that luck will run out rather quickly.
That said they have some good footballers there, players such as Keanu Marsh-Brown (who couldn’t buy a start at the end of the season) and Christian Doidge will step up comfortably. Keeping Liam Noble was a big bonus too, he’s an experienced and creative player that would walk into most other League Two sides.
They’re not my favourite side by any stretch of the imagination, and even with the good players they are often left wanting tactically. They threw away a big lead last season and then almost bottled the play-offs too. They were happy rolling over the likes of Southport and Boreham Wood, but when it came to big matches they often failed to hold their nerve. Their two wins over Tranmere after at the end of the season looked to have put that to bed, but I’m sure come the big kick off that small club mentality will rear its head again in the players. They’ll struggle with Cooper in charge, and much depends on him getting the boot. My prediction is assuming he’ll get the full season, if he doesn’t they might just push further up the table. With him in charge they’ll achieve nothing.
Stacey West prediction for Forest Green Rovers: 20th
We were one step behind them in relegation and one step behind them in promotion. Now, as we look to push on to a play-off spot, our friends over at Blunder Park will want to put an indifferent season behind them and do the same. They had three managers over the course of last season, many feel if Marcus Bignot had been given any more time then they might have finished much lower. Russell Slade knows his way around this division, and with their decent fan base generating income they’ll hope for an improvement on last year.
If anything they struggled for goals after Omar Bogle left, and I’m assuming at the time of writing they’ll still be looking to replace him. However, Akwasi Asante, Sam Jones and Jamie Osbourne all have experience now at this level having moved up from the National League last January, and all three could have much better seasons. Couple that with some solid signings at the back, and you’ll have a competitive Town side. Paul Dixon and Karleigh Osbourne are both big signings for them, they’ll be tough to break down at home as Blunder Park is a harsh ground to play at, especially in the depths of winter.
Goals will be the only worry, talk of Tyler Walker signing on loan is nothing more than rumour, so much will be placed on the shoulders of Harry Cardwell, a summer acquisition from Reading. If he hits the ground running and the boys from last season find some form then I’m afraid to say Grimsby will be competitive. I’m told Adi Yussuf has looked sharp in pre-season, as has Siriki Dembele. The latter is secretly being touted as a possible star of the future by those Grimsby fans ‘in the know’, and if it all comes together don’t be surprised to see them in the top seven.
Stacey West (begrudging) Prediction for Grimsby Town: 7th
If you were hoping to see Lincoln City after Grimsby Town, you’ll have to wait. You didn’t think I was going to try to sum up our chances in four or five paragraphs did you? Lincoln City is my thing so my thoughts on our chances will follow as a final stand-alone article.
Anyway, Luton finished fourth last time out, due in the main to 21-goal striker Danny Hylton, a loathed figure at Sincil Bank. Promising striker Jack Marriott has left, but he’s been replaced by Crawley’s leading scorer from last season, James Collins. They’ve added six other new faces to their squad including Elliott Lee, a striker from Barnsley and impressive Czech keeper Marek Stech.
The loss of Marriott might not be detrimental to their efforts, but losing Cameron McGeehan could be a blow. He scored 10 times from 24 starts in midfield and seems to have a big future ahead of him.
In the main though Luton have kept their side together, and their business has been considered and impressive. You don’t spend a rumoured £100k on a striker like Collins if you’re not going for automatic promotion, and quite simply given how they finished last season I can’t see how they won’t be amongst the front-runners. They lost just two in 13 at the end of the year, one of those the 3-2 reverse against Blackpool in the play-off semi-final. With Hylton and Collins up top they are assured goals, they’re compact at the back and experienced enough in this division to know what it takes to be amongst the top seven.
I’m going to go as far as saying that I think they will be champions come next May. They’re a sleeping giant if the truth be known, a side that consistently competed in the top two divisions until a collapse of epic proportions saw them realigned as a basement division club. Now they’re on their way back up and I think this is the year they climb out of League Two with some silverware to parade around the town in, which will make a change from EDL or Anti-fascist marches for Luton residents.
Stacey West prediction for Luton Town: 1st
Finally today, our big-spending friends at Mansfield Town. They’re another of the sides I’ve loved to hate this pre-season, Steve Evans won’t ever be on my Christmas card list and I’m also not a fan of Caroline Radford. When you know the names of other club’s Chief Exec’s then I think they’re a little too attention seeking, and that girl loves a headline. Has anyone seen that god-awful song they’ve done to try to get her on the FA Council? Awful.
That aside I’m sorry to say I see good things for the Stags this year. It won’t be plain sailing, it isn’t possible to put together an entirely new team and not suffer some settling in period. If Steve Evans can ride that though I think they’ll be right up there all season.
The quality of signings has been really good, Paul Anderson and Zander Diamond in particular stand out as key players. Anderson is really talented and he’ll be a threat from out wide, and Diamond is experienced and a calming influence across the back. To get promotion you need leaders and that is exactly what Diamond is, a proven leader and a good footballer. Jacob Mellis is a good addition too, he signed from Bury but played in the same Chelsea youth team as Billy Knott. David Mirfin is experienced too, another good addition to their squad. Finally, Lee Angol is a great signing for them. I really liked Lee at City, I thought he was dangerous, clinical and added a dimension to our attack we hadn’t had all season. He could be the 20-goal striker Evans hopes he has found now he’s cast Matt Green aside, he certainly has the potential in him.
Another plus for them is the loud-mouth Scot himself. As much as I loathe him and his methods, he does know how to get out of this league. I moan about how he always has a big budget, but this season he again has a big budget. He did it with Rotherham, he did it with Crawley and as long as his side settle quickly I think he’ll do it with Mansfield as well.
I’ve hated writing this, I would love to have predicted that they finish outside the play-offs or he’d get the boot by Christmas, but it won’t happen. The Radford’s are backing him, he’s happiest when he’s spending and it all points to automatic promotion for our least-favourite manager.
Stacey West Prediction for Mansfield Town: 3rd
So to conclude today, I’ve tied up the automatic promotion spots with Luton, Cambridge and now Mansfield Town. The more astute amongst you will realise that means I’m not predicting a top three finish for the Mighty Imps. Do I think we’ll even hit the play-offs? You’ll be able to find out tomorrow when I publish my third and final piece covering the rest of League Two, and my final table. On Friday I’ll be doing a piece on our pre-season and where I think we’ll ultimately end the season.
I bet you can’t wait right? If you’re wondering you can read more of me in FourFourTwo this month, and World of Soccer as well. I’m like dog muck me, I get everywhere only I don’t smell as bad and I can’t keep your hands warm on a cold winter morning.