Each summer we get a delicious amuse-bouche before the start of the Premiership season, as the lower leagues kick-off a couple of weeks earlier. This weekend sees the 72 teams of the football league starting their 2013/14 campaigns; a campaign that will inevitably see triumph, heartbreak and radically inflated ticket prices. Here are my tips on what to look out for in the early weeks.
QPR have been owned (and managed) terribly for a couple of seasons now, but it’s hard to look past Harry Redknapp as the league’s most experienced top-flight campaigner. Bringing in Charlie Austin from Burnley gives them guaranteed Championship goals (especially with Loic Remy’s departure now seemingly inevitable). What they seem to lack is the team spirit and work ethic to grind out difficult victories in the most competitive league in the country. Wigan, on the other hand, have chosen an experienced and totally sensible manager in Owen Coyle, and I’m expecting that to bear fruit. Signing Grant Holt is a gamble, but one that could pay off if they can keep him injury free and well supplied by the midfield. Of the non-relegated sides, Watford appear to be in a good position. They’ve tied up the permanent acquisitions of some of last season’s loan signings, and Gianfranco Zola’s management spell in English football (which started with a rocky tenure at West Ham) seems to be settling down nicely.
At the other end of the table, it’s hard to see Yeovil enjoying anything more than a season in the Championship. Gary Johnson’s surprise package did brilliantly to win the play-offs, but their summer signings are low on experience and their top performers from last season, like goalkeeper Marek Stech, look a bit lightweight at this level. Of the promoted clubs, Doncaster look in best shape, whilst Bournemouth will be relying heavily on talismanic manager Eddie Howe to try and keep them up. It’s a hard task and one that they’ll probably fail in, unless perennially fringe teams like Ipswich, Millwall and Barnsley finally pull a Lusitania and sink down to League One. And, as a West Ham fan, I worry for the future of Blackpool with Paul Ince in charge. They bombed last season and Ince is hardly the man you want to inspire a resurgance up the table (the cynics might suggest that he was only brought in to convince son Tom to remain a Blackpool player).
It’s impossible to look past Wolves in League One this season. Even with their calamitous last campaign, their squad still has bags of Premiership and Championship experience. If they can hold on to Bakary Sako and Kevin Doyle, and get Leigh Griffiths to replicate his exceptional form on loan at Hibs, then it’s hard to believe they won’t walk away with this division. Swindon might well have gone up last season, had they not been rocked by Paolo di Canio’s departure. They’ve strengthened their squad with a number of Tottenham youngsters- an experiment that’s seen as risky but almost worked with Watford. They’ll be in the play-off places at least, after that it’s something of a lottery. Amongst the other contenders, League Two champions Gillingham will fancy their chances, which the other promotion places will probably go to either Bristol City or Peterborough. Sean O’Driscoll has a lot of experience in this division, but his squad looks to have less edge, at this point, than Darren Feguson’s Posh.
Relegation here will be brutal. Out of loyalty I’m hoping that Crawley Town steer well clear, but many of the mid-table clubs from last season could find themselves sucked down into a dogfight. Coventry are almost certainly going to ‘pull a Pompey’ after their 15-point deduction, but the other two places are still up for grabs. Oldham scraped survival last season, on the back of a managerial turnover, but Lee Johnson has made some significant changes to that squad. Galvanising new players for a relegation fight is a tough ask, and is something that might well drag Shrewsbury down into the relegation zone, following their serious squad overhaul. Stevenage, Colchester and Carlisle would seem the obvious candidates to battle it out for survival, with the Football League’s most northern club being my pick to go down, after shipping 77 goals last season. If Lee Miller misses a few games for them, that could be enough to condemn them to League Two football next season.
It’s hard to predict how the sides promoted from the conference will fare in League Two. Fleetwood Town ought to have been promoted last season, were it not for a post-Christmas collapse that saw them finish 13th. They’ve added some experienced players from League One and I expect them to be in the automatic promotion places this time out. As with League One, it’s hard to see the big team, namely Portsmouth, failing to make an immediate return. Jed Wallace is possibly the best player in the division, and Patrick Agyemang ought to score at least 20 over the course of the season. Mansfield will be looking to replicate Crawley Town’s success a couple of seasons ago and take the division by storm, although they’re running out of time to find a replacement for Matt Green, who signed for Birmingham. Burton appear to have lost too many of their best players to be in serious contention, so the final place ought to be battled out between relegated Hartlepool, Cheltenham Town and Oxford United. I’ve picked the latter partially ought of loyalty, but also because they’ve made some big changes to their squad and the strike partnership of James Constable and Dave Kitson ought to be deadly.
Relegation from League Two means a drop to the conference, and teams will fight bitterly to avoid that. Torquay United have lost Rene Howe and it’s hard to see where manager Alan Knill now expects regular goals to come from. If they’re not knocking them home then replicating last season’s 17th placed finish looks difficult. Welsh teams have had a fantastic couple of years, with Swansea and Cardiff reaching the Premiership, but Newport County are very much the wildcards of League Two. Bringing in a striker like Chris Zebrowski smacks of desperation for some sort of experience, and could upset the balance at the club. Morecombe were real challengers a couple of years ago, but the Shrimpers have steadily lost momentum and now look like they’ll be scrapping for survival and their top scorer is out injured for the first half of the season- not an ideal situation. And bookies’ favourites for relegation Dagenham and Redbridge will probably find themselves there or thereabout next Spring, with an uncreative team that spent last season desperately trying to avoid conceding, but without making any chances of their own. Unless they have a radical change of mentality then they’ll be playing in the Conference next term.