It has been a painful fall for a former staple of the Premier League and they will be the biggest fish in the League One pond, and begin as title favourites.
That tag is in no small part down to Tony Mowbray. The manager took over a sinking ship in February and gathered 22 points from 15 games, form good enough for a top-half finish over the full season. There is cautious optimism that he will continue to be the steadying influence the club have severely lacked.
The owner promised investment in a squad depleted over the summer by the departure of several out-of-contract players and, in fairness, Venky’s have kept their word, bringing in Bradley Dack from Gillingham for £750,000 to add proven League One quality, as well as Queens Park Rangers’ Ben Gladwin and Reading’s Dominic Samuel. They still require a forward but with the canny free signings of Peter Whittingham and Richard Smallwood in midfield, Rovers should be a cut above the rest.
Their stiffest competition is likely to emerge a few miles south where Wigan are also determined to bounce straight back to the Championship. They were fired to the 2015-16 League One title by Will Grigg’s 25 goals and will hope the step back down ignites another scoring streak.
The manager, Paul Cook, is the fourth man in charge since that triumph 14 months ago and he has quickly made his mark, bringing in new backroom staff, showing Omar Bogle the door and making the midfielder Max Power, who wants to leave, train with the reserves.
The move to sell the forward Bogle suggests Cook will stick with his favoured 4-2-3-1 with Grigg leading the line and the creative Nick Powell in midfield. There are likely to be further ins and outs but Wigan’s squad is one of the division’s strongest and the club know how to get out of the third tier.
Cook won the League Two title last season with Portsmouth, who are eyeing back-to-back promotions with Kenny Jackett in charge. Jackett has League One promotions on his CV with Millwall and Wolves and he has improved the squad with the Ipswich forward Brett Pitman, whom he has made captain, and the Spurs reserve goalkeeper Luke McGee.
Portsmouth may be under new ownership, with the American billionaire Michael Eisner poised to seal a £5.7m deal to buy the club from the Pompey Supporters Trust. Eisner recently compared the club’s previous “bad owners” to dogs as he attempts allay fans’ fears. The former Disney chief executive is expected to inject significant investment as they continue to plot a fairytale return to the Premier League, and the League One title is not an unrealistic goal.
Most of the teams are capable of a top-six finish should they get a good thing going this season, but there are some outstanding candidates, none more so than Bradford City – though they may not fancy another trip to Wembley after the heartbreak of their last visit, in the play-off final against Millwall. Stuart McCall’s task is made harder by the departures of several first-team players including the defender James Meredith and the rapid winger Mark Marshall.
Oxford United and MK Dons should push for the play-offs under promising young managers. Robbie Neilson has used his first pre-season in English football to reshape the Dons midfield, signing the towering Ousseynou Cissé from the French Ligue 2 club Tours and bringing in a pair of 22-year-olds on loan: Nottingham Forest’s Gboly Ariyibi and Aston Villa’s Aaron Tshibola. Oxford will be something of an unknown quantity under the Spanish coach Pep Clotet, who built a reputation as a talented assistant at Leeds and Swansea. The U’s have struggled a little in pre-season, largely against Championship opposition, but have added experience at the back in Mike Williamson as well as a Spanish touch with the 22-year-old midfielder Xemi from Barcelona.
Scunthorpe and Fleetwood will be threats again after 82-point hauls last season.Scunthorpefinished third although the departures of the goalkeeper Luke Daniels, centre-back David Mirfin and midfielder Stephen Dawson have taken away part of their spine. Even so, Graham Alexander is confident and has spent pre-season honing a wing-back system which would see the winger Josh Morris move into a more influential role in the centre. Free-flowing Fleetwood may have lost the striker David Ball to Rotherham but Uwe Rösler, the League One manager of the season, has brought in Everton’s Conor McAleny, who scored 10 goals in 18 games on loan at Oxford last term.
There are a host of other sides who could be in the mix. Charlton have well-documented problems off the field but Karl Robinson is an astute manager with a strong squad, to which he is close to adding one his favourites from MK Dons, Ben Reeves. Southend have gained experience and quality in the exciting Michael Kightly from Burnley and the former Norwich defender Michael Turner, while Bristol Rovers have tied down one of the most highly rated managers in the Football League, Darrell Clarke, to a long-term contract as he seeks to build on their mid-table finish.
Rotherham’s terrible Championship campaign does not suggest an immediate return, particularly having sold Danny Ward to Cardiff City, but with the arrival of Ball and the Barnsley winger Ryan Williams there is hope of building a competitive side. Peterborough can expect a good season if their gamble on the prolific non-league goalscorers Ricky Miller and Danny Lloyd comes off, and Bury are another unknown quantity after acquiring 15 men already this window, including Jermaine Beckford, but the sale of James Vaughan to Sunderland may leave too big a gap to leap from a 19th-place finish.
Shrewsbury may be leading the way in the move towards safe standing in the Football League but they are also among the leading candidates to be relegated. The club have struggled to kick on since promotion from League Two in 2015 and another tough season is on the cards. Paul Hurst did well to drag them off the bottom of the table but faces another uphill battle following what has been an underwhelming summer thus far.
It was a respectable 15th-place finish for AFC Wimbledon last season in their first crack at League One football and they will be aiming to stay in the division for another year. Bradford’s move to coax Jake Reeves away could turn out to be a crucial blow, however, to a squad largely comprised of League Two pedigree.
Oldham are likely to struggle once more after accruing a woeful goal tally of 31 last term. They have failed to address this area with a proven goalscorer and John Sheridan will again require a water-tight defence – they conceded three fewer than the champions Sheffield United – to survive.
Walsall’s young side have promise although they were dealt a blow by the departure of the goalkeeper Neil Etheridge. Of the sides coming up Blackpool seem most likely to struggle as fanscontinue their fight against the Oystons’ ownership. Their surprise promotion via the play-offs will be difficult to back up without investment so it is important they have retained key players such as Mark Cullen and Brad Potts.
Gillingham have endured a tough off-season with two of their best players, Dack and Cody McDonald, pinched by other League One sides. Adrian Pennock did well to keep them in the division but faces another challenge and will need his new-look defence to gel quickly. Northampton Town, 16th last term, will be hoping to move up the table rather than down after the Chinese company 5USport bought a 60% stake in June.
Three men to watch
Josh Morris (Scunthorpe)
Morris was a low-key signing when Scunthorpe decided to bring in a player struggling to hold down a place in Bradford’s side. What a signing it proved to be as the midfielder racked up an astonishing 20 goals and 19 assists in a breakthrough season. They have kept hold of him despite interest from the Championship, and he will be crucial to Graham Alexander’s plans as the manager tries a switch to wing-backs which could hand Morris a more central role. Primarily a winger last season, Morris is comfortable in a variety of positions, has a searing turn of pace and can score from just about anywhere. His trademark free-kick bending into the top-left corner is unerringly accurate.
Michael Kightly (Southend)
Kightly’s release by Burnley at the end of last season was not particularly surprising but his decision to drop down two divisions to rejoin his first Football League club, Southend, was unexpected after he had been linked with a switch to the Championship with Ipswich or Millwall. At 31 Kightly still has plenty of football left in him and the winger will add real quality to the division with his ability to take on full-backs and reach the by-line. The manager, Phil Brown, believes it is a coup that takes the club to “the next level”, and revealed season-ticket sales received an immediate boost when Kightly signed.
Graham Carey (Plymouth Argyle)
Plymouth’s No10 spent much of his career in Scotland before a move to south-west England in 2015. There Carey established himself as one the brightest talents in League Two with consistently dangerous set pieces, a regular goal threat and a creative streak. The Irishman prefers to cut inside from the right wing, a role from which he secured a place in the League Two team of the season last term after contributing 14 goals and 16 assists to their promotion. The club quickly moved to tie the 28-year-old to a significantly improved deal, and they will be hopeful he can take that form into League One.
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