League Two 2017-18 season preview

Steve Evans, Manager of Leeds United applaudes the travelling fans at the final whistle during the Sky Bet Championship match between Cardiff City and Leeds United at the Cardiff City...

Mansfield Town may have finished 12th last season but there is no appetite for mid-table mediocrity this time in Steve Evans’ first full season in charge.

Title challengers

Evans, who took over last November, has overseen an aggressive summer recruitment drive, culminating in 13 signings, many of whom have excelled above this level. Jacob Mellis, formerly of Chelsea, and Paul Anderson have Championship experience and Will Atkinson played for Hull City in the Premier League under Phil Brown, who signed him for Southend United in 2013.

Evans has been well backed in the market by the owner, John Radford, who rejected an approach from Swindon Town for his manager in May. For Mansfield’s pre-season trip to Malta Radford laid on a chartered jet. Evans, a former Rotherham and Leeds manager who has won nine promotions, is hungry for more success. “We have a project here and it’s called promotion,” the 54-year-old said. “I’m desperate for 10.”

Luton Town harbour hopes of bouncing back from the agony of play-off semi-final defeat by Blackpool. Nathan Jones has lost the forwards Cameron McGeehan and Jack Marriott to Barnsley and Peterborough respectively but goals should not be in short supply after the arrival of James Collins from Crawley. He provides the perfect helping hand for Danny Hylton, the pair having scored 49 goals between them last season. Jones’s former Yeovil Town team-mate Marek Stech is a shrewd yet giant goalkeeping addition, and Jack Stacey, released by Reading, shone at Exeter last season.

Another team who ought to be in the reckoning are Coventry City. Mark Robins was left to pick up the pieces in March with the club facing relegation from League One, a result of off-field troubles. He returned after a spell in charge five years ago and Robins and the captain Michael Doyle, who has re-signed after helping Portsmouth to promotion last season, have the club at heart.

It feels like now or never for Carlisle United and Keith Curle, who has endured a few bumps since his appointment in 2014. They alarmingly dropped off last year, stuttering to a sixth-placed finish, before losing out to Exeter in the play-offs. The Carlisle squad remains wafer-thin but there have been a few intriguing additions. Richie Bennett scored 16 goals for fifth-tier Barrow last season and the striker Hallam Hope arrives from Bury. “I’ve probably chased Hallam more than I’ve ever chased anyone else through my whole life – ex-wife, ex-partner and current girlfriend included,” Curle said.

Play-off contenders

Cambridge United have the tools to build on a solid campaign last season under Shaun Derry, who at only 39 is establishing himself as one of the lower leagues’ most promising managers. Cambridge had one of the league’s standout performers in the goalscoring midfielder Luke Berry last season and have strengthened by nabbing the journeyman striker Jabo Ibehre from Carlisle. They finished four points shy of seventh last season and have added further nous with the goalkeeper David Forde, a big influence at Portsmouth last season. They are bound to go close.

Wycombe Wanderers have lost Aaron Pierre – to Northampton Town – but they have a new form of defence. Their garish goalkeeper kits will scare opponents and Adam El-Abd, who has struggled since leaving Brighton in 2014, looks a shrewd addition to Gareth Ainsworth’s backline. Up front Nathan Tyson returns for more after scoring 42 goals over two seasons for Wycombe 11 years ago. He will ensure a mix of pace and power alongside Adebayo Akinfenwa and Scott Kashket.

It has been a funny few months for Exeter City after the disappointment of losing to Blackpool in the play-off final. They saw Joel Grant – for whom fans stumped up £30,000 to help pay his wages – depart for their Devon rivals Plymouth Argyle, sold their star striker Ollie Watkins to Brentford and were equally powerless to prevent the 16-year-old defender Ethan Ampadu from joining Chelsea. It will be down to Paul Tisdale, in his 11th year in charge, to keep them fighting at the right end of the table.

Helping relegated Swindon Town rediscover their spark is David Flitcroft, who after spells at Barnsley and Bury – where he secured promotion to League One last year – will be desperate to impress. The County Ground has been a revolving door – with the director of football, Tim Sherwood, among those departing – but a play-off push at least will be the target.

The promoted clubs, Forest Green Rovers and Lincoln City, will have a quiet confidence after an invaluable, momentum-building season. Lincoln, who enjoyed a magical FA Cup run, have kept the bulk of their squad and the addition of the experienced midfielder Michael Bostwick from Peterborough seems a clever one by the manager, Danny Cowley. Any success for Rovers may hinge on the captain, Liam Noble – courted by Notts County – and striker Christian Doidge making the step up.

Relegation candidates

This could be quite a baptism of fire for Harry Kewell, whose coaching experience only consists of a stint with Watford Under-23s. Crawley Town finished five points above the drop last season and, after selling Collins, their top scorer, to Luton, will face another tough campaign.

Accrington Stanley could have had so much more last season but for a poor start. This summer their manager, John Coleman, had no choice but to sell the forward Shay McCartan to League One Bradford City and, without the Northern Ireland international’s craft and goal threat, Stanley could be brought back to earth.

Gary Johnson led Cheltenham Town back into the League last year but keeping them up will again call on all the experienced manager’s wiles after a summer of changes. The midfielder Kevin Dawson should bolster a threadbare squad but defensively they still look vulnerable. Cheltenham have had a dreadful pre-season, too.

Yeovil Town also found the going hard last year, but Darren Way will be desperate to eke out more from his squad. The progress of the Southampton loanee striker, Olufela Olomola, an England Under-19 international, will be interesting.

Elsewhere it looks set to be another difficult year for Morecambe despite putting their off-field troubles behind them. As for relegated Port Vale, mass personnel changes will go one way or the other under Michael Brown in his first full season as a manager. The goals of Tom Pope, who returns after a disappointing spell at Bury, could be crucial.

Three players to watch

Lee Angol, Mansfield Town

Angol, who was at Tottenham as a teenager, was snapped up by Peterborough after he scored 25 goals on loan at Boreham Wood in 2014-15. The 22-year-old striker never settled at Posh but is clearly a talent. While on loan at Lincoln City last season – after scoring a hat-trick on his debut – he was described by Danny Cowley as “like an iPhone 7 because he can do a bit of everything”.

Lamar Reynolds, Newport County

Reynolds scored 28 goals for Brentwood Town last season before joining up with Jamie Vardy’s academy this summer, which led to his move to Newport. The 21-year-old boosts Mike Flynn’s attacking options after the County manager engineered this spring’s great escape from the drop.

Gozie Ugwu, Chesterfield

The 24-year-old has had to fight for another crack at the Football League but after scoring 19 goals for Woking last season Ugwu has his chance. He showed glimpses of quality at Yeovil in 2015 before struggling at Wycombe. The striker will likely dovetail with the much-travelled Chris O’Grady, another summer signing by Gary Caldwell.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Fisher, for The Guardian on Tuesday 1st August 2017 11.18 Europe/London

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