League One 2018/19 Lowdown: The Return To Pre-Season

Most League One sides returned to pre-season this week, with many of them about to jet off around Europe on various pre-season training camps. With less than 6 weeks to go until the close of the transfer window, get the lowdown on what has been happening with each club and an early prediction on where they will end up in 2018/19.

This will be the first of a 2 part preview ahead of the 2018/19 League One season, and the table that is presented in this article may well look different in the review I will write just before the season kicks off.

Accrington Stanley

It is hard for any football fan to be anything other than delighted for John Coleman and Accrington Stanley. Since Coleman returned in 2014, Accrington have been progressing as a club, and went so close in 2015/16, ultimately losing out to a controversially ruled out Billy Kee goal away at Wimbledon in March 2016, and Lee Brown’s stoppage time winner for Bristol Rovers v Dagenham and Redbridge as they were held at home to Stevenage.

Stanley consolidated in 2016/17 and went again last time out, romping to the League Two title with some outstanding form in the second half of the season. Don’t be fooled by the ‘who-are-they’, small club tag. Accrington can play. With Kee and Kayden Jackson upfront and Sean McConville and Jordan Clark out wide, Accrington will be a handful for sides.

Coleman is a footballing purist, and Accrington will stick to their expansive principles under the Scouser. They will however be possessing one of the smallest budgets in League One, and for them it is a case of keeping their best players.

Aaron Chapman has already left for Peterborough and the likes of McConville, Kee and Clark need to be retained to keep up the outstanding momentum gained in 2018.

Left-back Will Wood has arrived from Southampton as pre-season begins, whilst tricky winger Piero Mingoia has returned to the WHAM Stadium on a free transfer from Cambridge United. Midfielder Sam Finley has joined from AFC Wylde in the last 24 hours, but Accrington may need another 2 or 3 reinforcements at the sharp ends of the pitch to be sure of survival in League One.

I am expecting them about to be just about okay though in what is their first ever third tier campaign. I am going for an 18th place finish.

AFC Wimbledon

Football fans screamed ‘justice’ in May, as for the first time ever, AFC Wimbledon will play above the club that stole its old identify and relocated to Milton Keynes.

There is no doubt where the real essence of the old Wimbledon lies, as Neal Ardley’s side showed the spirit of the great Wimbledon sides of old to survive ahead of their now rivals, despite their vastly inferior resources. Ardley faces an even harder fight this term however, and one wonders if survival this season may be a step too far.

Centre-back Darius Charles has left to join Wycombe, a side you feel Wimbledon will be competing with this season; Dean Parrett has joined Gillingham having impressed, whilst the likes of Barry Fuller, Paul Robinson, Callum Kennedy and George Francomb will leave big holes to fill in terms of character. Top scorer Lyle Taylor has also left for Charlton Athletic in what is a real hammer blow for the Dons.

Ardley has brought in three players so far; Tom King will be the New Dons number 1, joining on loan from Millwall whilst midfielder Mitch Pinnock (Dover) and 6’ 4’’ striker James Hanson (Sheffield United) will join the club from July 1st, with Hanson being Taylor’s replacement. Hanson had an unsuccessful spell at Bury during the second half of last season, but does have good pedigree at this level.

His signing indicates little will change from Wimbledon’s back-to-front style, and using the Kingsmeadow pitch as a leveller. For me though, this Dons squad currently lack both depth and quality. It’s hard to see anything but a season of struggle for them, but maybe that spirit can get them over the line again. But as I see it now, I am tipping them for relegation to League Two and to prop up the whole league in 24th place.

Barnsley

Barnsley were relegated on the final day of the season after a horrific end to their 2017/18 Championship campaign. The Tykes have become something of a yo-yo club over the last 15 years between the Championship and League 1.

Since 2003, Barnsley have finished no higher than 17th in the Championship and no lower than 13th in League One – a relatively small range of finishes. It’s perhaps no surprise then to see them listed as a favourite for promotion, particularly coming out of an ever improving Championship as the strongest of the 3 relegated sides and with new investment into the club.

Relegation will still come with its costs however; new manager Daniel Stendel faces a task to keep his best players, with strikers Kieffer Moore and Tom Bradshaw likely wanted by Championship clubs, whilst Matty Pearson has joined Luton Town for the season ahead for an undisclosed fee. No new faces have yet arrived at Oakwell, or appear close and it appears that outgoings will be done before any new faces arrive.

However, if Barnsley can keep the likes of midfielders George Moncur, Brad Potts, Lloyd Isgrove and centre-backs Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock, they will be expected to be challenging at the right end of the league.

It’s early doors, but my own opinion is anybody who finishes ahead of Barnsley will be promoted automatically. Tykes fans will be expecting an immediate return to the Championship with this squad and are my early tip to win League One.

Blackpool

Blackpool fans are counting down the days until the Oyston’s are finally gone from their club with the incumbent owners soon to be forced to selling to Valeri Belokon.

The Tangerines under Gary Bowyer enjoyed a better than expected first season back in League One, having won the League Two play-offs in 2017, and excited teams with their pace and exuberance in their side, with a strong spine of Clark Robertson, Curtis Tilt, Jimmy Ryan and Jay Spearing anchoring the side.

Bowyer has been busy already with 7 new signings, including midfielders Chris Taylor, John O’Sullivan and Harry Pritchard from Bolton Wanderers, Carlisle United and Maidenhead United respectively. Centre-back Michael Nottingham has arrived at Bloomfield Road from National League North Winners Salford City, and will be a key man, whilst Rangers forward Joe Dodoo and Northampton Town left-back Joe Bunney have arrived on loan. Young midfielder Jordan Thompson has also arrived on a free from Ibrox, completing the recruitment.

However, Blackpool are looking slightly unsettled ahead of the new season. Player of the year Robertson is Championship bound with Rotherham United and main striker Kyle Vassell has followed him to the New York Stadium.

Kelvin Mellor may yet be outbound bound on a free, along with former Wrexham man Tilt though he’d command a fee. Angolan international, Dolly Menga’s future also remains unclear. Colin Daniel has already departed for Peterborough, whilst Armand Gnanduillet has opted to continue his career abroad.

With such uncertainty around a large portion of the squad, Blackpool will be hoping for some good outcomes from their perspective to those out of contract stars, like they received earlier this week with the re-signing of Spearing, who with Ryan will be needed to guide them through what could be a turbulent first half of the campaign.

At this stage, a bottom eight finish seems to be the most likely outcome and they may well spend a large portion of the season involved in a scrap for survival. I am backing Gary Bowyer to get them over the line again though currently, and with the Oyston family’s departure closer than ever, navigating one more season of toil would be a great outcome for the Tangerines. I am predicting a 19th placed finish.

Bradford City

Bradford’s form fell off a cliff in 2018, and with it, the momentum that had been generated since their return to League One in 2013. Two successive play-off finishes in the 2 seasons prior to the last one were supposed to mean an automatic promotion tilt last time out, but that never transpired after the surprise sacking of Stuart McCall.

Worryingly, Bradford appear to be losing one experienced player after another, with their German owners wanting to go down a youth development route, arguably at too far an extreme. Michael Collins is the new head coach at Bradford, having been promoted from their U18 set up.

8 new players have arrived this summer, but only 4 of them have played senior football in Britain before. Midfielder Josh Wright is probably the biggest name, with plenty of league experience, arriving on a free from Southend, whilst defender Anthony O’Connor has arrived from Aberdeen.

Bradford have also signed one of two right-backs called Joe Riley, both playing in League One next season; this one is the younger of the two, having graduated from Manchester United’s academy and making 2 appearances on loan at Sheffield United last season.

Richard O’Donnell has arrived from relegated Northampton on a free and will be the new number one following the surprise departure of Colin Doyle. Tony McMahon has joined Oxford United whilst Timothee Dieng has headed for Chris Powell’s revolution at Southend. Nicky Law have also left Valley Parade whilst Charlie Wyke is reportedly a Bolton Wanderers target, with an agreement on a fee not thought to be a million miles away.

With many fans choosing not to renew at Bradford, becoming increasingly sceptical of the reign of Eden Rahic, Bradford could be an outside tip to struggle this season. I personally think they will have enough to steer clear of danger, but a bottom half finish may well beckon for the Bantams. I am going for 16th place.

Bristol Rovers

Bristol Rovers have settled into being a good League One side in the last few seasons, finishing 10th and 13th respectively. Darrel Clarke’s side are looking at pushing back for the play-offs this season and have already been active in recruiting midfielders Ed Upson from relegated MK Dons and Sam Matthews from AFC Bournemouth.

The squad is currently looking slightly slimmer from last season, with club legend Lee Brown choosing to join divisional rivals Portsmouth. Rory Gaffney has been sold back to the non-league, with big spending National League new boys Salford City parting with £70k for him, whilst released duo Byron Moore and Ryan Broom have joined Bury and Cheltenham Town respectively.

Rovers have a good core to their squad, with the likes of Liam Sercombe, Tom Lockyer and Kyle Bennett all Gas Head favourites, but it is a squad that does need adding to if they are to challenge, particularly up front. Rovers had targeted Lyle Taylor heavily, but missed out on him to Charlton, so now have switched targets to St. Mirren striker Gavin Reilly, a player who they appear to be beating Sunderland in the race to sign.

Until a striker signs though, there is a lot of dependency on Ellis Harrison, who netted 12 times last season, and Rovers badly need to rebuke reported Championship interest in him. With sides that Rovers will want to compete with seemingly ahead of the curve in terms of recruitment, I can see Rovers matching last season’s finish again, but not really challenging for the play-offs as will be hoped by their fan base. I’ll go for them to scrape a top half finish for now just ahead of Shrewsbury in 12th place.

Burton Albion

Burton’s two year Championship fairy tale ended in heartbreak at Deepdale on the final day of last season as they were relegated back to League One.  With the season ahead only their 2nd ever at Third Tier level, Albion will be dreaming for promotion straight back to the Championship.

Nigel Clough’s ambition has been set since the final whistle at Preston; Burton want to keep the bulk of their squad together to challenge at the right end of League One. Damien McCrory, Jake Buxton and Harry Campbell have all signed new deals, but the Brewers have lost Tom Naylor to Portsmouth, despite offering him a huge contract to stay by the club’s standards.

Clough also made the decision to transfer list utility defender Tom Flanagan and he has subsequently joined Sunderland in the last week. Midfielder Hope Akpan and  winger Lloyd Dyer are the remaining out of contract players with offers on the table.

Brewers are thought to be resigned to losing Akpan, but are more hopeful of Dyer signing, though as of yet there remains no definitive news on either. Beyond Akpan and Dyer though, Clough has a settled nucleus of players capable of getting Burton back to the 2nd tier but they badly need reinforcements.

Burton are definitely weaker than what they were when they were promoted to the Championship in 2016, and have a notably weak back line in terms of numbers and arguably quality, having conceded 81 goals last time out – the most of any Championship side.

There is a chance they can return to the Championship at the first attempt, albeit an outside one, but it will take a huge effort. Truth be told, I do not think they will be in and around the top 6 this time. The 1st XI is still a strong one, particularly if Dyer does sign on, but Burton just look a bit too light for me to do enough recruitment in time for those play-off spots, and considering the cuts that have left them without the likes of Naylor, Flanagan and in all likelihood Akpan. Clough has spoken about obtaining 3 or 4 new recruits between now and August and that could change their outlook.

On balance of probabilities, they should still have enough to just achieve a top 10 finish and I am backing them in 10th place as weakest of the relegated clubs.

Charlton Athletic

Lee Bowyer arguably deserves some sort of medal for his efforts since taking over from Karl Robinson at Charlton. He took a failing group of players and drove them to the League One play-offs where they ultimately fell short against last season’s surprise package Shrewsbury Town.

Truthfully, for large parts of last season, Charlton looked well short of a top 6 side, but Bowyer tapped the quality that was lying dormant in the squad last time out, and under normal circumstances would see Addicks fans optimistic for the season ahead.

Yet the club is currently in a state of flux with current owner Roland Duchatelet desperately trying to sell the club, with an Australian consortium in the wings. Despite this Bowyer has reportedly spoken to Duchatelet and has said to him that they can sell 5 players, as long as he can bring in 4, believing that will be enough for promotion.

Addicks fans currently do not share his optimism, as Ahmed Kashi has left the club on a free, whilst defenders Ezri Konsa and Harry Lennon have been sold to Brentford and Southend respectively, whilst winger Regan Charles-Cook opted for a move to Gillingham.

Yet there remains a real nucleus of quality in Charlton’s side. Patrick Bauer and Jason Pearce are as good a centre-back pairing as you will find in League One, and if Charlton can hold off Blackburn’s interest in the former, they will be tough to break down. The addition of Lyle Taylor from Wimbledon is an eye catching one considering Taylor’s record of linking up with big target men, which Charlton have in the shape of Josh Magennis.

Their spine in general is strong too; Jake Forster-Caskey on his day is one of the best midfielders in League One and the aforementioned Magennis, whilst not prolific, is a handful up front. Tarique Fosu was also outstanding for the Addicks last time out. Charlton need a goalkeeper with Ben Amos going back to Bolton Wanderers and a maybe a midfielder or two.

If Bowyer is confirmed full time at Charlton and he gets his men, Charlton are a good bet for the top 6 again, despite the pessimism of the locals. They are my current tip for 5th place.

Coventry City

Coventry’s long suffering fans finally saw a top 6 finish last season. Even more importantly, the club were promoted back to League One following an outstanding finish to their League Two campaign. I went to Wembley to watch their game against Exeter City, and it was just a special day for a club who has suffered so much.

Mark Robins has been busy at it already this summer too with 6 new signings, the most notable of which are Shrewsbury Town pair Abu Ogogo and Junior Brown. The fact that Shrewsbury fans were gutted to lose both, particularly Ogogo, speaks volumes. Jonson Clarke-Harris has also arrived permanently from Rotherham United. Coventry have also signed England U19 right-back Dujon Sterling from Chelsea, which represents something of a coup.

Coventry have a nice blend of youth and experience throughout the squad already, and looking at their squad, if the season were to kick off tomorrow, Coventry would be ready.

Tom Bayliss and Jordan Shipley burst onto the scene last season and have seriously impressed. Jordan Willis remains a classy young centre-back, whilst the experience of Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly in the middle give Coventry a strong platform. With League Two top scorer Marc McNulty leading the line, Coventry will be targeting the top half straight away this season as an absolute minimum and will be charging for back to back promotions.

Coventry’s job now is to fend off Championship interest in their talisman and also to see if they can retain starlet Tom Bayliss in particular, who has been compared to recent Sky Blue academy graduate James Maddison, who incidentally joined Leicester City for £20m 10 days ago, netting City a cool £3m sell on fee in that deal – a huge sum of money for any League One side.

Whether their defence is still a bit too leaky to achieve the top 6 is a question some will raise, but I am backing them to sneak into the play-off spots. I am tipping them for 6th place, although I feel it will be tight with Plymouth and Luton for that final spot.

Doncaster Rovers

Pre-season is here and Doncaster Rovers have only just appointed a new manager at the club, with Darren Ferguson choosing to resign last month. Ferguson had secured the signing of Tom Anderson from Burnley permanently prior to his departure, but Ferguson reportedly chose to quit in the face of budget cuts at the Keepmoat Stadium.

Grant McCann has been chosen as the new man at the Keepmoat Stadium, and he may have his work cut out this season, with Rovers finishing League One last time in an appalling manner. If recent history is anything to go by, at least one promoted League Two side tends to suffer second season syndrome, and Donny are looking prime candidates to be that side.

There has been a relative exodus of good defensive players as well, notably with promotion winning centre-back Mathieu Baudry being released, along with the experienced Craig Alcock. Striker Andy Williams has moved back into League Two with relegated Northampton Town, and Cedric Evina has also brought a relatively unhappy time in South Yorkshire to an end following last season’s loan spell at Crawley.

Any Rovers success this time is again likely to depend on star striker John Marquis, who had to adapt his game last season from his top scoring efforts in League Two. Marquis sacrificed goals for more work last time, and will prove crucial to Donny this time. Tommy Rowe will once again prove crucial with his quality out wide, and player of the season is the man charged with the unenviable task of holding it together at the back with new man Anderson.

Overall, this is a squad lacking in quality and one that looks fragile to me in belief. If the lack of playing budget is as bad as Fergie Jr. feared, then Donny may be facing an uphill struggle to avoid a second relegation to the 4th tier in 3 years.

McCann has a big job on his hands to improve their fortunes in the month leading up to new campaign, especially with Ferguson’s former assistant Gavin Strachan also departing. It is a job he is more than capable of doing, but Donny are one of my tips for the drop currently. I am going for them to complete the bottom 4 in 21st place.

Fleetwood Town

Joey Barton is set to take on his first job in management and it is fair to say it will be a tough one at Fleetwood Town.

The Cod Army were a game away from automatic promotion in 2017, but a dramatic reduction in the age of the squad under Uwe Rosler last time out backfired, and Fleetwood were fighting for survival for large portions of 2017/18, with expert League One firefighter John Sheridan eventually guiding them away from the drop zone. The sales of Amari’i Bell and Devante Cole to Blackburn and Wigan last January respectively have also made the Cod a far more modest opposition.

Barton has already set about altering his squad with many of Rosler’s foreign legion departing, including Markus Schwabl, whilst club legend Nathan Pond has left to join Salford City along with keeper Chris Neal.

Barton has made what appear to be 5 good signings on paper, with midfielder Jason Holt arriving on loan from Rangers and central defender Craig Morgan joining from Wigan Athletic, adding some much needed nous and experience. Tommy Spurr will do similar, having arrived from Preston North End on loan for the season as well.

Last season’s players’ player of the season Lewie Coyle has re-joined Cod on loan from Leeds until January, and will once again be expected to maraud up and down the right hand side whilst Eddie Clarke has also joined from Tranmere Rovers and can play at left back or left wing back.

Barton does have 3 or 4 key players at Highbury to build around. Centre-back Cian Bolger is a goal threat, thought to be of interest to newly promoted Rotherham United, whilst Toumani Diagouraga and Kyle Dempsey are the sort of midfielders needed to compete in League One.

Fleetwood’s biggest strength though is their pacey and tricky forward line of Paddy Madden, Conor McAleny, Ashley Hunter and Bobby Grant, so there should be enough for Barton to make a good fist of his first season at Highbury.

At the time of writing though, it would appear that Fleetwood are short of depth in their squad, particularly in midfield and that is something Barton may well need to address.

As it stands, I do see Fleetwood just finishing in the bottom half of the table. But Barton is unlikely to have taken the job at Fleetwood without budget assurances from Andy Pilley, so keep an eye out on Fleetwood being further active in the transfer market yet and me giving them a better forecast come August and pushing for the top half. For now, I think Barton and co. will match last season’s 14th place finish.

Gillingham

Gillingham were one of the favourites to go down last season and for the first third of the season that outcome seemed likely. However the appointment of Steve Lovell has worked wonders at Priestfield and in March, Gills were on the brink of a play-off place before fading away to a somewhat disappointing 17th place finish.

I am surprised by the bookies odds that they are third favourites for relegation though. I do not see that with the spirit Lovell has created. Gills are a hardworking, organised side and with strikers Tom Eaves and Conor Wilkinson, have two very powerful, capable forwards.

They also have one of the best goalkeepers in the League in 6’ 9’’ Tomas Holy. Lovell has also strengthened the Gills engine room with the signings of creative midfielders Dean Parrett and Josh Rees from AFC Wimbledon and Bromley respectively.

To the delight of Gills fans, player of the season Mark Byrne has signed a new deal, giving Gills a strong looking midfield, as has the player known affectionately as ‘The Wall’, centre-back Gabriel Zakuani. Regan Charles-Cook will also give them a youthful wide option having joined from Charlton.

I was surprised by the decision to release Lee Martin, who on his day was still capable of producing a bit of magic, that this Gills side appear to lack. With Ben Nugent turning down a new deal in pursuit of finding more regular first team football, the Gills do look a bit light at the back and they could still do with another creator to supply Eaves and Wilkinson, despite the arrivals so far.

I do however feel there is enough about this Gills side, particularly if they can make Priestfield a fortress, for a lower mid-table finish. I am going for them to be in 15th place.

Luton Town

Luton will be one of the fixtures on every team’s calendar to fear this season in League One. Nathan Jones is without doubt one of the best young managers in the game at the moment and he is being backed superbly by the Luton board for them to challenge for the play-offs.

When I watched them last November, I was sure they would win League Two, but they ultimately were pipped by the brilliant Accrington Stanley. In Danny Hylton, Luton have a charismatic leader of men and an absolute pest upfront who knows how to score goals. His partner is James Collins who proved a fantastic signing from Crawley Town.

Both Hylton and Collins have been revered strikers in League Two now for some time now, and both will be looking to make the step up so many have said they are capable of doing. Jones’ squad was already healthy after promotion, and this Luton side, like Accrington and Coventry, will play attractive, pacey football.

Jones has streamlined his squad slightly this summer with defenders Scott Cuthbert and Johnny Mullins being left in League Two with Stevenage and Cheltenham respectively, and upgraded on by the signings of Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson from Plymouth Argyle and Barnsley respectively. Pearson commanded a fee in excess of £500k from the Tykes, and both are expected to feature heavily in defence this season.

My one area of concern for Luton in the season ahead is the central midfield area. Olly Lee has moved to Hearts on a free, which will be a big loss for the Hatters and Lawson D’Ath moved to MK Dons following his release. Although the excellent Andrew Shinnie has joined permanently from Birmingham, Luton do appear to be lacking in numbers in that area, which could catch them out in the early weeks of the season.

If Jones can secure a couple of new faces in that area of the pitch, then Luton could well be the play-off challengers that they are hoping to be. For now, I see them as a top 8 League one outfit, finishing just behind Coventry and Plymouth in the race for that last playoff spot in 8th place.

Oxford United

Michael Appleton appeared to be setting up Oxford United for a Championship charge at the end of 2016/17, but with Appleton surprisingly choosing a number 2 role at Premier League Leicester City, Oxford endured a torrid 2017/18 season.

Pep Clotet arrived along with a host of exotic names, but despite a promising start, the U’s were unconvincing in the extreme and Clotet was dismissed. Karl Robinson came in, as Oxford stumbled across the safety line, but there is little optimism around the Kassam Stadium ahead of the upcoming campaign.

The sales of midfield pair Ryan Ledson and Joe Rothwell to Preston and Blackburn respectively leave the Yellows looking suspiciously lightweight in midfield, despite the season long loan arrival of Samir Carruthers from Sheffield United.

A number of experienced players have also been allowed to leave the University City as well, with Mike Williamson, Ricardinho and Wes Thomas among the bigger names released, whilst Kane Hemmings and Aaron Martin have headed for League Two with Notts County and Exeter City respectively.

The U’s did beat a host of League One sides to the signing of right-back Cameron Norman from Kings Lynn however, a player who scored double figures for Kings Lynn and made over 25 assists. Oxford will be hoping the former Norwich youth product proves to be the find of the summer, whilst Tony McMahon will add real experience also at right-back having joined from Bradford City.

Simon Eastwood remains one of the better keepers in League One, whilst the return of centre-back Curtis Nelson from injury will prove a huge boost. Oxford are looking very lightweight upfront however, with Jon Obika the only senior striker on the books; a player who only found the net 5 times in the league during 2017/18.

Oxford appear to be facing a battle to stay up in the season ahead. It is a battle I think they will win currently, but by a very small margin. For those looking for a value bet to go down, Oxford may just provide it. My current view is Oxford will finish 1 place outside the bottom 4 in 20th spot.

Peterborough United

Steve Evans’ Posh side have one of the most active League One clubs so far this season, with some real quality additions arriving at the ABAX Stadium.

Having finished 9th last time out, Evans has gone about revamping his squad ruthlessly and efficiently. Accrington keeper Aaron Chapman will become the new number 1, whilst Peterborough beat off Sunderland, Plymouth and Aberdeen to sign Ross County full back Jason Naismith.

Alex Woodyard and Louis Reed have arrived for undisclosed fees from Lincoln City and Sheffield United, bolstering a strong looking midfield department, and Matt Godden has signed from Stevenage. Godden has been one of the stand out strikers in League Two since his move to the LAMEX from Ebbsfleet, and he will no doubt relish following in the footsteps of many strikers Posh have signed from the lower leagues.

Wide man Siriki Dembele became addition number 9, arriving for a fee from Grimsby Town with full-backs Colin Daniel and Rhys Bennett as well as midfielder Mark O’Hara completing the recruitment done so far, arriving on frees from Blackpool, Mansfield and Dundee respectively.

Peterborough have also kept up their habit of transfer listing players with a year left on their contract and have been moving plenty of players on. So far Alex Penny, Michael Doughty, Chris Forrester, Adil Nabi, Ricky Miller and Idris Kanu have left Posh, with Anthony Grant, Jack Baldwin and Brad Inman reportedly close to joining other League One clubs.

Posh have also sold Leo Da Silva Lopes to Wigan for £1m, left-back Andrew Hughes has become Greg Cunningham’s replacement at Preston North End and Liam Shepherd has moved to Forest Green Rovers.

The key business however centres on what happens to last season’s two talismen; striker Jack Marriott and attacking midfielder Marcus Maddison. Marriott was League One’s top scorer with 27 goals and is valued at £6m by Posh, whilst Maddison is on the brink of a move. Championship clubs are hovering over both, and a game of poker seems to be taking place between the Posh hierarchy and those sides.

I do expect both to leave before the close of the window, with movement happening as soon as the next week or two. Evans reportedly wanted 12 players ahead of the upcoming season, and with 9 done, the feeling is Posh are in a strong position. The sooner the club can get rid of the dead wood the better.

Evans probably lacks a defender or two and maybe another forward player, particularly if Marriott does move on. Darragh MacAnthony seems confident Posh are closing in on another two though and with power and quality running through this Posh side, they are looking a good bet for automatic promotion at this early stage. They are my current tip for 2nd place just ahead of Southend, Portsmouth and Charlton.

Plymouth Argyle

Fancy a longshot for promotion? Plymouth Argyle may just provide it. If there is one thing I have learnt about Derek Adams’ Plymouth side in the last 3 seasons, it is do not write them off, and expect them to overachieve.

Adams is an abrasive character and generally not liked across the Football League. But at Home Park, he is a hero and with him and main man Graham Carey still firmly set in Devon, Argyle will hope to kick on from last season’s 7th placed finish. Argyle looked dead and buried in November last season. It appeared that their modest budget and two years of relative overachievement against that in League Two had started to catch up with them.

However, with the introduction of Ruben Lameiras into their side, and some January additions, Argyle became League One’s form side until the final few games of the season, where injuries and perhaps the lack of a little bit of quality finally caught up with them.

Plymouth would normally have been up against it, having lost Sonny Bradley to Luton Town whilst fan favourite Oscar Threlkeld opted to continue his career abroad. With experienced pros Luke McCormick and Gary Miller released, some may have tipped Argyle to be down in the lower reaches.

But Adams is nothing if not pro-active, and like last season, appears to have his squad ready to go as the sides return for pre-season. Adams has recruited 10 new faces at the time of writing – the most in the division – with left-back Ashley Smith-Brown joining from Manchester City for an undisclosed fee and Harry Burgoyne arriving on loan from Wolves.

Adams has been a long term admirer of Everton youth pair Conor Grant (CM) and Calum Dyson (ST) and both have arrived on free transfers. Right-back Joe Riley opted to leave Shrewsbury in pursuit of more regular first team football, and will compete with former Arsenal youngster Tamari Moore for that spot.

Peter Grant is likely to be Sonny Bradley’s replacement, joining from Falkirk whilst Scott Wootton (CB), Niall Canavan (CB) and Freddie Ladapo (ST) arrive on frees from MK Dons, Rochdale and Southend respectively, adding competition to the squad. If Argyle’s remaining key players from last season keep ticking over, notably Carey and Lameiras along with striker Ryan Taylor and experienced anchor-man David Fox, Argyle could go better this time.

My concern for Argyle would be the time it takes their new back four and keeper to gel and the lack of a proven goal scorer at this level.

They are definitely top half material though and with a settled side ready to go, that is a really good platform upon which to build. I’m going for a top 8 finish once again, with them again just missing out on that sought after play-off place, but they will go very close. For now I am tipping them to match last season’s 7th place finish.

Portsmouth

Pompey are looking a good bet this season to be right in the upper echelons of League One. Following a turbulent summer in 2017, where manager Paul Cook left for Wigan Athletic and the Portsmouth Supporters Trust sold the club to American billionaire Michael Eisner and his Tornante Company, Pompey did well to finish 8th last time out under the guidance of Kenny Jackett.

Jackett has set about rebuilding his squad effectively, with Kal Naismith the only major departure of the summer. Naismith was an integral part of the League Two promotion side, but failed to replicate his form under the more direct style of Jackett, and has now followed Cook to Wigan.

Pompey appear to have good depth about them with 5 new faces already through the door. Tom Naylor turned down the opportunity to become Burton’s highest earner and interest from Sunderland to join at Fratton Park, whilst Bristol Rovers legend Lee Brown has come in at left-back. Craig MacGillivray turned down the opportunity to be the new Shrewsbury Town number 1 to compete with Luke McGee, whilst Ronan Curtis and Louis Dennis are set to compete to fill Naismith’s role, wide on the left, having joined from Derry and Bromley respectively.

With last season’s loanee Anton Walkes currently training with the club ahead of a permanent move from Spurs and midfielder Sean Longstaff heavily linked with a loan move from Newcastle at the time of writing, Pompey may well have addressed their concern of a soft centre from last time out.

Pompey definitely have a strong spine as well retained from last season. Captain Brett Pitman is their focal point, netting 24 League One goals last time out, whilst Jamal Lowe is ever improving with his pace, directness and ability to lay on chances. At the back, Matt Clarke is arguably the best centre-back in League One, and with Jack Whatmough and Christian Burgess battling it out to partner him on the opening day, expect Pompey to concede very few goals this time out.

The one concern for Pompey would be if anything were to happen to Pitman. Ollie Hawkins and Conor Chaplin chipped in with 7 and 5 strikes respectively last time out, but the Blues lack a real pacey option up top to partner the former Bournemouth striker should they move away from a 4-3-3 formation.

Goals from midfield will also be needed, and the likes of Curtis and Dennis will need to support Pitman and Lowe in the goal scoring stakes for a successful season, which could be a challenge with this both being their first taste of the EFL.

Nevertheless, Pompey look like a side you would back to be there or thereabouts this season. They will chase the top 2 hard and could be worth a flutter for the automatic spots, but I think the top 6 is the most likely outcome at this stage. I am backing Pompey for 4th place currently.

Rochdale

For large parts of last season, it looked like Rochdale would slip back into English Football’s basement tier. Yet the squad Keith Hill had assembled always looked too good to go down, and in the end so it proved, with local rivals Oldham Athletic dropping down instead on the final day.

Rochdale’s plight seemed to be summed up by two things; a poor pitch causing a fixture backlog and an awful habit of conceding late goals in games. But survival was achieved and the challenge for Dale this season is not to repeat those habits.

To that end, Hill has sought experience, and has found two big characters to arrive at Spotland, with midfielder David Perkins joining on a free from Wigan Athletic and striker Aaron Wilbraham joining from Bolton Wanderers.

Those 2, along with remaining players such as Matt Done, Ian Henderson and Calvin Andrew will be aiming to steer Dale away from such a close finish this time. Dale are strong in midfield with Callum Camps, Ollie Rathbone and Andy Cannon all useful players, whilst the arrival of Jordan Williams from Liverpool is going to make them a tough outfit to play against. Joe Thompson committed his future to Dale last week and Stephen Dooley has joined from Coleraine to add to the competition in wide areas.

However, my concern for Dale still remains their defence –  James Finnerty has joined from Aston Villa, but his arrival is offset by the departure of Niall Canavan to Plymouth Argyle. Whilst Harrison McGahey is a good defender, Dale still have the look of a brittle back line, and Hill must address that to steer them clear again.

I am backing them to be safe however, with a bottom half finish, but one that far more comfortable than last time round. They may yet push into mid-table with the right additions to the squad, but for now I am going for Dale to finish in 17th place.

Scunthorpe United

You feel as though Scunthorpe’s best chance for promotion from League One has gone with Rotherham United last season. The Iron have been contenders for the last two seasons, suffering play-off semi-final heartache against the two eventual winners of the play-offs in successive seasons, with Millwall beating them at Glanford Park the season before.

The fact the Chairman decided to sack manager Graham Alexander when they were 5th in the league was an indication that Scunthorpe felt they ought to have challenged Wigan and Blackburn much more than they ultimately ended up doing. Although Nick Daws guided them into the play-offs with some better form, the Iron ultimately came up short.

The reality for Scunthorpe will now bite, as some of their better players head for the exit with a shrunken budget. Murray Wallace, another stand out League One defender, has joined Millwall for an undisclosed fee, whilst it is only a matter of time before Hakeeb Adelakun confirms which club he will join for a compensation fee.

Evidence of Scunthorpe cuts can be seen in the decision to release Tom Hopper, a very capable forward, who has since been snaffled by Southend United. Neal Bishop was a talismanic midfielder who has dropped into L2 to sign for Mansfield, whilst midfielder Sam Mantom has also been sold to Southend permanently, with Andrew Crofts joining Newport after his release.

All of that together leave Scunny looking a little light. With Paddy Madden, Kevin van Veen and now Hopper all moving on since January, a lot is going to depend on whether remaining senior striker Lee Novak can stay fit this season. Although the pacey Olufela Olomola has joined from Southampton on a free and prolific winger Andy Dales has arrived from Mickleover Sports, impressing via Jamie Vardy’s V9 Academy, the Iron badly need further reinforcements.

It is essential for them to hold on to remaining key assets Duane Holmes and Funso Ojo. Scunthorpe are reportedly close to a couple of new additions though, and despite Wallace’s departure, their defence still looks capable of competing at the top end of League One, although they will miss the experience of keeper Matt Gilks for much of the upcoming campaign with a serious knee injury.

If Scunthorpe can get 3 or 4 additions to their midfield and forward ranks, they should still have enough for a top half finish. The play-offs are likely to be beyond them this time though. I am going for them to finish in 11th place.

Shrewsbury Town

The Shrews admirably gave Wigan and Blackburn their only real scare last season, only to be beaten in extra time by last season’s other relegated Championship side Rotherham in the play-off final. That combined with a shock defeat in the Checkatrade Trophy final to Lincoln City and manager Paul Hurst’s decision to join Ipswich Town has left Salop feeling rather flat, after what was probably their finest season for 30 years.

Hurst had worked miracles in Shropshire having joined from Grimsby. He had turned Town from relegation candidates to genuine promotion contenders on an absolute shoe string of a budget, and very nearly accomplished the impossible.

Unfortunately, Shrewsbury now may become a victim of their own success with the squad beginning to break apart. Manchester United loanee and League One keeper of the season Dean Henderson was never going to remain in League One, and he has now joined Sheffield United on loan in the Championship.

Disappointingly, back-up keeper Craig MacGillivray, who had long been tipped to replace Henderson as number one, opted to join Portsmouth, leaving Town with no senior goalkeeper at the time of writing. Loanees Ben Godfrey and Carlton Morris have returned to Norwich City, whilst Shrewsbury have arguably come off 2nd best in deals with newly promoted Coventry City, with the Sky Blues snaffling key man Abu Ogogo from them, whilst left back Ryan Haynes’ arrival doesn’t seem to offset the loss of left Junior Brown the other way, although first choice Omar Beckles is set to stay.

Alex Rodman too has turned down a new deal at the New Meadow. Given also that Joe Riley has opted to join Plymouth rather than compete with number 1 right back James Bolton, Town do look weaker all round. New manager John Askey has brought in two other players however, with centre-back Kieran Kennedy arriving from National League Champions Macclesfield and striker Fejiri Okenabirhie arriving from Dagenham and Redbridge for small fees, boosting options in those areas of the pitch.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. With Bolton, Jon Nolan, Shaun Whalley, Toto Nsiala, and Stefan Payne remaining with the Shrews in all likelihood, there will still be a key core of the players that did go so close last time out. The concern will come if any of those do depart. I think the loss of Rodman, Ogogo and Godfrey in midfield in particular will hamper any playoff efforts, and whilst keepers are expected, the Shrews are likely to fall short on the quality of Henderson and MacGillivray last time out.

I do think though with 3 or 4 additions, the Shrews should not be written off for a top half finish. For now, I think they will be right in mid-table, with a 13th place finish.

Southend United

Chris Powell is undoubtedly one of the best managers in League One and how Southend needed his influence last season. Despite Phil Brown’s success with the Shrimpers, he had begun to underachieve with a favourable budget, and a return to League Two was starting to seem a real possibility in January until Powell’s arrival.

After his appointment, only promoted trio Wigan, Blackburn and Rotherham picked up more League One points than the Roots Hall outfit, so it is perhaps little wonder that the Blues are considered a dark horse for promotion this time around.

Powell has been quick to add power to his midfield. Last season’s loanee Sam Mantom has joined permanently from Scunthorpe for an undisclosed fee as has Timothee Dieng from Bradford City on a free. Sam Barrett has also joined from Maidenhead United for a nominal fee whilst Striker Tom Hopper has also arrived from Glanford Park on a free. Powell has swooped for defender Harry Lennon for an undisclosed fee from Charlton Athletic, a player he’s previously managed, and he is likely to replace the transfer listed Anton Ferdinand.

Powell has moved on some of the deadwood at Southend, with a raft of midfielders leaving Roots Hall, including club stalwart Michael Timlin, who has joined Stevenage. Josh Wright has joined Bradford on a free, and Anthony Wordsworth has departed as well. Released attacking duo Freddie Ladapo and Jermaine McGlashan have joined Plymouth and Swindon respectively.

It is perhaps depth upfront and out wide that is the biggest remaining concern for Powell now. The goalkeeping department is strong with both Mark Oxley and Ted Smith and they have a raft of experience in their back line. Up top Hopper joining Simon Cox is a partnership to be potentially feared, although beyond Theo Robinson, there is very little in the way of senior forwards. Much is expected of Dru Yearwood and Michael Klass in midfield, and both are more than adequate replacements should anything happen to Dieng and Mantom, whilst Michael Kightly and Stephen McLaughlin are terrific wingers for League One level, despite their lack of apparent competition.

However, Powell is in the market for a winger and a striker, with a rumoured move for Essex boy Ricky Holmes causing a big stir. All of that said, I am backing the Shrimpers to continue their 2018 form into this campaign and secure one of the playoff places. They may also be a worthwhile flutter to win promotion automatically, but I am tipping Peterborough to just pip them to 2nd, and Southend to finish in 3rd place.

Sunderland

A new era may finally be dawning at Sunderland after some horrendous years at the Stadium of Light. Ellis Short has sold the club to Stewart Donald and wiped the clubs £150m debt off the books.

The feel good factor from that alone has driven over 21,000 season ticket sales, which is phenomenal support in the third tier, regardless of the club’s stature. The Stadium of Light will prove a highlight on the fixture list for the likes of Accrington Stanley, Fleetwood Town, Rochdale and Wycombe Wanderers, and it is arguably a burden the Mackems will have to deal with all season.

Since joining, Donald has appointed Jack Ross as the new man at helm and has bravely, perhaps almost naively, declared that Sunderland may well have ‘the biggest ever budget in the third tier’.

As teams return to pre-season, the scale of the job at the Stadium of Light is becoming more and more obvious however. Despite being debt free, Sunderland’s ‘biggest ever budget’ is based on the fact that the likes of Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oviedo remain at the club on £40k per week, and Sunderland are still tied in to around a £20m per season commitment on wages.

As a comparison, most clubs will operate around £3m, with one or two pushing £4m. The club owe a further £21m in unpaid transfer fees so simply put, they need to cut their cloth accordingly, and rid themselves of the players that have failed them in the last few seasons.

I keep an eye on Sunderland for family reasons and I have never ever seen such a disconnection between fans and players anywhere in the country. Fans will be almost ecstatic to see the back of Jack Rodwell, who has finally ended his horrendous 4 year stay at the Stadium of Light with one year remaining on his contract. Rodwell was still going to earn £43k per week in League One, and the compromise agreement will see the Black Cats save in the region of £1.5m in wages.

Paddy McNair’s £5m sale to Middlesbrough will boost the coffers somewhat, whilst Jason Steele’s surprise move to Brighton and Hove Albion, has further trimmed the wage bill. Sunderland are still expecting a raft of outgoings though, with Oviedo, Cattermole, Didier N’Dong, Lamine Kone, Papy Djilibodji and Wahbi Khazri all high earners that must be moved on.

Given that the likes of George Honeyman and Joel Asoro also want to leave the Stadium of Light, a total overhaul is needed, and I wonder if Sunderland simply have the time to do that before the start of the season, especially given Jack Ross’ comments that bar one more signing that may be confirmed on Monday, Sunderland are hamstrung in the transfer market until those high earners are shifted.

To add to this further, the Black Cats have already missed out on 5 targets, namely Clark Robertson (Rotherham), Jason Naismith (Peterborough), Tom Naylor (Portsmouth), Florian Kamberi (Hibernian) and Lyle Taylor (Charlton) with Gavin Reilly’s potential move to Bristol Rovers likely to make it 6. It all suggests that Ross will have a tough job of turning a promotion winning side around in one transfer window.

However the lure of the club is a strong one. The club have recruited the best goalkeeper in the League in my opinion with the signing of Jon McLaughlin from Hearts; a player who was voted League One Goalkeeper of the season in 2015/16.

Sunderland’s goalkeeper failings last season were a big factor in their relegation from the Championship, so fans should be buoyed with this signing and the fact that Robbin Ruiter is likely to remain as his deputy.

Ross has also used his contacts to recruit centre-back Alim Ozturk from Bulaspor in Turkey and forward Chris Maguire on a free from Bury, who will be hoping to recapture his Oxford United form following a bad season with the Shakers.

Utility defender Tom Flanagan has also joined from fellow relegated side Burton Albion having been transfer listed by Brewers Manager Nigel Clough. It is the pending move of Hibernian central midfielder Dylan McGeouch that has whetted the appetites of supporters the most however.

McGeouch is an all action midfielder on the fringes of the Scottish National side, and he seems to have chosen the Stadium of Light as his new destination, despite interest from Rangers and Aberdeen, and is expected to sign early next week.

I can see if Sunderland are to go back up at the first time of asking, McGeouch will almost certainly need to be a driving force in a midfield currently devoid quality amongst those likely to remain. With Sunderland still in receipt of parachute payments, they are operating in the realms of far different numbers to the rest of League One, but I suspect that will not translate to promotion this time out.

The bookies odds of 11/10 favourites do not look accurate to me. What may be more realistic is a season where, to use golfing terms, Sunderland ‘lay-up’, before a full on assault with the remaining parachute money in 2019/20.

The club will bounce back, but I do not think it will be at the first attempt. I am going for Sunderland to be in the top 10 this time around, but I suspect they will be a good distance short of the top 6. That may be unacceptable to those fans who want an immediate return to the Championship.

Some good business in the next month may change my view, but for now, my advice to those fans would simply be to stay patient because Sunderland will get out of this League in time. I am tipping them for 9th place currently.

Walsall

Walsall barely managed to navigate away from danger last time out, with Dean Keates’ return to the club from Wrexham seeing them scrape over the line, notably with a huge 1-0 win at home to Northampton in stoppage time at The Banks Stadium sparking wild scenes.

The Saddlers have got their work cut out to repeat the feat this time however I feel, with talisman Erhun Oztumer snaffled away by Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer, whilst goalkeeper Mark Gillespie opted to continue his career North of the border with Motherwell.

With Florent Cuvelier and Simeon Jackson allowed to move on, Keates needs to get recruiting fast on what is a small budget. However, he has recruited Chris Dunn on a free to compete with Liam Roberts for the number 1 spot, and Walsall have definitely bolstered their attacking ranks with the signing of Tranmere Striker Andy Cook – something they badly lacked last time out.

Josh Ginnelly and Zeli Ismail will offer tricky wing play to the Saddlers which again was lacking in their 2017/18 campaign and Joe Edwards has signed a new deal, much to the delight of fans.

Walsall do possess two very good full-backs in right-back Nicky Devlin and particularly left-back Luke Leahy, who now may be considered their star man. However, the soft centre Walsall had last season does not appear to have been addressed at all and their team frankly screams ‘bang average’.

Saddlers fans would love for me to be proven wrong, and there is still time. But at this stage, I see them being one of the four sides to drop into League Two come next spring. I am going for them to finish in 23rd place.

Wycombe Wanderers

Perhaps the best bit of news for Wycombe Wanderers came earlier this week with Gareth Ainsworth signing a new deal until 2023. Ainsworth has done a wonderful job at Adams Park and Wycombe have been building towards this promotion since their final day survival in the football league back in 2014, his first full season as a manager.

The following year, Wanderers were 30 seconds away from promotion to League One but Joe Pigott’s equaliser in the 120th minute for Southend United and the subsequent penalty shootout denied them.

With a core of good players that have been around for some time, Wycombe generally have built towards the culmination last season, where they sealed the last automatic promotion spot in League Two. There is a camaraderie at Wycombe that is perhaps unlike any other in League One.

Unlike the other 3 promoted sides, who will want to pass teams and blow them away with their pace, Wycombe’s side is an ageing one, and one who became recognised in League Two for their timewasting antics and winding opposition sides up much to those sides frustration.

Ainsworth has allowed a few to move on this summer, most notably keeper Scott Brown, who has joined Port Vale, whilst cover central defenders Will De Haviland and Max Muller were also released. Ainsworth has only brought in 2 players so far.

Goalkeeper Ryan Allsop has returned to Adams Park on a 3 year deal. Allsop has lived a nomadic existence in his career to date, and at 26, may well have finally found a home after signing a 3 year deal. The other arrival is Darius Charles, who will fit into the group of characters at Wycombe. The Buckinghamshire outfit’s gain is very much AFC Wimbledon’s loss.

Those signings will be aided by Joe Jacobson at left-back, who is an excellent attacking outlet, and Dominic Gape will be in the engine room with Sam Saunders and Luke O’Nien.

Wycombe will undoubtedly have the oldest strike force in League One, with Craig Mackail-Smith, 34, Nathan Tyson, 36, and the Beast himself Adebayo Akinfenwa, also 36. It was Akinfenwa who top scored last time out with 17, and he will look forward to one last chance at English Football’s third tier, having become a lower league cult figure.

Paris Cowan-Hall and Scott Kashket provide some pace, but you feel Wycombe may well lack the intensity needed to compete in League One, with the club always appearing to struggle to adapt to life in the third tier having been relegated at the first time of asking in their last two seasons in League One in 2009/10 and 2011/12.

No promoted League Two side has been relegated at the first time of asking since, but to avoid such a fate, Ainsworth arguably needs to bring down the average age of his squad. Whilst the jump between League Two and League One is not as big as other divisional jumps, it is still one that needs to be bridged and you fear that Wycombe’s average age of the squad, lack of energy and their timewasting antics will get exposed, particularly by the better teams in this League.

They will have a tough job to stay up, but with three or four youthful additions, Wycombe may get themselves the right side of the bottom four. But for now, I am predicting them to make an immediate return to League Two, in 22nd place.

Predicted Table – Start of Pre-Season

1) Barnsley​​​​
2) Peterborough United​
————————————-
3) Southend United​​​
4) Portsmouth​​​​
5) Charlton Athletic​​​
6) Coventry City​​
————————————-
7) Plymouth Argyle​​​
8) Luton Town​​​​
9) Sunderland​​​​
10) Burton Albion​​​
11) Scunthorpe United​​​
12) Bristol Rovers
———————————–—-
13) Shrewsbury Town​
14) Fleetwood Town​
15) Gillingham
16) Bradford City
17) Rochdale
18) Accrington Stanley
19) Blackpool
20) Oxford United
———————————–—-
21) Doncaster Rovers
22) Wycombe Wanderers
23) Walsall
24) AFC Wimbledon

Will Fisk

Photo: Andrew Hurdle

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