Welcome to Part Two of the League Two Season Preview. Today we take a closer look at Crewe Alexandra, Exeter City, Forest Green Rovers, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City and Macclesfield Town.
Keep checking back on the blog every day this week for more!
With his first summer and pre-season under his belt as Crewe boss, David Artell set about the job of improving on a seventeenth place finish in 2016/17. The season would once again throw up a mixed bag of results but the Alex did manage to recover from a poor first half of the season as runs of poor results in a row led to them sitting just two points above the drop zone after a 4-1 defeat at Notts County in February.
It’s testament to the club, though, that they stuck with Artell – who spent two years at Gresty Road as a player – through it all and there was an upturn in fortunes in the last few months of the campaign. A fantastic 4-1 win at Lincoln was a turning point and took them six points clear of the bottom two with relegation never really a huge worry from then on in.
The Alex finished the season with three straight victories to finish in fifteenth place – only a slight improvement on twelve months previous but enough to give Artell more time to put his mark on the club.
In: Paul Green (Oldham), Shaun Miller (Carlisle), Alex Nicholls (Barnet), Nicky Hunt (Notts County)
Out: Chris Dagnall (Bury)
David Artell has bolstered his attacking options well over the summer with Shaun Miller making his return to Gresty Road, where he scored six goals in fifteen appearances on loan last season and previously came through the Alex youth ranks, and Alex Nicholls signing from relegated Barnet. Losing top scorer Chris Porter to injury mid-way through last season wasn’t ideal but he’s back in contention and will feel like another fine option to have up top.
Right-back Nicky Hunt, signed after he was released by Notts County, knows all about League Two while Paul Green also returns after a loan with the club last season.
With extra fire power you might see Crewe improve slightly on last season but I don’t envisage there being a huge change so I’ll go for a safe mid-table bet for Artell’s men.
The 2017/18 campaign will go down in Exeter history because it turned out to be the final season in charge for Paul Tisdale, who left the club after twelve years at the helm. For the second successive season, and following City fans’ voting to serve the manager notice on his contract in November 2016, there would be heartbreak in the League Two playoff final at Wembley.
Tisdale’s men had made a roaring start to the season, winning seven and drawing the other of the first eight games and meant that inconsistent form in the autumn still kept them in and around the top three. Three straight victories in January and an unbeaten April raised hopes of automatic promotion but an Alex Revell hat-trick for Stevenage in the penultimate game ended that, meaning a double legged playoff semi-final against Lincoln City.
After a goalless draw at Sincil Bank, City won the second leg 3-1 but a second visit to Wembley in as many seasons didn’t produce a fairy tale ending for Tisdale as Coventry City saw them off by the same score line.
Matt Taylor took the reins in the summer having previously played over 150 times for the Grecians and most recently been in charge of the City Under23s squad.
In: Jonathan Forte (Notts County), Tristan Abrahams (Norwich), Nicky Law (Bradford), Lee Martin (Gillingham), Jimmy Oates (Hereford)
Out: Jordan Moore-Taylor (MK Dons), Jordan Storey (Preston), Ryan Harley (MK Dons), Robbie Simpson (MK Dons), Lloyd James (Forest Green), Liam McAlinden (Cheltenham)
It’s set to be a pretty uncertain time at St. James’ Park after the Paul Tisdale era came to a close so making Matt Taylor, part of the coaching set up already, the top boss makes absolute sense. Continuity has been made tougher with Tisdale having swooped for three of their key players for his new MK Dons side in Jordan Moore-Taylor, Ryan Harley and Robbie Simpson but Jonathon Forte, Nicky Law and Lee Martin all bring bags of experience to City’s squad.
It could well take time for this new look Grecians side to take shape but I still think they can surprise a few by making a push for the playoffs once again as soon as they’ve got into their groove.
Forest Green Rovers
Having achieved a promotion that changed the course of Forest Green Rover’s history, the club from the New Lawn set about the challenge of league football for the first time in their history, led by former Kettering, Peterborough and Swindon boss Mark Cooper.
It was to be a baptism of fire for the league’s newcomers and they struggled to get to grips with things in the early going, losing nine of their first thirteen games and winning just once. A 1-0 victory at Coventry City turned the tide in mid-October and Rovers would go on to three wins in a row to ease the early blues. A terrible Christmas period that saw them lose every game in December kept them right in trouble and they were rock bottom of the league following a 1-0 defeat to Wycombe on New Year’s Day.
The great escape was achieved, though, thanks to a real turn in fortunes from February onwards including completing the double over Coventry. Safety was secured thanks to a 0-0 draw at Yeovil that kept both sides in League Two for another season with games to spare.
In: James Montgomery (Gateshead), Carl Winchester (Cheltenham), Tahvon Campbell (West Brom), Isaac Pearce (Fulham), Liam Shephard (Peterborough), Robert Sanchez (Brighton), George Williams (Fulham), Joseph Mills (Perth Glory), Lloyd James (Exeter), Theo Archibald (Brentford), Paul Digby (Mansfield)
Out: Charlie Cooper (Newport)
The world’s first UN Certified Carbon Neutral football club continue their quest to defy the odds as they set about their second season in the Football League. Snapping up Cheltenham captain Carl Winchester was an astute move and Rovers have also added plenty of young and hungry talent from higher in the footballing pyramid including Isaac Pearce from Fulham who is one to keep an eye on.
Having survived the drop well last season, Rovers will be looking to build on that with a tilt at the top half but I think a lower mid-table finish would not be sniffed at here.
Three managers, a relegation battle and the season long threat of returning to non-league – not the best of campaigns for the Mariners. In the early knockings of the season there were no real signs of the struggles to come and victory at Port Vale at the start of October was their fifth of the season and had them comfortably in mid-table.
Form continued to be enough to keep them from getting drawn into the lower reaches of the league but a catastrophic run from 16 December through to 7 April without a league win meant that Russell Slade was shown the door on 2 February. Paul Wilkinson stepped up to take on the role for a month before reverting back to assistant manager when Michael Jolley was appointed. Jolley couldn’t turn the tide straight away and it took him until the 7 April win over Chesterfield to finally deliver some relief for the long suffering Mariners fans.
A home draw with Barnet and victories over Swindon, Notts County and Forest Green were enough to keep them up and Town will now be hoping for stability under Jolley.
In: Alex Whitmore (Chesterfield), Louis Robles (San Roque De Lepe), Jake Hessenthaler (Gillingham), John Welsh (Preston), Jordan Cook (Luton), Elliott Whitehouse (Lincoln), Harry Davis (St Mirren), Akin Famewo (Luton), Charles Vernam (Derby)
Out: Sam Kelly (Hamilton Academical), Siriki Dembele (Peterborough), Zak Mills (Morecambe)
Michael Jolley has certainly had a good start to life as Mariners boss having reached the target of keeping them in the Football League. Jake Hessanthaler should bring experience and energy to their midfield and defence has been bolstered by the signing of Alex Whitmore from Chesterfield who Jolley worked with in the Burnley Under 23s. Former Cobbler JJ Hooper switched to a wide attacking berth under Jolley and benefited by scoring a hat-trick on the final day of last season so expect to see him move away from his central role again.
I don’t see enough in Grimsby at the moment to see them competing at the top end of the table but if they avoid my prediction of another relegation battle it may give them a platform to build on.
Following a memorable season back in 2016/17, during which the Imps made an astonishing run to the FA Cup Quarter Finals and were promoted back into the Football League, Danny Cowley had a real task on his hands to go anywhere near the same levels of glory. But somehow, he and his trusted and vibrant Lincoln squad managed to find more and more success.
The EFL Trophy was much maligned but City would make the competition their own and eventually gave themselves another big day out, this time at Wembley as they beat League One Shrewsbury Town in the final. The league form didn’t let up either and the Imps finished the season in seventh place to earn a shot at the playoffs.
A double legged semi-final against Exeter was just about a step too far though and after a 0-0 first leg draw they finally bowed out of another excellent season with a 3-1 reverse at St. James’ Park. There’s plenty of ambition being shown by the club and with Cowley at the helm anything is possible. A stern test awaits the Cobblers on the opening day of the season.
In: Bruno Andrade (Boreham Wood), Grant Smith (Boreham Wood), Michael O’Connor (Notts County), Harry Toffolo (Millwall), John Akinde (Barnet), Scott Wharton (Blackburn), Shay McCartan (Bradford)
Out: Alex Woodyard (Lincoln), Ollie Palmer (Crawley), Sean Long (Cheltenham), Elliott Whitehouse (Grimsby), Paul Farman (Stevenage)
It’s been an outstanding summer of business by the Cobblers’ first opponents of the league season and no deal was celebrated more by Imps fans than the Cowley brothers signing a new contract with the club until 2022. Manager Danny and assistant Nicky have also been busy in the transfer market and there aren’t many at League Two level who wouldn’t want John Akinde lining up for them up front. The former Barnet man will score bags of goals and is a sure fire commodity in the basement division.
Elsewhere, Bruno Andrade, who had an outstanding season for Boreham Wood that led them to the National League Playoff Final in which he scored, joins City along with highly rated full-back Harry Toffolo from Millwall. Shay McCartan will be looking to reproduce his form from his Accrington days in League Two after signing for Lincoln on loan and it already looks like an excellent piece of business.
All of this should lead to a promotion challenge for City this season as their momentum continues to build. Let’s just hope it starts after their first game!
Despite having one of the smallest budgets in the National League, Macclesfield Town produced one of the more incredible title winning campaigns in non-league history to return to the Football League absolutely flying under John Askey. Askey was subsequently snapped up by League One Shrewsbury Town in the summer but their momentum shown last season should continue to shine through.
Town also made it to the FA Trophy final and despite losing to York City in the showpiece final they returned to league football to complete a title winning season that will go down in Silkmen folklore.
A 2-0 win over Eastleigh sealed both the title and promotion for Town, a feat made even more impressive given that they only had three players signed up at the start of the previous summer thanks to a mass exodus of their squad. A truly remarkable campaign.
In: Fiacre Kelleher (Oxford), Jamie Grimes (Cheltenham), Ben Stephens (Stratford), Nathan Blissett (Plymouth), Miles Welch-Hayes (Bath), James Pearson (Unattached), Harry Smith (Millwall), Michael Rose (Unattached), Rhys Taylor (AFC Fylde), Callum Maycock (Coventry)
Out: Shwan Jalal (Chesterfield), Mitch Hancox (MK Dons), Kieran Kennedy (Shrewsbury)
It’s undoubtedly going to be tough for the Silkmen on their return to the Football League and the departure of John Askey came at exactly the wrong time, possibly drawing parallels to the Cobblers’ title winning season ending with Chris Wilder being snapped up by Sheffield United. It’s a sign of the great success by Askey’s now former squad who will need to keep the togetherness in place that took them so far last season. Mark Yates will need to bring his Football League experience and nous to the club having replaced Askey.
Defender Kieran Kennedy has followed his former boss to the New Meadow while Mitch Hancox’s move to MK Dons means they’re without a couple of their key men from the title winning side and incomings seem a little hit and miss.
I’m not hugely convinced by the Yates appointment either and feel that it’s going to be a tough relegation battle for Macclesfield in their first season back.