League Two Season Preview: Part Two

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!

Crewe Alexandra

Last season…

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)

Promotion Odds…



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.

Exeter City

Last season…

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)

Promotion Odds…



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

Last season…

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)

Promotion Odds…



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.

Grimsby Town

Last season…

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)

Promotion Odds…



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.

Lincoln City

Last season…

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)

Promotion Odds…



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!

Macclesfield Town

Last season…

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)

Promotion Odds…



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.

Artell checks in after controversial Vale departure

Artell the latest new signing

As has been rumoured all weekend, defender David Artell has signed for the Cobblers this afternoon having left Port Vale despite the fact that he only joined them a few weeks ago. With the club still in administration, they had reissued contracts to all of the new faces that had arrived in the summer plus all of those who had been offered new terms. But Artell, who led Crewe to Wembley and a playoff final victory at the end of last season, declined the new terms and walked away to join the Cobblers who had previously been interested in him earlier in the summer.

It’s not the nicest way to solve the central defensive problem that has been plaguing the Cobblers since the departure of Clarke Carlisle at the end of last season but it’s one that gives us a proven leader and some genuine experience at this level. I’m sure Vale fans will be chomping at the bit to give him a nice ‘welcome’ when we meet in late October at Sixfields and that’s something he’ll have to deal with. Putting myself in Vale fan’s shoes I would be just as angry as they are if someone walked out on us so it’s fair enough but it’s something we have to live with and someone who I’m sure we’ll get behind once the season kicks off with the League Cup game at home to Cardiff tomorrow evening.

Artell’s past includes spells at Rotherham United, where he began his career, Shrewsbury Town, Mansfield Town, Chester and Morecambe before he joined Crewe in 2010 and helped them to promotion last season. Whilst at Crewe there’s been the odd bust up with Dario Gradi and an on the pitch bust up with his own keeper, Steve Phillips, so that’s going to need to be channelled by Aidy Boothroyd into positive energy.

It’s a tough one but finally we do have that defender we’ve been craving for a fair few weeks and is pretty much the final piece of the puzzle for Boothroyd ahead of tomorrow night.

All that’s left to do now is to get this season rocking and rolling!

League Two Playoff Special: Crewe Alexandra

Playoff History: Division Two (League One) final winners 1997

There’s always one…one team that creeps up on the playoffs in the closing few weeks of the season and nips in there thanks to a great run of form and capitalises with that increased momentum. This season in League Two that accolade goes to Crewe Alexandra, who were struggling away in 17th place back in November but have now put together a run of sixteen games unbeaten.

Dario Gradi stepping down was a key moment in the history of the club and it could yet be looked back on as a massive turning point in this particular season. Steve Davis, who played 145 times for the Alex as well as captaining them at the age of just nineteen during a successful playing career, took the reins and slowly but surely turned things around.

The Alex had taken five games to pick up any points at all but a 1-0 win at Plymouth gave them something to build on and they would win their following two league games as well as progressing past Bury in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. A 2-0 win at Accrington in mid-September was enough to take them away from the lower reaches of the table but they wouldn’t win again for a month – a 3-1 success at Wimbledon.

Inconsistent form continued to stop them from moving any further up the table and Gradi stepped down to concentrate on the academy that has produced so many success stories over the years. His tenure through various spells took him to 1,404 games as manager – a daunting task for the incoming Davis to take on.

Davis’ first game in charge was a 4-1 hammering in the FA Cup First Round to Colchester United but he did produce back-to-back wins in his first two league games, 2-1 at Morecambe and 1-0 at home to Hereford United. A mixed December was rounded off with a storming 5-2 victory at Bristol Rovers to end the calendar year in style.

Eighteen year-old Nick Powell starred on that day at the Memorial Stadium and on several other occasions this season and is even being touted as a possible target for Manchester United and Tottenham as of this week.

Hotly tipped…Nick Powell

Powell continued to inspire his side to further success and the Alex won three out of five in January whilst victories over and Accrington and good points against Wimbledon and Port Vale helped them into the top ten as momentum and anticipation began to fully build around the club. In fact, the 1-0 defeat to playoff opponents Southend United way back on February 18th was Crewe’s last defeat and since then they have built their way towards the top seven.

Alex had to go toe to toe with Oxford United as it became clear that there would only be one playoff spot left come the final day of the season but a pivotal 1-0 home win over Cheltenham Town on April 21st coupled with Oxford being held at Plymouth tipped the fight into their favour and Davis’ side were finally in the top seven following months of ascension up the league.

The job needed to be finished off though and nervy draws at Torquay and, on the final day, with Aldershot Town eventually confirmed Crewe’s place in the playoffs, where they will meet the last side to beat them all those months ago, Southend United. If this long unbeaten run is to continue to nineteen games then Crewe will be the latest in a growing line of teams that have crept into the playoffs to win promotion at the last. Can it be done? I asked Crewe fan Jim Wiltshire (@jimwiltshire72) …

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

At the start of the season, I expected us to be somewhere close to the top seven, after last season we lost 11 of our last 12 away games and still only missed out on the play offs by 3 points.

A young player called Nick Powell who had a handful of games last season came of age in the summer with some brilliant performances in the U-17 World Cup.

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

The key moments have been Dario moving upstairs and Steve Davis taking over. He noticed that the team were not as fit as they could be and fading in games. That was addressed quickly as was the player’s belief in their ability. When Davis took over in October, we were 18th and looking like relegation material. Since Davis took over we have been one of the better sides in the division.

Who have been the key men?

The form of Nick Powell has been a major factor. Steve Phillips in goal has been fantastic, as has the form of Adam Dugdale in defence and Ashley Westwood in midfield.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

I rate Torquay as a much better side than Cheltenham, so I would rather we faced Cheltenham if we get to Wembley. If I’m honest I think we have the toughest opponents in the semi-finals in Southend. We lost home and away to them in the league, and they were the last team to beat us,

16 matches ago- in mid-February!

Finally, will you be promoted?!

We’ve been unbeaten in 16 games- we only need to keep that going for 3 more to win promotion, unless of course we get involved in a penalty shoot-out! We have missed a lot of penalties this season so not full of confidence there. Funnily enough though we did score all of our penalties to win a shoot-out at Bury in the JPT- so you never know!

I’m confident we will go up now that we have come this far, though we all know what a lottery the play-offs are!

Kitson’s debut heroics earns big point for Cobblers

Crewe Alexandra 1-1 Northampton Town

A few days ago there was a mild feeling of panic around Cobblers HQ when Matt Duke was recalled to Bradford following their post-match brawl with Crawley that resulted in the sending off of their first choice keeper. Only Neal Kitson, a rookie with no previous experience in English football, and Freddy Hall, with only a handful of starts behind him, remained and the questions were being bandied about as to how much the situation would affect the run-in.

By 5pm yesterday we had our answer. Kitson was outstanding on his debut and had already made his mark on the game at Crewe even before a stoppage time penalty was awarded to the home side, threatening to rob us of a hard earned point from one of the toughest places to go in League Two. When Danny Shelley stepped up to win it for the Railwaymen we thought it was all over but Kitson stood firm and pulled off a tremendous save, pushing the ball onto the cross bar and salvaging that most crucial of points. Thanks to defeats for both Macclesfield and Hereford, the current bottom two in the league, anything we picked up at Gresty Road was a positive particularly given their playoff ambitions and having staved off a shaky start it was an excellent point.

Crewe had earlier stormed into the lead with the intent on continuing a fine run of form and had the Cobblers chasing shadows before eventually going in front through Luke Murphy. At that stage it was looking like a long afternoon for Aidy Boothroyd’s men but having kept the score to 1-0 at the break and having finished strongly there was always a chance of a fight back.

Michael Jacobs and Clarke Carlisle both went close before Bayo Akinfenwa marked his return to the starting line-up with a well taken equaliser on the hour mark, racing on to a through ball from Toni Silva.

Crewe were inevitably going to come back at us but holding firm were John Johnson, with a good late block on the impressive Nick Powell, and Kitson, saving well from loanee Billy Bodin. Having soaked up all that pressure it looked safe until that stoppage time penalty when the game appeared to be slipping away.

But thanks to a new hero between the sticks, the goalkeeping situation sorted itself out in one stunning moment in a debut that Neal Kitson will never forget.

With a tough Easter ahead there are no guarantees of safety just yet but it’s unquestionably getting ever nearer to being confirmed. Now all that’s left to do is get over that finish line!

Crewe Alexandra v Northampton Town: Match Preview

Aidy Boothroyd comes up against the team who provided his first opposition as Cobblers boss back in December. On that day the seeds were sown for the process that has become a move away from the relegation zone and despite not being out of it yet, the Cobblers are moving in the right direction.

Three and a half months after that initial meeting with Crewe, Boothroyd comes up against them again this weekend with both sides still in need of the points. The Alex are one place and four points from the playoffs and have risen from the wrong end of the table themselves since Steve Davis took over from Dario Gradi just a month before Boothroyd’s appointment at Sixfields.

Davis is no stranger to promotions have guided Nantwich up two divisions in three seasons in his first managerial post and will be hoping to add another dramatic finale to a season to his growing repertoire…


Crewe are in superb form and haven’t been beaten in nine games whilst winning all of the last four. They haven’t conceded a goal in the last three and came away from Hereford with a single goal victory last weekend.

The Cobblers have lost just once in the last seven games to climb out of the bottom two and go five points clear of danger. Back to back clean sheets have helped that cause with the win at Burton followed by a goalless draw with Plymouth Argyle last weekend.

Tootle...missing for Alex

Team News…

Crewe have had a trio of players ruled of the game with Harry Davis (dead leg), Matt Tootle (thigh) and Max Clayton (foot) all missing out. Kelvin Mellor and Jordan Brown are set to come in after finishing last week’s game with Hereford.

The Cobblers have no new injury worries and the big news is that Bayo Akinfenwa is back to full fitness having only been able to start from the bench last weekend. Blair Adams, who was replaced by Anthony Charles against Plymouth, is also back in training and could come back in.

Previous Six Meetings…

10/12/11: Cobblers 1-1 Crewe

Bayo Akinfenwa puts the Cobblers in front in Aidy Boothroyd’s first game in charge but Byron Moore’s goal means that the new Town boss has to settle for a point. Kelvin Langmead is sent off late on.

01/02/11: Cobblers 6-2 Crewe

An extraordinary night at Sixfields sees the Cobblers hit Crewe for six with six different scorers. Shaun Harrad, Michael Jacobs, Dean Beckwith, Andy Holt, Abdul Osman and Billy McKay are on target for Town with AJ Leitch-Smith and Antoni Sarcevic replying.

01/01/11: Crewe 2-0 Cobblers

Clayton Donaldson and Shaun Miller complete a comfortable win for Crewe on New Years’ Day 2011.

20/02/10: Crewe 3-2 Cobblers

Ashley Westwood gives Crewe the lead before Ryan Gilligan and Bayo Akinfenwa turn the game on its head. Westwood levels again though and Simon Walton grabs the winner just a few minutes later.

21/11/09: Cobblers 2-2 Crewe

The Cobblers come from two goals down to earn a draw. After Clayton Donaldson and a John Johnson own goal hand Crewe the advantage, a second half brace from Bayo Akinfenwa turns it around.

24/01/09: Cobblers 5-1 Crewe

Billy Clarke’s debut is a memorable one as he scores a hat-trick to stun Crewe at Sixfields. Danny Jackman and Liam Davis net the other goals for Town with Colin Daniel replying for the visitors, who were down to ten men early on thanks to Julian Baudet’s red card.

The Man In The Middle…

The man in charge is Patrick Miller who last took charge of a Cobblers game in Ian Sampson’s last match –  a 3-2 home defeat to Burton Albion in March last year.


It’s never easy at Gresty Road and I don’t expect anything less tomorrow afternoon. If we can get a point against such an in form and promotion hunting side then that will be an excellent return. 1-1