With just two days to go until the new season, here’s Part Three of the League Two Season Preview, including a closer look at the Cobblers as well as Mansfield, MK Dons, Morecambe, Newport and Notts County.
Much was made of Mansfield at the start of last season and with Steve Evans at the helm bringing in plenty of League Two experience there was every reason to think that the Stags would be up among the challengers for promotion. Evans had brought in the likes of Zander Diamond, David Mirfin and Bobby Olejnik at the start of the summer and had his own experience to draw on for an attack on the top three.
Despite this, Town didn’t really get going properly until December when they would embark on a run of one defeat in sixteen including a three game winning run in late January/early February. Then came the shock resignation of Evans with the club just two points away from the top three with Evans moving to League One Peterborough United, an apparent dream job for the Scotsman.
David Flitcroft was identified as the man to finish the job at Field Mill and he joined from fellow playoff chasers Swindon but Evans’ departure clearly hit the squad hard as they wouldn’t win again until 14 April, a 1-0 success of Chesterfield that reinvigorated their playoff hopes. But one win and two draws, including a final day 1-1 draw at home to Crawley wasn’t enough to finish in the top seven thanks to results elsewhere.
In: Matt Preston (Swindon), Neal Bishop (Scunthorpe), Craig Davies (Oldham), Otis Khan (Yeovil), Tyler Walker (Nottingham Forest)
Out: Rhys Bennett (Peterborough), George Taft (Cambridge), Johnny Hunt (Stevenage), Joel Byrom (Stevenage), Paul Digby (Forest Green)
David Flitcroft begins his first full season as Stags boss with the clear aim of going one better than last season and at least making it into the playoffs. Early signs are good with the exciting signings of Tyler Walker from Nottingham Forest and Otis Khan from Yeovil and they look in good shape to be one of the challengers again this season.
One vital piece of outgoing business may yet hinder Town’s chances, though, with prolific striker Danny Rose, who hit seventeen in all competitions last season, handing in a transfer request this week amidst interest from former boss Evans at Peterborough United. If they can get a deal done and a replacement in during the final week of the window then they should still have enough to be up there in the table so for now I’m going with another playoff push for the Stags.
There won’t be a lot of fond memories being handed down to the grandchildren from a wretched League One campaign for MK Dons. Starting off as outside bets for the playoffs, MK went from manager to manager and looked a shadow of their tag as contenders.
Despite a September win over AFC Wimbledon, form was concerning and Robbie Neilson was beginning to come under increased pressure. Between the end of September and the end of Neilson’s reign, MK fans only saw their side win on two occasions, one of which included a remarkable nine man win at home to Peterborough United. Neilson was sent packing after a 2-1 defeat at Sixfields in January and former academy coach and England under 16s manager Dan Micciche was the surprise appointment to try and steer them away from the relegation zone.
Micciche would last less than three months after seeing his side win just three times in sixteen outings. The season was all but over at that stage with just three games to go and the club six points from safety and Keith Millen stepped up from assistant manager to see through the inevitable relegation. As MK try to turn their tide back in the right direction they now turn to long serving Exeter boss Paul Tisdale and it’ll be interesting to see how he sets about his business as his new club.
In: Mitch Hancox (Macclesfield), Ryan Watson (Barnet), Jordan Moore-Taylor (Exeter), Ryan Harley (Exeter), Robbie Simpson (Exeter), Jordan Houghton (Chelsea), Mathieu Baudry (Doncaster), Baily Cargill (Unattached)
Out: Ed Upson (Bristol Rovers), Scott Wootton (Plymouth)
Paul Tisdale wasted little time in bringing in three of his trusted Exeter playing staff in Jordan Moore-Taylor, Ryan Harley and Robbie Simpson to add to his squad which should be a level above League Two should they all stick together. Tisdale is the type of manager that will be excited by a project like rebuilding MK and should be relishing the fact that he no longer has his hands tied by financial pressures.
Anything less than promotion will be seen as a failure and that’s surely what Tisdale and his new team will finish with.
Another season of battling the odds under Jim Bentley so nearly saw The Shrimps relegated but right at the death they managed to keep their heads just, and only just, above water to send Barnet down to the National League on a dramatic final day of the season.
A 2-1 opening day win against Cheltenham Town showed nothing of what was to come and Bentley’s men would win just four more times before Christmas. Poor form continued to mean that they were dicing with death for the entire season and after beating Exeter 2-1 in mid-March they would slowly see Barnet close in on them in the relegation battle thanks to a number of dropped points in the last knockings of the campaign.
They would need a point on the last day of the season and duly got it on a nerve wracking afternoon at Coventry. Barnet won their game 3-0 but it wasn’t enough to catch Morecambe on goal difference, giving the Shrimps their salvation.
In: James Sinclair (Unattached), Andrew Tutte (Bury), Jason Oswell (Stockport), Zak Mills (Grimsby), Rhys Oates (Hartlepool), Liam Mandeville (Doncaster), Mark Halstead (Southport), Jordan Cranston (Cheltenham)
Out: Aaron McGowan (Hamilton Academical)
It’s again going to be tough for the Shrimps to break out of the pack at the bottom of the table, particularly as talisman Kevin Ellison turns forty by the end of August. They’ve brought in some decent experience including Andrew Tutte from Bury, a consistent performer at this level. Jason Oswell is one to watch having scored twenty nine times in the National League North for Stockport County last season and Jim Bentley will be desperately hoping that form continues in league football.
Bentley will be sure to get the best out of what he has again but it looks like another relegation battle to me.
A season that exceeded many expectations at Newport with a superb FA Cup run and a small tilt at getting into the top seven. Mike Flynn did an excellent job at getting the most out of his players once again as the Exiles finished in an impressive eleventh place in League Two.
The first three games of the season were all away games thanks to the Rodney Parade pitch being re-laid but County picked up five points from those three to give themselves a good start to the campaign. Inconsistency dogged them through the early months but the fact that wins were being racked up in good number meant that they were never in any danger of being dragged into the battle at the bottom end of League Two.
County would be just five points from the playoffs following a 2-0 win at Yeovil in March but a four game winless run put paid to any realistic ambitions of reaching the top seven. Back to back victories in April, though, steadied the ship and a final day draw at Carlisle earned them their final place in eleventh.
Away from the league, County would earn national recognition thanks to their fine FA Cup run that saw them beat Walsall, Cambridge and Championship side Leeds United en route to a plum tie with Spurs. They so nearly pulled off an incredible upset at Rodney Parade thanks to Padraig Amond’s goal but Harry Kane levelled with eight minutes to go to take the tie back to Wembley, where Spurs finally sealed the victory but only by a 2-0 score line that in no way disgraced Flynn’s men.
So a good league finish, a cup run and a Wembley appearance – not bad at all!
In: Keanu Marsh-Brown (Forest Green), Charlie Cooper (Forest Green), Fraser Franks (Stevenage), Tyreeq Bakinson (Bristol City)
Out: Ben Tozer (Cheltenham), Frank Nouble (Colchester)
The problem you have with punching so high one season is that it’s difficult to match the following year and Newport could well fall into that category. Transfer activity has been fairly limited so far but the capture of the exciting Keanu Marsh-Brown from league rivals Forest Green Rovers should add a new level of creativity to their play.
Without a cup run distraction they may go well but it will be still be tough to reproduce the form of last season. I’m only giving them a shot at mid-table security again this time around.
Where do we start? From the dourness of Justin Edinburgh to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s constant tinkering and mind blowing starting line ups, the season was an absolute disaster and produced some of the worst performances from a Cobblers team that we’d ever seen.
There was even some mild optimism at the start of the season but Edinburgh lost his first four games of the season included a morale sapping 4-1 defeat at Peterborough which was the final straw and he was shown the exit before September could even get going. Hasselbaink was brought in under a lot of fanfare and started well but a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol Rovers highlighted the deficiencies in the squad. The plan was to try and keep in touch with those outside the drop zone by the time the January transfer window came around and there was brief relief thanks to a three game winning run at the start of 2018.
But everything slowly unravelled for Hasselbaink as baffling tactics and players playing completely out of position led to a divide between the fans and manager. A 2-1 home defeat to Gillingham was the height of the mess and the narrow score line masked an absolutely horrendous Tuesday night outing. Time was running out in the battle for survival but it looked like we’d left it far too late when Hasselbaink mirrored Edinburgh’s exit after defeat to the Posh.
Dean Austin tried hard to turn things around and instilled a sense of fight and belief among the squad that we’d not seen all season. A 3-2 win at Bury and a 2-0 success at home to Plymouth gave us real hope that we could pull off a miraculous escape but everything evaporated thanks to Walsall’s last minute winner at the Bescot Stadium that all put sent us packing to League Two barring a miracle score line against Oldham on the final day. A 2-2 draw with the Latics took them down with us but the consolation would come from Austin being appointed full time thanks to the fight he gave the club in the final few weeks of a torrid season.
In: Andy Williams (Doncaster), Junior Morias (Peterborough), Hakeem Odoffin (Wolves), Lewis Ward (Reading)
Out: Richard O’Donnell (Bradford), Joe Bunney (Blackpool)
It’s always difficult to predict your own team but the Cobblers could do well now that we seem to finally have a manager leading the way with a passion that rubs off on his players. The summer has seen Town going for quality over quantity in the transfer market with Austin not keen on breaking up a squad and starting again. The fact that he earnt the player’s respect at the end of last season gave him the chance to send them away over the summer knowing exactly what was expected of them and that should help us be much more combative this time around.
Once Junior Morias is fit we should have a great striker on our hands and Lewis Ward looks a safe pair of hands in goal. If we keep the squad fit we should pose most teams problems and compete for at least a playoff place.
County were the front runners early on in League Two last season. After losing their opening game, Kevin Nolan’s men won eight of their next nine games to accrue 25 points from 10 games and see them top the table. A 3-1 defeat at Mansfield finally ended their terrific run but the Magpies would stay right in contention through the autumn. A late penalty in the New Year’s Day victory over Port Vale put them in second place ahead of the second half of the season.
It was here that the league season began to get interrupted by progress in the FA Cup where County saw off Championship side Brentford to set up a Fourth Round tie with Premier League Swansea City at Meadow Lane. Back to back league defeats preceded that glamour game but the Magpies pulled off an excellent 1-1 draw to take the Swans back to the Liberty Stadium. The cup run would end in a dramatic 8-1 loss in Wales so it was back to the league for the final push for the top three.
A pivotal 1-0 loss at Accrington at the start of April looked to have knocked the stuffing out of their chances of automatic promotion and though they hit back with three straight wins, Jamille Matt’s stoppage time winner against them for Grimsby in the penultimate game meant that County had to settle for the playoffs.
Coventry City were the opponents for the semi-finals and a solid 1-1 draw at the Ricoh there was plenty of hope of reaching the Wembley showpiece. But a stunning away performance from the Sky Blues at Meadow Lane saw them win 4-1 and consign Nolan’s side to another season in League Two.
In: Kristian Dennis (Chesterfield), Andy Kellett (Wigan), Tom Crawford (Chester), Kane Hemmings (Oxford), Will Patching (Manchester City), Ben Hall (Brighton), David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest), Enzio Boldewijn (Crawley), Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain (Portsmouth)
Out: Jonathan Forte (Exeter), Carl Dickinson (Yeovil), Michael O’Connor (Lincoln), Adam Collin (Carlisle), Nathan Thomas (Sheff Utd), Nicky Hunt (Crewe)
Kevin Nolan will have surely learned many lessons along the way to the playoffs last season and should come back with a renewed sense that this could be County’s year and the season that will come to define his early years as a league manager. Kristian Dennis brings with him an eye for goal that had him scoring regularly for Chesterfield despite their relegation and David Vaughan, signed from across the river at Nottingham Forest, could be that gem of experience they need. Enzio Boldewijn is another who can excite the Meadow Lane faithful after signing from Crawley for a six-figure fee.
County have the backing, squad and manager to really challenge again and should be challenging for promotion again come May,