The new League One season is nearly here and EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his 2022/23 season preview, complete with his 1-24 predictions.
The phrase “Trust The Process” needs reinventing in MK1.
Russ Martin’s words were tarnished somewhat when he left a week before the start of the season, yet in many respects they still apply: local belief in the current regime is sky-high, despite the Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Wycombe.
Head Coach Liam Manning did a wonderful job in the circumstances, building on the identity his predecessor had laid out with some pragmatic tweaks, helping the team rise 10 places.
Another Liam, Sweeting, takes enormous credit for his work as Sporting Director, which minimized the sense of transition despite the awkward timing.
Sweeting is one of the top footballing directors in the country, which is why the losses of Scott Twine to Burnley and Harry Darling to Swansea are manageable – especially when a combined £5.4M has been received up front for their services.
Some of that fee has been re-invested towards 11 summer signings, including the capture of highly-rated Irish prodigies, midfield all-rounder Dawson Devoy and inverted winger Darragh Burns.
The latter’s arrival, likewise that of enigmatic wide man Nathan Holland from West Ham and final ball merchant Conor Grant from Rochdale, suggest a switch from last season’s 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1: or at least a flip between the two to keep opponents guessing.
Any opposing confusion will be pounced on with immense firepower up top: Mo Eisa played a selfless role at times last year but could push the 20 mark if fit for the duration, yet returning hero Will Grigg represents serious competition.
In a system as creative as Manning’s side threatens to be, the experienced poacher is a major threat at this level, while young Matthew Dennis’ raw pace and power gives Manning another option for different scenarios.
Athletic Tennai Watson, gritty leader Warren O’Hora, solid left-back Daniel Harvie and club icon Dean Lewington – one of the top ball-progressors in the league – remain from last year’s reliable rear-guard, with Henry Lawrence and Jack Tucker adding further depth.
Lawrence, on loan from Chelsea, can bring outstanding technique from either full-back or wing-back spot, while Tucker has a ball-playing side that he can now show more of than he could in an agricultural Gillingham team.
Those are young players with huge potential, but experience has been added in midfield with former Championship specialist Bradley Johnson signing from Blackburn, while there’s every chance Ethan Robson or Matt Smith really kick on.
Goalkeeping star Jamie Cumming returning on loan from Chelsea is music to the ears of Liam Manning’s MK Army – and who knows what Louie Barry could become?
Picked up by Barcelona at 16 but now at Aston Villa, Barry looked bright, lively and dangerous at Swindon last season when fit, and the on-loan forward might just run riot with his fizzing forays from the left.
One way to look at MK Dons’ summer would be that they have lost two great players, but another would be that lots of money has been given to a club that knows exactly what to do with it.
Shake the warm, close-knit spirit into the cocktail and this Dons side is capable of not only winning automatic promotion, but even dominating this competitive division with a three-figure tally.
Trust the process Have faith in the system.
It was hard lines for Argyle last season.
The club dealt admirably with the loss of manager Ryan Lowe to Preston North End, which threatened to derail their promotion push.
Instead, they even improved fractionally under Steven Schumacher, the assistant who was promoted to the number one gig, continuing the smooth passing style but with a competitive streak.
The Devoners amassed a whopping 80 points in just their second season after promotion from League Two, but missed out on the Play-Offs: it was the highest tally to not secure a top six berth at this level since Tranmere in 2002-03.
Still, the summer has been kind to Argyle so far with positivity through the roof thanks to the dream ownership of Simon Hallett, as well as Andrew Parkinson’s shrewd work as Chief Executive.
No notable first teamers have left Home Park, other than last season’s loanees, and Schumacher has added to his squad.
Box-to-box midfielder Matt Butcher signs from Accrington Stanley, skilful, attacking wing-back Mickel Miller joins from Rotherham, while the loan market has been used smartly once again.
The versatile Bali Mumba looks an exquisite addition from Norwich, Finn Azaz brings the flair from Aston Villa while Morgan Whittaker of Swansea – an England Under-20s star two years ago – offers searing pace as well as a goal threat.
Left-sided combination play between overlapping centre-back Macaulay Gillesphey, technical wing-back Conor Grant, dribbler Danny Mayor and energetic striker Ryan Hardie will be a key feature of their game once again, but far from the only one.
In fact, Schumacher could be having unenviable selection headaches every week this season, and for all the right reasons.
Up top, ‘Schuey’ must pick from Hardie’s running power, Niall Ennis’ selfless link-up play, Luke Jephcott’s poaching instincts and Whittaker’s explosivity.
In the wing-back positions, it’s Joe Edwards’ never-say-die leadership, Miller’s skill, Grant’s assurance and Mumba’s eclectic mix of qualities in the reckoning.
In midfield, Jordan Houghton is incredibly reliable but even his spot could come under threat if precocious talent Adam Randell builds on two promising campaigns.
Elsewhere, Azaz threatens Mayor’s place and while Panutche Camara’s work ethic is practically world-class, Butcher’s arrival would make his absence a little less problematic.
The PL2 outfit have a coherent playing identity, but within that they also have a great deal of variety in personnel to keep opponents on their toes, while James Wilson’s organisational qualities and Michael Cooper’s goalkeeping should ensure plenty of clean sheets.
Argyle got 80 points last season: improve on that tally with a stronger squad and their hard luck story will become one of triumph.
Picked up by Barcelona at 16 but now at Aston Villa, Barry looked bright, lively and dangerous at Swindon last season when fit, and the on-loan forward might just run riot with his fizzing forays from the left.Gabriel Sutton
From Ipswich’s joint-lowest finish since 1953 springs optimism as high as it’s been for quite some time.
That might seem counter-intuitive to outsiders, but the Suffolk club now have an ownership regime led by Brett Johnson with a willingness to invest in the club, as well as a Head Coach in Kieran McKenna with elite potential.
While the results have not come yet, therefore, the foundations for results are in place and a huge upward leap from 11th is expected.
The improvement under McKenna was partly the defensive aspect, with a meagre 13 goals conceded in 24 under his watch – the fewest in the division in that timeframe – thanks to the sturdy performances of centre-backs Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson.
Town also created lots of presentable chances under the ex-Manchester United coach, thanks partly to the wizardry of Bersant Celina, but were not as clinical as they could have been in front of goal with just 30 scored.
The Suffolk club hope to have more of a ruthless edge this time around, having added poacher Freddie Ladapo from Rotherham and speedy Tyreece John-Jules on loan from Arsenal, whilst still being in the market for more of a back-to-goal striker with nippy Kayden Jackson also in the mix.
If Ipswich keep their defensive solidity and their rate of chance creation, therefore, they should find the firepower to finish in the top two – but there’s a catch.
Chance creation could be harder, though, now Celina has gone and while Marcus Harness is a decent addition, he’s not an adequate replacement for the Dijon loanee’s craft and guile.
The way McKenna will set his side up in a 3-4-3, wing-backs like star man Wes Burns will be extremely high up the pitch, so vital all-rounder Sam Morsy and destroyer Dominic Ball – added from QPR – will be tasked with keeping a lid on the midfield and stopping breakaways.
The crux of the creativity, therefore, must come from someone in the front-three and it’s unclear whether Ipswich have that magician in their ranks.
Replace Celina – or better, get him back – and a nine-place jump is realistic for the Tractor Boys, but otherwise they may miss the required sprinkling of genius against deep, defensive blocks.
Back in 2013, Peterborough were relegated on the final day of the Championship with a heart-breaking defeat at Crystal Palace, after which it took chairman Darragh MacAnthony a while to pick his manager up: nine years on, the impact of the same fate was less shocking.
Four-time Posh promotion winner Darren Ferguson was replaced as manager in February by his former player Grant McCann, who inherited a side eight points adrift with 12 to play; McCann was aware that the drop was likely, even when performances and results picked up.
When the news was confirmed, therefore, with April’s home defeat to Nottingham Forest, it was a quick transition from processing disappointment to jumping into recruitment.
As many as five players signed in June, including the stand-out capture of Ben Thompson, a midfield all-rounder more than capable of thriving in the Championship – let alone League One – when fit.
Competition will be fierce in midfield, though, with tough-tackler Jeando Fuchs in the mix, likewise all-rounder Jack Taylor while Oli Norburn and others are capable at this level.
Star teens Ronnie Edwards and Harrison Burrows look set to remain in PE1, with MacAnthony setting a hefty price tag on the home grown duo.
The former starred in England’s Under-19s success in central defence this summer after thriving at Championship level, like the latter, who enjoyed 10 goal involvements from the left.
The prodigious talents of Edwards, Burrows, on-loan Chelsea goalkeeper Lucas Bergström and creator Kwame Poku should complement a crop of proven League One performers, who did the job two years ago.
Aggressive defenders Nathan Thompson and Frankie Kent, steady left-back Dan Butler when fit, energetic forward Sammie Szmodics and hold-up front-man Jonson Clarke-Harris all know the drill at this level, likewise Taylor.
With a strong squad, McCann has not been asking MacAnthony for investment in players as often as improvements in infrastructure and sports science, or expanding recruitment and coaching teams.
Posh will strongly challenge this year and could make the cut: if not, they’ll be left with excellent foundations, ensuring this League One stay is shorter than the last.
Manager Ian Evatt took the scorn of outsiders when he claimed Bolton, eighth in October, were the best team in League One.
Indeed, the former defender took even more derision when his side subsequently dropped to 18th by mid-January (partly down to December’s postponements).
What followed was a run of four straight league victories to nil, including six fired past Sunderland, catalysing a return of 47 points from 22 games – title-winning form, we might say…
Whereas 51 points from the final 22 was enough for automatic promotion from League Two the year before, the resurgence this time around was not nearly enough for a top six berth: in fact, the Trotters finished 10 points shy of the Play-Offs, unlucky perhaps with the unique standards required.
The task, therefore, is to take their New Year form into the start of the campaign this time around, so retaining much of last season’s squad – including defender Ricardo Santos and left wing-back Declan John – is a big plus.
The only notable departure is that of Marlon Fossey, and Evatt hopes the right wing-back can be replaced well by another loanee, Conor Bradley, who has played in five competitive games for Liverpool and eight for Northern Ireland before turning 19 this month.
Competition is stiff in midfield: deep-lying playmaker Aaron Morley, dynamo Kyle Dempsey and classy Kieran Lee would be a tasty trio – but then so would sitter MJ Williams, tidy George Thomason and creator Josh Sheehan.
Plus, any three from that sextet would, in a wing-back system, require operating with two forwards rather than three: hardly an easy sacrifice, given how well final third maestro Dapo Afolayan, persistent runner Dion Charles and experienced grafter Jon Dadi Bodvarsson linked up last year.
The list of options is extensive for Evatt. He talked the talk last season – and his side are starting to walk the walk…
2022-23 is a big season for the Cowley brothers, as well as for Portsmouth.
On the one hand, Danny and Nicky have won over many Pompey fans with their engaging approach, meticulous methods and a positive, aggressive, high-octane style.
The management duo are building a team that thinks forward, plays forward and runs forward against the direction of the ball, whilst pressing instantly on turnovers to force opponents onto the back-foot.
That style was in evidence last season, but results didn’t quite match up to expectation: Pompey finished 10 points shy of the Play-Offs with competition strong.
Once again, summer business has been slow with the management duo prepared to wait for what they hope will prove the right players, rather than rush for the perceived wrong ones.
Much-needed additions have recently been made up top, where Joe Pigott and Colby Bishop bring an exemplary work ethic, good hold-up play and a fine spring, both at 6’1”.
Neither Pigott nor Bishop, though, offer searing pace, which may be an ingredient missing in this Pompey attack to date, while wide man Marcus Harness needs to be replaced after going to Ipswich.
Find the right final recruits, though and Portsmouth will have layers of quality on top of their compact, energetic, high-pressing unit.
Right-back Joe Rafferty is not shy to an old-school challenge, Clark Robertson will bring leadership in defence to complement Haji Mnoga’s athleticism, while Connor Ogilvie has become a far more rounded left-back thanks to Cowley’s coaching.
Plus, Marlon Pack brings a wealth of Championship experience to central midfield and his all-round reliability should coax the best out of those around him.
The Cowley brothers might not yet have assembled a top six squad on paper, but the duo have succeeded everywhere else they have been.
The former PE teachers have won five promotions in their careers – three at Concord Rangers, two titles at Lincoln – as well as an EFL Trophy with the Imps, a Play-Off berth with National League part-timers Braintree and borderline Play-Off form with strugglers Huddersfield.
Danny and Nicky Cowley are capable of finding new heights in players that didn’t exist before, too: remaining additions are important, but who’s to say Malta Under-19s’ inverted winger Alfie Bridgman won’t become a break-out star?
The pressure may be on, but with the Blue Army on-side, this could be the year it all clicks.
The Cowley brothers might not yet have assembled a top six squad on paper, but the duo have succeeded everywhere else they have been.Gabriel Sutton
Darren Moore has consistently delivered competitive results as a manager.
The former defender’s West Brom side challenged for promotion in the Championship, likewise his Doncaster outfit for the League One Play-Offs, which Wednesday reached last year when some could have accepted missing out.
On top of that, Moore always conducts himself with a level of class that any fan would want from somebody representing their club.
A cynic, however, would say that rather than being one of the top tacticians in the division, or building a clear playing identity, Moore tends to rely – more heavily perhaps than others – on the individual quality of the personnel he possesses.
Then again, the Owls do have individual quality to rely on. They boast the division’s best midfield in Will Vaulks, George Byers and Barry Bannan, as well as excellent cover for the trio with Tyreeq Bakinson set to sign.
Elsewhere, aerial centre-back Michael Ihiekwe and mobile target man Michael Smith have declined Championship football with Rotherham to make the short hop across South Yorkshire, while League One’s joint-golden glove winner, David Stockdale, also hitches up at Hillsborough.
Dominic Iorfa and Josh Windass will be like new signings, too, and can be excellent at this level when fully fit, plus Lee Gregory and Callum Paterson are excellent options for the attacking mix: the former scored nine in the final 10 games of last season, the latter is a true battler.
The big question is over speed: Windass, 28, Johnson and Hunt, both 31, are reasonably quick but not rapid.
The absence of searing pace is fine in a team with fluid, brilliantly co-ordinated attacking moves, but could hinder one that will lean on individualism to stay in the mix.
Barnsley learnt the value of leadership the hard way.
The Reds lost CEO Dane Murphy, Head Coach Valerien Ismael, midfield general Alex Mowatt and defensive organiser Michael Sollbauer all in the same summer of 2021, after a shock Play-Off finish the year before.
Murphy’s replacement, Khaled El-Ahmad, had little settling in period, Markus Schopp then Poya Asbaghyi both struggled as Head Coach, Mowatt and Sollbauer were not directly replaced, while the lack of transparency from the top compounded the matter.
The good news, though, is that Chien Lee and Paul Conway are no longer on the board of directors and although off-field issues are not completely resolved, there has been positive movement.
El-Ahmed has held various meetings with supporters, Director Neerav Parekh has communicated plans and Jean Cryne – widow of former owner Patrick – is on the directors’ board to put the heart back into Oakwell.
The biggest move, though, was pulling off an outstanding appointment in Michael Duff.
The Northern Irishman has been one of the best managers in the EFL over the last four years, having exceeded expectations with Cheltenham every season and made history in the process.
If Duff is just as impressive in South Yorkshire, a promotion push is possible: goalkeeper Brad Collins, defenders Michał Helik and Mads Andersen plus England-thrashing Hungary star Callum Styles are an excellent core of players for the level.
Added to that is technical wing-back Nicky Cadden, who thrived at Forest Green last season, striker James Norwood, who scored 29 League Two goals for Tranmere in 2018-19, and Robbie Cundy – that centre-back would head a meteor away if it came into the box.
More is required up top, however, especially after Cauley Woodrow and Carlton Morris departed for Luton, and a critical lens could also be applied to midfield.
Tarn possess a high quantity of midfielders, including talents Matty Wolfe and Jasper Moon, plus Josh Benson – with whom Duff worked at Burnley Under-23s – but they all fill a similar role.
The Reds have neat, tidy, honest midfielders who could go up another level alongside a go-to general who grabs games by the scruff, but might struggle to be that general themselves.
This isn’t exactly a free-hit, rebuilding season for Barnsley, who aspire to compete, but nor is it one devoid of context, given how disillusioned natives were just three months ago.
Huge steps forward can be as simple as having vocal guidance in the technical area. Hard way or not, Barnsley have learnt the value of leadership and, in Duff, they’ve now got the man to provide it.
Cautious optimism engulfs The Valley.
‘Cautious’, because this is a club with a point to prove: Thomas Sandgaard has done a lot for the Addicks in terms of investment, welcomed after the previous decade, but has at times been found wanting in strategic leadership.
‘Optimism’, because the South Londoners are starting to at least get a few things right.
Summer appointment Ben Garner is an esteemed coach who proved his credentials as a number one at Swindon last season, while recruitment under director Steve Gallen looks aligned with the manager’s possession heavy style.
Goalkeeper Jojo Wollacott brings excellent distribution, defender Eoghan O’Connell is a fine ball-player and Conor McGrandles is a selfless, adaptable midfielder: he starred when Lincoln reached the Play-Off Final in 2020-21.
McGrandles should forge one of the better trios in the league with holder George Dobson, hoping to recapture his form for Walsall and Wimbledon, blended with the playmaking flair of Swindon recruit Jack Payne or Scott Fraser (unless incorporated simultaneously).
Fraser could have earnt Championship moves in the previous two summers and, having emphatically quashed doubts over his work ethic at MK Dons in 2020-21, is more than capable of being among League One’s creative kings once again.
It’s a similar story for Charlie Kirk, who thrived on the left of a front-three at Crewe but was unlucky that Charlton deployed a 3-5-2 for much of the campaign: Garner will play a 4-3-3 this season and the 24-year-old may see the benefits.
It’s a big rebuild, though and patience will be required.
Sandgaard targets the top six, but the Dane must give the new management team the leeway to fall short of that objective, and still plan with assurance for better times.
When asked a complex question of how he reconciles the emotion that comes with being a boyhood supporter of Cambridge United with his responsibilities as Head Coach, Mark Bonner’s reply was surprisingly simple.
The words “I’m not a fan anymore” may sound coarse at first take, but once processed feel refreshingly honest: management and fandom doesn’t mix for him.
Calm and collected on the touchline, Bonner is among the EFL’s hot managerial property: another progressive campaign and bigger offers may come his way, like for Duff at Cheltenham.
The 36-year-old’s task, this summer, has been about searching for quality, rather than quantity, with 19 players who featured in the league last season still contracted: defender Jack Iredale is the only major loss.
Such quality may have been found in centre-back Zeno Ibsen Rossi, who joins permanently having been tantalizingly close to breaking into the Bournemouth side last year – at 6’4”, Rossi should be dominant in his own box and a threat in the opposition’s.
The 21-year-old joins a reliable core comprising of strong shot stopper Dimitar Mitov, dependable right-back George Williams, dogged destroyer Paul Digby, driven midfielder Adam May, workhorse striker Joe Ironside and lively goalscorer Sam Smith.
The aforementioned sextet offer the framework for athletic centre-back Jubril Okedina and creative, hardworking forward Harvey Knibbs to move up another gear, as they edge towards the peak of their careers having finished 2021-22 in encouraging fashion.
Cambridge achieved their highest league finish since 1994 last year and they’re not done there: a top 10 tilt is well within their grasp.
It’s a shame Bonner’s not a fan anymore – he might enjoy this season…
Fleetwood fortuitously fumbled over the survival line last season.
The Trawlermen amassed a paltry 40 points – fewer than anyone has stayed up with at this level since Hull in 1979-80 – so owner Andy Pilley thanked his lucky stars at the failings of Crewe, Wimbledon, Doncaster and Gillingham.
There are three reasons, though, to think the Fylde coast outfit can use their reprieve as a springboard for major progress.
Firstly, the club have excellent facilities and infrastructure, thanks to the external investment – it’s not everything, as last year showed, but it doesn’t half help.
Secondly, Town possess an energetic, exuberant crop of young talents, the most notable of which being Northern Ireland international Paddy Lane: the 20-year-old ‘Mezzala’ is out to better last year’s return of five goals and eight assists.
Also exciting the respective armies of Cod and Green & White is right-back Carl Johnston and midfielder Dylan Boyle: both are in Northern Irelands Under-21s setup and have the character to make their mark at this level.
South of the divide, tenacious forward Cian Hayes has starred for Ireland Under-19s, while striker Promise Omochere – another boy in green – brings height at 6’3”, but also skill and an exemplary work ethic to ensure defenders have no rest.
Any one of these lads from across the waters could light up League One, while 20-year-old Shayden Morris comes back into the equation: he’ll bring pace and trickery from the right.
Throw in the signings of box-to-box man Brendan Wiredu and energetic striker Callum Morton, both 22, and Fleetwood may press opponents into submission: especially if Celtic legend Scott Brown can apply his iconic playing influence to life as head coach.
Brown is a serial winner: extremely driven, the 37-year-old is old-school enough to win over all demographics within the fanbase, but young enough to connect with the modern player.
After such a close shave last season, Fleetwood might appear obvious relegation fodder – but a staggering improvement is possible if their youth development vehicle moves into the fast lane.
Many outsiders may see Forest Green as the most vulnerable of League One’s newly-promoted clubs, because of who they’ve lost.
Head coach Rob Edwards was poached controversially by Watford, star wing-backs Kane Wilson and Nicky Cadden have gone to Bristol City and Barnsley respectively, while midfield presser Ebou Adams has departed for Cardiff.
In some ways, however, the fact that three of Rovers’ key assets have gone to the Championship – and a fourth, to a club that was at that level last season – is indicative of the structure in place.
Even with the external backing of Dale Vince, the Nailsworth club achieved 2021-22’s success ranking eighth on budget in League Two, benefiting hugely from the strategic influence of DoF Richard Hughes.
While Forest Green may lose elements of the quality of those leaving the New Lawn, therefore, they will not lose the synergy and cohesion of the system due to savvy succession planning.
Incoming head coach Ian Burchnall, poached from Notts County, has similar process-driven values and possession principles to his predecessor.
Also stepping up from the National League is Armani Little, billed as an outstanding technician who also has the tenacity to replace Adams as the pressing number 10.
New signing Corey O’Keeffe, when at Rochdale, was a rival to Wilson as the best wing-back in League Two in the first half of last season, while technical left-sider Harry Boyes joined on loan from Sheffield United long before Cadden’s exit.
With that in mind, the sense of upheaval is not as grand as it might look on paper, even for the club playing their first ever season in English football’s third-tier.
Athletic Udoka Godwin-Malife, leader Jordan Moore-Taylor, ball-player Baily Cargill and battler Dom Bernard remain to compete for back-three spots while Ben Stevenson and Regan Hendry are sticking around to control midfields, if not quite as consistently as last year.
Those respective area have been beefed up, too, by the signings of 6’2” centre-back Oli Casey – on loan from Blackpool – and veteran terrier David Davis: the Shrewsbury recruit goes against the model slightly and will provide valuable balance.
The Green Devils do, however, need a striker to cover nippy poacher Matty Stevens – who starts the campaign with an ACL injury – and partner star target man Jamille Matt, who can’t wait to get on the end of those pin-point centres from O’Keefe and Boyes.
A smart, smooth structure, a fresh, exciting new coaching mind and a squad that’s already tasted success: Forest Green might be cutting their keys at this level, but find the right forwards and they’ll make themselves right at home.
Everything is in place at Wycombe, in one sense.
Not only do the Chairboys have their greatest ever manager, Gareth Ainsworth, tied down for another three years, they have also assembled arguably the best squad in their history thanks to the ownership of the Couhigs, who provide care, money and ambition.
Wanderers boast a former international regular in target man Sam Vokes, a seasoned creator in Garath McCleary – 378 games in the top two tiers – and one of League One’s strongest crop of midfielders.
Stalwarts Curtis Thompson and Dom Gape starred for the heroes of 2019-20, but are now competing for central berths with terrier Josh Scowen and dynamo Lewis Wing, plus maybe even Anis Mehmeti, should the Albania U21s whizz take on a deeper role.
The promise shown by Mehmeti, and star defender Chris Forino, is a sign that the B Team the Couhigs have invested in is bearing fruit, giving Wycombe fresh legs and new assets to integrate into an experienced, streetwise squad.
The Buckinghamshire club hope talented left-sider Connor Parsons and lively forward Ali Al-Hamadi can be the next to come through the conveyor belt, along with new recruits Jack Young and D’Mani Mellor, in midfield and attack respectively.
While there is cause for positivity at Adams Park, given outstanding recent achievements including last season’s Play-Off Final appearance, there is a flip side which makes a drop out of contention look plausible.
Wanderers have one more player in their 30s (five) than they have aged between 23 and 27 (four): if the vital veterans were to drop their levels, the younger crop would have to step up at a rate that may not be organic for this stage of their development.
Plus, while the Chairboys have the resources and personnel to bring the aesthetics by progressing through the thirds, it’s not something they do religiously.
This hasn’t halted Wycombe’s journey so far – not one bit – but soon might if the league evolves as rapidly as it threatens to.
The difference between the Oxford sides that reached the Play-Offs for back-to-back seasons, and the one that missed out last term, was the standard of competition.
In fact, Karl Robinson’s troops accrued one more point in 2021-22 than they did the year before, yet finished some eight points shy of the top six.
The Yellows hope, therefore, that if the league evens out, they will be well-placed to profit with a reliable spine still in situ.
With Elliott Moore’s aerial strength, Alex Gorrin’s destructive work when fit, Cameron Brannagan’s drive and Matty Taylor’s poaching nous, the U’s may challenge if Marcus Browne finds form or Billy Bodin stays injury-free.
Defensive efforts could be improved, too, if goalkeeper Ed McGinty and defender Stuart Findlay settle as well as hoped after joining from Sligo Rovers and Philadelphia Union respectively.
Depth is short, though: there’s 18 players who have reasonable senior experience and beyond that, as things stand, there would be a dependence on young lads back from non-league loans to influence proceedings for an aspiring top six side.
Optimistically, extra gaps in the squad may pave the way for ball-playing defender James Golding, technical, versatile attacker Tyler Goodrham and others to surprise a few, but in eight of the 11 positions, loss of the first-choice option would on paper hurt.
If Oxford get lucky with injuries, if a core stay fresh for 40+ league games and if youth step up quickly, then another Play-Off push is on – but right now that feels like the long shot.
The likelier outcome is that the Yellows are unprepared for the demands of what’s ahead, and 2022-23 may be a comedown from impressive recent efforts.
Derby have achieved their main summer objective, which was to force out owner Mel Morris.
The mooted takeover led by Chris Kirchner fell through at an advanced stage, but local businessman and lifelong fan David Clowes picked up the pieces, perhaps reluctantly.
Considering himself a private person, Clowes’ desire to save the club may have been greater than his desire to own it.
It’s plausible that, firstly, he would not choose to be chairman long-term and secondly, he may not be especially active in the day-to-day running, but rather simply provide the required funds.
That theoretical arrangement would be fine if the Rams had a reliable CEO, but current incumbent Stephen Pearce is responsible for much of the club’s troubles under previous owner Mel Morris, so doubts linger over the quality of leadership off-the-field.
On it, Liam Rosenior starts the season in charge but only with the title of Interim Manager: logical from the club’s side, if a little non-committal.
12 additions arrived by late July, the most eye-catching of which being midfielder Conor Hourihane from Aston Villa and striker James Collins from Cardiff; the former brings excellent left-footed deliveries, while the latter will graft relentlessly.
Equally, defender James Chester, midfielder Korey Smith, wide men Tom Barkhuizen and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing plus creative forward David McGoldrick were all good Championship players five years ago but are arguably trending downwards.
That does not mean either cannot do well in League One, but there is a danger of them, plus existing figures like inspirational skipper Curtis Davies, coming unstuck against fresher legs.
Plus, while the Rams have top young talent in Louie Sibley, Max Bird and Jason Knight, the former two have attracted interest from Coventry, while Leeds like the latter.
In the event of departures, Rosenior will look to bring on talents from the next generation down: defender Eiran Cashin thrived in the Championship last year, but most of this crop would be stepping into the unknown.
With more meteoric risers like now-departed Malcolm Ebioweie and Festy Ebosele, Derby could challenge, but it’s likelier that the shortage of peak-age performers makes consistency hard to find.
If Lincoln City’s next six years mirrors the last, they’ll be playing Europa League football by 2027-28.
An Imps tour of Seville sounds as unlikely as it does fun, so while last season’s 17th-placed finish may have felt underwhelming in contrast with the meteoric rise leading up to it, natives must embrace a new era of what will – in theory – be steady, measured progression.
It’s hard to follow an age that comprised of two title wins, FA Cup history-writing, Wembley glory and a League One Play-Off Final, especially if getting near the top six is as hard as it was last season.
Much like a wedded 30s couple buying a house and having kids, though, it’s all about being excited by different things: youth development, solid infrastructure, and reliability upstairs.
There should be stability from the chief decision-maker, too, after Mark Kennedy was handed a five-year contract as Head Coach.
The former Wolves winger has made good additions, too, in midfielders Danny Mandroiu and Tashan Oakley-Booth plus goalkeeper Carl Rushworth.
Mandroiu notched 22 goals in 53 league games for Shamrock Rovers – boy, can he hit them from range – Oakley-Booth will bring thrust on loan from Stoke while Rushworth, on loan from Brighton, has gained rave reviews everywhere he’s been.
Elsewhere, the Imps have retained key men like driven wide forward Anthony Scully and matured, ball-playing centre-back Regan Poole, which will be crucial to their chances.
A big part of Kennedy’s remit, though, will be getting the best out of players who didn’t hit the heights they hoped for last year: locals feel there’s more to come from speedster Hakeeb Adelakun and springy striker Tom Hopper plus midfielders Lasse Sorensen and Max Sanders.
Finding fitter, more reliable versions of Joe Walsh and Liam Bridcutt in defence and midfield respectively will be crucial, too.
Lincoln think they’ve replaced Walsh by signing Paudie O’Connor from Bradford, who should at least play more games, but Sanders is a different type to Bridcutt: the passing range is there – and then some – but physicality and leadership are the question marks.
On existing personnel, the absence of a go-to general may restrict Lincoln’s progress, but still there are reasons to think they will push on from 17th by a place or two.
It’s all terribly exciting for City, still. Obviously. Just in a different way.
Back at this level for the first time in a decade, Exeter have continuity on their side.
The Grecians have only lost one first teamer from last year’s historic promotion – that being on-loan goalkeeper Cameron Dawson – and only two or three signings are required to make the squad competitive.
One of them lies between the sticks, where Dawson is set to be replaced by strong shot stopper Alex Bass, another up top, where energetic finisher Sam Nombe needs cover given recent injury doubts.
City must add pace in attack, mainly because skilful whizz Jevani Brown and diminutive creator Matt Jay are two withdrawn forwards more than good enough for League One, but neither will stretch the line and that’s something Matt Taylor’s side may require in a lot of tough games.
Elsewhere, however, Taylor can pick three from five strong defenders in athletic prospect Cheick Diabate, front-foot aggressor Sam Stubbs, seasoned Jonathan Grounds, left-sided talent Alex Hartridge and leader Pierce Sweeney – the latter’s ball-progression is rather handy, too.
In midfield, Timothee Dieng was arguably Exeter’s 2021-22 Player of the Year: questioned initially due to prior record, Dieng defied all the doubters with his strength, aerial prowess, unrelenting stamina and aptitude for a back-post header from Sweeney and Josh Key’s crosses.
Speaking of which, Key remains in Devon for now and the right-sider is ready to rock League One.
As well as searing pace, both in attack and the recovery, the 22-year-old is technically refined enough to deliver in the final third – and his forays into the penalty box can be hard to stop.
Key’s progress means Jake Caprice – known for his brisk surges – will remain primarily an inverted option at left wing-back, competing with technician Jack Sparkes: both are up to this year’s objective, and it’s one Exeter should accomplish.
City are a smart club who are structurally ready for a League One return thanks to years of steady growth enabled by excellent development of youth, as well as smart negotiating when selling that youth on.
The Grecians look well-placed to achieve sustainability at this level, if they can navigate the inevitable rocky patches in this first year.
Few could have predicted the final day scenes at the Mem back in December, when Bristol Rovers were languishing in 16th.
Winter loan recruits had a transformative impact, with defenders Connor Taylor and James Connolly plus magician Elliot Anderson inspiring a return of 17 wins in 26 which won them automatic promotion after a closing 7-0 drubbing of Scunthorpe.
Anderson’s goal rounded off the scoring against the youthful, long relegated Iron side, sparking a mass pitch invasion, after which manager Joey Barton and owner Wael Al-Qadi pleaded with fans to stay in the stands to ensure the game would be continued.
The second invasion followed at full-time: an outpouring of relief at the end of a tumultuous campaign, as Rovers secured an instant return to League One.
Now, the challenge is to sustain themselves at this level and they will have to do that without two of the three key loanees from 2021-22, Connolly being the one to return.
Also through the door is versatile wing-back James Gibbons, who will likely compete for the right-back slot with all-rounder Luca Hoole.
There’s already appealing competition at left-back, where Barton has the dilemma provided by Josh Grant’s inverted intelligence, Nick Anderton’s solidity and Trevor Clarke’s attacking gusto.
Striker John Marquis, meanwhile, hopes to replicate the goalscoring form he enjoyed at Doncaster after a tough three years: with the right service, the 30-year-old can bring good hold-up play on the deck and be the focal point that Aaron Collins isn’t.
Despite his contributions in the false nine role last year, livewire Collins may drop into an attacking midfield position to link-up with the likes of turbo-runner Sam Finley and consistent all-rounder Antony Evans.
Paul Coutts will be unable to start the campaign conducting play from the base of midfield, but Jordan Rossiter is a more than adequate alternative, so there’s a chance Bristol Rovers can take the New Year form that won them promotion into this campaign.
The big question, though, is around Barton, who has a re-adjourned court trial scheduled two days after October’s trip to Derby.
Nobody can achieve what he has in a playing and managing capacity without having a fantastic footballing mind and excellent leadership qualities, in many situations: he did superbly in that respect last season.
Innocent or not, though, Barton has a fair bit hanging over him: many fans have been converted, but the situation doesn’t scream stability.
At what point do miracles happen so routinely that they cease to be miracles?
John Coleman and Jimmy Bell continue to work their magic at Accrington Stanley on a miniscule budget, securing a fifth consecutive season at this level with successive top half finishes, without gaining the same external recognition that they once did.
It was the new bosses on the block, Michael Duff and Mark Bonner, who hogged last year’s neutral praise when it came to thriving underdogs in League One management.
Far from being an insult to ‘Coley’, though, the lack of attention is a backhanded compliment: Stanley standards have been so high for so long, that their midtable form is no longer as surprising as it is inspirational.
Indeed, had creative forward Matt Lowe hitched up at any other third-tier club from Brackley Town, questions would be asked of the ambition at signing a 26-year-old from the National League North.
In this corner of East Lancashire, there are no such queries.
Coleman and Bell always excel at nurturing non-league gems: goalscoring midfielder Tommy Leigh proved a roaring success last year, after joining from Bognor Regis Town, while Colby Bishop has led the line superbly for three years since signing from Leamington.
Alas, Bishop has gone to Portsmouth, leaving Accy a little light up top at the time of writing.
Former Liverpool talent Joe Hardy, speedy goalscorer Josh Woods and lively Korede Adedoyin are unknown quantities: either could thrive as a second striker but neither looks a reliable focal point.
Any midfield selection from Leigh, dynamo Ethan Hamilton, ball-winner Liam Coyle, box-to-box teenager Dylan Moonan, grafter David Morgan and solid stalwart Seamus Conneely should be competitive, however.
Defensive efforts may improve, too if vocal centre-back Ryan Astley is as good as billed in his loan spell – Everton were never gonna give him up permanently – but experience is lacking.
Stanley need a left wing-back, ostensibly, but don’t write off Matty Carson kicking on after winning an April Player of the Month award at NIFL Premiership (Northern Ireland top flight) side Carrick Rangers.
Either way, streamlining Sean McConville’s game will be crucial. The 33-year-old was League One’s assist-king last year but with declining physical attributes, he can’t do everything required of a wing-back as much as he might want to.
McConville is a leader in the dressing room but on the field, he must channel his energies towards simply doing what he does best, given how key that will be to chances of another top half spot.
Baring a late heavy influx, however, Accy enter the campaign weaker than last season on paper, so we could see a drop-off.
While Coley’s in town, though, they won’t go too far astray.
Something’s brewing in Burslem.
The club that enjoyed much success in the ‘80s and ‘90s is back on the up, in a sense that extends beyond May’s 3-0 Play-Off Final crushing of Mansfield.
Over the last three years, lifelong supporters Carol and Kevin Shanahan have brought the leadership at boardroom level that the club has been crying out for, allowing them to draw a Vale over a previous era of chaos and instability.
Manager Darrell Clarke and DoF David Flitcroft have also captured the hearts of natives with their passion, honesty and nous, so the spirit around the club will be a huge strong point.
Of course, the feel-good factor alone won’t keep the Valiants up, especially after they lost local, all-action wing-back James Gibbons to fellow promotees Bristol Rovers and slow summer recruitment leaves Clarke with a lopsided squad.
Sitter Brad Walker, goalscorer Tom Conlon, box-to-box Ben Garrity, relentless runner Harry Charsley, dainty technician Tom Pett and summer recruit Funso Ojo will be vying for three midfield spots, but other areas have no such depth.
While Vale have a reasonable first XI intact still intact, injuries as things stand would be fatal in attack or central defence, and that’s before they get to exploring possible upgrades in goal or in either wing-back position.
Focal point Jamie Proctor and his strike-partner, James Wilson, have between them all the attributes required to step up to this level: selling a back-up role to prospective strikers is proving tricky.
Clarke must be careful to not just recruit for 3-5-2, however, and bring in one or two quick, dribbling, withdrawn or wide forwards who could fill in up top, but also change the game from the bench should the gaffer opt to switch things up.
In defence, meanwhile, rock Connor Hall is currently the only centre-back over 6’1” – though Nathan Smith is surprisingly springy – so aerial dominance could be problematic if the aggressive ex-Harrogate man became absent.
A flurry of signings are expected in the week leading up to the opener and beyond, but re-invigorated Vale are cutting it fine…
The Brewers were neither an appealing creative side last season, nor a rock-solid defensive one - fail to move closer to either category and the trap door may beckon…Gabriel Sutton
On paper, Shrewsbury are improved from the side that finished 18th last season.
Collectively, Salop scored just 47 goals in 2021-22 – fewer than relegated Wimbledon – but strikers Daniel Udoh, Ryan Bowman and Tom Bloxham did enough to suggest they would thrive with better service.
Theoretically, that supply line should be more enticing. A midfield that had little creativity last season now boasts dynamo Tom Bayliss and selfless Jordan Shipley in the mix, complementing workhorse Luke Leahy, who impressed in that position last year, despite being a left-back by trade.
Plus, while right wing-back Elliott Bennett was solid rather than spectacular last term, Julien Dacosta – on loan from Coventry – should offer quality deliveries if fit, taking attentions off George Nurse on the left.
With Chey Dunkley looking a good defensive replacement for middle centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell, and Taylor Moore coming into the mix, Town hope to have a strong defence again.
The starting XI will be good enough. Add reasonable depth and it’s perfectly possible that Shrewsbury make a mockery of relegation predictions like this one and elevate themselves into the midtable pack, but the concern is over Steve Cotterill.
The 57-year-old has credentials: he’s loved at Cheltenham, he built one of the best third-tier teams of all-time in 2014-15 double-winners Bristol City and has a drive that few can match.
Cotterill is not exactly a modern boss, though and his flaws were apparent at Birmingham: tetchy media-handling hints at cantankerous man management and while external perceptions aren’t always entirely accurate, they’re rarely without cause.
Results dictate that some from the current generation have responded well to the manager’s way of working, yet others might prefer a different environment.
Cotterill deserves credit for keeping Shrewsbury up comfortably in his first season and doing a solid job in his second, but two years of his apparent confrontational style isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.
Cheltenham are out to make 2022-23 a new chapter, after club legend Michael Duff wrote his final lines.
The Northern Irishman has been at the beating heart of the Robins’ most successful times in a playing and managing capacity, but his summer exit for Barnsley ends a combined 12-year association.
After such a successful period, respected DoF Micky Moore has plumped for the option best resembling continuity: promoting Wade Elliott to the number one gig was a popular choice.
It’s the club collectively – not just Duff – that achieved a first ever EFL title in 2020-21, then a highest ever finish last season.
There are players capable of progressing further like flying wing-back Ben Williams and tough-tackler Elliot Bonds, so if change were restricted to the dugout, it would be unfair to expect significant regression.
Alas, on-loan striker Kion Etete is back at Tottenham, so Southampton loanee Dan N’Lundulu will have to stay fit and realize his untapped potential.
Goals from midfield, meanwhile, could be harder to come by now the balletic Callum Wright has gone: Dan Adshead operates deeper and Wolves loanee Taylor Perry is more of a creator.
Ball-player Tom Bradbury is stepping up two leagues to replace aerial centre-back Will Boyle, who’s exit leaves the Robins reliant on Charlie Raglan for proven defensive strength – although West Brom loanee Caleb Taylor is strong and vocal.
Raglan, Liam Sercombe and Matty Blair are the remaining experienced core, so the latter’s knee injury is a huge blow, despite Ryan Jackson’s arrival: dependable on-field leadership will be essential in the post-Duff period.
Cheltenham hope the revered manager’s departure brings less disruption in practice than appears on paper, which is plausible after the internal pick.
If 23-goal star Alfie May were to depart, however, 2022-23 may feel more like the end of an era than the start of a new one.
Burton might have finished five places above the drop zone last season, but there can be no doubts as to the need for improvement.
The Brewers’ blueprint worked for parts of the campaign – set piece proficiency, long throw threats and exploiting opposition errors got them to 10th by January’s end – but it had a shelf-life.
It soon became clear that any opponent who was compact, aerially strong and did the basics well would be able to nullify Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s side.
Once crosses were blocked and set pieces, headed away, Burton were found wanting for alternative ideas, especially through the middle, with Hasselbaink often opting for versatile defenders like Michael Mancienne in midfield.
The Dutch playing legend hopes to have addressed issues with the signings of Calum Butcher from Dundee United, Davis Keillor-Dunn from Oldham and Quevin Castro on loan from West Brom.
Butcher will take on a deeper role than he did in his successful first stint at the Pirelli, bringing maturity and control, Keillor-Dunn offers unerring final third composure, while Castro at 6’4” will be an aerial outlet as well as a creative one.
Another hopeful-looking loanee landing is Viljami Sinisalo: Aston Villa saw enough potential in the Finland Under-21s star to hand him a three-year contract, and the goalkeeper was described last year as one of the best of his age in Europe.
If Sinisalo is half as good as billed, Burton will have the goalkeeping brilliance to pull off some smash-and-grab results, but it’s not something they can rely on every week: their stopper can’t be their selling point, nor can skipper John Brayford (although he’s one of them).
The Brewers were neither an appealing creative side last season, nor a rock-solid defensive one – fail to move closer to either category and the trap door may beckon…
Trust is what makes Morecambe tick.
The Shrimps fostered a Dunkirk Spirit to stay in League Two for eight years under Jim Bentley, and they created a siege mentality to win a historic first ever promotion to League One under Derek Adams, then stay in the division in the Scot’s second stint.
A sense of togetherness is at the heart of everything: whether it’s the transparency from directors James Wakefield and Charlie Appleyard, the commendable vision to offer £150 standing season tickets, or the simplicity of backing the best people for the jobs to get on and do them.
And yet, the danger for the Lancashire club is that some of the actions they have taken with the honest intention of further cultivating trust, may ironically counteract that very principle.
Adams was given the autonomy to publicly transfer list ten senior players, which is incredibly rare, not to mention for a club operating on a minimal budget.
In one sense, that’s a huge show of faith in the manager but in another, the club shelved the very players they may come to rely on to avoid a first relegation in their history.
Defenders Ryan McLaughlin, Ryan Cooney, Anthony O’Connor and Ryan Delaney, midfielders Wes McDonald, Shane McLoughlin and Connor Pye plus strikers Jonathan Obika and Courtney Duffus are to date still present: seven were in the match-day squad that faced Middlesbrough in pre-season.
Morecambe must offload players to bring in the ones they want, yet also establish within existing personnel a synergy and belief with which to attack the season: reconciling those objectives is possible but awkward.
Striker Cole Stockton has so far not signed the contract he was offered: if he does stay, getting close to last season’s stunning 26-goal haul is a huge ask for the 28-year-old, who will be relied on heavily.
Optimistically speaking, Max Melbourne looks a solid addition at left-back, goalkeeper Connor Ripley has starred at this level previously while aggressive right-back Donald Love and last-ditch battler Farrend Rawson arrive with points to prove.
Ousmane Fane will bring tenacity in midfield, while Caleb Watts’ agile creativity could lure the best out of wide man Dylan Connolly, who’s speedy direct running will be essential to getting the Shrimps from one end to the other – it’s something they’ll need.
If Morecambe have a very busy end to the window and new faces amalgamate extremely quickly, then there is the potential for the club now sponsored by Tyson Fury to bloody a few noses in front of a tight-knit, baying crowd.
Otherwise, this season could be a long, hard slog. Defying the odds is one thing – the judgment of one’s own manager, quite another.