The new League Two season is around the corner and EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his 2022/23 season preview, complete with his 1-24 predictions.
Tranmere are laying exciting foundations for their long-term ambitions.
Reliable veterans like Peter Clarke and Sam Foley have been released in favour of tasty talents such as Ben Hockenhull and Reece McAlear in defence and midfield respectively, while audacious new stadium plans are afoot.
The Wirral club have one eye on the future, but dependable owners Mark and Nicola Palios have by no means averted their gaze from the here and now.
They possess a manager in Micky Mellon who has won five promotions in his career – two of which with Rovers – and despite greater emphasis on youth, the Scot can still turn to proven performers.
Springy centre-back Tom Davies, organiser Neill Byrne, technician Jon Nolan, selfless creator Kieron Morris and hold-up front-man Kane Hemmings are all in the 28-30 age bracket, most of whom having tasted success at this level or thrived in the one above.
Mellon’s blueprint may hold echoes of his 2014-15 Shrewsbury side, which won promotion partly through excellent fitness: they outran most opponents and thus scored crucial late goals, with a relentlessness Tranmere can emulate.
Full-backs Josh Cogley and Ethan Bristow have bags of energy, Josh Hawkes is an explosive young star, striker Elliott Nevitt does not know when to quit and nor does Lee O’Connor: he’s the N’Golo Kante of League Two.
Grand designs for the future won’t compromise Rovers’ enjoyment of the present: 2022-23 should hold a persistent pursuit of top honours.
After a two-year lull, Mansfield look back among League Two’s frontrunners once again.
Thanks to the ambition of John and Carolyn Radford, the Stags launched strong promotion pushes in 2017-18 and 2018-19 but fell at the final hurdle in both cases, before a couple of forgettable managerial stints set them back.
Now led by Nigel Clough, Town have the class in the dugout to maximize their financial advantage: they reached the Play-Off Final under the 56-year-old last season, albeit losing 3-0 to Port Vale.
Subsequent activity has been understated with just two outfield additions by mid-July, with midfielder Hiram Boateng hitching up in Nottinghamshire and Forest striker Will Swan borrowed from within the landlocked county.
Boateng’s energy, dynamism and craft helped Cambridge to promotion from this level two seasons ago, while Swan is unproven in senior terms but could bring good link-up, pace and poaching instincts, having hit 12 in 22 at Under-23s level last season.
Mansfield should operate with two up top with Clough favourite Lucas Akins, strong runner Rhys Oates when fit and grafter Jordan Bowery in the mix, but there’s formational flexibility within that.
The Stags can flip from the 4-4-2 diamond which worked a treat last year to a 3-5-2, which allows them to get attacking full-backs like Kellan Gordon and Stephen McLaughlin further forward.
If Town can stretch the pitch, it’ll bring more out of a golden midfield area, where Clough is spoilt for choice: at least one of Boateng, presser George Lasplie, controller George Maris, top pro Stephen Quinn and driven Ollie Clarke will have to be left out.
Clough has also replaced goalkeeper Nathan Bishop with the stellar capture of Christy Pym, a 2020-21 League One promotion-winner with Peterborough.
Local optimism is guarded due to disappointment from previous crunch points, but overcome those jitters and Mansfield have everything in place to finally get over the line.
Dave Challinor took little time getting the message across last season.
As early as his first game in charge, it was clear what a Challinor side would look like: an attacking 3-5-2 with aggressive wing-backs, one striker stretching the line, another dropping in and midfielders switching the play with delightful assurance.
The strategy allows County to spring into attacking positions very quickly, especially with how high Macaulay Southam-Hales and Ryan Rydel push up, but recycle play with control from midfield three Ryan Croasdale, Will Collar and Antoni Sarcevic when transitional attacks are not on.
The Hatters were ninth in the National League when the Liverpudlian made a controversial November move from Hartlepool, but 20 wins in the subsequent 23 league games put them eight points clear at the top with eight to play.
The job was a little nervy in the end, but County clinched the title and gave Challinor a sixth promotion of his career: now, the 46-year-old is out to convert that record into the EFL.
After signing arguably the best centre-back in League Two last season, Fraser Horsfall and a midfield creator in Callum Camps who has previously thrived in the division above, Stockport have back-to-back promotions firmly in their sights.
Those two are obvious EFL names, likewise all-rounder Sarcevic and striker Paddy Madden – although the prolific striker’s link-up play may surprise a few – but others stepping up can also make a huge impact.
Defender Ash Palmer will be up for the fight and Will Collar sticks his neck out with audacious passes in midfield, where Ryan Croasdale does some great work under the radar.
On-loan Liverpool goalkeeper Vítězslav Jaroš was Player of the Year with St Patrick’s Athletic in 2021, helping the Irish Premier Division side win the FAI Cup, and should soon be rated as highly by League Two onlookers as he is Jürgen Klopp.
The last National League title-winners, Sutton, got 76 points on far inferior resources: an encouraging indicator of what’s possible for Stockport.
A resurgent club operating on a significant budget with a consistently successful manager who has implemented nuanced patterns of play infused with grit and drive: County’s double promotion dream could become a reality.
Now led by Nigel Clough, Town have the class in the dugout to maximize their financial advantage: they reached the Play-Off Final under the 56-year-old last season, albeit losing 3-0 to Port Vale.Gabriel Sutton
A low-key summer might be what Salford needed.
Backed heavily by the Class of 92, the club have made 65 signings since coming into the EFL in 2019, but missed out on the top seven for three seasons running.
The Ammies have arguably lacked some strategic direction beneath their celebrity appeal, launching from Graham Alexander’s direct methods to Richie Wellens’ expansive tactics, then Gary Bowyer’s conservatism.
The resurgence after Matt Smith’s arrival from Millwall, 10 wins in 21, was not enough for a Play-Off berth nor to keep Bowyer in post, with co-owner Gary Neville bringing in Manchester United’s Under-23s coach Neil Wood.
The 40-year-old was well-prepared with plans to maximize Salford’s existing squad, but the addition of a deep-lying playmaker Elliot Watt will help him execute his more possession-based approach in another stylistic shift.
While target man Smith and athletic forward Brandon Thomas-Asante were crucial to last year’s revival, it’s unclear if Wood will have either in the first XI: the former may lack the mobility for his fluid 4-3-3, while the latter may be too individualistic.
If nothing else, this would give Salford plenty of attacking depth as Wood’s pre-season selections hint at a front-three of speedy Luke Bolton, energetic Conor McAleny and hungry finisher Callum Hendry, who scored eight goals in 19 Scottish Premiership appearances last year for St Johnstone.
If the trio combine as hoped, and key defender Ash Eastham returns from injury at his best, then the Ammies could prove that less is more.
The M7 outfit have kept their loan quota untouched, too: those United links may come in handy…
Systems or individuals?
Many will look at the loss of 25-goal top scorer Dom Telford to Crawley as a huge blow to Newport, and a sign of the challenges they face without significant external investment.
It was the team that scored the goals, though: 22 of Telford’s finishes came inside the area from 96 attempts – eight from 13 in the six-yard box – and while the striker played his part with his persistent poaching proficiency, he’s not irreplaceable.
Chanka Zimba, on loan from Cardiff, could be held aloft by his teammates many times this season, Offrande Zanzala has helped Accrington Stanley and Exeter to promotion from this level, while a confident Omar Bogle is a deadly finisher.
All strikers will benefit, like Telford before them, from the expansive 4-2-2-2 James Rowberry favours: attacking full-backs, quick, slick midfield play with lots of rotations and two strikers getting on the end of low cut-backs.
With half-back Matty Dolan, dependable Scott Bennett and tall tackler Declan Drysdale competing for deeper midfield roles, however, County have the option to switch to 3-5-2 and give their wing-backs even more forward licence.
The Exiles may not have enough defensively to achieve a top three berth, despite skipper Mickey Demetriou’s best efforts, but they’ll create chances at will, dish out some thrashings and be among the top scorers.
Anyone who has an off day against Newport and Zimba can expect to be scarred.
Leyton Orient boast a manager in Richie Wellens who has previously won the title at this level, claiming top honours with Swindon in 2019-20.
The Mancunian motivator has not since had life all his own way, suffering a curtailed stint at Salford and a challenging one at Doncaster, but is on track to re-affirm his managerial credentials after a great start in E10.
The 42-year-old’s arrival triggered a return of 23 points from 13 games (the same group got four from the previous 13), with only promoted clubs taking more in that timeframe.
Extrapolate that form over a full campaign and the O’s will push for promotion: at least, that’s the plan for Wellens and Director of Football Martin Ling, who seeks continuity.
The club offloaded 19 players last summer including loans and added 17, but 2021’s commitments have given the club less leeway for change this time around, with three additions – including ball-carrier Theo Archibald who was there last season – and five departures.
Wellens has expressed frustration over the lack of incoming activity, but the pick of the business is high-pedigree attacking midfielder George Moncur, who has played the last three years of his career in the Championship with Luton and Hull – Archibald and Moncur are among 10 higher-end performers at this level when fit.
Also in that category are eccentric goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux, technical full-backs Tom James and Connor Wood, reliable centre-backs Adam Thompson and Omar Beckles, midfield presser Craig Clay plus energetic forwards Paul Smyth and Aaron Drinan, on top of the more mercurial Ruel Sotiriou.
To boot, defender Shadrach Ogie is an outstanding young talent with maturity beyond his years – and who knows how quickly raw, 18-year-old forward Dan Nkrumah will develop?
Slow business may be problematic in terms of depth – injuries would set Orient back as things stand – but the first XI should be largely strong, albeit with the want of better quality in midfield.
Bring in the right few faces and momentum may continue…
The last time Paul Hurst led Grimsby to National League promotion via the Play-Offs, he left for Shrewsbury early in their first season back in the EFL, prompting five bottom half finishes that culminated in relegation.
Thankfully for the Mariners, chances of a repeat scenario are slim.
Back in 2016, Town had a Majority Shareholder in John Fenty who did little to engage supporters or invest in the club and thus, a glass ceiling lay above DN35.
This time around, the skies are clear in Cleethorpes: the coastal club has an ownership regime led by Jason Stockwood and Andrew Pettit, who are as close as could be to the perfect custodians.
Not only do Stockwood and Pettit have the will and wherewithal to spend – on the club as well as the team – they also have core values like honesty, integrity and trust, creating excellent working cultures in business which is already in evidence at Blundell Park.
Fans are on board in every sense – a whopping 5K season tickets were sold within the first week of July – and there is a distinct buzz around the town which could have a huge bearing.
So, too, could retaining key man John McAtee. Just as capable of linking play beautifully with the midfield as bursting beyond the main striker, McAtee got 14 National League goals last season and at 22, he’s one to watch.
Niall Maher is a great addition to a fine defence including speedy Michee Efete, aerial commander Luke Waterfall and Anthony Glennon, an all-action left-back who thrived in his 2019-20 loan stint and now returns permanently.
Ben Fox’s move to Northampton isn’t ideal, but the midfield should be tight with the tenacity of Kieran Green or the solidity of Bryn Morris combined with Gavan Holohan’s forward-thinking, and Harry Clifton offers balance on the left to free up a flair right-sider like Jordan Maguire-Drew.
So, do Grimsby have a top seven squad? On paper, maybe not – but they have a manager in Hurst who has eked more out of less before.
With great ownership, an underdog specialist in charge, an attacking jewel in the crown of a functional outfit and a large, re-energized fanbase, this could be special…
The Exiles may not have enough defensively to achieve a top three berth, despite skipper Mickey Demetriou’s best efforts, but they’ll create chances at will, dish out some thrashings and be among the top scorers.Gabriel Sutton
Last season was cruel for the Cobblers.
Jon Brady’s side missed out on the top three on as narrow a margin as goals scored on the final day: they won 3-1 at Barrow but Bristol Rovers thumped relegated Scunthorpe 7-0, leading them to a Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Mansfield.
Time is a great healer, though and so too are high-profile signings: Danny Hylton and Lee Burge hitch up at Sixfields dead set on converting a hard luck story into one of triumph.
Hylton’s hold-up nous and poaching pedigree makes him a compelling focal point, while Burge – 41 games for Sunderland in 2020-21 – is tasked with replacing star shot-stopper Liam Roberts, now at Middlesbrough.
Fraser Horsfall has gone to Stockport, so the defensive acquisitions of talents Akin Odimayo and Sam Sherring were vital for Teyn in augmenting the reliability of Jon Guthrie.
Ryan Haynes will provide excellent competition for Ali Koiki (if he stays) at left-back, but after last season’s 4-2-3-1, recruitment and pre-season line-ups hint at 3-5-2 – or 3-4-1-2, to smoothly incorporate creator-in-chief Mitch Pinnock.
This switch gives Northampton more punch up top than they had last season, especially after Kion Etete departed: the persistent Louis Appéré and highly-rated Fulham loanee Kieron Bowie compete to provide stardust.
Brady also has the unenviable task of dropping one of eye-catching Grimsby recruit Ben Fox, relentless runner Jack Sowerby or Shaun McWilliams, a reliable all-rounder when fit.
On the flip side, defensive depth would be lacking for a back-three, while right-sider Aaron McGowan starts the season injured – can Gillingham recruit Harvey Lintott step up?
Plus, Northampton were reliant on a combination of set pieces and individual brilliance last season, but they’re likely not getting 17 goals from centre-backs again.
Brady and Colin Calderwood must find more sustainable routes to goal if they’re to go one better.
Ever since Steve Morison’s cruel winner for Millwall in the 2017 League One Play-Off Final, most summers have held a level of positivity around Bradford City that subsequent events have emphatically failed to honour.
For all the promise of having a manager of Mark Hughes’ calibre in the dugout, therefore, as well as making arguably the signing of the League Two summer in Richie Smallwood, natives are simply too long in the tooth to go overboard before Doncaster’s team bus arrives on Manningham Lane.
The last half-decade has cultivated a matured, weathered fanbase that still has the fire and ambition for bigger things, but a more realistic perspective on how to get there.
One way is to strengthen the defence and that mission looks to be accomplished for Hughes: Timi Odusina hopes to win as many man-of-the-matches as he did at Hartlepool, Matty Platt is an excellent capture from Barrow while Romoney Crichlow, on-loan, is a fine left-footed ball-player.
In terms of arrivals further forward, dribbler Harry Chapman thrived at Shrewsbury, if not so much Burton, while creator Jamie Walker plans to build on the promising loan he has since made permanent.
While the above recruits offer cause for optimism, becoming prime contenders overnight is a big ask: there’s been a fair squad churn this summer, and some additions have points to prove.
Goalkeeper Harry Lewis has played a mere 30 senior games at 24, utility man Emmanuel Osadebe only had a couple of good months at Walsall, controller Ryan East is composed but lightweight while Kian Harratt and Jake Young aren’t sure bets – neither forward could break into promoted Port Vale and Forest Green sides.
Plus, right-back Brad Halliday has struggled to rediscover his Accrington Stanley and Cambridge form in recent years (partly injuries) and although Vadaine Oliver is a good target man, he’s not a natural fit if Bradford want to play on the deck.
The names Bradford City and Mark Hughes might scream too good for League Two, but half the squad doesn’t…
As soon as Ben Boycott walked into his first press conference as co-chair of Walsall, he commanded authority.
Whether it was the statements, like his willingness to protect the club’s heritage, support Michael Flynn and own the stadium, or his smart, club-centred appearance, he filled natives with encouragement.
These are just words, for now – and anyone can buy a suit and tie – but gut instinct alone suggests Boycott is fundamentally using a business to build a football club, when US investors elsewhere in League Two come across as though doing the reverse.
If off-field leadership is as strong as indications imply, the Saddlers could be on the cusp of the most exciting era since the Ray Graydon days – and they have potentially their best manager since Dean Smith, too.
After inspiring Newport to a miraculous great escape in 2016-17, Michael Flynn delivered two Play-Off Finals in four full seasons on a minimal budget and is out to go one better in the Black Country, with superior resources.
The Welshman has been backed with 13 new signings to date and while not all of them are sexy, headline additions, there is a healthy blend.
Full-back Liam Bennett, speedy poacher Douglas James-Taylor and final third maestro Flynn Clarke are all promising loanees, centre-back Peter Clarke and striker Andy Williams bring grizzled promotion experience while goalkeeper Owen Evans and utility man Joe Riley have thrived at this level before.
Box-to-box man Isaac Hutchinson looks a decent pickup, on pre-season evidence at least, and that’s before getting to those who excelled last season: defenders Hayden White, Manny Monthe and Donervan Daniels, plus midfield destroyer Liam Kinsella and technician Jack Earing.
What Walsall have over their rivals is competition for places. There’s a narrow gap between first and second choices in most positions, so everyone will be on the toes: especially with Flynn’s motivational qualities.
On paper, the Saddlers don’t have a crop that makes them obvious promotion contenders, so a top-10 finish would be a big step forward.
With the right combination of ownership and management, though, a good start and things could spiral…
2022-23 is in some ways the start of Clem Morfuni’s long-term plan as Swindon owner, even though last season’s Play-Off finish was achieved under his watch.
The takeover did not happen until late July last summer, which leant itself to frantic eleventh-hour business and a heavy reliance on the loan market.
Luckily for Morfuni and co., it all amalgamated surprisingly quickly, with almost all the loans being outstanding and Ben Garner proving an excellent choice as manager – yet last season isn’t the blueprint for this one.
With a full summer of preparation, Morfuni has planned for the long haul: seven of the 13 recruits are permanent signings of players under 24, on contracts of two or more years, many of whom dropping down from elite academies.
Not all of them come with rave reviews, exactly – if they did they would only be available on loan rather than permanently – but in most cases, there is the potential to earn the club some serious dollar next summer, from which point they can re-invest across the board.
Swindon are now operating in a sustainable way, so promotion in the next 12 months is a target but not the be all and end all for Scott Lindsay, the assistant-turned-manager who replaces Garner.
That’s not to say the club don’t plan to be competitive this season, however: 29-year-old Angus MacDonald brings much-needed height and leadership in the middle of a back-three, offering guidance to ball-players Ciaran Brennan and Cian Harries.
The midfield remains strong despite the loss of Jack Payne: Louis Reed is an exemplary conductor at the base of the central trio, while Ellis Iandolo, Ricky Aguiar, Ben Gladwin, Jonny Williams and Saidou Khan compete to start either side – the latter was much-loved at Chesterfield.
Star forward Harry McKirdy remains in situ, so bring in a marquee striker and Swindon will still have enough individual quality to threaten while they embark on a new vision.
If they do miss out this year, though, it won’t be a complete rebuild that follows, which seems a rarity after the chaotic Lee Power era.
Short-term quality may be compromised in 2022-23, yet that could be seen as almost a necessary first step towards Swindon constructing a squad in more stable, streamlined fashion.
Hartlepool’s preparation has not been ideal.
Key men like Timi Odusina and Luke Molyneux left for free to their divisional rivals, Bradford and Doncaster respectively, while depth looks short.
In fact, with a squad of just 12 fit outfield senior players at the time, and the academy only just re-opening, Pools had to cancel a friendly with St Mirren: cynics might fear them starting the season on the back-foot.
More optimistically, there is promise in the additions they have made, including manager Paul Hartley, who’s appeal extends beyond his appropriate surname: the 45-year-old has natives on side early doors.
Hartley won two promotions in three seasons with Cove Rangers and has a pull in the Scottish market, securing the signatures of attacking full-backs Reghan Tumility and Brody Paterson, so usual suspects Jamie Sterry and David Ferguson have competition.
Also arriving from north of the border are no-nonsense centre-back Euan Murray, athletic destroyer Mouhamed Niang, lanky aerial striker Jack Hamilton and inverted winger Jake Hastie, the latter having showed flashes of promise for League One promotion-winners Rotherham in 2019-20.
Elsewhere, Rollin Menayese looks a good loan addition – quick, strong and accomplished on the ball at his best – while Callum Cooke brings energy and craft to the midfield.
Cooke could combine well with Tom Crawford, who should go up another gear this term, along with quick, goalscoring wide forward Joe Grey, but the million-dollar question lies up top.
Wealdstone recruit Josh Umerah and Livingston loanee Hamilton are not known to be back-to-goal strikers, despite the former’s physicality and the latter’s height. Both can finish, but will either coax the goalscoring potential out of Cooke, Crawford, Hastie and Gray?
Pools could be scrambling for 50 points if attacks don’t stick, especially against compact opposition – find the right solutions though and a top half venture is possible.
US Cryptocurrency group WAGMI United’s ownership of Crawley will be remembered in years to come: quite how they will be remembered is harder to ascertain.
It’s possible that Preston Johnson and Eben Smith have tapped into a footballing goldmine by attempting to make Crawley global, and the traction they have already gained from the NFT community supports that theory.
Similarly, it’s possible that Town’s fate is now in the hands of an erratic market which either serves no tangible purpose, or one that’s impossible to discern for most outsiders.
WAGMI have given holders of season tickets and NFTs the right to vote on areas of recruitment which, even if done with the approval of head coach Kevin Betsy, is unusual to say the least.
Betsy has never managed in senior football before, Johnson and Smith have no professional background in the sport at all – and nobody knows quite how scientifically reasoned the votes of NFT holders are.
Some are informed by updates from “Scorch, the creepy Crawley devil” on Twitter, or Johnson’s Spaces in which the roster is discussed, but the way it’s set up, anyone can have a say – which arguably undermines the credentials of the professionals.
The question, therefore, is whether Crawley have strategic conviction, in terms of footballing operations, behind their goofy package.
The Red Devils have shown they mean business by signing Dom Telford, who top scored in this division with 25 for Newport last year: he can put chances away.
Hoping to create them are Kwesi Appiah, a physical reference point, on-loan Liverpool midfielder James Balagizi, who’ll bring thrust and drive, and Jack Powell: he can run games in the right system.
At the back, meanwhile, Dion Conroy’s ball-playing qualities will help Crawley play on the deck more religiously than they did last season, as Betsy – formerly Arsenal’s Under-23s boss – will demand.
The potential rewards of WAGMI’s investment are obvious, but so are the risks. A group that have done so much to engage fans, so much to communicate and lower ticket costs cannot be all bad, but everything feels wacky.
The hope is that 2022-23 represents the start of a meaningful era at Crawley, the fear, that life at Broadfield descends into a glorified game of Dungeons & Dragons in which football itself becomes secondary.
After a tough few years, Stevenage need to get back to their roots.
In Boro’s rise from the then-Conference to the League One Play-Offs under Graham Westley, the Hertfordshire outfit were big, tough, ugly, and horrible to play against, possessing a manager loved by fans and loathed by most outsiders.
So, who better to lead this cultural restoration at the Lamex than Steve Evans?
The demanding Scot has delivered competitive results everywhere he’s been in a 26-year managerial career, winning seven promotions in that time, and the scorn he takes elsewhere only serves to further the siege mentality he creates.
In hope of scaling a height, Stevenage have added it: 6’7” goalkeeper Aaron Chapman, 6’4” Michael Bostwick, 6’4” Dan Sweeney and 6’2 Carl Piergianni hitch up in Hertfordshire, making their set piece troubles a thing of the past – in theory, at least.
Striker Danny Rose is 5’9” but he might as well be the tallest of the lot: Rose has a deadly leap, so Boro will look to spring quickly from defence to attack.
If right-sider Kane Smith and on-loan midfielder Dean Campbell can take pre-season promise into the nitty-gritty, then maybe Stevenage can trouble the top half.
More likely, Evans’ side will not quite have enough quality to turn a solid season into a great one, but midtable would be a steady first step to getting that sense of identity back in their system.
Star forward Harry McKirdy remains in situ, so bring in a marquee striker and Swindon will still have enough individual quality to threaten while they embark on a new vision.Gab Sutton
Few Wimbledon fans making the long, late trip back from Accrington on a December Tuesday night would have believed the 2-0 victory would be their last win of the campaign, but that was how it proved.
The fact the Londoners were only mathematically relegated on the final day highlights how many stays of execution they were handed, with a mere 40 points required for survival, but ultimately the youthful Dons choked under the pressure.
The first task for new manager Johnnie Jackson is to give the Wombles a more matured, battle-hardened feel and tighten up on game management.
The capture of defender Alex Pearce, reliable at Championship level with Millwall, represents an excellent start: the Irishman is a true leader who will give smart shot-stopper Nik Tzanev and others the occasional rollicking that they didn’t get last year.
The increased emphasis on experience, though, could have implications in other areas of defence, where Wimbledon may operate with Chris Gunter at right wing-back and Lee Brown on the left of a back-three.
Brown might still have enough mobility in his locker to hold off attackers, but it’s more questionable whether Gunter can still get up and down the pitch in the 17th season of his senior career – and is Will Nightingale the naturally overlapping centre-back he’d need to make the role work?
There is at least hope that Josh Davison can link-up nicely with Ayoub Assal: without being hugely physical, Davison is a neat shoulder or chest focal point with goalscoring instincts, while Assal is an unpredictably precocious talent whom Dons have done well to retain.
Equally talented is midfielder Paris Maghoma: the Brentford loanee will start the campaign in Alex Woodyard’s sitting role, but may challenge George Marsh or Luke McCormick for a more advanced remit once last year’s skipper is back fit – expect big things in Paris…
It’s plausible that these young talents instantly thrive with more experience around them under a promising manager, yet fail to beat Gillingham, Hartlepool or Doncaster and the winless run sneaks into 28, 29, 30 games.
Start well and Wimbledon could impress, but it won’t take much for customary new season optimism to descend into last year’s vibes.
Barrow played 44 seasons in the Football League in their previous stint, but if they want to replicate that longevity in the modern era, they will have to improve on their opening EFL efforts.
After claiming the National League title, the Bluebirds finished 20th in League Two in 2020-21 and 22nd last season, claiming a meagre 44 points on the latter occasion.
The club have since made steps to improve their standing, however, firstly by hiring a Sporting Director in Iain Wood who has top contacts, and secondly by appointing Pete Wild as manager.
Wild worked wonders in two caretaker stints at Oldham in extremely difficult circumstances, then led low-budgeted Halifax to two National League Play-Off campaigns in three seasons.
The 37-year-old represents Barrow’s chief selling point and the hope is that with improved management, the existing squad is shown to be capable of more than what was delivered last term.
The (technically Cumbrian but) spiritually Lancashire club had an appealing array of midfield options in 2021-22, with Robbie Gotts’ positive movement, Tom White’s creativity and John Rooney’s attacking knowhow, but it all lacked balance.
With vibrant, box-to-box talent Harrison Neal arriving on-loan from Sheffield United, non-league proposition Solomon Nwabuokei and veteran Sam Foley joining the ranks, Barrow should now have a tenacious side to them.
Wild’s squad does look somewhat lopsided, however: it contains a plethora of strong midfield options, left-sided defenders and experienced centre-backs, but is short of favourable options on the right of the back-line (although a trialist is expected to sign) and arguably up top.
Richie Bennett is an aerial focal point, but if Barrow play to his strengths they risk underselling those of the midfield: one more striker would help.
Make the right final additions and the Bluebirds could find their song, without reaching the clouds just yet.
Neil Harris could have landed a midtable Championship job with no eyebrows raised.
The former striker led Millwall to Play-Off contention in their first season back at that level in 2017-18, then steered Cardiff from 14th to fifth two years later, so he could have been forgiven for seeing the second-tier as his natural level.
Instead, Harris rocked up at Priestfield in February, with Gillingham 10 points adrift of safety following a 7-2 capitulation against Oxford.
It was a shock appointment that so nearly lifted the Gills to a great escape, but a final day loss to Rotherham saw Harris’ troops relegated on goal difference.
This season, therefore, is a match-up of Harris’ credentials and pulling power against the malaise of a club that has been without a coherent structure for years under chairman Paul Scally’s reign.
Recruitment looks mixed: Mikael Mandron is a strong target man while left-footed controller Shaun Williams could run games with legs around him, which Brentford recruit Dom Jeffries will provide, while left-sider Ryan Law and defender Elkan Baggott arrive highly rated on loan.
However, goalkeeper Jake Turner had a mixed stint at Morecambe, Jordan Green and Cheye Alexander are 27-year-olds yet to thrive in the EFL, Scott Kashket is lively but injury prone – and is defender Will Wright aggressive enough for a Harris side?
At least half Gillingham’s summer business, and likely more, has been done with pre-season ongoing, and some may only be completed in August.
Harris has the credentials, and then some, but he may be swimming against the tide…
Perspective is paramount at Harrogate.
The Sulphurites finished 19th last season in their first year of regression since 2016-17, but that campaign came in the National League North: that’s how far they’ve come.
With a humble fanbase and modest history, League Two’s smallest club will be pinpointed by many as potential relegation fodder.
Understandable, perhaps: the North Yorkshire outfit have accrued 31 points from their previous 35 league games, had the league’s second-worst defensive record last season and can no longer bank on the attacking brilliance of Sunderland loanee, Jack Diamond.
That equation, alone, would suggest Town’s EFL adventure is in jeopardy – but it’s a simplistic one that risks underestimating a club that has met or exceeded expectation for five years.
In the dugout, Simon Weaver brings straightforward, no-frills leadership to mirror that of his father, Irving, in the boardroom.
Harrogate have some work to do to rekindle the frenetic, energetic press which proved the hallmark of their maiden EFL campaign, after looking a tad more jaded last season, but the current regime has earnt much more than a smidgeon of loyalty.
Joe Mattock could be a coup from Rotherham, with the left-back having played 59 Championship games in the last four years.
Mattock might not have the legs at 32 to get up and down, but that would be less of a problem in a back-four – and if used as a wing-back, his remit would be more about bringing his link-up play to the table and unleashing the forward drive of overlapping Lewis Richards, who returns on loan from Wolves.
Elsewhere, graceful midfielder Josh Austerfield is hoping to start his second loan spell from Huddersfield with the same promise he finished the first – he may have a more physical element to his game this time, too.
If Austerfield and Alex Pattison move up a gear, with new boy Matty Daly enhancing creativity, Luke Armstrong may catch fire, having started 2021-22 in sensational form: give the 26-year-old service and he will deliver.
Weaver has delivered season on season: more luck with injuries and Harrogate will climb a place or two, as they continue to acclimatize to the level on and off the field.
Just like the Russian Revolution wasn’t all down to Lenin and the French Revolution wasn’t all thanks to Napoleon, Paul Simpson can’t change Carlisle on his own.
The returning club legend, who inspired the Cumbrians to successive promotions in his first stint as manager, steered them away from the dogfight as soon as he took charge: having been in the drop zone when he took over, they finished 15 points clear.
Only five sides collected more points than United’s 25 from 14 after ‘Simmo’ took charge, so locals are hoping that form can be extrapolated over a full campaign, meaning a first top seven finish since 2016-17.
If only it were as simple as that. It’s easier to rally for survival under the right manager than it is to find that same consistency from scratch, and structural issues have not fully subsided despite recent positive steps.
In terms of on-field matters, one positive step was the loan signing of attacking midfielder Sonny Hilton – praised heavily at TPS Turussa in the Ykkönen (Finnish 2nd tier) for his touch, pace and vision – who will complement speedster Omari Patrick, United’s danger man.
On-loan Fin Back, meanwhile, looks a fine find from Forest, adding to a reliable core of defensive leader Morgan Feeney, athletic utility man Jon Mellish, attacking left wing-back Jack Armer and graceful controller Callum Guy.
These key men look irreplaceable within current personnel: keep the strong septet fit and Carlisle could continue their Simmo-stirred surge, if goalkeeping giant Tomas Holy recaptures his Gillingham form.
A takeover doesn’t look in the pipeline, however and when it happens, it’ll take a long time to undo years of mismanagement: Simpson is carrying the Cumbrians by the collar right now, but it’s not sustainable long-term.
If there’s a true revolution at Carlisle, it’ll be on an industrial scale.
Three successive League One Play-Off pushes proved a false dawn for Donny.
The South Yorkshire club struck gold in the loan market under Grant McCann and Darren Moore, but heavy use of it meant when both left in acrimonious fashion, their respective successors inherited awkward rebuilding jobs.
To make matters worse, last summer’s recruitment was poor and Doncaster paid for that, not just with relegation, but the fact 18 players who were part of it will be leaned on in League Two.
It’s a challenging first full season in management in prospect, therefore, for Gary McSheffrey, who earnt the gig off the back of his work with the Under-18s.
One of McSheffrey’s first moves was to introduce a more tailored sports science regime headed up by Sam Bowring, who joined in January, with the aim of improving squad fitness and reducing the risk of injuries – crucial after last season.
Getting that right, they hope, is a means of moving back on the right track: the statement signing of Luke Molyneux from Hartlepool certainly helps, while pressing forward George Miller looks ready to be more clinical than he was at Walsall, having grabbed five pre-season goals in five.
Rovers have a set of defenders in Ollie Younger, Ro-Shaun Williams and Joseph Olowu who have varying degrees of potential – the latter is physical, aggressive and front-foot – but may lack organisational nous.
Ben Close, Adam Clayton and Tommy Rowe all have higher league experience and any one of them individually could thrive, yet the equilibrium might not be obvious straight away with height and athleticism lacking in some quarters.
There are bits and pieces for McSheffrey to work with, but even improved fitness may not turn last year’s strugglers into this year’s success story.
The 39-year-old might ideally want to get to next summer still in charge then re-shape the squad in his image, but he’s unlikely to get that grace period when many locals see finishing outside the top seven as inexcusable.
An understandably expectant fanbase, a questionable structure, a rookie boss and a group low on confidence could prove an unhealthy dynamic.
Football clubs are like sandcastles: it takes a long time to build them up, and no time at all to knock them down again.
That’s the case at Crewe, for whom a disastrous 12 months has undone four years of continual progression.
After a highest finish in 15 years in 2020-21, the Alex were relegated from League One last season with a whimper, and have not even tasted the financial perks of their youth-centred approach.
The golden generation – Perry Ng, Harry Pickering, Ryan Wintle, Charlie Kirk and Owen Dale – all left for low fees due to unsuitable release clauses and nothing went right thereafter.
David Artell paid with his job for the lowest points return at the level since 2009-10 Stockport: two players retired immediately after signing while contract disputes, injuries and a questionable recruitment process contributed to the mess.
Picking up the pieces is Alex Morris, as the Railwaymen hope the highly-rated former Under-23s boss can use his knowledge of the new generation of youth to his advantage as head coach.
Zak Williams is Crewe’s next big thing and the graceful 17-year-old defender, already playing for Wales Under-21s, was thankfully convinced to pen a new deal this summer, but it’s less clear who else is ready.
Technical right-back Sean Lawton, versatile defender Lewis Billington, aerial centre-back Connor O’Riordon, fiery left-footer Charlie Finney, goalscoring midfielder Joel Tabiner, skilful Matúš Holíček and poacher Connor Salisbury may get initial opportunities this season, but should not be judged conclusively.
Conversely, defenders Luke Offord and Bill Sass-Davies plus midfielders Callum Ainley, Oli Finney and Regan Griffiths are further down the line, but none have fared much better than ok, prompting criticisms of Crewe’s loyalty to their own.
As for outsiders, Conor Thomas and Courtney Baker-Richardson represent excellent additions, if they can recover full fitness.
The former represents the assured midfield controller Crewe were missing last term, while the latter’s hold-up play will help bring the persistent Chris Long and livewire Dan Agyei into the game.
Defensive additions don’t significantly improve the Alex, though, despite last season’s concession of 83 goals.
Crewe were hit by a high tide last season – they’ll need to fortify before anything else.
Sutton could barely have dreamt of a better first EFL season their 123-year history, but now it’s that difficult second album for Matt Gray’s charges.
David Ajiboye took on so much importance to Gray’s 4-4-2, in terms of maintaining a solid eight-strong block in the defensive phase, but also breaking forward in transitions to forge a front-four.
The key winger did both incredibly well and, now at Peterborough, will be difficult to replace on a minimal budget: the hope is that Josh Neufville, who brings good reviews on loan from Luton, fits the bill.
Elsewhere, goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis has gone to Reading, target man Richie Bennett has trekked to Barrow, it’s unlikely that Isaac Olaofe will return for a third loan at Gander Green Lane – and 23-year-old defender Ben Goodliffe has some Championship interest.
In terms of incomings, goalkeeper Jack Rose, left-sided defender Sam Hart and physical striker Kwame Thomas are hoping to kick their respective EFL careers into life and, optimistically, the togetherness fostered in this corner of South London may allow them to flourish more than they have elsewhere.
Equally, the Amber & Chocolates have a squad of players largely mid-20s upwards, many of whom hadn’t played regularly at this level before 2021-22, so the chances are that most will drop off from last year’s incredibly high bar rather than raise the ceiling further.
The U’s found themselves on the right side of fine margins a lot last year and if opponents are better prepared to deal with their set piece threat, there could be equally tight games that swing the other way this time around.
While Sutton played good football in the right areas last season – Omar Bugiel is far more creative than your everyday target man – they have a broadly direct, agricultural approach, and there is a reason why 4-4-2 is going out of fashion.
Namely, wide midfielders must join in with the attack to support the front-two but when they do so, the central midfield pairing instantly becomes vulnerable to a turnover, with a huge void in the middle third.
Sutton did well to navigate that danger at times last season with Ajiboye and Will Randall’s excellent work rate, but this time more educated opponents may spot the gaps.
One or two more suspensions for anchor man Craig Eastmond or injuries to defensive organiser Louis John and it could be a fair old drop-off for Sutton, but the first aim for their second ever season at this level is 50 points.
And, with the unique spirit in the camp that Gray has done superbly to cultivate, Sutton will get there one way or another.
Rochdale won plaudits last season for controlling games and creating chances, without getting the full rewards, so had more of their 2021-22 personnel stayed on, optimism would be high.
Instead, it’s an extensive rebuild: an XI comprising arguably the best player from each position across the whole of the previous campaign lists only one still at Dale, Liam Kelly.
Midfield competition looks the strong point, with all-rounder Kelly, seasoned Toumani Diagouraga, strong box-to-box man Jimmy Ball and deep-lying playmaker Ethan Brierley bringing an array of qualities between them, if the latter gets the chances he deserves.
The issues lie elsewhere. Ball-playing defender Eoghan O’Connell, so crucial to Dale’s build-up play last term, has gone to Charlton and replacement Ethan Ebanks-Landell is more no-nonsense.
That’s not a problem if Dale are playing direct this season, but first-choice striker Luke Charman is no more than decent in the air – not exactly an attribute to build a style around, let’s say – so settling on a clear playing identity could be tricky.
Any disjointedness or hesitation may be exploited: goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell would be a fantastic mentor but he’s not the EFL force he used to be.
Conversely, if Robbie Stockdale’s side can progress the ball forward consistently, they might be able to rekindle last season’s rate of chance creation, which would help returning legendary goalscoring Ian Henderson.
Right wing-back Femi Seriki arrives on loan from Sheffield United with glowing reviews from National League North side Boston, forward Devante Rodney has produced some stellar performances at this level when pumped and there’s every chance Abraham Odoh can enjoy an explosive second full season.
Rochdale don’t have a relegation squad on paper – but it could go that way if they don’t find means of bringing their midfield to prominence.
Colchester are in trouble.
Chairman Robbie Cowling has a good reputation within ownership circles and has tried to build a sustainable future – a debt-free club with a category two academy – but it just hasn’t worked out on the pitch.
In 16 years of Cowling’s leadership, in fact, the U’s have gone from Championship new boys to League Two’s bottom half fodder.
The Essex club’s model has been to integrate talented local homegrown youngsters into a core of veterans, most of whom keen not to relocate too far afield after their Ipswich days ended.
In theory, this gives Colchester a blend of youth and experience.
In one group, all-action left-back Ryan Clampin, energetic right-sider Junior Tchamadeu and dynamic attacking midfielder Noah Chilvers bring the exuberance, with midfielders Gene Kennedy and Chay Cooper plus poacher Jake Hutchinson further back on the conveyor belt.
In another, defenders Luke Chambers and Tommy Smith, defensive midfielder Cole Skuse and forward Freddie Sears bring the knowhow and leadership: if the former group continue to develop accordingly and the latter maintain last season’s levels, then it’s possible Colchester improve.
After all, their form from Wayne Brown taking charge in January would put them 9th over a full season, and within April’s 3-0 thumping of Bradford were the makings of a firm, compact pressing template.
The loss of all-action midfielder Brendan Wiredu will hit Colchester hard, though, the squad is missing pace as things stand while goalkeeper Shamal George, on whom the U’s came to rely last season, will have interest right up until the end of the window.
If Skuse, Chambers, Smith and/or Sears experience dips in form, then the younger generation will be asked to produce levels of consistency that may not be organic for this stage of their development.
Brown has delivered excellent results but not quite so many performances to go with them, while a fair proportion of the current squad have endured injuries in recent years and will be hoping to consign them to the past.
If George stays and Chilvers produces his best form, Colchester might stay in that midtable pack, but relations are strained in some quarters – it’s not a club that will have a huge deal of unity to rally in the worst-case scenarios.