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The new League Two season is around the corner and EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his 2021/22 season preview, complete with his 1-24 predictions.


Read his Championship preview here

Read his League One preview here

Exeter City


Wembley woe has characterized recent years for Exeter, who have been defeated convincingly in Play-Off Finals by Blackpool, Coventry and Northampton.

Two of those losses though came under the guidance of Paul Tisdale and, in two of Matt Taylor’s first three seasons in charge, the Grecians have narrowly missed out on the Play-Offs altogether.

Taylor, however, retains the backing of a greater proportion of fans than his predecessor, largely because he speaks his mind, brings transparency to his interviews and is keen to connect.

There will be some expectation placed on the former centre-back this season, with the club prepared to part with some of the £4 million received last September as part of a sell-on clause, when Ollie Watkins left Brentford for Aston Villa.

Despite this windfall, though, the Devoners have not lost their knack of spotting gems. Versatile full-back Callum Rowe, who pocketed Mo Salah while playing in the EFL Cup for Aston Villa, has rocked up at St James’s Park, likewise speedy Maidenhead wide man Josh Coley.

Sam Nombe, meanwhile, is a quick, energetic, powerful striker and, paired up top in a 3-5-2 with fit-again Joel Randall, should give Exeter a more unpredictable attack than they had when Ryan Bowman, now at Shrewsbury, led the line.

Nombe and Randall, in a side set to play good football throughout the season due to pitch redevelopment, will benefit from plenty of creative support.

Recruited technician Jevani Brown – hoping to fulfil the potential he showed at Cambridge after a tough couple of seasons – vibrant midfielder Archie Collins, who has signed a new deal and diminutive number 10 Matt Jay are all capable of bringing quality between the lines in a fluid system.

Raw runner Jake Caprice would compete with Coley for the right wing-back berth if reports of a Sunderland bid for Josh Key have substance, while Exeter have an experienced core despite the loss of Jake Taylor to Stevenage: Nigel Atangana, for starters, is a tough customer in midfield.

Summer defensive recruits George Ray and Timothee Dieng are seasoned operators at this level, likewise right-sided defender Pierce Sweeney, who left the club in June but re-joins, bizarrely, after spending just one day contracted to Swindon.

No more Play-Off heartache: in fact, Exeter may not need to play at Wembley at all.

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Forest Green Rovers


It seems increasingly common for EFL clubs to fast-track talented coaches from the youth scene into senior football and that is what Forest Green did, when appointing Rob Edwards as boss.

The ability to nurture young players is a huge advantage for clubs that wish to produce saleable assets and one of them, for the Green Devils, is Regan Hendry.

The exciting 5’11” midfielder will look to, under pressure, collect the ball off the centre-backs – likely to be Udoka Godwin-Malife, Jordan Moore-Taylor and Baily Cargill – then either keep play ticking over with his fine left foot or use his vision to pick a defence-splitting ball.

Hendry’s weakness, though, is his lack of physicality, so the Raith Rovers recruit may not always be used in conjunction with Ben Stevenson – a similarly dainty technician joining from Colchester – with Sadou Diallo capable of providing more physicality, likewise Ebou Adams in a more advanced role.

For a front-two, meanwhile, Edwards can turn to the aerial prowess of Jamille Matt, the poaching instincts of Matty Stevens as well as the persistent energy of Jake Young and Josh March.

Forest Green boast League Two’s best attacking left wing-back in Nicky Cadden while Kane Wilson, on the other flank, is intelligent and reasonably experienced for a 21-year-old.

Above all, the new boss is likely to have a slightly gentler – if not by any means lenient – man management style than Cooper so, after two Play-Off finishes in three seasons, Forest Green have the wherewithal to go one step further.

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Overcoming the loss of Sheehan will be tough but, if Newport can find alternative creativity, then they - and returning goalkeeping cult hero Joe Day - could achieve third-tier football for the first time in the club’s current incarnation.

Gabriel Sutton

Newport County


Newport might be in the same division now as they were when Michael Flynn took the reigns in March 2017, but they are in a completely different place.

Having looked like relegation certainties back then prior to the Great Escape, the Exiles have since reached two Play-Off Finals in four seasons and, against both Tranmere in 2019 and Morecambe this year, were unfortunate to be on the losing side.

Flynn will ensure his team are quick to bounce back, though and while it will be hard to replace Bolton-bound creator Josh Sheehan man-for-man, all-action midfielder Christopher Missilou could prove a more athletic equivalent of stalwart Joss Labadie, now at Walsall.

Control will come from Matt Dolan, now a half-back in Flynn’s 3-5-2 and midfielder Ed Upson, who can run games at this level understatedly, while utility man Scot Bennett remains to maintain continuity in key defensive areas.

Also signing a new deal is attacking livewire Lewis Collins, the obvious strike-partner for whom being persistent poacher Padraig Amond, though Newport may require a physical alternative: it could be Courtney Baker-Richardson if the former Swansea striker stays fit, while trialist Jordan Greenidge is the wildcard option.

Then again, the absence of a target man was exposed in the winter months of last season, when muddy Rodney Parade conditions forced a change of style, but Flynn hopes summer pitch renovations can allow for football on the deck for the full 10 months.

They will also help dribbler Courtney Senior, who is hoping to rediscover the exciting performances he enjoyed at Colchester prior to a tough couple of seasons, as either an attacking midfielder or a wide forward in a front-three.

Overcoming the loss of Sheehan will be tough but, if Newport can find alternative creativity, then they – and returning goalkeeping cult hero Joe Day – could achieve third-tier football for the first time in the club’s current incarnation.

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Mansfield Town


Mansfield possess the unwanted tag as League Two’s underachievers.

In the previous two seasons, the Stags have finished 21st and 16th with a squad that should have performed far better, but was hindered by mismanagement.

John Dempster had been too lenient to effectively motivate senior players and Graham Coughlan, too brutal, but CEO David Sharpe hopes to have found the ideal half-way house in Nigel Clough.

The 55-year-old has pedigree, having previously kept Burton up in the Championship and, had the season started when he took charge in early November, his side would have finished ninth: a marked improvement, if not quite where they want to be.

Key to pushing further will be a midfield combination of controller George Maris, presser George Lapslie and driven Ollie Clarke with Irishman Stephen Quinn, having signed permanently from Burton, completing a dazzling diamond.

The fit veteran’s left-sided partnership with compatriot and namesake McLaughlin has been a key feature of Town’s 2021 play thus far, so Clough’s primary challenges have been to strengthen a suspect defence and pep up a wasteful attack.

The ex-Derby boss hopes to have done the former in adding utility man Elliott Hewitt from relegated Grimsby and the latter, by recruiting 17-goal man Danny Johnson.

Hewitt will help Farrend Rawson by being stronger across the ground and in the recovery while Johnson, a more reliable finisher than Jordan Bowery and incoming target man Oli Hawkins – both selfless in nature – may benefit from midfield creativity.

In goal, meanwhile, Nathan Bishop is the high-profile loan addition, but George Shelvey is extremely highly-rated at Nottingham Forest and could pip the Manchester United man to the jersey.

Whether or not Mansfield win promotion, Clough’s guidance should ensure League Two’s underachievers tag finds a new accessory.

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Bradford City


Bradford have promotion-winning knowhow in the dugout.

Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars did the job that was asked of them after the academy managers stepped up to lead the first team, but a poor finish to the campaign forced CEO Ryan Sparks to abort plans for the duo to take change next season, instead seeking more practiced hands.

Sparks and co. have them in Derek Adams, who has twice won promotion at this level before with Plymouth Argyle and Morecambe.

Adams is known to favour a direct style of football; that is not to say his sides do not play incisive, one-touch football in the opposing half, but that they tend to go long to a physical front-man before opening up.

The return of target man Andy Cook is therefore welcomed, likewise the addition of 6’2 front-man Lee Angol, either of whom will give the West Yorkshire outfit a reference point at the tip of a sturdy spine.

Niall Canavan should forge a solid centre-back pairing with Paudie O’Connor, Yann Songo’o joins from Morecambe to offer physical, aggressive protection for the rear-guard while intriguing competition lies in goal.

On the one hand, Richard O’Donnell is hoping to rediscover the form he once displayed in the division above with Walsall, but the form guy is Sam Hornby.

Elsewhere, highly-rated teenager Reece Staunton could be set for a big season in midfield, after being hit by injury last term while Kian Scales could gain opportunities to build on a positive campaign.

Adams is likely to employ a solitary anchor man and allow three or four more advanced midfielders to rotate and interchange freely after the initial ball into Cook or Angol.

With that effective strategy, the Bantams should compete for promotion but, responding to two underwhelming campaigns, reaching the Play-Offs would be an achievement.

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A 19th-placed League Two finish was not what Leigh Pomlett had in mind when he took over in summer 2019, but the candid chairman retains the unequivocal backing of supporters.

Pomlett’s honest, transparent leadership makes him a breath of fresh air after the previous regime and the local businessman was somewhat unlucky last season when it came to managers, with Darrell Clarke departing for Port Vale in February and head coach Brian Dutton subsequently unable to deliver.

Pomlett hopes to have struck gold in Match of the Day’s former Goal of the Month participant Matthew Taylor, who has moved from Tottenham Under-18s to prove himself in senior management.

Taylor can gain experienced guidance from assistant Neil McDonald and Technical Director Jamie Fullarton, with the latter’s arrival representing much-needed change to the club’s internal processes.

This season, therefore, brings some excitement over the new structure and being led by a man billed as one of the most exciting young coaches in England, as well as the new signings.

Powerful, uncompromising centre-back Manny Monthe, midfield presser Joss Labadie and Conor Wilkinson, who possesses surprising quality for a right-sided forward of his height, are all proven to perform well at this level.

Despite this, it could be argued that neither are the most promising addition of the summer: goalkeeper Carl Rushworth arrives on loan from Brighton with incredibly positive reviews.

The Saddlers will also be strong in midfield, where Liam Kinsella was Player of the Year last term for his all-action displays and Sam Perry threatens to overtake Alfie Bates as the Black Country outfit’s go-to creative talent.

Young talents like Perry and promising defender Tom Leak are guided by veteran left-back Stephen Ward, an intelligent operator who can deliver an accurate cross, having played 50 games for Ireland up until 2018.

All these reasons for optimism should be caveated. Going from underachievers to promotion contenders in the space of just one summer should be a tall order. With such a positive mood around the club, though, it may feel like just about anything is possible…

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It is hardly surprising that Alex Revell took time to change Stevenage’s losing habits, after a pitiful 2019-20 campaign, but what is surprising is that said time was just three months.

Had the 2020-21 League Two season started in late-November, Boro would have reached the Play-Offs, having been defeated just seven times in 33 games: the fewest losses in that period.

Revell’s troops have one of the division’s meanest defences and the personnel – athletic right-back Luther Wildin, intelligent left-back Ben Coker, no-nonsense centre-backs Scott Cuthbert and Luke Prosser plus ball-players Terence Vancooten and Ross Marshall – remain in place.

The only change comes in the goalkeeping department, where Jamie Cumming returns to parent club Chelsea but Joseph Anang, another loanee, arrives with glowing reviews from West Ham.

There is also strength in midfield, where leader Jake Taylor and technician Jake Reeves add to an appealing set of options in long-distance runner Charlie Carter, individualist Elliot Osborne, young talent Jack Smith, experienced controller Chris Lines and the creative Arthur Read.

Four of the strong septet will start in Revell’s 4-2-2-2 system, while star man Elliott List is more than capable of linking midfield and attack with his progressive runs, so Boro’s season all hangs on the striker positions.

The club hope to have found a potential goalscorer in James Daly or Jamie Reid, though both struggled last season at Bristol Rovers and Mansfield respectively, while Luke Norris is showing glimpses of the form that made him such a threat for Colchester in 2018.

If either catch fire, Stevenage could be bound for the Play-Offs.

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Frequent managerial changes tends to be associated with relegation strugglers, but Play-Off challengers Salford wielded the axe twice last season.

Gabriel Sutton

Salford City


Frequent managerial changes tends to be associated with relegation strugglers, but Play-Off challengers Salford wielded the axe twice last season.

The route one approach of Graham Alexander was dispensed with in October in favour of keep-ball connoisseur Richie Wellens, before Gary Neville and co. turned to Gary Bowyer and the solidity he enforces.

The Ammies’ expensive squad, therefore, suffered from an inconsistent playing identity, despite individual brilliance at either end from experienced goalkeeper Václav Hladký and predatory poacher Ian Henderson.

The bad news for Bowyer is that Hladký has moved on to Ipswich and will be tough to replace – incoming Tom King hopes to recapture the 2019-20 form he displayed at Newport.

‘Hendo’, though, has support in attacking midfielder Matty Lund, who joins from Rochdale and versatile forward Conor McAleny, who signs from Oldham – both bring bags of energy.

The most pertinent question is whether the trio will get on the ball frequently in key areas because, in the 10 games Bowyer oversaw last season, Salford were rather cagey.

In fact, they took on average 9.7 shots per game, which would have been the same as Grimsby over a full season; 2.8 per game were on target, which would have been worse than the Mariners and barely better than the other relegated side, Southend.

This conservatism may change in 2021-22; athletic left-sider Ibou Touray was the only member of last season’s squad capable of thriving as a wing-back, hence Bowyer sometimes favoured 4-4-2.

This summer, right-sider Liam Shephard arrives to provide forward thrust and, with the insurance of three centre-backs – two of which are likely to be refined ball-players Ashley Eastham and Jordan Turnbull – the former Blackburn boss may let this gifted side off the leash.

Whether the team opens up enough for a serious automatic promotion challenge, though, remains to be seen: Bowyer may hold Salford back, in more ways than one.

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Bristol Rovers


Last summer, Bristol Rovers were hopeful of a good season in League One after signing talents with high potential.

Defender Max Ehmer, midfielder Zain Westbrooke, Chelsea utility man Josh Grant and athletic striker Brandon Hanlan all arrived with rave reviews, but none of them truly backed it up – despite passable patches of form from the latter two.

Somewhere along the line, recruitment had gone awry: too much emphasis had been placed on the individual ability of these young players, and not enough on their strength of character.

The task this summer has been to sign leaders, so it is hardly surprising that the first four additions – controller Paul Coutts, ball-winner Sam Finley, defensive organiser Mark Hughes and left-sided defender Nick Anderton – had all been named captain previously in their respective careers.

The latter two have been brought in to provide much-needed guidance for Alfie Kilgour and Cian Harries, who remain talented defenders despite their roles in a rudderless Rovers rear-guard last term; towering centre-back Connor Taylor adds to the collection, joining on loan from Stoke.

Further forward, Aaron Collins and Harvey Saunders sign from Forest Green and Fleetwood while Luke Thomas joins on loan from Barnsley, with the trio plus Hanlan all being quick, willing runners.

Each of those players, like dribbler Sam Nicholson, prefer to play off a main focal point, rather than operate back to goal themselves: a role Jonah Ayunga is unlikely to have the maturity, intelligence or quality for just yet.

Much of Bristol Rovers’ squad is more than good enough for automatic promotion, but question marks remain, especially over the head coach position: Joey Barton is unlikely to start the season in charge, given recent legal accusations.

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Port Vale

Comfort is not a word that exists in Darrell Clarke’s dictionary.

The easy thing to do for a new manager, who had seen his side finish the season in good form featuring a six-game winning streak, would have been to trust that same core to extrapolate those results over the next 46 league games.

The former Walsall boss, though, released 15 players, thus putting more pressure on himself and the club to recruit for all positions.

Luke Joyce, for example, was a steady anchor man but the veteran is among those departing, replaced by Brad Walker – eight years his junior – to provide a more mobile equivalent.

Walker will team up in the centre with two of dainty technician Tom Pett, long-distance runner Ben Garrity and energetic presser Tom Conlon, who’s left-footed finesse made him the highest-scoring Vale midfielder in 15 years.

Goals may also come from set pieces, because there will be plenty of height and physicality in this side:

Forward Devante Rodney has great athleticism, Rotherham recruit Jamie Proctor attempted on average 5.4 headers per 90 minutes last season, Leon Legge wins most aerial duels too and the veteran is joined by two fellow centre-backs: 6’3” Aaron Martin and 6’2” Ryan Johnson.

The latter played wide left in a three last season and the impressive Lewis Cass, the right of that trio, but whether the signings from Hartlepool reclaim familiar positions will depend on the importance Clarke places on maximizing David Worrall’s abilities.

So often the Burslem club’s go-to creative maestro, Worrall likes to play wide of a striker in a 4-3-3, but in a 3-5-2 he must embrace the defensive responsibilities of playing right wing-back; James Gibbons may be more accomplished in that regard, but is not quite as individually gifted.

In essence, Clarke has a lot to figure out and while recruitment has been strong, Vale have a new-look squad: they may need a building season in the top half before embracing the following campaign with a clearer identity and a stabler group.

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Tranmere Rovers

In Tranmere’s previous two seasons at this level, they have finished in the Play-Offs and the man who led them into League One via that route in 2018-19, Micky Mellon, returns to Prenton Park.

In that season and 2020-21, which followed a controversial demotion, Rovers relied on solid shot stopping from stalwart Scott Davies and clinical finishing from a striker named James: Norwood, then Vaughan.

If Birkenhead’s big hitters are to repeat the trick, though, they will either need to create more chances than they have done previously, or find another forward who can turn almost everything he touches into goals.

Mellon hopes to have that man in Paul Glatzel, who arrives from Liverpool with excellent reviews, but there is reason to hope the Scot’s side will have more creativity this time.

Callum McManaman, best remembered for being man-of-the-match for Wigan in the 2013 FA Cup Final, could bring direct running as well as quality out wide, where Kieron Morris is more of a selfless grafter.

The real test though is in midfield, where the absence of an obvious deep-lying playmaker left Jay Spearing, who has thrived previously as a ball-winner, with the unenviable task of carrying the team in possession.

Veteran Sam Foley and young Chris Merrie, who sign from Motherwell and Wigan respectively, both like to stick a foot in; Foley, at 34, is unlikely to acquire a creative side, whereas Merrie is more of an unknown quantity.

Mellon hopes Liam Feeney, having lost a yard of pace that would be hoped for from a right winger, can enjoy more of a central role while fellow recruit Ryan Watson found goalscoring form as an attacking midfielder at Northampton.

Still, that midfielder who can collect the ball off the defence and distribute may prove elusive, so it will be down to attacking full-backs Josh Cogley and Calum MacDonald to open games up.

Equally, Rovers must be mindful of protecting two of centre-backs Peter Clarke, Nat Knight-Percival and Tom Davies, who hold an average age of 34, ensuring they do not get dragged out into wide areas.

The Wirral outfit will be broadly tipped to push for promotion but, Glatzel aside, there are question marks over recruitment. Mellon returns with unfinished business, yet could it be left unfinished?

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Harrogate Town

After an impressive first season in the EFL, Harrogate must now build steadily.

Simon Weaver will be tasked with carefully evolving a long-serving core of players by adding touches of proven quality for the level, without disrupting the synergy of the group.

The Sulphurites boss, son of chairman Irving, has adopted a cautious approach to that balancing act, releasing just five players who featured in the league last season, with seven faces arriving by late July.

Mark Oxley, who replaces Bristol Rovers-bound James Belshaw, may relish being behind a competent unit after a tough period at Southend: the goalkeeper will be helped by added defensive depth.

Fleetwood recruit Nathan Sheron looks a younger version of long-serving defender Warren Burrell – adaptable, diligent and versatile – with the latter likeliest to start at right-back over Ryan Fallowfield, after high-quality left-back Lewis Page arrived from Exeter.

The arrival of seasoned centre-back Rory McArdle, meanwhile, should ensure that unlike last season, an injury to Will Smith or Connor Hall is not defining.

At the other end, strikers Luke Armstrong and Danilo Orsi are hoping, after scoring 34 goals between them in a combined 70 National League appearances, to take their form into the division above.

Reducing the burden on well-rounded centre-forward Aaron Martin was important, too, with Jon Stead departing, Mark Beck loaned out and Jack Muldoon likely to be favoured on the left until last season’s key loanee, Josh McPake, is replaced.

The other addition is Alex Pattison, brought in as a creative alternative to energetic, workmanlike midfielders such as captain Josh Falkingham and left-footed Lloyd Kerry.

George Thomson, capable of carving open a defence with the most casual flick of his right boot, has therefore greater competition both in central midfield and on the right wing, where Simon Power brings a more direct option.

Gradual improvement is likely and, while Weaver is at the helm, a top half finish is achievable

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Leyton Orient

Most teams recently promoted from the National League benefit from dugout stability, but Leyton Orient have not had that luxury.

The sad passing of Justin Edinburgh in 2019 gave way to a sequence of six different head coach stints in the space of two years, with the club favouring rookies in Carl Fletcher, Jobi McAnuff and Ross Embleton, the latter twice taking the reigns.

After a change of tack, Orient have found the king of continuity in Kenny Jackett, who has had five managerial stints this century, of which four have lasted three to six years.

Jackett’s vast experience involves promotions at Swansea, Millwall and Wolves, whilst having come close to repeating the trick with his previous club, Portsmouth, twice reaching the Play-Offs.

The 59-year-old, who favours a direct style of football, has seen key attackers Conor Wilkinson, Danny Johnson and James Brophy depart; moves which facilitates a squad re-build tailored to his methods.

Omar Beckles brings an aerial presence in defence, Connor Wood specializes in crosses from deep from left-back while Charlton recruit Darren Pratley provides physicality, discipline and leadership in midfield, having proved his fitness at 36 by starting 33 League One games last season.

Beckles could forge a strong partnership with Adam Thompson, a promotion winner at this level with Southend and Bury, while Pratley will offer guidance to exciting Cyprus Under-21s midfielder, Hector Kyprianou, who has a vigorous side on top of his creative potential.

The position where the O’s season is likeliest to be defined, though, lies up front.

No matter how much quality might exist between the lines, such as the frenetically persistent Paul Smyth and the talented Dan Kemp, a Jackett side will always tend to play direct to a target man.

If the East Londoners can land a great one – with reasonable mobility and neat, selfless hold-up play combined with the obvious requirements such as strength, height and work rate – then perhaps a promotion push is on.

The only obvious target man available at present, though, is Harry Smith – who only returned to training in the final week of July – with Aaron Drinan, who struggled at Ipswich, being the other option up top.

While Smith could be a successful spearhead, Orient may be taking a risk in building their attacking game around the 26-year-old, who is yet to truly prove himself at this level.

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The Cobblers will be hoping to avoid a continued sense of Déjà vu

Gabriel Sutton

Northampton Town

Northampton were embroiled in a League One relegation battle and, after a managerial dismissal, gave the job to a caretaker who was unable to keep them up but did enough to earn the permanent gig.

That story is a familiar one, occurring not only when Jon Brady replaced Keith Curle last season, but also when Dean Austin stepped in following Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s exit in 2018.

The Cobblers will be hoping to avoid a continued sense of Déjà vu because, in Austin’s case, he was dismissed as early as September with the side 21st after a 4-0 thrashing by Mansfield.

The difference for Brady, the passionate Aussie hopes, will be that he can lean on the experienced guidance of assistant Colin Calderwood, plus early business has been respectable.

No-nonsense centre-back Jon Guthrie, box-to-box operator Paul Lewis and mobile yet physical front-man Nicke Kabamba arrive to give the East Midlanders a tall, powerful spine.

The latter hitched a ride from Kilmarnock with another athlete in winger Mitch Pinnock, who featured in 59 League One games for Wimbledon, while fellow wide recruit Dylan Connolly is hoping to build on a bright pre-season as Brady looks to bring wingers back into the equation.

Wide men should get some creative freedom for the Cobblers, given that they will sandwich a functional set of midfielders in Lewis, ground-coverer Jack Sowerby and anchor man Shaun McWilliams.

In fact, the sole central creator for Brady’s troops could be Jordan Flores, who joins on loan from Hull: whether he will have the fitness to go from playing in just 35 games in all competitions over the last four seasons to being a go-to playmaker twice a week, though, remains to be seen.

In central defence, meanwhile, Fraser Horsfall, Sid Nelson and Guthrie are limited, Max Dyche is raw, though Ali Koiki arrives from Bristol Rovers to provide a more athletic left-back option than the intelligent but injury-prone Joseph Mills.

Luckily, defenders could be bailed out somewhat by a peak-age goalkeeper in either Liam Roberts, who has played 131 games for Walsall or Jonny Maxted, rated at Exeter despite him being on the shorter side: competition will be stiff between the sticks.

At the other end, springy Danny Rose is a selfless operator while the talented Caleb Chukwuemeka is expected to feature more this season, but neither they nor Kabamba are proven to regularly score goals at this level.

For that reason, the Cobblers will be hoping to avoid a continued sense of Déjà vu.

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Carlisle United

Since David Holdsworth was appointed Director of Football in 2018, Carlisle have offered 23 post-season extensions to out of contract players and of those, just eight have signed.

Given that three of the eight didn’t subsequently play a single league game, the numbers pose serious questions of Holdsworth and whether he does enough to make top players feel valued.

Chris Beech, as Head Coach, did a reasonable job of navigating the off-field imperfections to lead the Cumbrians from relegation danger in 2019-20 into promotion contention last term.

Beech’s troops led the division after the early-January victory at Walsall, but the club was then hit by a health crisis, which contributed to 10 games being called off in a 46-day period.

Form subsequently plummeted, with the high-pressing style which had underpinned the fine 2020 form becoming impractical due to fixture congestion, though United finished the campaign with one defeat in 11.

One man who could breathe new life into this side is Zach Clough: the former Bolton prodigy is primarily an attacking midfielder who likes to operate between lines, yet Beech has hitherto implemented a Liverpool-esque 4-3-3.

On the one hand, Clough could bring the ability to pick an inch-perfect pass in the final third, something Carlisle were missing last season, but his arrival forces a system re-jig in favour of a wider 4-2-3-1.

Having operated with wide forwards like Omari Patrick and Josh Kayode staying very close to the central forward last season, the former has moved to Burton while the latter is back at Rotherham, replaced as first-choice perhaps by more conventional wingers like Gime Toure and Brennan Dickenson.

This could mean less tactical freedom for central midfielders such as assist-king Callum Guy and forward-driver Joe Riley, who will be playing as part of a double-pivot rather than as a central trio, a change of role that could limit their respective contributions.

In goal, meanwhile, unknown quantity Lukas Jensen is hoping to build on a productive pre-season and take advantage of Magnus Norman’s questionable decision-making from crosses. At centre-back, Rhys Bennett’s exit leaves Beech struggling to find the right partner for Aaron Hayden – and is Tristan Abrahams really a top seven striker?

After a familiar slow summer, the team looks weakened: all Beech’s good work could come undone.

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Colchester United

Geography in recruitment often goes against Colchester, but they have at least used it to their advantage this summer.

Forward Freddie Sears, creator Alan Judge and physical front-man Frank Nouble took the number of former Ipswich stalwarts to sign for the U’s in 2021 to five, after veterans Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse bolstered defence and midfield respectively, joining fellow former Tractor Boys in centre-backs Tommy Smith and Tom Eastman, plus goalkeeper Dean Gerken.

The ex-Town contingent will be tasked with offering proven quality to the Essex outfit, who will be keen to avoid another bleak run of one win in 25, which we saw between December and April last season.

With the club nosediving into a relegation dogfight, Hayden Mullins and Paul Tisdale arrived in late-March as Head Coach and Football Advisor respectively, their appointments followed by a return of 12 points from eight games, enough to comfortably secure their EFL status.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that Mullins has been given the job permanently and is tasked with stabilization, something versatile midfielder Luke Hannant hopes to help with, providing energy and tactical flexibility.

Mullins must also nurture a talented core of young players in goalkeeper Shamal George, tough tackling left-back Ryan Clampin, high-energy midfield pair Noah Chilvers and Brendan Wiredu, plus 2019-20’s star wide forward Kwame Poku.

Aggressive defender Billy Cracknell, long range specialist Samson Tovide and poacher Tom Stagg, meanwhile, are the next hot prospects on the conveyor belt hoping for minutes this term, following in the footsteps of exciting full-back Junior Tchamadeu – plus trialist striker Richard Kone has earnt rave reviews.

A top half venture is plausible, if prodigies and veterans merge into a reliable XI, but so is another dogfight if Colchester are found wanting for proven firepower and peak-age performers.

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Sutton United

The club best known for knocking Coventry out of the FA Cup in 1989 have once again defied the odds.

The Amber and Chocolates have reached the EFL for the first time in their 123-year history, after talented coach Matt Gray built on the strong foundations established by his predecessor, Paul Doswell, to unexpectedly secure the National League title.

The South Londoners have an excellent team spirit cultivated by a core of experienced figures including goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis, centre-back Louis John – partnered brilliantly by Ben Goodliffe – anchor man Craig Eastmond, utility veteran Rob Milsom and hardworking striker Omar Bugiel.

Gray has built around that spine with a smattering of quality in various forms, as Donovan Wilson brings goals, David Ajiboye, skill and Harry Beautyman, technical prowess.

The last six National League champions have gone on to finish in an average position of 17th and while on the one hand, Sutton do not have the resources of an outlier like Lincoln – they have only just turned full-time, after all – they have their own advantages.

While many clubs are rebuilding their squads, the SM1 outfit have the core of a successful one – Millwall loanee Isaac Olaofe being the only sizeable loss – and there is competition at right-back, where solid Bromley recruit Joe Kizzi will compete with the reliable Jonathan Barden.

Elsewhere, midfield stalwart Kenny Davis has a deceptive look of a pure scrapper but is capable of a delightful through ball, something the skilful Ricky Korboa and the enigmatic Enzio Boldewijn may relish when operating out wide: another addition, striker Richie Bennett, will offer the direct option.

A dogfight for Sutton might be anticipated by many but, as history tells us, this is not a club that readily conforms to expectation.

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Crawley Town

It seems hard to argue with John Yems’ work as Crawley boss.

The 61-year-old inherited, in December 2019, a side languishing in 17th and led them to a 12th-placed finish that year, before matching that position last season despite the unwanted departures of Ollie Palmer, Panutche Camara, Bez Lubala and, in January, Max Watters.

During this time, Yems has developed creative forward Tom Nichols, technical midfielder Jack Powell and strong defender Jordan Tunnicliffe, whilst overseeing a memorable 3-0 FA Cup win over Leeds.

On paper, the former Bournemouth operations manager is doing a wonderful job, but he can be rather gruff in his post-match interviews and, through that conduct combined with sporadic no-shows, is not as popular as one might imagine on the surface.

Still, the good news is that Blondy Nna Noukeu, who was called up to the Cameroon squad in March, arrives on loan from Stoke to provide goalkeeping competition for stalwart Glenn Morris, now 37, while the disciplined Owen Gallacher arrives from Burton to hand balletic left-sider Nick Tsaroulla a more advanced role.

Other arrivals have non-league experience: physical centre-back Harry Ransom arrives from Millwall battle-hardened after enduring a tough stint in the National League with Dover, while midfielder Jack Payne signs from Eastleigh.

A pairing of Payne and Powell might leave Crawley light on running power – especially problematic given veteran defender Tony Craig’s lack of pace in recovery – so one of the two Jacks may often be accompanied by one of ball-winner Jake Hessenthaler or box-to-box man Josh Wright.

There are other questions at right-back, where George Francomb and Archie Davies have limitations, and up top, where Ashley Nadesan is capable of latching onto Nichols’ through balls to fire home, but he and other strikers lack the qualities to play back-to-goal.

Relying heavily on the non-league market for recruitment, Crawley could be in danger of regressing towards the very stall at which they shop.

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Rochdale’s 2020-21 relegation campaign was characterized by mix-ups, own goals and tears… and that was just in the boardroom.

Ever since Chris Dunphy retired in 2018, things have never felt quite right upstairs at Dale, although the club are now on the stable footing of fan ownership, led by new chairman Simon Gauge.

Despite this, the actions of former board members like David Bottomley may have set the club back: the successful youth team, for example, was released under the unpopular CEO’s watch, leaving the squad extremely light on numbers.

The new regime almost certainly has the right intentions, but may take time to get to grips with running the club, given their lack of experience, while there is ambiguity over Dale’s spending capacity.

Head coach Brian Barry-Murphy has departed for Man City Under-23s and replaced by Robbie Stockdale – a permanent number one for the first time – with the 41-year-old overseeing encouraging pre-season performances against League One opposition.

Nonetheless, Dale will rely heavily on an established core: ball-playing centre-back Eoghan O’Connell, deep-lying playmaker Aaron Morley, left-footed stalwart Matty Done, versatile technician Jimmy Keohane, energetic presser Oli Rathbone and industrial front-man Jake Beesley.

Elsewhere, adaptable midfielder Stephen Dooley is showing signs of recapturing his 2018-19 form, while Alex Newby and Abraham Odoh can find good positions out wide – if not always the end product.

Additionally, advanced midfielder Conor Grant showed some promise in the latter stages of last season, when Barry-Murphy went with a 3-5-1-1, plus 17-year-old Ethan Brierley looks a talented understudy to Morley.

Rochdale’s best XI could be top half calibre but, with a lack of depth on the field and experience off it, the drop down might prove challenging.

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Hartlepool United

Dave Challinor was a picture of emotion after his side’s National League Play-Off Final victory over Torquay United: then again, who wouldn’t be?

The former defender best remembered for his long throws has launched his managerial career into life, winning five different promotions in the non-league system, most recently securing his first ever season as a boss in the EFL.

There has been no rest-up, though, for the charismatic Cestrian, with just a 50-day gap between Ashton Gate glory and this season’s opener against Crawley. It hardly helps, too, that defenders Ryan Johnson and Lewis Cass plus forwards Rhys Oates and Luke Armstrong have all moved elsewhere in League Two.

Neill Byrne should offer a vocal and physical presence alongside the experienced Gary Liddle in Challinor’s back-three, though, after signing from Halifax, while Reagan Ogle offers a versatile wing-back option.

The first choice wing-backs, though, will be neat-footed Jamie Sterry and delivery specialist David Ferguson; both will push high up and feature heavily in Pools’ attacking play, stretching the game for the midfielders.

The experienced Nicky Featherstone will dictate from deep, allowing Mark Shelton and Gavan Holohan to occupy half-spaces in front of opposing defences; Shelton is United’s assist-king while Holohan grabbed eight goals last term.

Challinor’s aggressive 3-1-4-2 will dislodge some opponents, especially if the right replacements for key men are made, but there could be chasms – between the wing-backs and defence or advanced midfielders and Featherstone – that better-quality opposition could exploit.

Mere safety will do – for now.

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Barrow have achieved excellent feats in the last 14 months, first becoming an EFL club then remaining one, so it is somewhat puzzling that five different managers have taken the reigns in that period.

Ian Evatt and Rob Kelly departed by choice, their regimes sandwiched by stints for David Dunn and Michael Jolley, whom chairman Paul Hornby dismissed.

The latest hotseat incumbent, Mark Cooper, has achieved EFL Play-Off berths with Swindon and Forest Green, so will mean business and hope that, unlike Dunn especially, his side match good performances with results.

The bad news for Cooper is that Scott Quigley has now gone to Stockport and, while newbies Offrande Zanzala and Josh Gordon will bring pace in attack, Barrow will want to add a striker who can operate back-to-goal.

Supply for forwards will come from Blackburn loanee Tom White, re-united with the club after playing a key role in the National League title win in 2019-20, who hopes to provide a level of midfield creativity that was lacking last term to compliment battlers like Jason Taylor.

At the other end, Paul Farman makes the short journey south from Carlisle to replace goalkeeper Joel Dixon; the 32-year-old will be protected by Matty Platt, who should be in for an improved second season at this level, if he can escape his injury troubles.

It’s a similar story for highly-rated utility man Joe Grayson, who must stay fit if Cooper’s troops are to meet their aim of drastic improvement on last season’s 21st-placed finish.

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Swindon Town

Huge uncertainty off the field at Swindon this summer has made it difficult to make much sense of the state of play on it.

On the one hand, this is the club that had a situation so bad that the summer had been dominated by legal disputes. So bad that manager John McGreal resigned just a month into his post. So bad that 17 players departed. So bad that goalkeeper Jojo Wollacott was one of only two signings made going into the final week of July. So bad that the other, Pierce Sweeney, left merely a day into his contract.

Then again, much of the chaos had been caused by the previous, long-serving owner, Lee Power, who is unsurprisingly unpopular with Town fans, who welcome the change with open arms.

While new chairman Clem Morfuni should be judged fundamentally on his actions rather than his words, the early signs are encouraging.

Morfuni has the money to take the club forward and, ostensibly, a love for the club based on his comments and previous experience as a shareholder, plus the Sydney-based businessman has acted quickly since taking over.

Ben Garner has been appointed Head Coach, hoping to build a reputation as a number one after a tough stint at Bristol Rovers, while Ben Chorley has been appointed Director of Football, with Morfuni citing his excellent knowledge and prior success in recruitment as reasons for giving him the opportunity.

The most experienced newcomer, though, is CEO Rob Angus, who has an excellent record of business in the banking industry and has previously worked closely with the STFC Trust.

The squad is a relative unknown, though, so while it’s plausible that Swindon could quickly assemble a group capable of doing more than merely avoiding relegation, the new squad will have little time to gel.

Talented but raw centre-back Akin Odimayo, advanced playmaker Jack Payne and poacher Brett Pitman could all be departing too so, quite simply, who knows what the squad will look like?

Good times lie ahead but, this season alone, survival constitutes success.

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With plenty of question marks, another ropey start could leave Scunthorpe with a mountain to climb.

Gabriel Sutton

Scunthorpe United

A line chart of Scunthorpe’s league positions throughout 2020-21 would resemble one of the steeply angled hills in the nearby Lincolnshire Wolds.


The Iron hit an early trough, losing six of their first eight league games, peaked with 11 wins in 22 before the downward slant, when they were victorious just once in their final 16 encounters.

After a 22nd-placed finish, this season could be another uphill struggle for Neil Cox, who must change the culture at Glanford Park if he is to prove himself an EFL calibre head coach.


Cox has made a start by adding strong characters in experienced defender Harry Davis and athletic anchor man Alex Kenyon; both know their way around this level and will set the tone in the dressing room.


Davis, Kenyon and incoming wide forward Harry Bunn have 697 EFL appearances between them and are all younger than 30; the seasoned trio look reasonable additions individually and add to a decent core.


Athletic defender Manny Onariase, Ireland Under-21s left-back Mason O’Malley, midfield dynamo Alfie Beestin, forward speedster Devarn Green and back-to-goal front-man Ryan Loft were the pick of last season’s crop baring Abo Eisa, who is now at Bradford.


That leaves Scunthorpe with eight players who could be relied upon at this level, but question marks linger over the goalkeeping position, right-back, central midfield and the lack of depth up top, where rangy 21-year-old Tyrone O’Neill is hoping to prove himself after being released by Middlesbrough.


Plus, Cox is planning to evolve the style in favour of more possession play whilst also moving to a flat 4-4-2, a formation that tends to better suit more direct play, given the typical shortage of options on the ball for those in deeper positions.


With plenty of question marks, another ropey start could leave Scunthorpe with a mountain to climb.

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Oldham Athletic

The team that had no commanding presence in goal, no leadership in defence and limited experience in midfield, last season, shipped 81 goals – 12 more than any other side – yet still not once feared the drop.


The team that had arguably the division’s best player in Dylan Bahamboula scored 72 goals – the third-most in League Two – yet still finished as low as 18th.

Whichever way one looks at it, Oldham’s 2020-21 campaign can only be described as crazy.

Bahamboula’s strength, skill and quality, Davis Keillor-Dunn’s composed final third play plus Conor McAleny’s relentless running and 17 goals gave the Latics an attack more than worthy of a top seven finish, but one that was massively undermined by ongoing defensive deficiencies.

With Bahamboula likely to receive late interest, Keillor-Dunn linked with Kilmarnock and McAleny now at Salford, the attack could be weakened: incoming Hallam Hope is the type of forward who will make runs to create space for individual brilliance, rather than provide it himself.

The challenge for Keith Curle, who after taking the final 14 games has agreed a two-year contract, could be to compensate for any further forward losses by making the team stronger defensively.

The arrival of goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler and aggressive centre-back Harrison McGahey, among others, represents a reasonable attempt to solidify, but the Latics look short of peak-age performers in midfield.

Controller Dean Furman and the physical Neil Danns – likely to sign after trial periods – both lack mobility, while Harry Vaughan is promising but vastly inexperienced with Callum Whelan yet to convince.

Attracting players to fill various voids late in the window will not be easy, either: an interview with former player David Wheater has brought the off-field crisis at Boundary Park sharply into focus.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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