With the 2020-21 League Two season on the horizon, EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton shares his extensive League Two season preview, complete with 1-24 predictions.
Although Bolton begin this season in a lower division than the one in which they started the last, the manager’s job is now far more appealing.
After Keith Hill grappled with a 12-point deduction, a squad that had had no pre-season and a club that had been preparing for battles off the pitch rather than on it, successor Ian Evatt is in a far sunnier situation.
After inspiring Barrow to an odds-defying National League title win, the former centre-back has been appointed 10 weeks before the start of the season – and had the wherewithal to sign great players for the level long before transfer deadline day.
Eoin Doyle bagged 25 League Two goals last season for Swindon and is the perfect poacher in the right system, while fellow promotion winner Antoni Sarcevic joins from Plymouth Argyle to add midfield dynamism – Evatt’s former Blackpool teammates, goalkeeper Matt Gilks and defender Alex Baptiste, bring Premier League experience.
As well as the proven performers, though, Evatt needs young players who are receptive to his innovative ideas, which could revolve around a possession-based 3-4-1-2 setup.
England Under-20s keeper Billy Crellin, talented right-back Jak Hickman, lightning left-back Liam Gordon, tall centre-back Reiss Greenidge and midfielder Tom White, who worked with Evatt while on loan in Cumbria, are all set to make their EFL debuts.
There is some uncertainty about how quickly those youthful newbies at this level can find consistency, but when form wanes Evatt can call upon reliable fourth-tier performers in the aforementioned names plus intelligent right-back Gethin Jones, left-footed centre-back George Taft, powerful midfielder Brandon Comley and persistent striker Nathan Delfouneso.
Evatt worked miracles to secure top spot in his previous job – now it’s a case of meeting expectation.
Cheltenham Town picked the least suitable time imaginable to put in their worst performance of the 2019-20 campaign.
A 3-0 Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd leg loss at home to Northampton meant a 3-2 defeat on aggregate; such a stunning capitulation felt, in the moment, like it almost cut out all the positive momentum built up during Michael Duff’s wonderful reign.
Time, though, is a great healer and the subsequent two months have helped all connected take a step back and reflect on an incredibly progressive campaign, which delivered the club’s first top seven EFL finish for seven years.
It helps, too, that the Robins have since made exciting signings: former promotion winners, dynamo Liam Sercombe and tall poacher Andy Williams join young midfielder Finn Azaz – tall, energetic and vocal – who, like highly-rated stopper Josh Griffiths, arrives from West Brom on loan.
Loanees were a key factor behind Cheltenham’s promotion push last season and key man Ryan Broom has gone to Peterborough. But a stable core remains in place. The back-three of ball-player Charlie Raglan, leader Ben Tozer and aerial specialist Will Boyle, for example, have played together regularly since February 2019.
Set piece specialist Chris Hussey will be arguably the best left wing-back in League Two. Midfielders Conor Thomas and Chris Clements have found new levels under Duff while in Alfie May, the Gloucestershire outfit have the division’s most tenacious finisher.
Pick a more convenient off-day and the Robins could take flight.
The Birkenhead outfit look well-placed to right what they see as wrongs from the unnatural conclusion of their League One campaign.Gabriel Sutton
Micky Mellon’s legendary status at Tranmere is untouchable for his work in a playing and managing capacity – he achieved back-to-back promotions to League One – but the Scot’s exit for Dundee United is not the worst thing for the club after their controversial relegation.
Mellon’s assistant Mike Jackson, promoted to the number one gig, seems more open to testing younger players, like newly contracted teenage talent Danny Walker-Rice, and appears to have slightly greater pulling power in the transfer market.
Jay Spearing signs to likely become the strongest ball-winner in League Two while Otis Khan, a supremely talented number 10, hopes to put together the first notably stellar campaign of his career. Both were reportedly the subject of lofty League One interest.
Spearing and Khan could form a balanced midfield trio with assured operator Ollie Banks, who cited Jackson’s appointment as a pivotal factor behind his decision to pen a new deal.
The Super Whites also possess one of the best fourth-tier goalkeepers in Scott Davies. They also have aerial powerhouse Manny Monthe in central defence, for whom there are four competent potential partners.
Full-backs Calum Woods and Liam Ridehalgh are a touch conservative, but Lee O’Connor and Calum McDonald arrive on loan from Celtic and Blackpool respectively to offer adventurous rotation options.
The selfless Kieron Morris and the speedy Corey Blackett-Taylor represent appealing wide options to support strong front-man James Vaughan who, despite declining pace at 32, still runs with the exuberance that saw him become Everton’s youngest ever goalscorer.
Tranmere are run by sound business people in Mark and Nicola Palios, so the Birkenhead outfit look well-placed to right what they see as wrongs from the unnatural conclusion of their League One campaign.
Though Exeter have been in promotion contention in each of the last four seasons, the club are not fixated solely on winning promotion to exorcise recent Play-Off Final demons.
The 2017 sale of Ollie Watkins to Brentford could give them a sell-on fee of approximately £3 million this summer, should the forward gain a Premier League move – a reminder of the benefits of commitment to youth development.
The Grecians, who may well use a double-figured number of academy graduates this term, have a great deal of talent – as first team midfielder Archie Collins’ creative showings imply.
The release of Lee Martin, unique to last season’s squad through pressing and running in behind, represents a huge show of faith in energetic youngster Ben Seymour’s ability to tenfold his number of league starts up top, next to all-rounder Ryan Bowman.
The club have married the youth with experience in defender Rory McArdle, though it remains to be seen whether the Scunthorpe recruit – who typically plays best alongside a dominant centre-back – is an upgrade on released Player of the Year contender Aaron Martin.
City still have a good spine, though, with evenly-matched keepers in Lewis Ward and Jonny Maxted, a composed defender in Pierce Sweeney and a strong set of midfielders in Collins, destroyer Nigel Atangana, captain Jake Taylor and even young sitter Harry Kite.
Randell Williams carried the bulk of City’s threat from right wing-back last term and the addition of right-back Jake Caprice suggests a switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2, with Williams – if he stays – assuming a more advanced role.
This could mean intelligent operator Nicky Law drifting in from wide left to create in pockets, though sometimes Taylor may prefer the more direct Joel Randall teaming up with fellow teenager, Jack Sparkes, from left-back.
Exeter are benefiting from a great relationship with various local non-league clubs, who have generally sent their top talent back in superb shape.
If this season will show anything, it’ll be that the kids are alright.
Port Vale have very quickly gone from being among the EFL’s most unstable clubs on and off the field, to one of the most stable across all departments.
Not only have last year’s new owners Kevin and Carol Shanahan saved the Burslem club from potential doom, the Valiants-by-birth have positively energized it through honesty, community involvement and shrewd operational decisions.
One of those was handing a three-year deal to tranquil touchliner John Askey, a stickler for calmness and continuity. The former Macclesfield boss played 4-3-3 in each game bar two last season with 29 or more league starts for seven players.
That septet includes two ever-presents, gifted goalkeeper Scott Brown and powerful centre-back Leon Legge, whose partnership with the aggressive Nathan Smith has seen Vale ship just nine goals in 12 encounters with top seven opposition.
Either side of the defensive duo, winger by trade Cristian Montano has adapted admirably to left-back while right-back James Gibbons, under Askey, has resurged to the form that saw him win Young Player of the Year in 2017-18.
Luke Joyce is a pillar of consistency in a young midfield and the former Carlisle man’s awareness and distribution at the base allows Tom Conlon and Scott Burgess to apply their all-action games.
Davids Amoo and Worrall may hope to chip in with more than the combined eight league goals of last term from wide forward roles, but the former can change games single-handedly while the latter has been by far Vale’s most prominent creator, managing 11 assists.
The most pertinent question is who Worrall and co. will be creating for. While Askey has done well to resolve the over-reliance on an aging Tom Pope from previous seasons, his side could do with a stand-out, complete centre-forward.
The signing of Theo Robinson, who gave Colchester positive all-round contributions last season without being prolific, was a key addition up top. Especially since there are question marks over Mark Cullen’s ability to stay fit and Devante Rodney’s chances of replicating an impressive National League campaign with Halifax and Stockport in League Two.
New-found stability suggests the Vale could find their grail.
Mansfield Town have been League Two’s lavish spenders in recent seasons, but that has not always translated onto the pitch.
Graham Coughlan is the latest man looking to lead the big-budgeted Stags into League One. The former Bristol Rovers boss, who replaced rookie John Dempster in December, looks a more demanding and imposing figure than his predecessor.
Coughlan has co-operated positively though with new Director of Football, David Sharpe, who has overseen the bulk of recruitment.
Mansfield need to get things right in that department after a very disappointing 21st-placed finish last season and sure enough, a rear-guard that shipped 55 league goals in 36 games has since been addressed.
Marek Štěch, a promotion-winner with Yeovil and Luton, adds experience between the sticks while athlete Rollin Menayese, the composed Farrend Rawson and dynamic wing-back Corey O’Keefe bolster the back-five, which already includes one of League Two’s most consistent left-siders in Malvind Benning.
In midfield, they hope that technician George Maris will be refreshed after a stale end to his time at Cambridge and that Ollie Clarke, a trusted servant to Coughlan at Rovers, brings leadership to an otherwise youthful crop including advanced presser Harry Charsley.
Pressing is key to a Coughlan side, which is why Mansfield have added mobility up top in Jamie Reid – 56 goals in 97 non-league games for Torquay – even with a good crop of strikers on paper already in place.
Promotion is the aim – a massive improvement on last season is the demand.
One would have to go back many years to find the last time Walsall had the right owner and manager simultaneously.
Whisper it, but that might just have changed under current regimes.
Walsall-born Leigh Pomlett has gained lots of goodwill in his first term as chairman for his transparent approach while in an equal timeframe, Darrell Clarke has won most supporters over with his passion, honesty and impressive CV.
Clarke’s troops managed Play-Off form from early November onwards last season and enter the next with exciting attacking options: Rory Holden, who re-joins from Bristol City, has progressed hugely since being moved to the number 10 position while Wes McDonald can score delightful solo goals from wide left.
The Saddlers boss, a back-to-back promotion-winner with Bristol Rovers, may pick two of finisher Elijah Adebayo, selfless runner Caolan Lavery and the speedy Josh Gordon, with the latter to threaten either up top or by cutting inside from the right.
If Walsall can bat off reported Championship interest in Gordon, the key challenge will be feeding the forwards, which requires more midfield craft.
A double-pivot of honest pro Liam Kinsella and veteran battler Stuart Sinclair leaves the Saddlers limited when working without injury-prone controller Dan Guthrie. But that problem could be solved by the continued rise of young talent Alfie Bates.
A stable defence is intact with James Clarke’s strong showings as captain, so a top seven finish would vindicate common optimism that Walsall now have the right leadership in place.
Salford City follow Bolton as 2nd-favourites for promotion from League Two and on the surface, it’s easy to see why.
Former Preston stalwart Tom Clarke joins to bring Championship experience at the back next to fellow recruit Jordan Turnbull. He helped Northampton up last season and they have also brought in Václav Hladký from St Mirren, a sound shot stopper.
Athlete Ibou Touray could form a great left-sided partnership with Ashley Hunter, a creative star of League One in recent seasons, who will provide sublime deliveries for a rich array of striking talent.
Ian Henderson’s goalscoring exploits for Rochdale make him the third-tier’s top marksman from the previous decade and the veteran’s poaching technique offers enviable foil for either target man Tom Elliott or former Manchester United speedster James Wilson.
With Bruno Andrade bringing further pace and quality from the right, few will deny Salford are likely to have one of the division’s finest attacking quartets.
League Two’s successful sides last year, though, all had central midfielders capable of progressing the ball through either vision or driving runs, which is an ingredient the Ammies would be missing if they use a double-pivot of terrier Richie Towell and ball-winner Jason Lowe.
Plus, there are question marks over manager Graham Alexander’s tactical approach. The former right-back’s sides can play direct too early and drop too deep in management of leads.
Salford’s front four can only be effective if the sextet behind them are working towards creating space for them and if the team, as a unit, is geared towards fashioning a high-volume of clear cut chances. It’s hard to say with confidence that that will be true of the Greater Manchester outfit.
While Salford could contend as many expect, it’s worth remembering that the best attacking individuals, alone, do not make the best attacking team.
It seems ironic that Carlisle United’s most impressive summer of business since 2016 has come in such financially uncertain circumstances.
The club faced criticism over previous years for poor preparation and a highly questionable one-year contract policy. But lessons have since been learnt and encouragement can be taken from the calibre of player they are now attracting to Brunton Park.
Technical right-back George Tanner, Morecambe’s stand-out pre-recall, is a huge asset and Rod McDonald, a promotion-winner with Coventry in 2017-18, will add defensive strength next to the dominant Aaron Hayden, while goalkeeper Paul Farman was Stevenage’s sole star last season.
Striker Josh Kayode, who returns on loan from Rotherham, brings searing pace and persistence along with willing runners Gavin Reilly and Omari Patrick – godson of Linford Christie – in what could be a lightning front-line supported by the intelligent Lewis Alessandra.
Some newbies have something to prove – midfielder Danny Devine was tidy, if passive at Bradford, where Joe Riley also had mixed reviews and Gime Toure was a touch inconsistent in the league below – but all could develop under an adept coach.
The Cumbrians were 21st when Chris Beech took charge in late-November and have since found midtable form with just five defeats in 19.
The squad is improved, so Beech’s boys could be well-placed to continue their good vibrations.
The natural expectation for a club like Bradford City in League Two and the appropriate expectation for their existing group of players are not quite the same.
The Bantams are giants at this level and their stature dictates that only promotion will truly satisfy natives. But just three players performed to anywhere near League One standards last season: seasoned shot-stopper Richard O’Donnell, athletic centre-back Ben Richards-Everton and left-back crossing specialist Connor Wood.
Talented centre-back Paudie O’Connor and skillful midfielder Callum Cooke might have joined that group had the former been given more starts and the latter, a freer role.
Stuart McCall plans to let Cooke off the leash this term, but that will require the addition of a powerful enforcer because, of the midfield newbies, Elliot Watt is an unpredictable creator while Levi Sutton is disciplined but short on physicality.
Diminutive returnee Billy Clarke plus former Birmingham teammates Clayton Donaldson and Lee Novak are well past their best in a set of attacking options lacking pace. Meanwhile, wingers Harry Pritchard, Zeli Ismail and Dylan Mottley-Henry are all inconsistent.
For a fourth-tier giant, Bradford’s squad is metaphorically human-sized.
Colchester United are lucky to have chairman Robbie Cowling.
The Essex businessman conducts himself with class and integrity, which has earned him a positive reputation within the industry and he always thinks of the club’s long-term interests at a time when many owners don’t.
The current climate, though, may have brought out Cowling’s cautious side: departed manager John McGreal is replaced with his assistant, Steve Ball – though internal appointments are common at Col U – while key players Ryan Jackson, Brandon Comley and Frank Nouble have been released from a squad that had no new additions by late August.
That is entirely understandable given the loss of revenue, but it also means the U’s could begin this season with a weaker squad than the one that concluded the last and thus they risk falling behind.
Cowling hopes that his previous investment into the academy and Under-23s squad will pay off, that young talents like centre-back Ollie Kensdale, unpredictable winger Michael Fernandes and speedy poacher Jake Hutchinson can follow in the footsteps of Kwame Poku, 2019-20’s breakout star.
Poku and Callum Harriott are threatening members of an attacking midfield trio in McGreal’s 4-2-3-1 that Ball may stick with. Meanwhile, Ben Stevenson is a fine technician and the muscly Harry Pell has been good enough to displace fan favourite Tom Lapslie.
The U’s possess one of League Two’s most accomplished centre-backs in Tom Eastman and arguably the division’s best left-back in Cohen Bramall, who has just about everything when fit.
To achieve another top seven berth, though, the U’s don’t just need the usual suspects to perform at the expected level – they also need a cluster of youngsters to develop well ahead of schedule.
The 17th-placed finish with which Leyton Orient marked their EFL return represented a steady campaign.
Ross Embleton did a reasonable job as Interim Head Coach in the circumstances and, after an experiment with Carl Fletcher lasted just 29 days, the club committed to the boyhood O’s fan with a 12-month rolling contract.
Nigel Travis’ Head Coach and Director of Football structure, with Embleton taking the former position and Martin Ling, the latter, may have dissuaded more experienced managers. But it allows the club to delegate efficiently on areas such as recruitment.
They recruited well in January, with goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux and midfielder Ousseynou Cisse bringing League One quality to the 2018-19 National League title-winners.
Cisse collected the ball deep to allow Craig Clay to press higher in his box-to-box role next to Josh Wright, whose appetite for a well-timed run helped him become top goalscorer with eight.
Perhaps the one thing that trio lacks is creativity – even after a few surreal training sessions with Yaya Toure – so there is work ahead for Embleton to find the perfect midfield concoction. Nevertheless, a good set of attacking options is in place.
In Jordan Maguire-Drew, the O’s have a very productive wide forward on his day, while sprightly Cypriot Ruel Sotiriou has signed a new deal amid reported higher league interest.
Sotiriou’s movement from the left channel into central areas may see him dovetail well with physical front-man Lee Angol, whose runs in the opposite direction could create a smooth attacking equilibrium – left-sided centre-back Dan Happe looks a bright young talent too.
After a year of consolidation, Orient expectations have risen: while the Play-Offs might be a slight stretch, a top half finish is well within their range.
Forest Green Rovers
Few doubt that Forest Green Rovers enter 2019-20 with, on paper, a top seven squad.
Dynamo Ebou Adams and one-touch man Carl Winchester give the Greens a strong midfield pairing and defender Liam Kitching had a decent season last year too.
On top of that, the club have brought in shot stopper Luke McGee and tidy right-back Kane Wilson, who have both performed well in the division above, plus a target man in Jamille Matt who has been part of a top seven side in four of his seven seasons at this level.
The real doubts, though, surround manager Mark Cooper.
The former midfielder can be an excellent tactician, as shown by his work at Swindon in 2014-15 and at Forest Green in his first and third full seasons in charge, but there are numerous recent cases that call his man management credentials into question.
Cooper has made 41 signings in the last 26 months, which is more than any manager should need at a club that supposedly have the budget to attract the right players. Thus, it is hard not to question why the Wakefield-born boss keeps needing new ones.
Chairman Dale Vince appears to back Cooper unwaveringly on any controversial matter involving him – whether that’s an alleged falling out with a player, fans or anyone else – and the 51-year-old kept his job despite seeing his side accrue a paltry nine points from 12 games since the turn of the year.
To look at the individual players Forest Green have and automatically presume they will compete for promotion would be simplistic.
It is hard to imagine, from an outside perspective, a dressing room that is wholly happy and motivated, on which basis a capable squad could fall well short of it’s promotion potential.
Most initial doubts about the early-December appointment of low-profile veteran John Yems as manager have since been assuaged.
Yems’ troops have accrued 27 points from 18 games, losing to only Oldham, Walsall and Crewe with the Red Devils enjoying the division’s third-best home record in that time.
That, though, was with relentless runner Panutche Camara and physical front-man Ollie Palmer, who have since earned League One moves.
Palmer’s hold-up play was vital to the form of the mobile Ashley Nadesan, who struggled when deployed on his own up top. So Crawley’s choice is simple: replace his bigger strike-partner, or make up for the departure with increased midfield creativity.
The Sussex side needed Palmer last season because their best passer, Nathan Ferguson, undertakes a deep midfield role unlike recruit Sam Matthews, who could operate as a more advanced playmaker.
Nadesan, Yems hopes, will not miss Palmer if Matthews, who the 61-year-old knows from his time as operations manager at Bournemouth, can accurately slide the striker through.
If Crawley take time to perfect new patterns of attacking play, they should at least rely on a solid set of centre-backs including star performer Jordan Tunnicliffe and new leader Tony Craig, a League One promotion winner with Millwall. They also have agile operator David Sesay at left-back and evergreen goalkeeper Glenn Morris.
Crawley’s top half hopes, though, hinge on how quickly they either replace Palmer or embrace a subtle stylistic shift.
Before New Year’s Eve, Grimsby Town were 22nd in League Two. Yet, had the season started on New Year’s Day, they would have concluded it 4th – or 9th on PPG.
Although two Burnley loanees made a huge impact – Anthony Driscoll-Glennon brought thrust from left-back while Josh Benson added quality in midfield – the major turning point was the arrival of Ian Holloway as manager.
Though ‘Ollie replaced a capable coach in Michael Jolley, his passion, words and ability to emotively galvanize a whole club was pivotal at a time when many fans had grown disgruntled with John Fenty’s regime as Majority Shareholder.
Holloway’s spirit, the continued heroics of evergreen goalkeeper James McKeown, the fitness of versatile full-back Luke Hendrie and the consistency of teenage centre-back talent Mattie Pollock will hereon be key for Grimsby, who could start 2020-21 with a youthful side.
Various issues with depth and fitness may hand tall, quick centre-back Duncan Idehen, ‘Ollie-endorsed left-back Joey Hope and versatile midfielder Joseph Starbuck chances to build on productive pre-seasons.
The more experienced James Hanson remains a reliable target man but his presence can tempt the Mariners into going direct from deep, potentially disrupting Holloway’s plans to play out from the back.
There will be two forwards flanking Hanson in a narrow front-three and most of the contenders – Montel Gibson, Ira Jackson Jr and Alhagi Touray Sisay – are stepping up from an inferior league, while new attacking technician George Williams has played just 117 minutes of football since May 2019.
Grimsby are one of the bigger clubs at this level and thus a top seven finish is the de facto target – but to get close to that this year, Holloway and a handful of star performers must inspire the rest to new heights.
Michael Flynn is a bona fide Newport County legend.
The former Exiles player, as manager, inspired the miraculous great escape in 2016-17, before two years of progress culminated in 2019’s narrow Play-Off Final defeat to Tranmere.
2019-20, though, was the first year of regression under his tutelage – the first major test of the foundations of Flynn and Newport’s marriage.
A relentlessly direct, attacking side in 2018-19, the Exiles became more conservative last term, looking tighter defensively as more opponents nullified their offensive game plan.
Though Ryan Taylor replaces target man Jamille Matt, Flynn may look to evolve the style and embrace a more floor-based counter-attacking strategy, with young talent Lewis Collins and the speedy Tristan Abrahams flanking persistent poacher Padraig Amond.
A higher press may be required to release that front-three, so a big shift will be demanded from anchor man Scot Bennett, controller Matty Dolan and creator-in-chief Josh Sheehan.
The Exiles have an imposing giant in Kyle Howkins, who hopes centre-back partner Mickey Demetriou has a campaign less affected by injury and that goalkeeper Tom King can continue his impressive development.
With none of the current Championship managers having been poached from lower league clubs – and Flynn unlikely to swap a happy home in League Two for a chancier challenge in League One – this marriage is likely to be long.
A tough season is afoot, so Flynn and fans must maintain their devotion to one another – even though the elongated two-and-a-half year honeymoon may be over.
While Bentley undoubtedly got his players working hard, there was a friendly and jocular element to the culture he created, whereas successor Derek Adams is comparatively stony, demanding and business-like.Gabriel Sutton
Jim Bentley did a great job to keep Morecambe in the EFL for eight years and the former defender will always have his place in the club’s folklore, but the mid-season change of manager was necessary.
While Bentley undoubtedly got his players working hard, there was a friendly and jocular element to the culture he created, whereas successor Derek Adams is comparatively stony, demanding and business-like.
Adams’ drive has been a breath of fresh air in West Lancashire. Yet co-chairmen Rod Taylor and Graham Howse must also be praised for backing the Scot with some excellent additions.
Toumani Diagouraga can run games in League Two without needing to run while a mobile midfielder in Adam Phillips and intelligent right-back Ryan Cooney both rejoin from Burnley after strong loan spells. The latter faces intriguing competition from Kelvin Mellor.
Ball-playing defender Harry Davis arrives from Grimsby to form a potentially strong centre-back pairing with Sam Lavelle, a maturing young captain; Ben Pringle signs to bring crisp deliveries from deep while loanee goalkeeper Jake Turner hopes to build on an award-winning season with Newcastle Under-23s.
12 players have been released to make way for these positive additions, but resurgent anchor man Alex Kenyon, late box-charger Aaron Wildig and hold-up front-man Cole Stockton have proved themselves sufficiently valuable under Adams to elude the cull.
Progress is likely – just how much will depend on whether the supremely talented Carlos Mendes Gomes can go from being one of the division’s most exciting wide forwards to one of the most productive.
One of the highest-profile transfers of the League Two summer is Cambridge United’s signing of Norwich City legend Wes Hoolahan.
🖊️ WES HOOLAHAN IS A U!
— Cambridge United FC (@CambridgeUtdFC) July 28, 2020
Just four years ago, “The Irish Messi” was playing Premier League football before representing his country at a major international tournament and the Dubliner’s top-level experience makes him quite the coup for a modest fourth-tier outfit.
Cambridge boss Mark Bonner, younger than his star recruit, will ask his side to construct their attacks around Hoolahan’s sublime vision, technique and finesse.
The 38-year-old’s arrival though will bring its own tactical conundrums. midfield runners will be required to give Hoolahan both time in possession and defensive insurance.
Attacking full-backs Kyle Knoyle and either Jack Iredale or Harrison Dunk will help the former issue, while the discipline of anchor man Liam O’Neil will be crucial at the base of a midfield including the adaptable Luke Hannant.
Cambridge have one of League Two’s most promising shot stoppers in Dimitar Mitov, as well as a talented young centre-back in Robbie Cundy, on loan from Bristol City.
They do, though, look short on quality in forward areas and the dearth to date of goalscoring potential out wide suggests heavy emphasis will be placed on the form of strikers.
While grafter Joe Ironside, springy Paul Mullin and the more technical Harvey Knibbs are all competent, neither seem likely to maximize Leon Davies’ pinpoint deliveries nor lead a top half escapade.
While Hoolahan’s arrival is a massive coup for Cambridge, they could struggle to capitalize on the final third ventures he inspires.
Fathers and sons working together professionally in managing and playing capacities are not unheard of – think Steve and Alex Bruce or Gary and Lee Johnson – but in boardroom and managing roles, it’s extremely rare.
In theory, such a combination is a recipe for disaster: perceptions of nepotism, accurate or demonstrably inaccurate, can be challenging for players, let alone managers, who already carry the heaviest responsibility for a club’s on-field fortunes.
The influence of even the best can go stale with a new voice sometimes required and thus those making operational decisions must, surely, have respectful but impartial relationships.
Harrogate Town, though, have made a seemingly unappealing combination work, if initially through necessity rather than design.
The club entered financial trouble in 2011 and manager Simon Weaver’s dad, Irving, agreed to become chairman and invest money in squad and infrastructure, which has led to a nine-year rise.
Two promotions in three seasons prove that Simon Weaver is an excellent boss, who has built an intelligent, flexible outfit at Wetherby Road.
The Sulphurites can press when stirred by fantastic midfield captain Josh Falkingham, go direct to a tall striker in Mark Beck or Jon Stead, exploit wide areas through Jack Muldoon or pick their moments carefully with the composure of midfielder Lloyd Kerry plus full-backs Ryan Fallowfield and Warren Burrell.
Throw in the asset that is goalkeeper James Belshaw and Harrogate should comfortably settle into their debut EFL campaign, with an unlikely dream team at the helm.
Oldham Athletic are a club in crisis.
Many Latics fans have got behind supporters group Push The Boundary, in order to challenge chairman Abdallah Lemsagam for a lack of timely, transparent communication regarding issues at the club such as late payment of player wages, the closure of the North Stand and a high turnover of managers during his tenure.
Despite this, Oldham have still been able to attract a reasonable calibre of player.
Hold-up front-man Danny Rowe signed for an undisclosed fee in January before forming a good strike-partnership with the nippy Zach Dearnley, on loan from Manchester United – the latter rejoins permanently.
Former United first teamer Cameron Borthwick-Jackson signs a one-year contract and, in the right headspace, could be the division’s best left-back.
Sido Jombati, a League One promotion winner with Wycombe and Carl Piergianni, who excelled on loan from Salford, arrive on permanent deals to ensure a good centre-back pairing will be in place, even if David Wheater departs. Meanwhile, right-back Tom Hamer has attracted lofty interest.
New manager Harry Kewell, though, may be in last chance saloon in EFL terms: 79 points from 63 games as a manager at this level – bottom half form – is not always enough to counterbalance certain issues with his leadership style, which has, fairly or otherwise, rubbed some up the wrong way.
With the right replacements for ball-winner Mohamad Sylla, all-action Christopher Missilou and wide talent Jonny Smith, Oldham could have a top half squad.
They enter the closing stages of preparation well short in midfield though, and it remains to be seen whether Kewell can acquire the motivational qualities to ease the ill-feeling around Boundary Park.
Scunthorpe United chairman Peter Swann has struggled, in recent years, to find a manager with the know-how to lead the club forward yet also the open-mindedness to co-operate with the new, developmental recruitment policy.
He hopes to have found the solution in Neil Cox, a long-term assistant to Neal Ardley at AFC Wimbledon and Notts County, who manages as a number one in the EFL for the first time.
Six signings were made before Cox’s appointment was officially confirmed, the most notable of which being right-back Jordan Clarke’s return as captain – the other five were under 25.
Lewis Spence and Frank Vincent arrive from Ross County and on loan from Bournemouth respectively, with both having the reputation of being neat and tidy whilst lacking muscle, which makes for an intriguing contrast from the midfielders Cox has previously coached.
Talented forward Kelsey Mooney, meanwhile, hopes to be better equipped for League Two’s physical duels second time around after a positive stint at 6th-tier Hereford – he will compete with agile target man Aaron Jarvis, who signs from Sutton United and the gifted Kevin Van Veen.
Scunny possess a smattering of quality behind in lively left-sider Abo Eisa, direct right-sider Alex Gilliead and goalscoring midfielder John McAtee.
Athlete Manny Onariase or “man mountain” Tyler Cordner, meanwhile, could compliment ball-playing centre-back Jacob Bedeau, but all are under 24.
Experience is lacking for a manager who, if anything like Ardley stylistically, may want a more seasoned squad and a bulkier midfield. Therefore, a return to League One feels a long way off.
Nobody can begrudge Ian Evatt for his summer move to Bolton, but it seems unfortunate that the man who inspired Barrow to end their 48-year exile from the EFL cannot lead them back into it.
Chairman Paul Hornby, though, has much local support and the Barrovian board he leads replaced Evatt with David Dunn who, they hope, has learnt much from a poor stint at Oldham, his only prior experience as a permanent senior manager.
Dunn may see something of his 21-year-old self in Callum Gribbin, who brings encouraging reviews from Manchester United.
Unlike Tom White, who operated with positional awareness in the hole in Evatt’s 3-4-1-2 setup, Gribbin is likely to be let off the leash to roam and create instinctively for mobile target man Scott Quigley and streaky speedster Dior Angus.
Mike Jones, a steady midfielder when fit, is a sound capture for anyone looking to consolidate in the fourth-tier – he adds EFL experience along with right wing-back Bradley Barry, a top 2019-20 performer for the National League title winners.
Joel Dixon and Matthew Platt, meanwhile, relish their first taste of football at this level; Dixon was arguably the strongest goalkeeper in the fifth-tier last term while Platt, at just 22, transformed the defence.
Were Evatt still in charge, it would be easy to predict an EFL debut season of smooth sailing for the coastal Cumbrian club, but with an unproven rookie they could find choppier waters.
Rarely in football is a man last associated with Weymouth a more appealing option than Sol Campbell, but that is the case at Southend United.
Campbell inherited an extremely difficult situation last season, managing a club with deep-rooted financial issues; many teamsheets he was forced to name looked more suitable for youth team matches than League One encounters.
The former Arsenal defender, though, reportedly barely spoke to many and on the field, the lack of communication was evident.
The 45-year-old left the relegated club and has since been replaced by Mark Molesley, who juggled coaching Under-23s at Bournemouth – work that earned him a glowing reference from Eddie Howe post-exit – with leading Weymouth to successive promotions.
Molesley worked with Jordan Green at Bournemouth and that relationship helped him strike a five-month loan for the quick and hungry Barnsley wide man.
The 39-year-old boss could also hand forward Brandon Goodship the central role he enjoyed at Weymouth, though the Shrimpers are relatively strong in attack with individualistic forward Stephen Humphrys and teenage talent Charlie Kelman, the subject of reported Swansea interest.
Right-back is on paper the other decent area, with athlete Elvis Bwomono displacing former Walsall star Jason Demetriou, who Campbell used in midfield.
Kelman and Bwomono head a now lightly-seasoned crop of youth including set piece specialist Tom Clifford, box-to-box man Lewis Gard, tidy left-sider Eren Kinali and long-range hitter Harry Phillips. But it’s hard to ascertain whether either have broken in through talent as much as necessity.
The youngsters will be guided only by seven-year stalwart John White, last season’s questionable captain Timothee Dieng and out-of-form goalkeeper Mark Oxley.
Molesley may well be a good manager who simply hasn’t made a good choice of club: while the sinking Shrimpers are lagging in so many departments outside the technical area, a second relegation could be on the cards.
Last season, Stevenage were given one of the most fortuitous reprieves ever seen in sporting history.
They stayed up having collected just 22 points and having scored only 24 goals in 36 games; a combination of Bury’s liquidation and Macclesfield’s combined 17-point deduction meant the relegation battle was decided off the field rather than on it.
A replication of that form in the previous campaign would have seen them finish 12 points behind bottom side Yeovil, who accrued more wins in their first seven games that year than Stevenage did throughout their 2019-20 campaign.
Fans hope Alex Revell, who oversaw the final two matches, can inspire an enormous resurgence in his first full season in management.
He will have to do so without Carlisle-bound goalkeeper Paul Farman, the second-biggest factor behind Stevenage’s fluky escape, whilst hoping that experienced centre-backs Scott Cuthbert and Luke Prosser, who signs from Colchester, stay injury-free.
Cuthbert and Romain Vincelot, a tall, aggressive holding midfielder who joins from Shrewsbury, are familiar to Revell but both have declined drastically since the trio inspired an unlikely League One promotion challenge with Leyton Orient in 2013-14.
Physical front-man Inih Effiong has his first shot at league football after a 12-year non-league career. He was a former Woking teammate of energetic midfielder Charlie Carter, the only hit in Stevenage’s last summer of poor recruitment.
Although technical left-back Ben Coker could bring League One nous when fit, much of Stevenage’s squad has a non-league history – it may also have a non-league future.