Automatic promotion contenders
One point from their final seven matches last season is hardly stirring evidence of a title push but this incarnation of Bradford City are determined to mount a challenge and in Derek Adams they have a manager eyeing a third promotion from the division after guiding Morecambe into League One against the odds in May. The recruitment looks sound but the arrival of Adams, a Marmite character, may be the most important piece of the jigsaw.
Bristol Rovers have been bogged down by negative headlines – Joey Barton is at the centre of two legal cases – but their close-season business looks promising. Barton has turned to familiar faces, with Paul Coutts one of three to join from Fleetwood, and they have added much-needed experience in the former Accrington defender Mark Hughes and moved to address a chronic lack of goals with the arrivals of Aaron Collins and Brett Pitman.
Salford City’s stakeholders are restless at the best of times and now the buck stops with Gary Bowyer, who helped them rally to within two points of the play-offs last season. Josh Morris and Matty Lund represent eye-catching signings who have shone in the division above and a manager as long in the tooth as Bowyer may take them back there. Similarly, the appointment of Kenny Jackett is a coup for Leyton Orient’s ambitious owners. The wily midfielder Darren Pratley impressed in League One last season and Paul Smyth also looks another shrewd pickup. They have sparks in Hector Kyprianou and Dan Kemp but could come up short in attack.
Newport County, play-off finalists last season, have lost a trio of key players, including the midfielder Josh Sheehan to Bolton, but Michael Flynn is used to rebuilding and if they can remain compact they will be a force again. The 42-year-old Kevin Ellison has signed a one-year extension as a player-coach, and the youngster Finn Azaz, promoted with Cheltenham last season, has joined on loan. Exeter City did not make it to Wembley last season – they have lost three play-off finals in the past five seasons – but are poised to go close again, fuelled by their army of academy graduates, including Archie Collins and the talisman Matt Jay, who has been given the captaincy.
It is difficult to envisage Mansfield, last seen meandering to 16th, being so far off the pace in Nigel Clough’s first full season and he has revamped their frontline, adding Danny Johnson, Oli Hawkins and Rhys Oates, who helped Hartlepool to promotion. At the other end of the spectrum, Rob Edwards, formerly the England Under-16s coach, represents a typically bold appointment at Forest Green Rovers, where things had gone stale under Mark Cooper.
Walsall promised a summer shake-up and Matt Taylor, the former Portsmouth defender who left his role as the Tottenham Under-18s coach to venture into management, represents an exciting appointment, with Manny Monthe, Conor Wilkinson and Joss Labadie lured from league rivals. Stevenage have made impressive strides in a short space of time but only relegated Southend and Grimsby scored fewer goals last season, and Tranmere appear light in attack after the retirement of James Vaughan at 32. Crawley and Harrogate continue to look up and could slip in under the radar.
“Don’t ever joke about Swindon Town” is the warning from the Mucklowes of This Country fame plastered on the side of the Town End but the club spent much of the summer a laughing stock, until the relief of a takeover two weeks ago. The head coach, Ben Garner, has walked into a club playing catch-up after pre-season, which was delayed because of off-field issues, started with nine senior players and a skeleton staff. The aim is survival.
Rochdale, another team relegated last season, have had their best players poached, including Stephen Humphrys who has joined Wigan, and there is upheaval off the pitch and in the dugout, where Robbie Stockdale has replaced Brian Barry-Murphy, who has since taken the Manchester City Under-23s post. Barrow did not appoint Cooper with a season of struggle in mind and will hope Offrande Zanzala, signed from Carlisle, will replicate the goals of last season’s top scorer, Scott Quigley, who has joined Stockport.
It is never dull on or off the field at Oldham, who inadvertently became the neutrals’ favourites last season, leaking a league-high 81 goals but scoring freely too – only Cambridge mustered more goals – en route to 18th place, and Scunthorpe also look set for another slog. In Keith Curle, at least Oldham have a manager who knows his way around the division. Sutton United, in the Football League for the first time, and Hartlepool are walking on air following promotion and the former stand to benefit from their stability from the top down, including the manager, Matt Gray.
Three youngsters to watch
Sonny Cox, 16, Exeter Signed a professional contract in July amid significant Premier League interest. Scored four goals on trial at Manchester United but pledged his future to his boyhood club, whom he joined aged seven. Prolific at youth level, the striker trained with Exeter’s first team aged 15 last season.
Noah Chilvers, 20, Colchester The midfielder scooped a hat-trick of awards last season, including the club’s player of the year prize, after a breakout campaign in which he racked up almost 50 games. His development will be aided by an experienced quartet signed from Ipswich, including Alan Judge.
Max Dyche, 18, Northampton Son of the Burnley manager, Sean, the centre-back signed his first professional contract this summer after making his debut last season. Joined Northampton as an under-nine and has impressed during pre-season. Displayed composure despite defeat on his only league start last December.