The new season will soon be upon us and so it's time to take a look at how clubs will be lining up in a few weeks time. Despite being something of a fallow period for us fans while no matches are being played, this period between the end of one season and the beginning of another can actually be an incredibly busy one for football clubs. Within the flurry of transfer activity around over the past weeks some clubs have been spending big whilst others are cutting back, some looking to make minor improvements while others rebuild from scratch, and while some clubs grab headlines others go about their business quietly. So who looks set to challenge and who is in for a season of struggle?
I have spent a long time researching this and had been planning to write just the single piece on it for the Football Front blog. However, when I started writing it, it turned out to be so long I thought I would split into three parts over the next few days! So here is part one of The Boys from Up the Hill's League Two season preview, featuring Crawley, Northampton, Bristol Rovers, Torquay, Swindon, our good selves, Gillingham and AFC Wimbledon.
I'll start by looking at the movers and shakers in League Two and what better place to begin than by looking at newcomers Crawley Town, last year's controversial Conference champions who, having assembled something of a non-league Galacticos last season, appear to have continued their expensive revolution by getting their hands dirty in the transfer market once again. After releasing a host of solid Conference players, they have shrewdly strengthened their squad with the acquisition of numerous proven league talents. Joining last season's 37 goal star Matt Tubbs are Cheltenham's Wes Thomas, Macclesfield's Tyrone Barnett and Bristol City's John Akinde. All three have a proven record at this level and will form a deadly combination up front. Crawley never looked likely to struggle and their new acquisitions appear only to have strengthened the squad, but if they are to mount a serious challenge for the title their players will have to adjust quickly to the new pace of the Football League.
Another big mover in the transfer market has been Northampton Town, whose player turnover this summer has been simply staggering. New boss Gary Johnson has released most of the squad which saw the Cobblers flirt with relegation last season and has opted for revolution, bringing in a further 14 players at the time of writing. Particularly noteworthy among them is the return of fan favourite Adebayo Akinfenwa after a year at Gillingham, to accompany Burton goal machine Shaun Harrad, who arrived in January. They will be supported by a new-look midfield boasting both strength and creativity after the arrivals of Stockport captain Paul Turnbull and Peterborough's Arron Davies. Northampton definitely look set to improve on last season's dismal showing, but they have a lot of ground to catch up on their rivals and the success of their campaign will hinge on their new signings being able to gel quickly. Furthermore, their defence still appears to be weak, so expect them to concede a few.
Bristol Rovers have been busy this summer, first poaching new manager Paul Buckle from Torquay and then pinching a couple of their better players as well, with Chris Zebroski and Scott Bevan defecting northwards. The club haven't been afraid to spend a bit of money in their quest for an immediate return to League One, with high profile signings such as Shrewsbury's Matt Harrold, Adam Virgo from Yeovil and Lincoln's Mustapha Carayol. Buckle has certainly put the money he's been given to good use and there looks to be strong competition for every position on the pitch. Rovers are spoilt for choice up front with Harrold, Zebroski and Scott McGleish all having a strong case for starting, as well as a plethora of choice in midfield with Matt Gill, Craig Stanley, Wayne Brown, Chris Lines and Stuart Campbell all competing for a central midfield slot. Not many of last season's players have survived Buckle's cull but a couple who have impressed are striker Jo Kuffour and midfielder Chris Lines, who has attracted attention from Championship clubs but for the time being remains with Rovers. Bristol Rovers appear to have assembled a squad capable of winning promotion, but with so many new faces and strong contenders amongst the mix, getting them to play as a unit and keeping everyone happy will be Buckle's biggest challenge. Having excelled in the underdog role while at Torquay he now finds himself well and truly backed in Bristol and he will have no excuses if he fails to win promotion.
But spare a thought for last year's playoff finalists Torquay, having seen Paul Buckle leave for Bristol Rovers, taking Bevan and Zebroski with him as he builds a squad for promotion, they're left to try and recreate last season's success with their limited resources. To compound things last season's player of the year, Guy Branston, has joined Bradford City, leaving a big vacancy in the Torquay back line. Torquay's appointment of Martin Ling as their next manager suggests that finances will be tight again next season, but he has experience of winning promotion in similar conditions from his time at Leyton Orient, however his most recent job at Cambridge was not exactly successful. Ling has used his knowledge of the Conference to bring in Brian Saah from Cambridge and Chris McPhee from Kidderminster, both of whom are competent players but may not be quite enough to have Torquay challenging for promotion again. In Joe Oastler and Daniel Leadbitter they have picked up promising young players who have been cast off from Premier League and Championship clubs; they will be cheap and if they can perform could be a great deal. However, Torquay have lost a lot of influential players lately and these will be difficult to replace with unproven players, making Torquay all the weaker for it.
Swindon are another club who have undergone major surgery this summer, following their relegation from League One, and they have been the subject of much publicity after the controversial appointment of fiery Italian fascist Paolo Di Canio as manager. In appointing a first time manager with little experience of the English lower leagues they have taken a big gamble, but they have stuck to their guns and backed Di Canio, allowing him to build a squad according to his footballing philosophy (something to do with lions and balls, apparently). A host of exotic names have since signed up to the Swindon cause giving the squad a rather international feel, comprising several Italians, a Namibian international, a Dutchman and an Algerian. Swindon fans have, however, been assured that the club will not be playing Italian style football next season and in fact the signings they have made appear to demonstrate that they are preparing for a hard-fought, physical season ahead, with new club captain Oliver Risser adding some steel to the Swindon midfield. It's easy to ignore that they have also recruited English non-league players and have brought in the likes of Jon Smith from York and Alan Connell from Grimsby, as well as courting Dover's Adam Birchall – evidently hoping for another Charlie Austin. They will join a number of players with lower league experience, such as Barnet's Joe Devera, Charlton's Alan McCormack as well as Etienne Esajas, formerly of Sheffield Wednesday. They have, however, lost some of their better players from last season with Jonathan Douglas joining Brentford, Jon-Paul McGovern leaving for Carlisle and with Swindon making the unusual decision to loan out proven League Two goalscorer Elliot Benyon to Wycombe. With their high-profile manager and the expectations of their fans the pressure will really be on for their gamble to work immediately, something which they may find difficult with so many new faces in the squad, and if things start badly expect the pressure to build very quickly. Swindon's season has the potential to either be very successful or a complete disaster.
From Swindon to the much nicer and less depressing Oxford, who were inconsistent last season but have built on the firm base we had established with some very solid signings. Chris Wilder has added some much-needed experience to the defence, with the signings of Morecambe's Tony Capaldi, Andy Whing from Leyton Orient and veteran centre back Michael Duberry. In midfield we've pulled off a major coup, bringing in Peter Leven from MK Dons, who defied expectations by dropping a division to League Two, despite interest from Championship clubs. Up front we've added Deane Smalley, who had a successful loan spell with champions Chesterfield last season, as well as adding pacy striker Jon-Paul Pittman after his release from Wycombe. Oxford appear to have made some standout signings in all areas of the pitch which should see us improve on last season's 12th place finish, but if we are to push on and earn promotion this season we'll need to overcome our inconsistency, while our lightweight midfield may see us dominated by bigger, more physical sides.
Another side who will look to kick on after finishing outside the playoff positions are Gillingham, but their preparations did not start well with reports of budget cuts and with some of their most important players from last season in the shape of Cody McDonald, Andy Barcham, Chris Palmer and Adebayo Akinfenwa all leaving this summer. Fortunately Gills fans have something to smile about as the club have made some astute signings, picking up some useful players on free transfers from higher leagues, such as Millwall's Andy Frampton, Wycombe's Lewis Montrose and Peterborough duo Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale, who joined following a successful loan spell with the Gills last season. They've also raided neighbours Dover Athletic, signing three of their most important players in Matt Fish, Ross Flitney and Adam Birchall - scorer of 45 goals last season, but unfortunately facing a 6 month lay-off following a cruciate ligament injury in his first preseason appearance for Gillingham. The loss of Birchall will be a major blow to Gillingham who will have hoped he could step up and fill the hole left by Akinfenwa and McDonald. If he had been fit, he'd have been joined up front by marquee signing and local boy Danny Kedwell, who joined after helping AFC Wimbledon to promotion last season and looks to be worth a few goals in League Two next season as well. Gills look to be strong again this season, but relying on strikers with little Football League experience (one of whom is injured) could mean they have too little firepower to push on as they would like.
With Danny Kedwell, Gillingham's gain is the loss of the Football League's other new boys AFC Wimbledon, who relied on his goals in last year's promotion campaign. Stepping into the breach for them are Jack Midson, signed from Oxford on a free, and Charles Ademeno from Grimsby, both of whom have scored goals in the Conference but whether they can do so in League Two remains to be seen. Another big blow to the Dons comes from the loss of technically gifted midfielder Steven Gregory, who was sold to Bournemouth. He will be replaced by Max Porter from the now-defunct Rushden & Diamonds, another player who was solid in the Conference but has little experience of League Two football. The Dons' defence is another similar story, consisting mainly of youngsters, many of whom have a decent record but little experience at this level, such as new signing Mat Mitchell-King, who had been a success at Histon but failed to make an impression at Crewe. Wimbledon may find this season tough after losing their two most important players over the summer and will need to rely on some of their younger players to step up. Teams that have been promoted from the Conference are usually too good to go straight back down so expect them to fare okay, but with their limited budget expect this season to be one of consolidation and in a few years they may be good enough to push for the playoff positions, as there is undoubtedly a lot of potential in the side.
That's it for part 1, but parts 2 and 3 will be online soon.