Sunday, 31 July 2011

2011-12 League Two Season Preview (Part 3)

The third and final part of this rather wordy series is here. Featuring the remaining 8 League Two clubs (last but certainly not least): Dagenham & Redbridge, Accrington Stanley, Barnet, Hereford United, Cheltenham Town, Macclesfield Town, Burton Albion and Morecambe. Also, if you haven't already, don't forget to read parts 1 and 2.

For Dagenham preseason is a familiar story. Many of the club's best performers from last season have moved on to pastures new and John Still is left to start again and find more hidden gems. The ever-present Romain Vincelot has joined Brighton, and midfielder Danny Green has joined Charlton, while veteran goalkeeper Tony Roberts has retired, leaving a big gap to be filled at the back. A replacement for Roberts has been found in the form of James Shea, a young goalkeeper on a season long loan from Arsenal, but other signings are from less well-known clubs, including Chelmsford, Great Yarmouth and Gresley. Dagenham have plucked gems out of non-league before and we'll have to see if they can do it again this season, however a repeat of the promotion heroics of their last season at this level is not expected by many.

Similar to Dagenham, Accrington also find themselves having to rebuild after losing many of last season's better performers, with midfield ace Jimmy Ryan joining Scunthorpe, Phil Edwards departing for Stevenage, Terry Gornell leaving for Shrewsbury, Alex Cisek heading to Oldham and Sean McConville choosing to drop a division to newly cash-rich Stockport. Another rebuilding job appears to be on the cards but Coleman has a knack for picking out talented youngsters and nurturing them, able to get the best out of cheap signings and able to get them playing nice football too (even more of an achievement considering the state of their pitch). Accrington exceeded all expectations last season in reaching the playoffs but much of that team has now departed. How Stanley get on next season will depend on Coleman's ability to find able replacements, but a repeat of last year's achievements would be impressive to say the least.

After a dramatic season that saw Barnet escape relegation to the Conference by the narrowest of margins, it may be reasonable to expect that new manager Lawrie Sanchez would seek to make drastic changes. However, he has clearly seen potential in a squad that underachieved massively last season and this season he will set about nurturing that potential. However, their strike partnership of Steve Kabba and Izale McLeod should be good enough to score the goals that would prevent another season like their last (though the same could be said of those two this time last year) and the squad as a whole still looks too good to go down. In midfield Barnet have brought in Mark Byrne and Sam Deering, both skilful players with real quality who could be real prospects. The spanner in the works for Barnet could be the loss of defender Joe Devera to Swindon, with the defence looking decidedly lightweight. Barnet have moved to correct this somewhat by bringing in Danny Senda, who was released by Bristol Rovers in May, but expect Barnet to be susceptible to conceding next season. However, in Sanchez they have a manager who is skilled at getting the best out of players and Bees fans may not have final day drama to look forward to at the end of the coming season.

Hereford United improved a lot over the course of last season, with young manager Jamie Pitman taking over mid-season and taking the Bulls from relegation certainties to a respectable position (if not for a points deduction they would have finished 16th). Surprisingly Pitman is among the favourites to be the first League 2 manager to face the sack this season, which seems harsh as he did a decent job last season and seems to have something about him. Perhaps the reason for this expectation is Hereford's relative lack of transfer activity this summer. Two signings that stand out for the Bulls are a 31 year old Delroy Facey from Lincoln who will hope to be among the goals this season, and French striker Yoann Arquin from Paris Saint-Germain, an unusual signing that not many will have predicted and it's difficult to say whether it will be a success or not. New signing Harry Pell appears to be a good prospect for the future and this could be the season he steps up to become an important player. On paper, Hereford don't appear to have strengthened much and may struggle but for some reason I fancy them to avoid the drop this year.

In the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham Town could be facing a tough season ahead after losing their important striker Wes Thomas to Crawley. Manager Mark Yates faces the unenviable task of improving on Cheltenham's disappointing 17th place finish from last time out with limited resources and apparently no funds for transfers. Despite this they have pulled off some decent signings, bringing in Russell Penn from Burton, Kaid Mohammed from AFC Wimbledon and signing Marlon Pack on a permanent deal after a successful loan spell last season. Up front, Cheltenham have signed Darryl Duffy, who was released from Bristol Rovers at the end of the season, which appears to be a decent signing but may fall short as a like for like replacement for the departed Thomas. Yates will be subject to immediate pressure this season and will have to get instant results, as last season was not much of an improvement over previous disappointments at Whaddon Road.

Macclesfield Town, meanwhile, start every season amongst the favourites for relegation but every year they defy the odds and usually survive comfortably and I expect the same this season. They will, however, start the season without Tyrone Barnett, who left for Crawley, while Hamza Bencherif has departed for Notts County and Izak Reid has made a sideways step to Morecambe. Macclesfield will surely be weaker next season without three of their strongest players but have used the money from the sales of Barnett and Bencherif to fund their summer signings, bringing in Waide Fairhurst up front as a replacement for Barnett. Macclesfield's fortunes this season will be defined by how well they can cope without Barnett and Bencherif and whether anyone can step up to replace them, otherwise they may flirt with relegation.

For much of the second half of last season Burton seemed to be in a death spiral, going on a horrendous run of form that saw them finish worryingly close to the relegation zone. The loss of striker Shaun Harrad is one they still haven't recovered from and, with Derby taking highly rated goalkeeper Adam Legzdins, they certainly have some rebuilding to do. They have struggled to find replacements, with long-serving veteran Kevin Poole (last season's back up to Legzdins) currently the only keeper on their books. Peschisolido has publicly expressed his frustration with finding a replacement for Harrad, eventually bringing in Justin Richards from Port Vale, a player who has some form at this level but is not of the same calibre as Harrad. The return of Cleveland Taylor from St Johnstone was one piece of good news for Burton fans but this summer has proven to be a frustrating one and they will have real fears of relegation, starting the season with what looks like a weaker squad than the one that struggled last time out.

Another side that look set to struggle are Morecambe, whose maiden campaign in their new Globe Arena was not a happy one and, following long-serving manager Sammy McIlroy's resignation, they appeared to go for the cheap option in appointing captain Jim Bentley to replace him as their new manager. Morecambe will need very careful management if they are to be competitive and stable in League Two and the ideal candidate for the job would be an experienced manager to steady the ship; for a first time rookie manager this task may be overwhelming. The signing of Kevin Ellison from Rotherham did look to be a shrewd bit of business but he has struggled for fitness during preseason, which could be a worry for the season ahead. Should he stay fit he may be able to link up well with senior striker Phil Jevons, which just may be enough to see them safe. However, Morecambe may be weak this season and could struggle, possibly finding themselves filling one of the relegation spots come the end of the season.

The obvious candidates to be challenging for promotion appear to be Crawley, Bristol Rovers, Oxford, Swindon, Shrewsbury, Rotherham and Port Vale, while those who look likely to struggle include Burton, Morecambe, Cheltenham and Macclesfield. However, every season League Two throws up surprise promotion candidates and unexpected strugglers and that seems likely to be the case once again this season. The likes of Dagenham, Accrington and Cheltenham seem to be ideally placed to make a surprise appearance in the promotion race, dark horses will certainly include Southend and Aldershot, while Swindon, Torquay, Crawley and Northampton may surprisingly struggle. The truth is, until the season gets underway it's very difficult to judge who this season's surprise packages will be, but I have little doubt that some of the clubs in this league will have some very big surprises in store for us this season.

Thus ends The Boys from Up the Hill's league preview for the coming season. Hopefully I haven't missed anyone out! Thank you for taking the time to read this, if you've made it all the way through all three parts you deserve a massive pat on the back! Undoubtedly this preview will be littered with glaring errors over its three installments and if you notice any then feel free to put me right in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Likewise, if some of my assessments of any club's chances this season seem totally off, feel free to comment and correct me.


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