Monday, 12 September 2011

League Two's Surprise Packages

In every league, in every season, there's at least one club who exceeds everyone's expectations by doing remarkably well. They may win promotion, qualify for the playoffs, or even just beat the drop against the odds. For example, who would have predicted that Accrington, Stevenage and Torquay would have qualified for the playoffs last season? When I wrote my League Two season preview a few weeks ago, I wrote about who I expected to be challenging, but tried to keep half an eye on potential surprises this season. In this article, I'll try and expand on that by examining the sides who look set to cause a few surprises this season.

The obvious choice to begin with is Morecambe, currently sitting top of the league after a remarkable 6-0 demolition of this season's promotion favourites, Crawley. In the League Two season preview I wrote back in July, I expressed serious concern for Morecambe, in particular their appointment of rookie manager Jim Bentley, saying: “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”. However, after beginning the season with six games yielding 13 points, Bentley was shortlisted for League Two'smanager of the monthaward for August - a dream start to Bentley's managerial career. Morecambe's successful start has been built upon a strong backline, and their stingy defence has conceded just three league goals so far this season. Meanwhile, experienced striker Kevin Ellison has been amongst the goals and scored four times already, while Danny Carlton appears to have hit form, netting a hat-trick on Saturday against Crawley.

Their supporters, however, are not getting carried away with their superb start to the season, and after a disappointing 20th place finish last season many fans still seem to be glancing downwards, viewing their start to the season as a good run of form, rather than as a foundation for a top 3 finish. Despite this, it would be impossible to deny that their start to the season has been spectacular, recording impressive away victories over Hereford, Cheltenham and Northampton. This suggests that this is a side capable of grinding out those difficult results, especially away from home. However, they will now have lost the bonus of having an element of surprise about them, as last weekend's thrashing of Crawley will have made the rest of the division sit up and take notice. When a manager is first appointed it is not uncommon for a club to experience a honeymoon period and this may be what is happening with Bentley's Morecambe, but they have already recorded some standout results so far and even if they do fall away from the promotion race, I think it's fair to say we can expect them to cause a few more shocks over the course of the season. I'm certainly revising my preseason prediction of Morecambe as relegation certainties.

Another side who were amongst the favourites for relegation this season was Cheltenham Town. They have surprised everyone so far and currently find themselves in the playoff positions, having recorded some decent victories over Swindon, Northampton and Crawley. Their strength this season is twofold. Firstly, they have recruited well and now have strength in depth – no small achievement on their tight budget, but it's an art manager Mark Yates perfected during his time at Kidderminster. The second is with Yates' tactical nous; his inspired substitutions have, on more than one occasion this season, been enough to turn a match in Cheltenham's favour. Though Cheltenham (like most other sides in this league) struggle to play well throughout the full ninety minutes of a match, they have found a way to grind out results anyway, such as Saturday's 2-0 win over Macclesfield. So far this season the Robins have shown enough quality to show that they will defy the bookies again and comfortably avoid relegation, but we must remember that they started last season in similar fashion before ultimately struggling to avoid the drop. The test for Cheltenham will be whether they can remain consistent enough over the course of the season and with their aforementioned strength in depth, they look set at least to improve on last season's 17th place finish, with a place in the playoffs a distinct possibility.

Over the summer I wrote about Torquay's post-season woes, after losing manager Paul Buckle to Bristol Rovers, followed by a host of their better players. Fortunately for them, they have started the season much better than expected and got revenge over Buckle and his Bristol Rovers team early on, beating them 2-1 at the Memorial Ground in the second league match of the season. They have chalked up points pretty consistently, grinding out results, and have proven difficult to beat with only one defeat so far this season. New manager Martin Ling's recipe for success seems remarkably similar to Buckle's, combining positive man-management with team bonding exercises, and hoping that creating a positive atmosphere and sense of unity will enable the team to over-achieve again this season. Where Torquay may slip up is that they have typically been slow to start matches and tend only to play well for half a game (a problem Oxford fans will be only too familiar with). When a side is that inconsistent they may struggle to mount a serious push for promotion, but for Torquay, even coming close to a repeat of last season's achievements would be remarkable.

Burton also looked set to struggle this season, losing a few key players and failing to replace them, but have in fact made a solid start to the season. They have created lots of chances in their matches so far, but a failure to convert has left boss Paul Peschisolido frustrated, though they rectified this somewhat on Saturday by converting two of their only chances at the Kassam to snatch a draw. The loss of Shaun Harrad last January appeared to be a fatal blow to the Brewers, but this summer's bargain signing of Justin Richards may prove to be the masterstroke that will see them exceed all expectations this season. Despite proving himself to be a bitter and egotistical fool at the weekend, Richards is in impressive scoring form, finding the net six times already this season. Despite seeming to be one of the smallest clubs in the division, they have a very good foundation off the field to build on. The relatively new Pirelli Stadium is a good money-spinner for the club and they recently recorded a record turnover and healthy profits. They have set a sensible budget and appear to be a well-run club, so expect them to solidify their position in the Football League over the next few years. Although it's probably too early to start talking about promotion this year, if they are able to maintain their current upward trajectory, Burton may find themselves battling for promotion to League One in the near future.


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