League Two 2016-17 season preview

Don’t let last season’s 11th-placed finish fool you, Luton Town look ready to make a return to League One after a nine-year absence.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “League Two 2016-17 season preview” was written by Michael Butler, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 2nd August 2016 09.00 UTC

Title challengers

With Fifa scrapping the emergency loan system, League Two clubs will have to make all of their signings during the two transfer windows, prompting a flurry of activity, particularly those with bigger budgets, who do not want to see their seasons derailed by injuries and suspensions.

Partly due to this reason, Portsmouth are the runaway bookies’ favourites to land the League Two title. Despite this being their fourth season in the fourth tier, they continue to attract talent from further up the pyramid: Carl Baker and Milan Lalkovic should add goals from midfield after turning down contracts at MK Dons and Walsall respectively, while the loss of Adam Webster to Ipswich for £750,000 has been offset by Matt Clarke moving in the opposite direction on a permanent basis: the 19-year-old defender excelled on loan at Fratton Park last season and his absence through injury during the play-off semi-final against Plymouth proved costly for Pompey. A reliable stopper has long been a source of trouble but the manager, Paul Cook, has landed the Republic of Ireland international David Forde on a season-long loan from Millwall. After an encouraging pre-season that has included a 3-3 draw with Premier League Bournemouth and a 0-0 away draw with the Championship’s Bristol City, Portsmouth look ready to start their ascent back up the leagues. Anything less than promotion, and it will be considered a failure.

Expect goals at Doncaster: James Coppinger may not be what he once was but they have added Gary McSheffrey and John Marquis, who helped Northampton Town to the League Two title last season, to an impressive attacking lineup including Andy Williams, who has scored 33 goals in the last two seasons in League One. Versatile, physical and with an eye for goal, Tommy Rowe is far too good a player for League Two, but has been convinced by the manager Darren Ferguson, who managed him at Peterborough, to sign permanently for the Yorkshire club after a successful loan spell at the end of last season. Rowe is one of nine signings as Rovers look to bounce back from a second relegation in three years. Injuries have already depleted Ferguson’s squad, particularly in defence, so do not be surprised to see Donny add some more faces before the end of August.

Don’t let last season’s 11th-placed finish fool you, Luton Town look ready to make a return to League One after a nine-year absence. New striker Danny Hylton, who helped Oxford United to promotion last season, has said he thinks Luton’s squad are as good as the one he has just left, and should complement Jack Marriott nicely – the 21-year-old was a revelation last season, scoring 16 times in his first season.

Play-off contenders

When will Blackpool begin to turn it around? It seems impossible to predict but there are signs that the club are beginning to make at a few sensible decisions. The owner, Owen Oyston, met Blackpool fans last month, Gary Bowyer – who recently provided stability on and off the pitch at nearby Blackburn Rovers – has been brought in as the manager and he has made a few canny signings of his own: Andy Taylor has been signed from Walsall, Jamille Matt brought in from Fleetwood, while the former Stoke and Leeds midfielder Danny Pugh give the side some much needed experience –Pugh is expected to be named captain. The squad have the quality to be promoted, a positive atmosphere at Bloomfield Road could see them battling it out for the top seven.

Colchester are the other team to come down from League One, but having lost Marvin Sordell to Coventry, Joe Edwards to Walsall, and the influential George Moncur (son of John) to Barnsley for a reported £500,000, automatic promotion should be beyond them. But with Iain Moody heading up player recruitment in Essex and a Category Two academy still in place, there is an infrastructure there to make the play-offs.

Wycombe received £2.25m for a sell-on clause regarding Jordan Ibe’s £15m move from Liverpool to Bournemouth, but have been typically frugal in their summer spending. Gareth Ainsworth responded to Adebayo Akinfenwa’s come-and-get-me-plea – “hit me up on WhatsApp” – after scoring in AFC Wimbledon’s play-off final victory at Wembley, even though the 16st 34-year-old striker was sent-off on his Wanderers debut in pre-season. The former Salzburg centre-back Max Muller is an eye-catching buy and joins a defence that conceded only 44 goals last season in League Two – only Oxford United conceded less.

After shining in a struggling Morecambe side last season, Shaun Miller joins Jabo Ibhere up front for Carlisle United, which could help them build on an encouraging 10th place last season, while Cambridge could well make a late-season run at the top seven – they have strength in depth after a busy summer. Watch out for Grimsby Town after their promotion back into the Football League – they have signed Ben Davies, Portsmouth’s player of the year last season, and are very much an unknown quantity – Omar Bogle’s pace and power has brought him lots of goals in non-league football.

Relegation candidates

With one of the smallest budgets in League Two, it is hard to see where Morecambe are going to get the goals, now Shaun Miller has departed for Carlisle. Having conceded 91 goals last season – nearly two per game – Morecambe look short of both quality and depth, with the squad numbering 19 players. The 37-year-old Kevin Ellison scored 11 goals from midfield last season.

Newport County are in a similar pickle: small budget, survived relegation by the skin of their teeth and lost their star striker, Scott Boden over the summer: the 26-year-old scored a hat-trick in the Scottish League Cup for Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Newport do, however, have a bit more depth to their squad, even if much of the summer arrivals have been from non-league, including the 34-year-old striker “Big” Jon Parkin, back for one last shot at the big-time. Warren Feeney, in his first full season as a manager in the Football League, has a big job on his hands.

The Crawley Town manager, Dermot Drummy, previously a coach at Chelsea, has wasted no time in calling on his former employees for recruits: the goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney has joined on loan and is expected to be kept busy in a side who finished with a –33 goal difference last season. Barnet may have tied manager Martin Allen down to a new contract but they are finding players hard to come by, just three arrivals in Ryan Watson, Alex Nicholls and the goalkeeper Josh Vickers (with Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro also expected to be added) means they will do well to surpass last season’s 15th place. The form of striker John Akinde will again be crucial.

Three players to watch

David Goodwillie, Plymouth Argyle

A player who once cost £2m, the 27-year-old Scotland international signs from Aberdeen on a free transfer. How Plymouth Argyle respond to their play-off final defeat is interesting but losing Curtis Nelson and Reuben Reid will be a big blow. Goodwillie has to step up.

Conor Chaplin, Portsmouth

Standing at 5ft 6in, Chaplin is not your typically physical League Two player but possesses quick feet and a turn of pace to match, often drifting deep to link the play. If Pompey don’t go up this season, suitors will be queuing up to tempt the 19-year-old away.

Jay Simpson, Leyton Orient

The former Arsenal and Hull striker scored 27 times in League Two last season – only Bristol Rovers’ Matty Taylor scored more – and with Orient an outside bet to make a play-off place, the 27-year-old knows exactly what it takes in this league. Expect him to hit the ground running.

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