The 2018/19 League Two campaign was immensely competitive with no fewer than ten teams notching 70 points or more, and fans can expect this season to be no less tight. Whilst there are some teams that can expect to challenge right at the top - and some that can be reasonably fearful of a long season at the wrong of the table – the league remains as unpredictable as ever, and the majority of teams have reasons to be optimistic that this could be a good year.
The title challengers
Mansfield’s 2018-19 season, so promising for so long, unravelled extraordinarily towards the end and after play-off heartbreak against Newport County they swiftly parted company with boss David Flitcroft. Promoting John Dempster to his first managerial role is a bold, perhaps even risky, move and the former centre back will be aware that there is little margin for error this time around. The Stags have bolstered their already impressive squad with the signings of strikers Nicky Maynard, whose 21 goals last year fired Bury to promotion, and Andy Cook from Walsall who is better than his 13 league goals last year suggest. Expect them to be right up there.
Plymouth have poached Ryan Lowe from Bury – there’s a theme here - as well as arguably the best player in the league in Danny Mayor, and will be expecting to bounce straight back after relegation. A lot will depend on how quickly the squad adapts to Lowe’s system - helped by the additions of a third of his first-choice XI from last season – and the signing of Jose Baxter will add quality up front to a squad that struggled going forward last season. One area where there may be doubts is the lack of an out and out goalscorer in a squad that elsewhere boasts quality and depth.
Crewe had a better second half of the season than any other side in League 2 last year and have a good mix of experience and youthful energy in their squad, as well as a quietly impressive manager in David Artell. There is a vast amount of potential at Crewe- demonstrated by their 2-1 win over champions Lincoln on Boxing Day last season- and with the experienced Chris Porter, rejuvenated under Artell, leading the line this season could be the one where the club’s patience and determination to stick to a long term plan bears fruit. Certainly the dark horses of a very competitive division.
Bradford are another relegated team expecting to bounce back at the first time of asking, and the signs are good for the Bantams after a shocking season last time out. Like Crewe, they boast experience and youth in equal measure, with genuine quality in the likes of Sean Scannell, Clayton Donaldson and James Vaughan, who will cause problems for any defence in the league. Gary Bowyer has experience of getting out of the league before with Blackpool, and this time around has a much more stable and cohesive set up to work in. He could be the key to getting the Yorkshire side back into the third tier.
The play-off contenders
Exeter are a team that seem to be perennially on the cusp of a promotion charge, and every season seemingly has the potential to be their year. The Grecians have steel at the back and a balanced midfield and have added goals in the form of Nicky Ajose. It would be a surprise if they were to finish any lower than seventh.
Forest Green were last season’s surprise package and are looking to go one better this time. Whilst the automatic spots might be beyond them, the core of last season’s squad remain and Mark Cooper has recruited shrewdly, with Aaron Collins - impressive at Morecambe last season - and Matt Mills quality additions at this level.
Walsall have a made a fantastic appointment in Darrell Clarke, the architect of Bristol Rovers’ back to back promotions, who will have the freedom – though maybe not the financial backing – to shape the squad and club as he sees. They have recruited shrewdly, with former Newcastle midfielder Danny Guthrie the pick of the free transfers, and will be expecting to be challenging come May.
Salford have risen rapidly through non-league and have strengthened mainly at the back and in midfield in preparation for their first Football League campaign, with Richie Towell, impressive last season for Rotherham in the Championship, being the most eye-catching of their signings. Promotion at the first time of asking might be too big an ask, but with their strength in depth, a play-off push isn’t out of the question.
Colchester will be determined to go one better than last season, where they finished just a point off the play-offs. They have recruited adequately to cope with the departures of Sammie Szmodicz and Frankie Kent, with Luke Gambin and Paris Cowan-Hall capable of providing creativity up front for Luke Norris to feed off. A young squad but one bursting with potential, Us fans have every reason to be optimistic ahead of the new campaign.
Swindon are hoping to continue the upward momentum that Richie Wellens brought last season when he dragged them from 17th in November to just seven points off the play-offs by the end. The Robins are another side that have recruited shrewdly, with Zeki Fryers and Arsenal youngster Daniel Ballard providing strength at the back. If their improvement from last season continues they will be a force to be reckoned with.
The mid-table safety
Stevenage’s improvement last season was noticeable but it remains to be seen whether they’ve strengthened enough to challenge for the play-offs. A top-half finish still looks likely.
Beaten play-off finalists Newport will do well to repeat their heroics of last season given the increased competition, but will still certainly be competitive and have kept the core of their squad together.
Meanwhile, Northampton may be well fancied, and with the addition of quality such as Nicky Adams it’s easy to see why but they have recruited heavily and Keith Curle may struggle to gel his squad in time for a push at the top of the table.
Leyton Orient, off the back of a wonderful season followed by the tragic passing of Justin Edinburgh, will make the step up comfortably but may find the top half tough to crack this year.
Cambridge look strong defensively, and Wes Hoolahan is an eye-catching signing, but scoring goals was an issue last season and it remains to be seen whether Colin Calderwood has solved that particular issue. Scunthorpe are another relegated team who may fall short of many fans’ expectations, with a lot of quality in the team but doubts as to how they will fit Paul Hurst’s style of play.
Crawley struggled for much of last season and doubts remain over head coach Gabriel Cioffi, but they have the quality to do well this season- yet it seems likely they will underachieve again unless Cioffi gets the players on side.
Finally, Carlisle have a good young manager in Steven Pressley but seem to not want to back him, and with many of their recruits not arriving until late in the window a slow start could see any pre-season optimism dampened.
Grimsby have a talented young coach but unless they shore up their defence, which owed much to keeper James McKeown last season, and find some goals, they might find themselves looking over their shoulders. That being said, the Mariners should have enough to stay afloat.
Over in Gloucester Cheltenham will be relying on stability and continuity to keep themselves afloat but might suffer with a lack of experience at the helm. Michael Duff did a good job after coming in last season but whether that form carries over is a different question. Like Grimsby, they should have enough to stay up though.
Morecambe once again will have to defy the odds to stay up but have a unique defiance and togetherness, which they will need to overcome their limited resources and somewhat thin squad. They conceded too many goals last year and that will be an area for concern for Jim Bentley, but if anyone knows what it takes to keep the Shrimpers up it’s him.
Macclesfield Town escaped by the skin of their teeth last season thanks to a heroic rescue job from Sol Campbell, who lifted them off the bottom to safety. That said, key players from last year’s great escape have been poached and Macclesfield are thin on numbers, they may be relying on other teams being worse to stay up. One of those teams might be Port Vale who, whilst a regime change has been welcomed by fans, may feel the effects of Norman Smurthwaite’s reign creep up on them finally. The lowest scorers in the division last year, Vale will be relying on Mark Cullen to provide a goalscoring spark, but will it be enough?
For Oldham Athletic, it will be a season of struggle. There is no cohesiveness at the club and an incoherent transfer policy leaves the squad lacking in much quality, particularly at the back. Last season’s upheaval could have laid a rocky foundation for this campaign.
Three players to watch
The Plymouth midfielder, capable of playing out wide or behind the striker, is one of the most technically gifted and creative players in the league and was a massive part of Bury’s successful campaign last year. Probably the definition of ‘too good for this division’, any success the Pilgrims have will no doubt be centred around the 28-year-old. His signing was a massive coup for Plymouth who beat League 1 Ipswich to his signature.
The 35-year-old shot-stopper initially joined Crawley in 2016 as a goalkeeping coach and third-choice keeper, but quickly established himself as the Reds’ number one and a fans' favourite with some remarkable saves belying his age. Morris swept home the individual awards for the Sussex outfit last season, and now entering his fourth year at the club, his heroics may once again be needed as the difference between safety and relegation peril for Crawley.
A 20-goal-a-season striker is invaluable at any level and if Maynard can replicate last season’s form at Bury, then Mansfield will have every chance of taking the league by storm. Arguably Maynard has never fulfilled his potential after his goalscoring exploits at Crewe and Bristol City but a late-career swansong would go some way to rectifying that and will be a satisfying end to the dynamic striker’s career.