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EFL League Two 2022/23 Season Preview

english league two

Title Contender

Stockport County

There is a real precedent for teams channelling the momentum of being promoted from the gruelling National League into jumping straight up the next run of the ladder soon after, and I expect that pattern to continue in 2022/23.

Stockport County spent a miserable 11 years out of the Football League but despite a few wobbles in the dying embers of the season, secured a triumphant return to League 2 in May after a thrilling battle with Wrexham, Chesterfield and Halifax, all of whom will remain mired in non-league football for at least another 12 months.

Since 2010, 24 clubs have been promoted to League 2 and no less than 11 of them have subsequently gone on to win promotion to League 1… and they don’t tend to hang around. Fleetwood and Lincoln City had to wait two years for promotion following their National League titles in 2012 and 2017 respectively but Stevenage and Crawley achieved it at the first attempt after lifting their own trophies, while National League play-off winners Bristol Rovers and Tranmere also ensured back-to-back promotions within 12 months of their initial success.

Budgets tend to be the deciding factor in deciding which teams will contest a title in any division in any country and despite being newly-promoted, Stockport are hugely ambitious and have the backing of local businessman Mark Stott who has ploughed in more than £7m since taking over the club in early 2020.

He forked out to bring in club legend Dave Challinor as manager less than 12 months ago after finding his expensively-assembled side languishing in mid-table under the departing Simon Rusk, and the Hatters have not looked back since appointing the Hartlepool boss, sweeping all before them to rise to the summit, enjoying an FA Cup fairytale against local rivals Bolton along the way too. Vastly experienced Irish frontman Paddy Madden has more than 300 League 1 games under his belt but dropped down to fire County to promotion with 23 goals last season and I’d expect him to be looking to repeat the feat this season.

County have cherry-picked some of the best players outside the Football League in the form of Torquay’s creative Connor Lemonheigh-Evans and Notts County wide-man Kyle Wootton this summer while they have bolstered an already formidable defence by snapping up defender Fraser Horsfall from potential promotion rivals Northampton and swooped for influential Fleetwood midfielder Callum Camps on a free.

League 2 is notoriously unpredictable – the top-nine were all involved in the promotion race until the final day of last season – and the bookies seem to be struggling with their predictions for this season too, with Stockport, Bradford City and Salford all vying for favouritism narrowly ahead of a pack of another seven or eight sides in contention.

Mark Hughes took over at Valley Parade after the ill-fated Derek Adams experiment last season but even though he’s had a summer to put his own stamp on things and has added the talented Vadaine Oliver up-front among several new arrivals, I wasn’t convinced the Bantams were any better after his arrival than before, despite Hughes’ wealth of experience.

Salford seem to be short-odds every season but I think that is more to do with the profile and pockets of the Class of 92 owners than anything happening on the pitch. They have another new manager in the form of novice boss Neil Wood who was, inevitably, once on the books of Man United and until recently coached the Red Devils’ under-23s. Salford were 10th last year and I’m not sure they are more than a play-off contender at best this season. I expect the likes of Northampton – if they can channel the frustration of being denied promotion on goal difference on the final day by virtue of Bristol Rovers drubbing Scunthorpe 7-0 – and beaten Play-off Finalists Mansfield to maintain the pressure they applied last season, but I suspect there will be back-to-back celebrations for those long-suffering Stockport fans to enjoy this season.

Relegation

Crawley Town, Barrow & Hartlepool United

There is nothing worse than being relegated out of the Football League, just ask fans of Wrexham who forsook their status as one of ‘the 92’ in 2009 and have been stuck in the purgatory of the National League ever since. Oldham and Scunthorpe slipped through that same trapdoor last season and there are a swathe of clubs seeking to avoid that same fate come next May.

There are a number of clubs who the bookies don’t fancy this season but that I think will be ok, in particular Stevenage who appointed Steve Evans not only to keep them up last season, but also build the foundations for a promotion push. He’s overhauled the new squad with nearly a dozen new arrivals, and he knows exactly what he’s looking for. I expect they will take a while to gel but Borough will be absolutely fine. I think Michael Flynn will steer Walsall away from trouble too while Grimsby came up via the play-offs but I expect them to continue that momentum and potentially even challenge in the top-half as opposed to be going straight back down.

I have a slightly uneasy feeling about Crawley Town, who have been taken over by US crypto consortium Wagmi United (We’re All Gonna Make It is a popular crypto anagram). They have brought in Kevin Betsy as boss, agreed a new kit deal (with 3rd kits available exclusively to those buying NFTs from the club) and snapped up 25-goal striker Dom Telford, however I am not sure about the notion of invested fans being able to vote on club activity, all smacks a little of the failed MyFootballClub venture at Ebbsfleet United many years ago.

The teams I’m looking at pretty closely are Barrow and Hartlepool. The Cumbrian side were in the top half in the first few months of the season but fell away dramatically and ended up finishing 22nd of 24 and only six points ahead of Oldham. Only basement-boys Scunthorpe and neighbours Carlisle scored fewer than their 45 goals while they managed to lose 22 of their 46 games and won only five of their 23 at home.

The odds on Hartlepool are slightly more generous. They too scored 44 in their 46 matches last season but given they were in the promotion race under Dave Challinor before he departed for Stockport in October, they tailed off significantly, particularly at home where they failed to score in six of their last seven matches, losing five of them and claiming just two points.

Pool have moved to appoint former Scotland international midfielder Paul Hartley, who has a mix of lower-league promotions and hasty departures on his managerial CV. They have seen Luke Molyneux move to Doncaster and Omar Bogle switch to Newport County while the experienced Neill Byrne and his promising fellow centre-back Timi Odusina have joined Tranmere and Bradford respectively. There have been an influx of new faces with six of them coming from north of the border and Alex Lacey and Josh Umerah picked-up from Notts County and Wealdstone in the National League respectively. This will go one way or another but I just have the feeling it might not work.

Underachiever

AFC Wimbledon

It’s always funny when you have a feeling about a club and you then find out something which completely backs it up with cold, hard, scientific fact.

AFC Wimbledon just don’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the narrative, I am full of admiration for what the supporters have done in getting their club back on track and back to Plough Lane, however from a superficial standpoint there’s something missing. Obviously there must have been moments of glory for the Wombles to get themselves into League 1, given where they started from, however the momentum inevitably stalled and, I’m afraid to say, if pressed on how I thought AFC Wimbledon had done in the past two, three, five, 10 seasons, I’d have probably guessed they were struggling.

Turns out I’m right. Astoundingly since entering the Football League in 2011, Wimbledon have only finished above 15th place in any division once, and the season they finished seventh in 2016 they got themselves promoted through the play-offs. That was also the only occasion on which they had won more than 15 of their 46 games. Incredible.

My point is that, despite them being a supposedly bigger fish in a smaller pond following their relegation in May, I just don’t see Wimbledon contesting a title-race. Three of their last four promotions up the ladder came via play-offs rather than as champions. It will be fascinating to see their reaction to a first backward step since the club’s rebirth in 2003.

I love the signing of Chris Gunter, who has bags of experience with Wales, Forest, Reading and latterly Charlton in particular, but he’s not going to win them many games, and that was their main issue… only two home wins and six in total from 46 games last season. I feel pretty sure they’ll bring their 15th -placed hoodoo this coming season but I think play-offs at best for Wimbledon.

Top Goal Scorer

Paddy Madden

I’ve already mentioned that I think Paddy Madden might be the one to beat in the quest for the League 2 golden boot this season.

Now 32, the Irishman has real pedigree in the game, and at a higher level than the fourth tier in which he’ll be playing this season. He once notched 22 in 35 games for Yeovil in League 1 and also bagged 20 in a season for Scunthorpe in the same division. Madden had scored 15 in each of the two seasons in League 1 before he swapped Fleetwood for Edgeley Park, where he has already amassed 30 goals in 57 appearances.

I expect he will continue to lead the line and will benefit from taking any penalties too, and I expect them to get plenty with the additional pace and trickery of Kyle Wootton and Connor Lemonheigh-Evans in the final third this term.

The bookies predict Madden’s biggest rival will be last season’s League 2 top-scorer Dom Telford, however I have my reservations. The 25-year-old Lancashire lad sprung to prominence with a blistering run of eight goals in six matches last October for Newport County. The streak earned him the Player of the Month award and another four goals saw him retain the accolade for the following month too. He eventually finished the season with 25 goals in just 37 appearances but rejected the chance to extend his stay in South Wales, instead signing a three-year contract with Crawley this summer. I just don’t see him repeating the trick in pastures new. Only four sides scored more than Newport’s 67 goals last season whereas Crawley only notched 56 from their 46 games. Another factor that concerns me is that Telford has only really had one good season, he had actually only scored 14 goals in 131 appearances for five clubs before last season’s superb showing.

Harry McKirdy is another of the front-runners with the bookmakers after his 19 goals fired Swindon to the play-offs last season, however given the departure of Robins boss Ben Garner and several of his star players, especially Jack Payne, to Charlton this summer, I’m not convinced new head coach Scott Lindsay will be able to orchestrate the same success this term.

I have a feeling Madden’s biggest competition might actually come from Vadaine Oliver who left Gillingham at the end of his contract to join Bradford City this summer. ‘Big V’ is another who had not really hit the heights in his first eight seasons as a pro, however the move to Kent in 2020 lit a spark and the now 30-year-old bagged 20 goals in 50 appearances before adding 11 more in an injury-hit campaign as the Gills were relegated from League 1 last season. Bantams boss Mark Hughes knows a thing or two about forwards and if he gets the service at Valley Parade the generous odds mean he’s definitely worth considering for an each-way punt for top-scorer.

Player to Watch

Mitch Pinnock

I am fascinated to see how Northampton get on in 2022/23. They suffered an agonising final day when they won at Barrow, only to see their automatic promotion place snatched away in the final moments of the season as Bristol Rovers smashed Scunthorpe for seven at the Memorial Ground to finish level on points and go up, not even via goal difference, but on goals scored. The hangover set in early as the Cobblers suffered a meek play-off semi-final exit against Mansfield, but if they can channel their disappointment into a positive then I firmly believe they can secure a second promotion to League 1 in four seasons.

A key man for Northampton this year is going to be Mitch Pinnock whose 22 goal contributions last season was a large factor in them being in the promotion race in the first place. The former AFC Wimbledon man finished the season in incredible form, earning a Player of the Month nomination in April and scored stunning goals in two of the last three regular season games. His goals tend to be important too, the Cobblers did not lose any of the eight games in which Pinnock scored last season.

Pinnock is known as The Postman among the Cobblers faithful as he always delivers. His wand of a left foot are responsible for almost all of Town’s set-pieces while he showed he is capable of scoring with both feet last season. Experienced former Luton forward Danny Hylton is a wily acquisition and Pinnock has been utilised alongside him in some of the pre-season action so far, notching the opening goal against Hylton’s old club in a warm-up match just last week.

Pinnock is in his final year of his contract at Sixfields but if he can replicate the form he showed last season he’s sure to be playing at a higher level the following season, whether it’s with Northampton or someone else.

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