It’s not very often that you get to back a stronger, better looking side as favourites at a bigger price for the league next year but ante post backers of Portsmouth could get a far better run for their money in this year’s League 2 race. After two managers and three defats where they conceded four goals in the first half of the season, relegation was beginning to come into the mind of some of those worried faced at Fratton Park but Andy Awford managed to go a long way to sorting things out and Portsmouth didn’t lose any of their last 7, winning 5 before two high scoring draws where they scored 7 goals, while they lost just 2 of their last 12 at home.
A whole raft of new additions have come, many from higher divisions, including Craig Westcarr – 14 goals in League 1 last season and well worth considering for the Golden Boot at tasty prices – and Nicky Shorney (now signed for good) who brings top level experience with him from a career that has seen him play for Reading and England, to name but two while Alex Winter drops down from Crystal Palace in defence.
Add in the two new goalkeepers as well as no major departures and it’s easy to see why you could see Portsmouth making a better first of going for the title this year at a fair price.
Another popular choice has been Bury, fast finishers last year who have been well backed over the summer. This is mainly due to the superb marquee signing of Ryan Lowe, who scored 19 goals in League 1 for Tranmere last year, although he’s not the only capture of note. Kelvin Ethuhu was playing Championship football last season and brings a large amount of experience, sealing Danny Mayor’s long term future at the club is a promising move
Nicky Adams comes down a division from Rotherham, having played 15 times for the League 1 play off finalists, while Shwan Jalal provides some adept cover in goal. Much rests on the shoulders of veteran Lowe but the mood around the club should be extremely high and if they can carry through their finishing form from last year then they have to be given a fine chance.
There was very little separating them and a good 10 clubs last season however and this is a wide open betting contest where you can make a strong case for a good dozen teams to take the honours. Southend were fifth last season but if you remove the promoted sides’ they’d have won the league on goal difference, and just like many above them in the betting, they are now better placed to challenge.
Phil Brown’s experience – he took Hull to the Premier League and then kept them up just 4 years ago – is a tremendous asset and since his arrival the Shrimpers have kept an incredibly tight leash at the back, with their 39 goals the least conceded of anyone in the whole division. This was especially impressive considering that he lost Gavin Tomlin, Ryan Cresswell and Britt Assoblomnga early on during his reign.
The stats suggest a miserly approach but in reality a squad laden with control and creativity in the middle of the park struggled to finish chances and two high quality additions should help. Myles Weston drops a division after playing 43 times for Gillingham last season and he should bring sharper pace to the attack while David Worrall could be a steal after being released by Rotherham after making 18 appearances for Oldham last year. Shaq Coulthirst could see more action and if bringing the potential that has had him linked with Barcelona and Madrid youth – no joke, do your research – then he must be respected.
This should all help Barry Corr to a total that’s hopefully larger than his 12 goals last season and at 18/1 they appeal as clear value in a wide open race where many have the potential to improve but not the form from last year which they can boast. They look worth supporting for a promotion as well and a top 7 finish at tasty prices.
Easily the most appealing of the relegated sides are Shrewsbury, who couldn’t handle League 1 but have been on a powerful recruitment drive that has bought a wide range of depth and experience, much of it from higher leagues. Likely strike partnership James Collins and Scott Vernon were playing for Hibernian and Aberdeen last season while at the back Mark Ellis drops down from Crewe. Nathaniel Knight-Perceival is another solid addition to their rear-guard, a fantastic addition considering Peterbough went to the playoff final last season and lost out only to Leyton Orient and James Wesolowski on a free transfer is a serious coup considering that he was Oldham’s player of the season last year – Perth Glory also wanted him for their A-League Charge to underline how much he had impressed through the season.
Liam Lawrence brings a wealth of experience and if former Swansea City and Tranmere Rovers winger Andy Robinson, as well as Barnsley youngster Jordan Clark, show their pre season form, then they will have an impressively built side for the division and if they gel quickly under Micky Mellon they could take some stopping in a bid to come back up at the first attempt. They make for more appeal than Stevenage, who have suffered a summer exodus, and Carlisle, who have not made additions on anywhere near the same level although they have made some smart additions that should help them consolidate their status.
Last but not least, Burton appeal to make it third time lucky in an attempt for promotion. Gary Rowett’s side lost only to Fleetwood last season after losing out only on goal difference to Southend in the standings last season – still enough to make the playoffs – and come into this season with a squad that has had some smart tweaks made to it.
The addition of Goerge Taft, formerly of Leicester City, brings height to the defence –“something that we probably lacked a bit last season” according to Rowett, while the addition of John Moushinhio has positive experience, scoring the winning goal for Stevenage in the 2011 playoff final, and his flexibility is an important addition to a squad which has retained all of it’s major players.
Midfielders Lee Bell, 30, Joe Doyle, 19, and defenders Shane Cansdell-Sheriff – arguably their standout performer from last season – Phil Edwards, 28, Chris Hussey, 25, and Liam Slade, 19, have all agreed one-year contracts while Striker Dominic Knowles, 22, goalkeeper Dean Lyness, 22, and midfielder Marcus Harness, 18 have agreed two-year deals, keeping the core of the squad that was so strong last year together, and they deserve serious respect at a generous price.
Luton were dominant in winning the Conference last year but the last 4 sides to have come up have finishes no better than 11th and the absence of Andre Gray, their stop striker from last season is going to be hard to deal with, and on that basis they look too short the title and Cambridge are passed over for the same reasons.
It would be a surprise if Northampton were to come anywhere near relegation again and the singing of John Joe O’Toole is a very smart capture for a side that were close to League One but other teams appeal as more progressive than they and Plymouth.
1 pt each/way Shewsbury (11/1 Coral)
1 pt each/way Burton (16/1 general)
1 pt each/way Southend (16/1 general)
Advice – Handicap
1 pt each/way Burton +10 (18/1 general)
1 pt each/way Southend +12 (16/1 Bet365)
Advice – To be promoted