• Adam Stubbings

ITEN League One Season Preview

A new season is upon us at last. After a summer of massive upheaval, Doncaster Rovers embark on a campaign that we all hope will end in success. Bucking the pre-season predictions from fans and pundits alike, Rovers grabbed a Play-Off spot in 2018/19 and came within a couple of penalty kicks of a day out at Wembley. Repeating the feat won’t be easy, but in cult hero Darren Moore the club has a manager with ambition, drive and enthusiasm in abundance.

A man who has spent the bulk of his career within the upper echelon of English football, Moore will want to be competing at that level as a manager again sooner rather than later, so we should expect a push to reach the top six again despite the current transitional state of our squad. Rovers sit at present in an uncertain position as far as our prospects on the pitch go, but what of the 23 sides we will come up against in 2019/20? We assess the lay of the land here, attempting to separate the contenders from the pretenders and judge where Moore and his reshaped Doncaster Rovers fit into the equation.

Title Tilt for Sleeping Giants?

Even before they signed John Marquis away from us, Portsmouth were rightly considered one of the favourites for the title and they have only strengthened their claim this week. Although Matt Clarke and Jamal Lowe have departed, Pompey look strong enough to improve on their Play-Off finish last term and in Kenny Jackett have one of the most experienced and proven managers in the division. A forward group of Marquis, the imposing Ollie Hawkins, formidable veteran Brett Pitman and new recruit Ellis Harrison is surely the strongest in the league, both physically and in terms of reputation.

The rest of the squad is in good shape too, with Marcus Harness an exciting acquisition from Burton, Ronan Curtis poised to build on his excellent maiden campaign in English football, and defensive reinforcements such as Sean Raggett and former Rover Paul Downing demonstrating quality throughout the side. Portsmouth come to the Keepmoat on October 5th, with the return game set for January 4th, F.A. Cup 3rd Round day, and Rovers will surely have to be on top form to continue their fine recent head-to-head record against the South Coast club.

Behind Pompey, their conquerors in last season’s Play-Offs, Sunderland, must be in the conversation for automatic promotion. Jack Ross pulled together a capable if unspectacular side on Wearside last season, against the backdrop of changing ownership arresting a monumental slide from the Premier League. Recruitment this summer has been understated but encouraging, with talented prospects like George Dobson and Jordan Willis coming in, and several high earners are finally off the wages giving the squad a more rounded and fresh feel, although the sale this week of academy star George Honeyman to Hull is a blow.

Up front, something is still missing as the Black Cats lost out in their pursuit of Marquis and instead brought in Marc McNulty from Reading, but unless Will Grigg can rediscover his prolific form from seasons past, Sunderland may struggle to mount a serious title challenge. Rovers host Sunderland on the Saturday after Christmas, by which time both sides will be hoping they are firmly ensconced within the promotion picture, and it should be a bumper crowd in place on Lakeside regardless after two combative encounters last season that both ended in Sunderland victory.

Posh Best Set to Play Spoiler?

Rovers pipped them to the last Play-Off place in May, but Peterborough United are rightly in most people’s pre-season prediction for a top six finish in 2019/20. Darren Ferguson has bolstered an already talented squad significantly, with big money spent on striker Mo Eisa to partner the lively Ivan Toney, George Boyd returning to the club that made him famous to complement a midfield that already boasts the immensely talented Marcus Maddison, and Exeter keeper Christy Pym joining along with experienced centre half Mark Beevers to bolster the defence. Whether Ferguson can pull this squad in a singular, positive direction remains to be seen, but he has all the tools at his disposal to ensure missing out on the top six isn’t even a consideration this time around.

Relegated Rotherham United appear to be favouring stability over all else upon their drop into League One, with the Millers particularly comfortable relying on Paul Warne to do what he already has before and get Rovers’ bitter rivals back out of this division. Acute acquisitions have been made, such as Daniel Iverson who impressed for Oldham against Rovers in the FA Cup, but the true extent of how far Rotherham can go may not be known until one or two more additions are made as a large number of players left upon relegation. Freddie Ladapo is the statement signing, having excelled in a poor Plymouth side last year, and with his pace and movement should be the perfect foil for 6’3” strike partner Michael Smith.

The biggest accusation levelled at Ipswich Town last season was that their squad resembled that of a solid League One outfit rather than a Championship one, which should stand them in good stead after an abysmal 2018/19 campaign. Paul Lambert is a manager who knows what it takes to get a big club out of this league, having done it with Ipswich’s local rivals Norwich in 2010, but flipping the losing mentality may be harder to overcome than anything else. Gwion Edwards, Jon Nolan and Josh Emmanuel are the type of players this squad is full of: talented individuals with League One success on their CV, but more is needed to make this squad a real threat.

Six players have joined them this summer so far but three of them are goalkeepers (with Tomas Holy from Gillingham the likely #1) and in James Norwood Ipswich have gambled on a striker who has been prolific at a lower level but not yet been tested in League One. If it pays off, it’ll be a masterstroke and comparisons will be drawn to late bloomers like Rickie Lambert and Grant Holt, a Norwich legend, but if he doesn’t hit the ground running the Tractor Boys could be playing catch-up again. Rovers travel to Portman Road in September, one week on from the local derby with Rotherham, whilst the reverse tie will be our final home game of the season on April 25th.

Play-Off Pretenders?

The above quintet of sides would have to do something drastically wrong not to compete at the top end of the table, but a number of capable outfits look set for a shot at emulating the achievements of Doncaster or even Luton last season.

Fleetwood Town have caught the eye in the transfer market despite the criminal proceedings looming over manager Joey Barton, recruiting some impressive players and holding on to their better assets. Paul Coutts was one of Sheffield United’s better players in the Championship before a serious leg injury derailed his progress, whilst Josh Morris starred for Scunthorpe over the last three years. To date the Cod Army have held on to Ashley Hunter, one of the most creative players in the league last season and boast one of the best young keepers around in Alex Cairns. If Barton can gel his new boys with what was already a promising side, a return to the top six should be well within reach.

Down the road at Blackpool, the gloom has lifted. The Owstons are finally out and manager Simon Grayson, a serial winner at this level, is back in the dugout. The Seasiders this week added young forward Joe Nuttall to an already promising forward line including Armand Gnanduillet, former Shrewsbury winger Sully Kaikai and Rangers loanee Ryan Hardie, whilst Ryan Edwards strengthens a back line already containing the imposing Michael Nottingham and Curtis Tilt. There is no longer a huge off-field problem stopping Blackpool, so Rovers will have to be ready when they visit the Keepmoat on September 17th.

Off-field issues remain the dominant issue however at Coventry City, exiled once again thanks to the ongoing nightmare that is owners SiSu. Rovers will have to take on the Sky Blues in Birmingham on September 28th but won’t be coming up against pushovers as despite the sale of key players, including Tom Bayliss to Preston just this morning, Mark Robins’ side have responded well in the market to the necessary turnover and finished 8th last season despite forces enveloping the club. Jamie Allen was bought to cover the loss of Luke Thomas, Marko Marosi joins from Doncaster to replace Sunderland-bound Lee Burge and in Jordy Hiwula have retained one of the fastest forwards in League One.

Shrews Among Dark Horses?

Whilst we can reasonably expect Rovers to compete for a place in the 6-9 places with the sides above, there is a clutch of clubs looking well placed to push on and perhaps do as Rovers did and get in amongst the Play-Off places despite being relatively unfancied.

Chief among them is Shrewsbury Town, who battled through a tough 2018/19 season through an expected transition with Paul Hurst departing and taking many of his best players from the club’s shock run to the Play-Off Final the prior year with him. Now under Sam Ricketts, the side who battled relegation last term should be looking further up the league going forward, with defence the backbone of a re-tooled squad that looks promising. Donald Love joins from Sunderland to replace Portsmouth-bound James Bolton, whilst Aaron Pierre comes in after an impressive spell at Northampton.

Shrewsbury have also entered the loan market to good effect, recruiting veteran forward Steve Morison from Millwall along with hot prospects Max O’Leary and Luke McCormick, who is highly thought of at parent club Chelsea. Holding onto Fejiri Okenabirhie could be the most important thing they do this summer mind, and by the time Ricketts brings his side to Doncaster on November 16th, they may have already sprung a surprise at the top end of the League One table.

Newly promoted Milton Keynes Dons look well placed too, with Paul Tisdale looking to build on the momentum of earning an immediate return to the third tier. Alex Gilbey and Jordan Houghton, a player known well in these parts, are a technically excellent midfield duo and the addition of Regan Poole adds to a very strong spine in this side starting right at the back with Lee Nicholls in goal. Tisdale will also be hoping the permanent signing of Rhys Healey can help fill the void left by forward Chuks Aneke, who has joined Charlton, but in Kieran Agard they retain a player who netted over 20 goals last term and has done it at this level before.

Oxford United were wildly inconsistent in 2018/19 but showed glimpses of what they could become in the near future. Cardiff poaching both Curtis Nelson and winger Gavin Whyte is tough for Karl Robinson’s side to overcome, but the additions of Tarique Fosu and Chris Cadden should offset that somewhat. Oxford could just as easily finish 5th as they could 15th, but there is an abundance of talent here, from James Henry to Josh Ruffels, Marcus Browne and Rob Dickie, and if Robinson can hit the heights he did at MK Dons in the past, he could progress this Oxford side into serious contenders.

A side always labelled as underdogs is Accrington Stanley, and they defied expectation again last season to establish themselves in League One on a small budget. Consistency is the key for John Coleman, and in Sean McConville they have a creative player who can always be relied on. His new deal inked last month is as good as any signing they could make, whilst retaining Billy Kee guarantees goals. If new signing Colby Bishop, plucked from non-league, can step up quickly, Stanley could go one step further and surprise everyone again by competing for a Play-Off spot.

Fair to Middling for Imps & Brewers?

Rovers will re-acquaint themselves with old rivals Lincoln City on August 24th after a remarkable rise for the Imps under Danny Cowley. The League Two title was won with aplomb just a couple of years on from National League promotion, and the squad to date remains largely the same as it was in May. Many have tipped Lincoln to continue their climb up the ladder but without the addition of third tier experience to an untested squad that may be a step too far, despite the loan signing today of highly-rated striker Tyler Walker from Nottingham Forest. A season of consolidation is nothing to balk at for Lincoln fans, but ambitions may have to be tempered slightly for now.

Nigel Clough will be hoping Burton Albion can unearth a gem or two in order to push on in 2018/19, as otherwise his squad of journeymen may find themselves struggling to impress. The glaring issue is the lack of firepower behind the classy Liam Boyce, with Lucas Akins the only other registered senior forward on the books at time of writing. Marcus Harness, Jamie Allen and Kyle McFadzean have all left over the past month, so it is to be hoped young recruits Oliver Sarkic or Nathan Broadhead, loaned from Leeds and Everton respectively, can adapt to first team football swiftly.

Gillingham meanwhile made the manager their most important incoming of the off-season, as the controversial Steve Evans stepped through the door. Rovers’ opening day opponents have signed a dozen new players in typical Evans fashion, but have lost talisman Tom Eaves up front and as yet struggled to find a like-for-like replacement. Tomas Holy’s departure has been covered well with the signing of former Bristol Rovers keeper Jack Bonham, whilst the likes of Elliott List and Regan Charles-Cook should keep the Gills potent enough to stay clear of trouble, and a strong defensive core is already in place around Gabriel Zakuani and Bradley Garmston.

Retaining forward Jonson Clarke-Harris appears vital to Bristol Rovers’ chances of sustaining their League One status this season, whilst Graham Coughlan will hope to get more out of former fellow Rovers loanee Tyler Smith than Grant McCann could last season. Mark Little adds experience at the back whilst it will be hoped Tom Davies can kick on from the promise shown at Coventry to step into the void left by the sale of Tom Lockyer to Charlton. The Gas are one of those sides who should be okay providing certain players perform consistently but will likely be looking over their shoulder throughout the campaign if not.

Usual Suspects To Scrap It Out?

A handful of sides know they will be up against it most years at this level, chief amongst them Rovers’ first away day hosts of 2018/19, Rochdale. Keith Hill finally had to bow out of the club last season after a miserable run in the second half of the season than included a 5-0 dismantling at the hands of Mallik Wilks and the Rovers, and his replacement Brian Barry-Murphy did an admirable job improving their form. However, Dale have barely made a dent in the transfer window and have a squad in need of a shake-up. Ian Henderson will be relied on heavily again, but with departures from mid-season last term like Andy Cannon still to be adequately replaced, it seems inevitable they will struggle again this year.

Micky Mellon has guided Tranmere Rovers back to this level with successive promotions after a few years in the wilderness of non-league, and many will feel that League One is the rightful level for the Whites. George Ray is a savvy pick-up from Crewe, whilst the experience of Calum Woods and Darren Potter should prove vital, but overall this is a small squad lacking in individual stars and it remains to be seen if Stefan Payne and Morgan Ferrier, signed yesterday from Walsall, can make up for the crucial loss of James Norwood, who has been the main man at Prenton Park for the past few seasons.

Gareth Ainsworth has done a remarkable job steering Wycombe Wanderers through on one of the smaller budgets in the division, but the Chairboys could find themselves up against it again this season despite some attacking signings this week that on the face of it should help a lot. The returning Fred Onyedinma is a great signing, whilst David Wheeler and Josh Parker add to an already very experienced group of forwards including the one-of-a-kind Bayo Akinfenwa. Rovers return to Adams Park on November 23rd - the scene of a spectacular collapse from two goals up to lose last season – and will need to be wary of energetic midfielder Dominic Gape, very much the fulcrum of this side, but the holes appear further back for Wycombe and they will have to battle bravely again to retain their third tier status.

Southend United barely survived last season, scraping through thanks largely to the galvanisation of Kevin Bond in the dugout, and whilst Bond has trimmed the fat this summer, the Shrimpers still have a bigger squad than they perhaps need and it is short on quality. Brandon Goodship is the marque signing, bringing a goalscoring rate almost hitting 1-in-1 for non-league Weymouth, whilst Timothee Dieng and Sam Mantom will be grateful for defensive additions including Joe Shaughnessy and veteran Liam Ridgewell. Harmony will be key for Bond as he tries to bring direction to what has been a rather wayward ship in recent times.

Dead and buried when he took over, Wally Downes dragged AFC Wimbledon to safety in bullish fashion in 2018/19 but repeating the feat again will take even more determination. Wimbledon operate on a very small budget compared to most in this division and a move back to their home borough in a new stadium can’t come soon enough. Bright lights of last season have left, notably defender Deji Oshilaja and young prospect Toby Sibbick, and incomings have been sparse this summer. Joe Pigott’s goals will give the Wombles a fighting chance, but despite him and the likes of Scott Wagstaff and Mitchell Pinnock, who bring undoubted class to the team, Wimbledon will be stretched to their limits in pursuit of survival again this year.

Bolton and Bury: How Has This Happened?

It seems unfair to even discuss the footballing merits of the two sides who begin the campaign 12 points down on the rest. Ownership disasters have rendered both Bolton Wanderers and Bury utterly destitute and it seems the saga only draws on for both clubs.

Starting with the Trotters, Phil Parkinson presides over a team that can barely be labelled a squad, comprising of only six senior players (among them Erhun Oztumer and Josh Magennis) and have been in administration since May, yet a sale to the Football Ventures group is still not finalised. The club had to forfeit their final game of last season due to a player strike and wages have not been paid in months, a remarkably sad and alarming state of affairs. Their game this weekend has been sanctioned to take place, which is encouraging news, but doubts remain over their long-term viability. Rovers visit Bolton in 18 days’ time so it is to be hoped a solution is found before then or else future games including our own will be in doubt.

Bury meanwhile have seen their opening game postponed due to similar problems. Promoted last season, the club has completely collapsed in the meantime and it is hard to even say who is registered to play for the club at present. Manager Ryan Lowe left for Plymouth, taking many of the players with him, and it remains a real fear that the club could be expelled from the league in the coming days if owner Steve Dale cannot meet the financial criteria set out.

Dale took over a club already in financial trouble but has spectacularly failed to do anything other than make matters far worse, and at this point the growing swell of loathing for him and all that has been allowed to occur – by him, his predecessor Stewart Day and indeed the EFL themselves – is at its peak both from desperate and fed-up Bury fans, and from those in the wider footballing community dismayed by what has transpired at this historic club.

The Verdict

League One promises to be as competitive as ever this season, and Doncaster Rovers can be hopeful that they will be able to mount a Play-Off challenge again, although Darren Moore knows he needs bodies in before being able to seriously plot an assault on the top six. Portsmouth look the clear favourites heading into the campaign but will be pushed hard by a group of sides: ITEN tips former Rovers manager Darren Ferguson to take Peterborough United into the Championship again behind Pompey, with Sunderland, Rotherham and Ipswich making the Play-Offs. Paul Lambert should have enough to take his side into the post-season although it won’t be as easy as many seem to think, and the last spot that is anyone’s for the taking.

Rovers join Fleetwood, Blackpool and Coventry in being favourites for that position, but Shrewsbury in particular look well placed to crash the party unexpectedly, and it would be foolish to count out MK Dons, Oxford or even Accrington at this stage. At the bottom, Bolton and Bury will need a miracle to salvage their third tier status but will be glad just to have a club to support come May, whilst the main candidates to fill the other two slots appear to be Wimbledon and Rochdale, although they will run others including Southend, Tranmere and Wycombe close.

Thank you for reading, good luck to all of the teams competing this season and we will be ready and raring to go in less than 24 hours’ time as the 2019/20 League One season gets underway.


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