ITEN Predicts...League One 2020/21
Predicting how a league campaign will play out is difficult to do at the best of times, but navigating the minefield of this uniquely unusual 2020/21 season is more difficult than ever this summer.
EFL football returns after six months away next week, yet ironically the opening day arguably comes a little sooner than many clubs would have preferred thanks to the accelerated nature of pre-season under Covid-19 restrictions. Squads are mostly nowhere near being finalised too, since the Transfer Window has been extended into mid-October to allow clubs more time to finalise their recruitment.
All of that being said, it is interesting to plot where Doncaster Rovers figure to fit into the equation and to do that we can only go on what we know so far. Approaching the division with a big asterisk labelled “Opinions Subject to Change” then, here are our early predictions for how the season will pan out in League One.
Pompey and Ipswich Feeling Blue
At first glance, there are a number of big, big clubs inhabiting the third tier these days and it stands to reason that any discussion of true title contenders should begin with them. Portsmouth were beaten Play-Off semi-finalists last season whilst Sunderland and Ipswich missed the top six entirely, and Hull have dropped into League One via the Championship trap door along with stricken clubs Wigan and Charlton - who we’ll get to later. For many of this crop however, problems run deep meaning the race to the summit is far from cut and dry.
Pompey have another strong case for being promotion favourites, although manager Kenny Jackett is not a popular figure around Fratton Park having failed to get the best out of a number of talented players, including former Rovers star striker John Marquis. A lack of additions to date will only serve to increase frustration around the club and their creatively lacking style of play may hinder them. In short, if Jackett remains in the dugout then Portsmouth won’t likely figure in the race for automatic promotion.
There is a question mark over the capability of the manager at Ipswich too, as Paul Lambert - who won League One with the Tractor Boys’ bitter rivals Norwich once upon a time - appears to be on a downward trend in his career and failed to maintain the strong start his side managed in 2019/20, eventually sliding out to 11th. Ipswich have added experience in Stephen Ward, goalkeeper David Cornell and the imposing Oli Hawkins, but the potential loss of midfield starlet Flynn Downes, who has handed in a transfer request, would leave a sizeable hole in the team.
Big Cats with Big Problems
Sunderland are easily the biggest team in League One but find themselves set for a third successive season at this level amid ongoing boardroom uncertainty and after suffering the ignominy of missing the Play-Offs last season, a failure thought unthinkable in some quarters. Phil Parkinson has blown hot and cold during his time as manager but has made some astute signings for the Black Cats this summer, most notably forward Aiden O’Brien who has pedigree at this level - leaving Sunderland in a better position than any to push on a level this year.
Hull City need no introduction to Rovers fans, who delighted in seeing former manager Grant McCann lead the Tigers to a catastrophic collapse that saw them drop like a stone to the foot of the Championship after selling Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki in January. The turncoat Northern Irishman has miraculously retained his job for now, and has the strength of his Play-Off run at Rovers to lean on as some form of accomplishment at this level, but stopping the rot that runs deep at the Humberside club will take some doing.
They have a small squad smattered with talent including Mallik Wilks, and recruitment looks solid this summer - including two players he tried to bring to the Keepmoat a year ago in Greg Docherty and Richie Smallwood - but it will be tough to forget the truly miserable run they ended last season on and if that form continues into the new campaign it could quickly be curtains for McCann. Hull could easily compete for honours if they start the season refreshed, but if their decline sustains they won’t look much of a threat for promotion just yet.
Oxford Determined, Posh Out for Revenge
If you look beyond the so-called big boys, there are two teams who stand out as a real threat for promotion and they both had very good seasons in 2019/20 - Oxford and Peterborough.
Karl Robinson took his Oxford side to the brink of a return to the Championship after 26 years in the lower leagues, only to fall at the final hurdle in defeat to Wycombe at Wembley. The U’s have lost defensive talent Rob Dickie in recent days to QPR, but having secured returns for Matty Taylor and Liam Kelly, and with additions such as Sean Clare and former Barcelona youngster Marcus McGuane, Oxford look in strong shape for a renewed push and can easily challenge for promotion.
Peterborough meanwhile have dubbed the upcoming campaign their “Revenge Season” after the PPG weighting on last year’s curtailed table saw them left out of the Play-Offs. Ivan Toney was head-and-shoulders the best striker in League One and has earned a £10 million move to Brentford, but in one-time Rovers loanee Jonson Clarke-Harris, Posh already have his replacement through the door and the signing of Ryan Broom from Cheltenham goes a long way to filling the void vacated by Marcus Maddison in attacking midfield back in January.
Whether or not Darren Ferguson can deliver on his bosses’ desire for “revenge” remains to be seen. Fergie is not exactly the picture of consistency and he has failed to get the best out of quality players in the past, although it is hard to look past them for a top six place at least. If nothing else, Peterborough join Oxford as the best-placed sides to crash the big clubs’ party at the business end of the League One shake-up.
Tangerines Lead Dark Horses
Much has been made of the strong number of incomings at several clubs who finished in mid-table in 2019/20, chief among them Bristol Rovers, Blackpool and Gillingham. Whilst Ben Garner’s Rovers have added excellent defensive reinforcements in Max Ehmer and Jack Baldwin, as well as the mercurial Zain Westbrooke, the loss of Clarke-Harris and general lack of consistency prevalent in the side last season mean they are unlikely to trouble the top six.
Blackpool however have recruited smartly as Neil Critchley looks to build a team in his own image, not least two players with familiarity to Rovers in attacking duo Keshi Anderson and Jerry Yates brought in after excelling at Swindon. MJ Williams is another shrewd arrival and if Critchley can translate his stellar coaching reputation into tangible success, the Tangerines could find themselves in with a shout of a Play-Off place.
Whether you like his style or not, Gillingham boss Steve Evans has had a year to acclimate the Kent outfit to his way of operating and signings like Kyle Dempsey and Vadaine Oliver further embolden fans’ belief that their side can kick on from last season’s promising finish and make the Play-Offs. Brandon Hanlan’s future remains uncertain - with Rovers one of several clubs linked to the forward after he refused multiple contract offers - but John Akinde has the opportunity to hit the ground running and bag the goals to take Evans to success once more in League One.
Fleetwood will do well to shake off the dark cloud that engulfed them in a poor exit from the Play-Offs this summer, and they have lost players who fit their ethos perfectly, whilst Lincoln have shed a lot of deadwood left over from their rapid rise out of non-league and might fancy a tilt. Darren Moore’s developing squad is probably right around this group of teams too, but it is fair to say that additions later in the window may yet change the shape of things once more for both Rovers and sides like Lincoln and Fleetwood.
New Boys Set to Struggle
Wycombe’s unbelievable success on a tiny budget makes writing teams off as relegation fodder a dangerous game, so take it all with a pinch of salt, but the four newly promoted sides all look likely to find it tough getting to grips with League One.
Plymouth have added a talented midfielder in Lewis Macleod, and Swindon have added a crop of young prospects to offset the gutting of their forward line (with Eoin Doyle now at Bolton and Anderson joining Yates at Blackpool) but both will likely be aiming for a season of consolidation. Crewe and Northampton meanwhile will be amongst the smallest resource clubs in the division but the failure to bring back Callum Morton will hurt the Cobblers in particular.
In addition, teams who struggled last season will surely feel the pinch again with Rochdale shorn of players who were at the heart of their side - Williams, Callum Camps and talismanic striker Ian Henderson especially - and Wimbledon perhaps still a year or two away from being able to use their impending return to Plough Lane as a catalyst for more success. Sam Ricketts’ Shrewsbury have issues to iron out amongst their ranks and may also find themselves dragged into trouble if they can’t find a rhythm quickly.
Experience on the pitch will likely help to keep Burton away from trouble, but rookie boss Jake Buxton has big shoes to fill replacing Nigel Clough and their squad looks light on the “x-factor” needed to excel. Neither Accrington nor Milton Keynes Dons appear set with their squads and so the remaining weeks in the transfer window may be the difference maker for whether either of those sides have to worry about dropping into the bottom four.
Fate Unknown for Wigan and Charlton
Football appears to have learned little from last season’s plight at Bury and Bolton, with relegated sides Wigan and Charlton both unsure if they can even start the season as the opening day looms. Charlton at least have a talented squad and in Lee Bowyer possess a manager who has succeeded at this level before, as Rovers know all too well. The Addicks have been under a transfer embargo however and it is tough to gauge how well they will be able to manage without a takeover agreed for the club.
Alex Gilbey and Conor Washington are two excellent additions for any League One club but the depth to push at the top simply isn’t there at the moment and the boardroom situation is a complete mess. Wigan are in truly dire straits meanwhile, in administration and desperately searching for a buyer to save them from extinction after the truly outrageous manner of their relegation from the Championship following an ownership change completed under suspicious circumstances.
The Latics have lost nearly 20 first team players, only made their first additions on Friday - winger Viv Solomon-Otabor and lower league veteran Dan Gardner - have no manager and will have to consider starting the season as a resounding success. Predicting the fortunes of these two clubs feels unsavoury in a way and it has to be hoped that both see resolutions to their ownership situations as soon as possible so that we can get back to talking about matters on the pitch with both clubs.
ITEN Predicts...Final League One Table 2020/21
As we stated at the outset of this piece, there should be a heavy dose of caution in predicting anything this season. The last campaign didn't even reach a conclusion, something thought unthinkable at the outset. In any case, Rovers look to be on a decent track to mix it up with the division's best sides and may yet strengthen further to cement a Play-Off push, but for now here is how we see the table shaking out for Darren Moore's side and for the other 23 sides who will line up against them in 2020/21.
Hull City ------------------------------
Milton Keynes Dons