League 2: Pirates to plunder title while Pope preaches goals!
Football is back this weekend as the Football League gets underway with plenty of preseason optimism around many of the grounds. There will be a fair few that fancy their chances in a competitive League 2. There's not a huge difference is quality of the sides in this tier and so we can expect another log jam for the playoff spots.
Where else to start but with Crawley Town (10/3), the runaway Conference Champions from last year. They have plenty of funds behind them and have made a few additions to the squad but kept the spine of last year's team intact. The strike force seems improved and Matt Tubbs (5/1) and new signing Wesley Thomas (16/1) both look decent bets for the League's top scorer. They should be there or thereabouts but I see them falling short in their title bid.
The reason I think they will fall short is Bristol Rovers. They have appointed a good up and coming manager in Paul Buckle following last season's relegation and have strengthened the squad by signing more than a dozen players. The major signings include Zebroski and Bevan, who have followed the manager from Torquay, and they should help fans get over losing last season's top scorer, Hoskins, to Brighton. They're 12/1 for the League honours and that represents a much better bet than Crawley.
The other team capable of overturning Crawley at the top are Swindon Town who are 12/1. They have appointed colourful Italian Paolo Di Canio as manager and hopes are high at the County Ground. The appointment of Di Canio could yet to prove to be a stroke of genius or a total calamity, as they have gambled on signing foreigners with no experience of the English game - but if they click they will do well.
Then we come to the playoff log jam with numerous clubs fancying their chances of getting there. The contenders for the spots includes the like of Port Vale, Accrington, Gillingham, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Southend United and Torquay who will all be trying to squeeze into the available spots. My Picks for those would be: Port Vale, with the return of Micky Adams they should be the fittest side in League 2 again and challenging. Due to off the field issues the League title looks a bit far away but with Tom Pope and Marc Richards up front there could easily be a promotion party in Burslem come May.
Accrington, Torquay and Shrewsbury all featured in the playoffs last year and will expect to be there again. Accrington finished strong and had one of the best home records in the league, if they can improve their form away from the Crown ground they will be up there for sure. Shrewsbury have been knocking on League 1's door for the past few years and will be doing so again, should the Di Canio experiment at Swindon fail they could easily be third. Torquay have lost their manager and top players to Bristol Rovers and despite their playoff ambitions I think they will fall short. Of those previously mentioned Oxford seem the most equipped to sneak into the top 7 especially of key summer signing Peter Leven can stay fit.
The next group are set to be mid table and appear to be going nowhere, these are AFC Wimbledon, Aldershot, Bradford City, Burton Albion, Crewe, Dagenham and Redbridge, Northampton, Plymouth and Rotherham. All these teams have an outside chance of the playoffs but will do well to just consolidate in this league for one reason or another, don't expect any major waves from these teams. Burton Albion may be the ones who can surprise, they have improved on last season and if they can get a solid number 1 goalkeeper a top half finish would be a good reward.
The final five will be battling to save their league status they are: Barnet, Cheltenham, Hereford United, Macclesfield, and Morecambe. Of these 5 Hereford, Macclesfield and Morecambe look to be the stronger contingent so Barnet and Cheltenham would after to be the selections as they have been perennial strugglers and this looks like one season too many.
Predicted Top 7: Bristol Rovers, Crawley, Shrewsbury, Port Vale, Swindon, Accrington, and Oxford.
Predicted Bottom 2: Barnet and Cheltenham
Top bets for the season:
League Winner: Bristol Rovers @ 12/1
League Top Scorer: Wes Thomas (Crawley) @ 16/1, Tom Pope (Port Vale) @ 50/1, Chris Zebroski (Bristol Rovers) @ 33/1
Promotion: Port Vale @ 4/1
Relegation: Barnet @ 7/2
Handicap: Accrington (+22) @ 18/1
Season Match Bets: Accrington @ 5/6 (v Aldershot), Southend @ 4/5 (v Crewe), Burton @ 5/6 (v Hereford)