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League Two 2020/21 season preview: Who will win promotion?

Whereas the Premier League and Championship returned to complete their seasons in 2019/20 after a three-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, League One and League Two curtailed their campaigns early on. There was opposition to that decision in the third tier, but most clubs playing in League Two recognised that it simply was not feasible for all 46 rounds of matches to be completed.

Each of England’s top four divisions will get back under way next weekend. And while there has been a quick turnaround between last season and this in the Premier League and Championship, next Saturday’s matches in Leagues One and Two are the first non-play-off games to be held since March. Unfortunately there will be no supporters present at stadiums for some time yet, but fans of the 24 clubs that make up League Two will still be excited to see their teams back in action.

The 2020/21 season will be the 17th under its current name (it was, confusingly, known as the Football League Third Division until 2003/04) and the 29th under its current format. Although the campaign is kicking off more than a month later than usual, it is still scheduled to end in early May. That means 46 rounds of games will be squeezed into just eight months, so the upcoming term promises to be even more hectic and action-packed than normal.

Barrow and Harrogate Town have joined the league after winning promotion last time out, while Tranmere Rovers, Southend United and Bolton Wanderers were all relegated into it in 2019/20. As ever, the top three teams will go up automatically, the next four will enter the play-offs, and the bottom two will go down to the National League.

So, which teams will be fighting for which prizes this season? We have divided the division into four categories to assess each side’s chances.

Promotion contenders

Bolton Wanderers (5/1 to win the league, Sky Bet) endured a miserable season last time out.  A club that began the 2010s in the Premier League and competed in European competition as recently as 2008 now finds itself in the fourth tier after back-to-back demotions. However, the Trotters are now on a more stable financial footing and have handed the managerial reins to Ian Evatt, who did brilliantly in guiding Barrow into League Two. Bolton will expect to challenge for the title this term.

Salford City (13/2 to win the league, bet365) will have similar ambitions. The club that is co-owned by Manchester United legends Gary Neville, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt is not short of ambition. After consolidating their position in League Two last time out, a top-three finish will be in Salford’s sights.

Exeter City (14/1 to win the league, Bet Victor) were thrashed 4-0 by Northampton Town in last season’s play-off final. They will be determined to bounce back from that blow by going one better in 2020/21. The Grecians have some talented youngsters in their ranks and Matt Taylor has shown promise in his first managerial job. Exeter should be in the promotion mix once more.

Mansfield Town (23/10 to win promotion, Paddy Power) had a disappointing season last time out, finishing 21st on a points-per-game basis after the campaign was cut short. The club has spent a lot of money in recent years, so the pressure will be on Graham Coughlan to mount a promotion challenge. Tightening up their defence should be Town’s priority.

Cheltenham Town (10/3 to win promotion, Bet Victor) will feel they might have won automatic promotion last season had all 46 matches been played. Indeed, while they were four points adrift of third spot when the campaign was put on hold, they had a game in hand and were in excellent form. They collapsed in the play-offs, throwing away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 on aggregate to Northampton, but the Robins have done some good work in the transfer market and can be optimistic about their chances, particularly having posted the division’s best defensive record in 2019/20.

Port Vale (9/2 to win promotion, Sky Bet) just missed out on the play-offs last time out, with Northampton and Colchester United edging them out courtesy of 0.03 more points per game. John Askey is an astute coach and the squad could benefit from continuity, with the local lad in the dugout favouring a settled starting XI whenever possible. Port Vale were hard to beat last term, and turning more draws into wins could sneak them into the top three. 

Play-off hopefuls

Tranmere Rovers (6/5 to finish in the top seven, Betfred) have lost Micky Mellon to Dundee United, so his erstwhile assistant Mike Jackson will be in charge this season. A top-three finish might be beyond the untested Jackson, but Tranmere have retained most of the players who were with them in League One last year. That bodes well for a play-off push.

Forest Green Rovers (10/3 to make the play-offs, Betfair) will also have designs on a top-seven finish, having finished in the top half in 2019/20. Rovers have some terrific players in their ranks and Mark Cooper will be expected to challenge for a play-off spot.

Bradford City (11/8 to finish in the top seven, Sky Bet) are a big club at this level, but expectations among the fan base must be tempered. Automatic promotion will surely prove a bridge too far this season, but the Bantams will hope to be in the play-off picture as the finish line comes into sight.

Carlisle United (9/1 to win promotion, Sky Bet) were steered clear of danger by Chris Beech after the former Rochdale assistant took the reins last November. Carlisle are outsiders for the play-offs but could mount a challenge if others falter.

Colchester United (9/4 to finish in the top seven, Betway) were narrowly beaten by Exeter in the play-off semi-finals last term. Steve Ball, formerly assistant to ex-boss John McGreal, will look to qualify for the end-of-season tournament once more, but a top-half finish would be a more realistic objective.

Walsall (14/1 to finish in the top seven, Sport Pesa) lost 15 of their 36 games last year – far too many for a club with play-off ambitions. A place in the top seven is unlikely, but the Saddlers do have some talented players to call upon. 

Mid-table security

Harrogate Town (11/10 to finish in the top half, Paddy Power) are embarking on their first ever season in the Football League. Simon Weaver’s tactically flexible side will cause one or two surprises this season.

Newport County (9/2 to make the play-offs, Betfair) have a bona fide club legend at the helm in the shape of Michael Flynn. They reached the play-off final in 2018 and then finished in lower mid-table in 2019; a repeat of the latter is more likely than the former.

Grimsby Town (11/2 to go down, bet365) finished last season in fantastic form, having been hovering dangerously close to the drop zone at the start of 2020. Ian Holloway’s side should finish halfway up the table in his first full season in charge.

Southend United (13/2 to go down, Paddy Power) were relegated from League One last season but an immediate return to the third tier will not be their goal this year. After yet another change in the dugout – Mark Molesley has replaced Sol Campbell – Southend would settle for mid-table mediocrity.

Scunthorpe United (11/2 to go down, Betfair) are another club that has appointed a rookie manager for the new season, with Neil Cox assuming control. Scunny have been active in the transfer market but could be sucked into a relegation fight if they are not careful. 

Leyton Orient (6/5 to finish in the top half, Paddy Power) returned to the Football League by comfortably avoiding a relegation battle last season, and they should also finish comfortably clear of danger again in 2020/21. Unfortunately, Yaya Toure will not be part of their line-up despite training with the club this summer.


Relegation battlers

Cambridge United (6/1 to go down, Paddy Power) fans will be excited to see Wes Hoolahan in their team this season, but it is uncertain whether the 38-year-old still has the legs to influence games at this level. His quality is undeniable, however, and the former Norwich City schemer should help his new club avoid the drop.

Morecambe (9/2 to go down, bet365) might find themselves in a stickier situation, having avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth last time out. Now that long-serving manager Jim Bentley has departed, Morecambe’s time in League Two might be up.

Stevenage (11/2 to go down, Paddy Power) were extremely fortunate to stay up last season. They amassed just 22 points and won only three games but were saved by Bury’s liquidation and Macclesfield Town’s 17-point deduction. Without any such external favours this year, relegation is a distinct possibility.

Barrow (13/2 to go down, Paddy Power) have lost the brains behind their rise to the Football League, with manager Ian Evatt having joined Bolton. It will be interesting to see how their possession game translates to a higher level, but the newcomers should have enough about them to avoid the trapdoor.

Oldham Athletic (9/2 to go down, bet365) are on the brink of crisis, with chairman Abdallah Lemsagam hugely unpopular with supporters. The mood at Boundary Park is pessimistic and a relegation battle looks to be on the cards.

Crawley Town (7/1 to go down, Betfair) ended last season well and will be looking to carry that momentum into this term. Mid-table hopefuls, they could nevertheless get dragged into the demotion dogfight if they do not improve their away form – they won just one league game on the road last time out.

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