THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Nick House's pre-season optimism was high, however, the Torquay side he supports had to perform the Great Escape, yet again

This might not always be a good division, but it enjoys intrigue, twists of fortune and a particular quirkiness. Northampton, for instance, won promotion employing a player on loan from Ryman League side Fisher Athletic. Chester’s survival was helped by loanee Derek Asamoah who, in an otherwise barren season, produced a seven-goals-in-four-games burst.

Then there was the curious case of the “stadium manager” who made his first league appearance in nine years. Richard Hancox of Torquay – the general manager’s husband and chairman’s son-in-law – set aside paint pots and mower to produce a cameo performance at Rochdale that showed why he stopped playing in 1996.

Ah, League Two: awkward to read; difficult to predict. Look back to WSC’s pre-season preview and you’ll find a cautious bunch hoping for a sniff – often no more – of the play-offs. Lincoln’s correspondent was the most optimistic; Wycombe’s the most expectant. Otherwise nobody expected relegation and I – “top four if we’ve got anything up front” – was as wrong, about Torquay, as anyone. Nor were we too sure about other teams. Collectively we got Northamptonshire right – Northampton up; Rushden down. But Torquay for promotion, Carlisle lower mid-table and Cheltenham dicing with relegation? Not quite.

Day one saw Carlton Palmer play his first game for two years and – it may be assumed – his last ever. The next round of games saw this correspondent at Oxford v Torquay already moderating his pre-season optimism. To Oxford fans of his acquaintance: “We were crap, that’s a relegation team you’ve been watching.” Yes, but not the one that seemed so-destined for most of the next eight months.

After nine or ten games Grimsby and Carlisle set the pace as Torquay lagged. Christmas hinted at Wycombe pulling away and Stockport fading away. Yet no team was running amok nor irretrievably floundering. No especially good side; none desperately poor. March dawned and, as required-points calculations commenced, the easiest conclusion was that every game was winnable, loseable or drawable. Anyone can beat anyone, as evidenced by Oxford 1 Carlisle 0; Rushden 1 Orient 0; Grimsby 1 Stockport 3; and Carlisle 1 Torquay 2.

Ultimately Carlisle, Northampton, Orient and Grimsby comfortably comprised the top four as Rushden limply succumbed. The fun was to be had in seeing who else went down. Of seven final-day candidates, Torquay – six points adrift with five games left and on their third manager of 2006 – contrived to pull off Great Escape III (or IV or V depending on the accounting method) leaving Oxford, so belatedly in the bottom two, to their fate of possessing the best three-sided ground the Conference has ever seen.

Camouflaged by the apparent evenness of the division it was hard to assess quality. We often pass judgment from our own rung on the ladder. But, pressed to compare standards to 2003-04 (a promotion season from this reviewer’s perspective), the conclusion is that a poorer place has been entered.

What has changed mystifies. Instead consider two random thoughts. First, clubs are relatively volatile – and vulnerable? – at this level. Something goes wrong – for whatever reason – and it all comes apart (as at Chester and Wycombe). Second, the new transfer system – especially that clause allowing “emergency” loans – took some by surprise. This led to over-stocking at the start of the season and a “we need bodies” mentality. Quality suffered and some truly awful individuals appeared on the scene. Undoubtedly some clubs were quicker than others to appreciate that having crap players constituted an “emergency”.

But there were some good players. Last summer’s Championship climbers – Luke Rodgers, Martin Devaney (briefly) and Colin Kazim-Richards – did little. January’s exports – Grant Holt (Rochdale to Forest), Nathan Tyson (Wycombe to Forest) and Simon Whaley (Bury to Preston) – look better, as does Joe Hart, a more recent mover from Shrewsbury to Man City.

The three most successful managers – Paul Simpson, Colin Calderwood and Martin Ling – have little experience outside their current clubs. A pool of emerging talent, perhaps.

Finally, look at the cup results against teams from other leagues. Grimsby beat Spurs, Orient beat Fulham and, all told, 14 League Two clubs beat higher opposition in the FA and League Cups. Just as significantly, with the last four champions – Rushden, Doncaster, Yeovil and Carlisle – being ex-Conference, League Two clubs won four of five FA Cup ties against aspiring Conference opposition such as Grays, Halifax and Hereford. Not such a bad league after all?

From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month

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