A predictable top three but shocks at the bottom, where ownership worries overtook on-field problems – what WSC contributors got right and wrong last season
25 July ~ The top end of League Two turned out to be more straightforward than usual in 2016-17, with the WSC contributors getting the first four places spot on. Portsmouth had not led the division at any point in the season until the final day, when they thrashed Cheltenham 6-1 to take the title. It will have pleased Pompey fan Leon Tricker, who said: “Some will argue automatic promotion is a minimum requirement… I’ll be happy to make the play-offs again.”
That dramatic climax to the season saw Portsmouth snatch the title from long-time leaders Doncaster, who finished third. Glen Wilson acknowledged Rovers had seen a lot of upheaval in their squad the previous summer. “If they [the new players] can gel then we ought to be challenging for promotion,” he said. “I say that more in hope than expectation.” Despite the disappointment at the end Doncaster are back in League One after just a single season in the Football League’s basement division.
After successive relegations and two failed play-off campaigns Plymouth fan Steven East was not confident. “I would be quite happy to see the bulk of the team disappear and that is what seems to be happening,” he said. “The things is I have no confidence that this will lead to any sort of improvement. We probably won’t struggle but neither will we challenge at the top. So a boring mid-table finish it is then.” Steve needn’t have worried as the Pilgrims, led by Derek Adams, finally began their rise back up the divisions at the sixth attempt while also taking Liverpool to a replay in the FA Cup third round.
Eight points shy of the promotion places, exactly where they were predicted by the division’s contributors, were Luton. Before the season John Earls was confident that their “best crop of youth players in a decade” could earn promotion but Nathan Jones’ team were beaten 6-5 on aggregate in a thrilling play-off semi-final by Blackpool, thanks to a 95th-minute own goal by Stuart Moore.
Blackpool went on to beat Exeter at Wembley to gain promotion, something our contributors didn’t see coming – they had the Tangerines down in 11th. It wasn’t a huge surprise to John Secker though, who confidently predicted “we have some hope of winning more than we lose”, before plumping for the “fringes of the play-offs”. There weren’t many fans present to witness Blackpool’s promotion, though, with many staying away as a protest against the Oyston family’s running of the club.
Exeter themselves exceeded expectations under long-serving manager Paul Tisdale. Having been predicted to finish 14th, and even supporter Gary Andrews anticipating they would end up “just short of the play-offs”, their 12-game unbeaten run between November and February helped them to a healthy fifth. The other play-off losers, Carlisle, lived up to Rob Lees’ hopes that “a serious promotion push shouldn’t be beyond us” but were beaten in yet another 6-5-on-aggreagate-95th-minute-winner play-off thriller.
The other end of the League Two table was not quite as easy to predict, with Leyton Orient’s rapid decline under Francesco Becchetti’s ownership, and the subsequent fan campaign to save the club, one of the stories of the season. It was, sadly for Tom Davies, something he saw coming – though perhaps even he didn’t know how bad the situation could get: “We’ll challenge if Becchetti can break his habit of meddling. If he can’t we’ll be battling the drop.” Inevitably he couldn’t, with manager Andy Hessenthaler gone by October and four more taking charge as Orient sunk out of the League for the first time since election to it in 1905.
They will be joined in non-League by Hartlepool, much to the surprise of Ed Parkinson: “How our new recruits from the lower leagues adapt will be crucial but I’m not sure there is much difference between League Two and the National League anymore.” Next season he will have a chance to test that theory, after an 89th-minute winner for Newport sent Pools down on the final day, despite their victory over Doncaster.
That last-day survival for Newport will have surprised the rest of the division’s writers, who had them picked for relegation, but the season will have been a disappointment to Jon Davies. “Warren Feeney has brought in players we’ve actually heard of,” he said, before confidently predicting 12th. Feeney was gone by September, having gained just six points in his opening nine matches.
Morecambe were the other club expected to drop from League Two, and not just by the rest of the clubs’ contributors. “Relegation looks almost certain,” said Dave Martin. “The playing budget has been slashed, the club are for sale and nobody wants to buy them, our two best players have joined Carlisle, fans have had enough and are staying away in droves.” Despite this Morecambe, managed by Jim Bentley, battled to a decent-looking 18th.
Elsewhere Accrington couldn’t quite live up to the expectations raised by their 2015-16 play-off campaign. “We’ll finish third,” said Adam Scarborough. “In John Coleman we trust.” They could only manage a disappointing 13th. Cheltenham also struggled. Mark Herron had suggested mid-table was realistic despite “some expectations of a second promotion” and the rest of the division had them tenth, but one win from their opening 12 games left Gary Johnson’s team playing catch up and the limped to 21st.
WSC 367 with the 2017-18 season guide is in shops on Thursday, August 3. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your door.
Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photos: Leyton Orient fans protest against owner Francesco Becchetti after their win over Hartlepool
Actual table provided by soccerstats.com