Dan Turner reports that although it can be exciting from an outsider looking in, League One hits fans where it hurts most – in the pocket
The Lord of the Rings features a giant spider paralysing Frodo with its venom, trussing him up in a blanket of goo and leaving him slumped on the floor a broken, pallid, blankly staring shell of his former self. That was what watching League One football felt like last season. Shelling out £15 to £20 a game to be bored catatonic stretched even the famous elasticity of patience, pride and pocket of fans at this level.
While the football was excruciatingly dull and devoid of any real quality, a study of last season would lead most outsiders to believe that it was all at least mildly diverting. For a start, none of the teams relegated from the previous season made the play-offs. Principal among these, of course, were Nottingham Forest. The twice European champions started off slowly, jettisoned manager Gary Megson mid-season amid rumours of a major fallout with his players, picked up and then fell two points shy of sixth-placed Swansea. It was probably their crazily inconsistent form that did for them in the end – they won 3-0 then lost by the same score against my club, Oldham, within a month.
Strongly fancied Bristol City’s season was even more up and down. Before December, they could hardly buy a point and looked in serious danger of relegation. Any doubt as to the reason evaporated at Boundary Park in October with a Keystone Cops defensive display that had granite-faced old regulars around me crying with laughter. But afterwards, as new boss Gary Johnson started to make his presence felt, they went on a run of form that would have embarrassed José Mourinho, before running out of steam in ninth. Assuming they can ditch the Jekyll & Hyde act, they should be a good bet for the title next season.
Perhaps the most gratifying story was the promotion of Colchester United. Anyone who has ever been to tiny Layer Road will purse their lips in polite amusement at the thought of visits from Leeds, Wolves, Birmingham et al. But the much coveted Phil Parkinson built an attractive team around Neil Danns and they played the best football I saw all season – even if it did little to swell their pitifully small crowds.
The other half of the Essex one-two were Southend. In keeping with the rest of what was a very tight (ie mediocre) division, the Shrimpers came top with a points total that would have got them no higher than third in the other two Football League divisions. I had the previous season’s League Two play-off winners down as certs for relegation before the season started, but one look at Freddy Eastwood, Shaun Goater and Darryl Flahavan changed my mind sharpish. They had the strut of potential champions and never lost it.
Below the top two, 11 points separated the next eight teams. This bottleneck was caused in the last dozen or so games by teams such as Doncaster, Forest and Bristol City making big moves from mid-table and eventual play-off finalists Barnsley and Swansea having a fit of the collywobbles. Ridiculously, Oldham managed to do both – racking up the wins in February and March before falling apart in spectacular fashion at the end with only three points from their final seven games to finish tenth.
League Two champions Yeovil survived whatever increase in quality there was comfortably enough. They were solid but thoroughly harmless – not even pre-match blasts of the Wurzels managed to inspire them. Fellow newcomers Scunthorpe were rather more coruscating – mainly because of the division’s joint top scorer, Billy Sharp, the best striker I saw.
At the wrong end of the division, where even mediocrity was a distant fantasy, Walsall finished bottom. Citing the ongoing fall-out from the collapse of ITV Digital, chairman Jeff Bonser was forced to sell good players such as Matty Fryatt and allow Jorge Leitão to return to Portugal. This and the usual crippling injury crisis helped lose Paul Merson his job in February with the club a point above the drop zone. Alas, the move didn’t have the desired effect and the team from the Bescot went south.
Swindon have had a tragi-comic few weeks. Headline writers everywhere rejoiced as Iffy Onuora took the cash-strapped club down and they should be a good source for stories next season with the surreal arrival of new management team Dennis Wise and Gus Poyet. Much to Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling’s chagrin, Hartlepool – 2004-05’s losing play-off finalists – went down on the last day of the season. To nobody’s chagrin at all, Milton Keynes Dons went with them. League One might be shit, but at least it’s no longer franchised, plastic shit.
From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month