Tom Davis looks back at the League One season and reflects on how the division is becoming more and more seperated with each passing year
Ostensibly, there’s almost a case to be made that League One is taking on as lopsided and unequal appearance as the Premier League: increasingly a repository for badly run big clubs and smaller members who see a place in the top half as the peak of their ambitions. No other division boasts such a proportional gap between the crowds of its best and worst supported clubs, or such contrasting historical narratives. A decade previously, Hereford, Cheltenham, Leeds and Leicester were four divisions apart – this term they competed as equals.
Kind of. Resources still determined the course of the season – well backed clubs finished at the top, the cash-strapped ones at the bottom – but there were enough unpredictable subplots to maintain interest. Leicester followed Nottingham Forest and Leeds into the division’s “fallen giant” role this season but unlike them fashioned an instant response. Nigel Pearson’s neat and purposeful team won the division with a minimum of fuss, their only serious wobble coming in the spring with promotion practically assured.
They were joined by Peterborough who, though hardly boasting “massive club” status, were nonetheless well resourced, which helped Darren Ferguson not just assemble a promotion-winning squad but keep it together. Their lethal forward pairing of Craig Mackail-Smith and Aaron McLean has been together two and a half years, a comparatively long time in a division characterised by short-term contracts and multiple loan deals. Their back-to-back elevation was more popular than it might otherwise have been, due to the identity of the side they pipped to second place. Roberto Di Matteo may have created a stylish team at Stadium MK but the hated franchise’s very presence, with a stolen league place, still jars.
Yet the presence of clubs people love to hate has brought a certain spice to the division in recent years, which brings us to Leeds, whose decades-long tendency to freeze on the big occasion remains. Again, the play-offs proved their undoing, Millwall exploiting two nervous performances by Simon Grayson’s team to see them off in the semi-finals. However, Ken Bates’s charmless presence aside, Leeds were more likeable in their second season in the third tier: without Dennis Wise’s snarling and the perpetual whining over points deductions, it was possible to regard them as just another team, and an attractive one at that. That overhaul of style didn’t extend to their defence, though, whose frailties undermined a fine start and cost Gary McAllister his job in December. They needed a barnstorming late run to secure a play-off place.
That those play-offs were ultimately won by Scunthorpe was heartening, not just because to many the other three participants constituted the division’s own axis of evil, but because they kept hope alive for those of relatively recent fourth-division stock that upward mobility is still possible for well-managed clubs. They weren’t always convincing as a team, though in Martyn Woolford, Paul Hayes and Gary Hooper they contained plenty of talent, and needed a late equaliser against Tranmere to claim a top-six place. But they proved themselves in the play-offs, particularly in a terrific final, a timely reminder that it’s becoming an easier division to play your way out of.
Elsewhere, instability reigned. Thirteen clubs changed manager during the season, mostly in reaction to poor results although the manner of John Sheridan’s departure from Oldham, following reports of a punch-up on a night out at the dogs, suggest something beyond the Latics’ form might have been a factor. Though no club that switched manager went up and two, Crewe and Cheltenham, went down; Swindon, Brighton and Leyton Orient were probably saved by changes in the dug-out.
As the identities of the teams coming down began to emerge, League One became a vitally important division to stay in, with the prospect of four lucrative visits next term from clubs of recent Premier League vintage. Hereford rarely looked strong enough to survive, and financial problems rendered Cheltenham’s uphill task nigh on impossible. In an unpredictable dogfight, however, Crewe and Northampton can consider themselves unfortunate. The former, after a terrible start, looked to have found some serious momentum as the season entered its final third only to fall away again at the end, while Northampton were condemned by freefalling Carlisle’s unlikely last-day win over Millwall. That the Cobblers’ demotion was watched by 34,000 at Elland Road underlined the significances of survival.
And as budgets are cut and the recession begins to ravage already frail finances, the cost of competing in this division is likely to be more onerous than ever next term. Stockport’s sad descent into administration meant the League One table would be disfigured by points-deduction asterisks for the third consecutive season. Southampton’s ongoing mess guarantees the same blemish next year – a reminder that even as the division prepares for what is likely to be its best season for attendances in many a year, all is not well. Yet the football retains its capacity to surprise and, occasionally, delight. It remains worth celebrating and retaining.
From WSC 269 July 2009