League ladders – League Two 2008-09

Dave Jennings reviews a League Two season which proved difficult for a number of teams who started with point deductions whilst the teams at the top struggled to find consistency

Right from the beginning of the season, the League Two table served as a reminder of the ever-present economic perils at the humblest levels of English professional football. The three teams that would finish at the bottom appeared to have been effectively chosen by the authorities before the opening day. Luton’s cause looked hopeless from the moment their 30-point deduction for various monetary transgressions was confirmed, and it seemed a reasonably safe bet that they’d head for the Blue Square Premier in the company of either Rotherham or Bournemouth, who would surely struggle to overcome the 17-point handicaps loaded on to them for their financial failings. However, all three clubs managed to retain relatively strong squads, and the latter two both reached safety, Rotherham recording results that would have put them in the play-offs but for their points penalty.

One of the most commonly heard cliches in League Two circles last season was that any team could beat any other. The results bore out that claim in the closing stages of the campaign, as several of the leaders staggered towards the finishing line as though they secretly couldn’t face the prospect of being promoted to a league including MK Dons. Brentford surprised many by winning the championship, but they did so only after overcoming a dip in form that saw them go five games without a win in late March and early April. Chester City managed only eight league wins all season as they slid out of the League, but one of them was a 3-0 thrashing of the Bees in October.

Just as Brentford hit their spring stumble, Exeter entered a eight-game end of season unbeaten run to clinch their second successive promotion. Wycombe, meanwhile, succeeded largely due to an admirably parsimonious defence: nine of their 20 League wins were by the only goal of the game. This continued to the very end of the season; after losing at home to struggling Notts County on the final day, the Chairboys won the last automatic promotion place by virtue of having scored one more goal than Bury, who had the same points total and goal difference.

If you watch League Two football regularly, from time to time you’ll see moments of outstanding skill that get the fans talking about how that was as good as anything on Match of the Day. But often – as Wycombe demonstrated – the ability to grind out results in dour games is what matters. Big names play little part at this level, unless you count Shrewsbury’s Michael Jackson and Accrington’s Robbie Williams. These days it’s unusual for a former top-level player to drop all the way down the divisions towards the end of their career; Darren Anderton was a rare exception this year, helping Bournemouth to start the season strongly before deciding to call it a day in December. But some of the division’s most useful players come from much humbler backgrounds. Brentford’s leading scorer in their title-winning campaign was Charlie MacDonald, a 28-year-old who had previously spent much of his career in non-League. 

On the surface, then, League Two represents a more egalitarian football world than the Premier League. Look at the crowd figures, however, and it becomes apparent that League Two is a competition in which some clubs are much more equal than others. Bradford City’s average League attendance last season was 12,704; Accrington Stanley’s was 1,415. Granted, Bradford achieve such enviable figures by offering cheap season tickets in order to keep a sizeable stadium roughly half full, but there’s still a gulf between established League clubs who’ve enjoyed higher status and relative newcomers like Morecambe and Macclesfield.

Luton’s fans remained impressively loyal, making the Hatters the division’s second best supported. For once the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final seemed significant, if only for the turnout of around 40,000 from Luton that seemed to prove conclusively that their club had a future. Given the size of some of the grounds in the Blue Square Premier, it’ll presumably be a future involving some difficulties with ticket allocations. But in between discovering the delights of Eastbourne, Crawley and Salisbury, Luton will be visiting some more familiar destinations, like Oxford, Wrexham, York and Cambridge. Whatever the shortcomings of League Two, there are a few clubs with proud histories who’d love to get into it.

From WSC 269 July 2009