Snakes and ladders League One 2009-10

Tom Lines looks back on the season in League One, and the considers the divide between many clubs in the division and their well-to-do guests who have fallen from the Premier League

The FA’s decision to hold England matches around the country during the rebuilding of Wembley is generally agreed to have been a great success. Football’s heartlands got to see the national team in their own backyards while the players benefited from performing in front of passionate, knowledgeable crowds. Fans in League One are now enjoying a similar scheme involving former Premier League clubs. This season the division contained no fewer than four sides that have graced the top flight in the last six years. Charlton, Southampton and Norwich were making their first visits, while Leeds Utd had married a local girl and were trying to make a go of things.

Realising that clubs who attract 20,000 paying spectators will only ever be temporary visitors, the rest of League One tends to be rather sanguine about their well-to-do guests, with most simply enjoying the experience of taking the odd point or three from them. Besides, these fallen giants haven’t had it all their own way in recent seasons with clubs like Blackpool, Colchester and Scunthorpe (twice) beating their more illustrious rivals to promotion. And even if they do bounce straight back, such is the parlous state of football finance that there will always be others ready to take their place. Missing Leeds already? Never mind, here come Sheffield Wednesday!

Norwich entered into the spirit of things by losing 7-1 at home to Colchester on the opening day but still managed to win the title by nine points. One wonders exactly when the two supporters who threw their season tickets at the hapless Bryan Gunn after 20 minutes of the season sheepishly phoned up to ask for them back. Not that Norwich dominated from start to finish.

Typically, Leeds looked irresistible early on, opening up an 11-point gap to third place by the end of 2009. The catalyst for their post-Christmas slump was also one of the best results in their recent history – a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the FA Cup. Leeds won just three of their next 16 league matches, stumbling over the line by one point. Incredibly, all four of the teams below could have overtaken them on the final day but Charlton, Swindon, Huddersfield and Millwall had to settle for the play-offs.

It could be argued that the best team in League One didn’t even finish in the top six. After a chaotic close season, Southampton took a while to adjust to life in the third tier. They won only one of their first ten matches, yet without their ten-point penalty would have made the play-offs. Only the champions scored more goals, with Rickie Lambert bagging 31 to finish as both the league’s top scorer and PFA Fans’ Player of the Season.

One club who might have expected to struggle after selling their own talismanic striker emerged as the season’s surprise package. Simon Cox had a mixed time at WBA, but his former Swindon colleagues surpassed themselves by finishing fifth. The prolific forward pairing of Billy Paynter and Charlie Austin emerged as the division’s most-feared partnership, with Austin’s meteoric rise from non-League Poole Town attracting plenty of media interest. Swindon’s season ultimately ended in disappointment as Millwall finally won the play-offs at the sixth attempt.

At the other end of the table, Stockport surprised no one by finishing bottom. County spent the entire season in administration, although it’s hoped new owners might bring some stability next term. Joining them in League Two will be Southend – a club with financial problems of their own – along with Wycombe and Gillingham, the latter failing to win a single game away from home. Hartlepool and Tranmere finished just above the relegation zone, both enduring troubles that were largely self-inflicted. Pools were docked points for fielding an ineligible player, while Rovers only just recovered from fielding John Barnes as manager.

Perhaps the most important result of the season occurred at Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium where clubs from Leagues One and Two reluctantly accepted the Premier League’s take-it-or-leave-it deal on parachute payments. Most agree that this will further widen the gap between the divisions, making it much less likely that clubs will fall as far, or as quickly, as those who found themselves in League One this season. Fans looking forward to league trips to Anfield and Old Trafford in the near future may have to wait a little longer.

From WSC 281 July 2010