Snakes and ladders League Two 2009-10

James Bentley reviews a League Two season in which Notts County grabbed the attention, but an open division produced some astonishing results

It’s hard to think about the 2009-10 season in the basement without the beginning, middle and end of the story being taken up by the oldest club in the Football League. Notts County and their frivolous, occasionally murky, ways grabbed attention from every regional TV news team in every small market town that Sven and his illustriously paid company rolled into.

But with a much more level playing field this season, County were not immediately installed as the favourites to take the title. Bournemouth and Rotherham, free of the points deductions that both shook off to finish the previous campaign strongly, were fancied. So too were Bury and Rochdale, after the Shakers had fallen short of automatic promotion by a single goal and Dale had missed out in the play-offs for the second consecutive season.

At the other end of the table, an ever-growing number of teams looked at the trapdoor nervously, especially now there was no hapless Chester or ludicrously marooned Luton to ease the pressure. Torquay’s return, Burton’s promotion, Darlington’s protracted woes and the perennial struggles of up to half a dozen other sides made for a more nail-biting campaign.

The two sides elevated from the Conference ultimately adapted to their new environs with ease. Torquay fans must have been puzzled as to why their team left it so late to turn on the style that guaranteed safety, particularly after a 5-0 thumping of a Rochdale side who could have been promoted that afternoon at Plainmoor. Life was comparatively easier at the Pirelli Stadium as Burton finished in a comfortable mid-table spot, though Cheltenham’s fighting spirit evident in an astonishing 6-5 victory on their visit there wasn’t always on show as they finished one place above the drop zone.

Dale’s defeat on the English Riviera wasn’t that perplexing. Despite leading the division for much of the season owing to goals from the Chrises Dagnall and O’Grady, their form jerked and spluttered as the finish line approached and they limped to a first promotion in 41 years. They were overtaken by a slow-and-steady County, who under Hans Backe’s replacement, Steve Cotterill, won 14 of their last 17, and consistent Bournemouth under the tremendous Eddie Howe. Lee Hughes did his silly dance 30 times and took the top scorer crown for the division, which would have refreshed his bank balance nicely if rumours about his goal bonus are to be believed.

Darlington slipped into the Conference for a second time, despite a late spurt under Simon Davey, after undoubtedly being hindered by the previous two inept managers as much as the 25,000 eerie, empty seats at home games. Grimsby were one year short of a Football League centenary but went down on the final day at Burton amid ugly, blood-spattered scenes.

Elsewhere, the more established names of the division remained consistent in their inconsistency. Bradford stayed frustratingly moribund, though next season looks more promising if the latter games under Peter Taylor are an accurate barometer. Crewe Alexandra, an established Championship side more recently than they’d like to remember, turned back to Dario Gradi when Gudjon Thordarson sucked the flair from their play and was sacked, but even the old master couldn’t prevent a bottom-half finish.

Six clubs went into the final day knowing they could still join what many felt was a cynical Morecambe side and Rotherham in the play-offs. Bury’s run of more than 1,000 goal-free minutes in the season’s third quarter cost them dear. A late winner in the final game at Saltergate wasn’t enough for Chesterfield as Dagenham & Redbridge and Aldershot unsurprisingly clinched the last two spots. The ridiculousness of League Two in 2009-10 only served to be highlighted by the Shrimps’ first ever play-off game where they capitulated to a 6-0 defeat against a Dagenham side who finished below them.

Sheffield Wednesday fans must be wondering just how their team will be on level terms with Dagenham next season after the Daggers’ play-off win over Rotherham, particularly because they would probably be the only supporters who could stomach a trip to the ridiculous cabbage patch that is the Don Valley Stadium.

The final word on the season lies with the horribly premature death of Macclesfield boss Keith Alexander. There was always a sense of frustration when watching his sides playing yours; route one and physically very tough, his success at Lincoln led to frequent abuse from other fourth division dwellers. But the unilateral praise for Alexander the man as news of his death emerged was heartening to hear. The many eulogies pinpointed the respect he commanded.

From WSC 281 July 2010