Automatic promotion contenders
Bradford have not been shy in showing their ambition but this time everything points towards them living up to their status among the favourites. The appointment of Mark Hughes, whose last job was in the Premier League with Southampton, was a considerable coup in February and he has revamped his squad, bringing in Richie Smallwood, a Championship regular last season, and Harry Chapman, a winger capable of lighting up the division. And that is before you get to the work they have done in weakening their rivals, with Vadaine Oliver and Emmanuel Osadebe arriving from Gillingham and Walsall respectively. Northampton came agonisingly close last season – losing out on goals scored to Bristol Rovers on a barmy final day – but they are poised to go again and Danny Hylton, who scored 21 goals when he was last at this level with Luton four years ago, is among a handful of smart signings who should send them close.
Northampton have had their captain, Fraser Horsfall, poached by big-spending Stockport, who will fancy their chances of successive promotions after an 11-year hiatus from the Football League. Stockport have long been preparing for this eventuality and are not there to make up the numbers. May’s trip to Wembley ended in tears for Mansfield but they can go one better under the savvy Nigel Clough. He has retained the bulk of his squad but knows another slow start – they won two of their first 14 games last season – would hinder such hopes.
Richie Wellens won the title in this division with Swindon, who have been ravaged for their best players, and his Leyton Orient side, which boasts plenty of attacking options, and his former club, Salford City, will both fancy their chances of making the top seven. Salford are yet to finish above eighth since being promoted into the division with grand plans and Neil Wood, formerly Manchester United’s under-23s coach, represents their fifth permanent manager in four years. The noises have been decidedly more low-key this summer, though, and that may just suit them.
There are US investors in the door at the Poundland Bescot Stadium, home to Walsall who have backed Michael Flynn to overhaul his squad. It remains to be seen if Flynn, who worked wonders at Newport County, has struck the right blend but Timmy Abraham, a raw striker who is the younger brother of the Roma striker Tammy, joins after a trial period and the 40-year-old Peter Clarke will add experience from Tranmere, who should be in the mix providing they remedy their poor away form. AFC Wimbledon have entrusted Johnnie Jackson with getting them back into League One at the first attempt and may be better equipped than Crewe and Doncaster, whose managers are unproven. Neil Harris has a thin squad at Gillingham who will be tested on their return to this level.
Since the American consortium Wagmi United (the acronym stands for “We’re All Going to Make It”), whose money derives from cryptocurrency, took over Crawley in April, the sense has been that the experiment will either be a categorical success or an unmitigated disaster. Kevin Betsy, formerly Arsenal’s under-23 manager and his assistant, Dan Micciche, are well-regarded in coaching circles and the recruitment of Newport’s Dominic Telford, the league’s top scorer last season, and the Swindon captain Dion Conroy suggest at least another top-half finish. Then again, the owners are giving holders of club season tickets and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) the chance to vote on which areas of the squad to strengthen. Stevenage will surely adopt a more regimented approach under Steve Evans and with a new-look squad, things could go either way. Swindon have been ravaged in the close-season and may have to settle for mid-table.
In the absence of any clubs who are already resigned to their fate, this season may catch up with those who were circling the drain towards the end of the last campaign. Barrow appear on a slippery slope and have turned to Pete Wild as their fifth permanent manager in two years. They and Carlisle, who have loaned the defender Fin Back, son of the former England rugby union flanker Neil, from Nottingham Forest, appear light on quality up front and Harrogate, who only managed three wins from their final 15 matches last season, limped over the line with a dreadful defensive record. Colchester pulled clear but nothing suggests they will be better this time. It is all change at Rochdale – seven of their starting XI from the final day of last season have departed – and they will have to lean on experience if they are to stay afloat, with Ian Henderson, 37, returning for a swansong.
It is hard to know what to expect at Hartlepool, 17th last season, but Paul Hartley, a classy midfielder in his playing days, enjoyed some success in Scotland as manager at Cove Rangers and has brought in several signings from north of the border. Under new local-boys-made-good owners and a familiar face in Paul Hurst, Grimsby need not fret about survival and should feel inspired by Sutton United, whose first campaign in the Football League was a resounding triumph. Matt Gray led his team to the final of the EFL Trophy and within a point of the playoffs, but they are short on goals and while replicating that showing looks tricky, they should have enough to steer clear of trouble.
Three youngsters to watch
Kyle Hudlin, 22, AFC Wimbledon Thought to be the tallest outfield player in Britain, the 6ft 9in Hudlin promises to be a handful during his year-long loan spell at AFC Wimbledon. The striker joined Huddersfield in the summer from Solihull Moors, for whom he scored four league goals in the National League last season. Another Huddersfield youngster, Kian Harratt, who scored in the playoff final for Port Vale last season, could shine for Bradford.
Zac Williams, 18, Crewe The Wales Under-19s defender, who cites Joe Rodon as an inspiration, is perhaps the most exciting of another talented batch of youngsters at Crewe. Was given Jaffa Cakes and a packet of crisps after his man-of-the-match display against Gillingham in November because he was too young for a bottle of champagne and signed a new deal in May.
Liam Bennett, 20, Walsall An energetic and tenacious full-back, Bennett will spend the season on loan at Walsall from Cambridge. Bennett, who was on loan at Hemel Hempstead last campaign, excelled against Aston Villa in pre-season and his appetite to make things happen endears him to supporters. “He would tackle a bus if it was moving,” said the Cambridge head coach Mark Bonner in January.