Rarely has a division seemed quite as divided as League One did last time out. There were, in essence, two leagues. In one, it was possible for Plymouth to miss out on a place in the top six despite collecting a whopping 80 points; in the other, Fleetwood stayed up with half of that tally.
It would be churlish to question entertainment value when the title, automatic promotion, play-off spots and relegation were all decided on the final day – 12 teams, or half of the league, had their destiny at stake on April 30 – yet the route to unpredictability was at times… well, rather predictable.
Our primary hope for 2022/23, therefore, is that the gap can be closed enough to quench the thirst for a compelling underdog story, like Burton’s promotion trailblazers of 2015/16, Shrewsbury’s nearly-men of 2017/18, or Wycombe’s Wembley heroes of 2019/20.
Would-be odds-defiers face an even tougher task than usual, however, because standing in their way is a list of 10 clubs who expect a top-six berth. On it, bold and underlined, are Sheffield Wednesday. Their first five arrivals, including statement signings Michael Smith and Will Vaulks, have an average age of 31, suggesting it’s now or never for Darren Moore.
Wycombe’s hopes of glory also rest on the quality of veterans: Sam Vokes and Garath McCleary. A more youthful MK Dons must replace Harry Darling and Scott Twine if they’re to challenge again.
This strength of competition saw to Oxford, who fell to 8th after back-to-back play-off campaigns, and it could do so again. After all, Kieran McKenna should build on his promising start at Ipswich, and Bolton – named “the best team in the league” last October by their manager, Ian Evatt – have found their swagger.
Portsmouth could threaten if they recruit well, after leaning on loanees last season, while Plymouth are gunning to convert their hard-luck story into one of triumph – especially now the feisty Devon Derby is back.
Promoted Exeter intend to sustain themselves at this level, as do fellow south-west risers Forest Green and Bristol Rovers, who are joined by Port Vale following their emphatic play-off win at Wembley.
Each can take inspiration from Cambridge and Cheltenham, who secured mid-table finishes as freshly promoted clubs last term under revered figures in Mark Bonner and Michael Duff respectively. While Bonner is staying in situ, however, Duff has been headhunted by promotion-chasing Barnsley.
Peterborough also harbour ambitions of a return to the Championship, and perhaps, after months or even years of uncertainty, so do Derby. A flurry of signings began immediately after their long-awaited takeover and immediately before FFT went to print, but Tom Barkhuizen and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing represent good business.
Elsewhere in the Midlands, Shrewsbury and Burton must do more to set pulses racing if they’re to avoid a dogfight; further afield, Lincoln and Charlton want to entertain, having appointed progressive coaches in Mark Kennedy and Ben Garner. Also joining the fray is Celtic legend Scott Brown; the feisty Scot has been well-backed as he enters management with a first job at Fleetwood.
Those leading other Lancashire clubs are more established figures. Derek Adams and Morecambe are out to bloody a few noses and put others out of joint, while John Coleman continues to work miracles at Accrington. After back-to-back top-half finishes on a miniscule budget for this level, they’re here to stay.
So, is this the start of a League One era in which the big clubs finally get smart, make their quality count and turn the promotion race into a paid members-only club? Or are we underestimating this division’s enduring, endearing capacity for surprise? The very fact that none of us are anticipating any great shocks in 2022/23 might just create the perfect conditions for at least one to happen. We can hope.
There was a huge split in League One last season. Bring on the reunion.