If we learned anything from last season’s chaos, it’s the importance of having faith. Bristol Rovers were 18th as late as January and tarred as major underachievers, yet they were promoted ahead of Northampton on goals scored after 17 wins in 26 games and a controversial 7-0 win on the final day.
Mansfield, meanwhile, were 23rd even deep into October, before winning 11 of their next 12 matches and ultimately clinching a play-off spot. They lost in the final to Port Vale, who had spent the majority of the season outside the all-important top seven.
Staying positive in adversity is key for Mansfield and Northampton alike. Each are tipped to be among the frontrunners again, while their fellow play-off losers, Swindon, need former assistant Scott Lindsey to step up after Ben Garner’s exit to Charlton.
New boys Sutton were unlucky to miss out on the top seven last year with 76 points – a tally that would have sufficed in each of the previous 12 full seasons – so the question now is whether Matt Gray’s side can build on their gallant opening effort.
Their near miss lends encouragement to their successors on the National League throne: if a modestly-budgeted outfit such as they can go that close, then Stockport, with far greater resources and more proven quality, should pose a huge threat. That’s their plan, anyway.
Also coming up are Grimsby. An outstanding ownership regime led by Jason Stockwood gives them a far higher ceiling than they had when last making this jump six years ago.
Entering from the opposite direction are Doncaster, Wimbledon and Crewe, each bringing with them relatively unproven managers hired in 2022, as well as Gillingham, whose boss is arguably their biggest asset. Neil Harris is a solid bet for the Championship, let alone League Two, but he’s fighting against the tide at Priestfield. It’s a similar assignment for Paul Simpson at Carlisle, who’ll need fresh leadership upstairs to do better than mid-table.
Amid all of this, don’t rule out a surprise relegation candidate. The picture is cloudier than it was last summer, when many foresaw Football League exits for Scunthorpe and Oldham. Last year’s strugglers, Barrow and Stevenage, could improve under Pete Wild and Steve Evans respectively; Wild has a decent midfield, while Evans has added height and strength. Harrogate, Rochdale and Colchester must cope with the losses of Jack Diamond, Eoghan O’Connell and Brendan Wiredu, in turn, to stay clear of trouble.
Paul Hartley’s Hartlepool have a Scottish-themed recruitment policy as they seek safety. The new man won two promotions in three years managing Cove Rangers, but whether his numerous imports from north of the border will thrive remains to be seen.
This season’s fourth-tier moneybags are Salford, whose Class of ’92 owners may maximise existing Manchester United connections after appointing their Under-23s coach, and crypto-backed Crawley, who have poached last season’s top goalscorer from Newport. It was James Rowberry’s expansive tactics that helped Dom Telford to hit those 25 goals for Newport, however, so this is a signing which may test the notion that systems are just as important as individuals.
On a similar note, Leyton Orient should be plenty of fun to watch under Richie Wellens. It’s another Richie that Bradford wanted, and Smallwood has been snared from Hull as the division’s standout signing, with Mark Hughes keen to revive the Bantams after half a decade of underachievement.
Across the Pennines, Tranmere’s squad has a more youthful complexion than last year but still enough nous to threaten, while the dark horses for many are Walsall. Promising boardroom movement, plus the appointment of Michael Flynn, puts the Saddlers on the cusp of what might just be the most exciting period in their modern history. Watch this space.
And if things don’t go to plan straightaway, save the obituaries for May. This is League Two. The difference between despair and hope is a mere 90 minutes.