Issue League Two preview – what’s the right way to get promoted?

As told by Jason Mckeown

There was something symbolic about the transfers of Ben Davies from Shrewsbury Town to Notts County and Nicky Law from Bradford City – indirectly – to Rotherham United.

The Magpies and The Millers have taken on the mantle of possessing the division’s biggest playing budgets from The Shrews and The Bantams, coming with it the expectations of League Two domination. The balance sheets point to both County and United celebrating promotion come May, though the fact City and Town were unable to press home such advantages, while apparent lesser teams succeeded instead, should as a cautionary tale.

Typically for a division which saw four of its 24 participants the subject of points deductions last season, matters in League Two are far from clear. Just like the Premier League’s so-called big four, who have each managed to rack up huge debts despite the advantage of Champions League revenue year-on-year, the good news stories that emanated from teams who finished at the top of League Two last season were in limited supply.

Exeter and Gillingham’s elevation aside – the former stunned everyone including probably themselves by taking the third automatic promotion spot – and behind each manager’s words of praise for “a great set of lads” was a bank balance in the red. Andy Scott rightly received plenty of plaudits for leading Brentford to the title, but the growing debts acquired along the way suggest it came at a price that must surely slow progress eventually.

Then there was runners up Wycombe, a club previously well-regarded as one of the pioneering supporter-owned clubs, who changed their rules a few years ago to allow businessman Steve Hayes to loan significant money in return for running the club as managing director. Wycombe have subsequently run up a £7 million debt, owed to Hayes, by seemingly spending beyond their means. Hayes graciously agreed to write off £3 million of it in return for 100% ownership of the club, ground and training facilities. He is also the owner of London Wasps and has announced plans to build a new 20,000 capacity stadium for both clubs, moving them out of the 11,000-capacity Adams Park which neither can fill. Somehow it seems unlikely Hayes will ultimately end up out of pocket from writing off that debt.

At least Brentford and Wycombe succeeded through less-than-prudent financial planning, the same can’t be said of Darlington. While most football fans will have sympathy for a club saddled with a white elephant of a stadium which is compromising their existence, the mood locally is less charitable. As with many clubs who go into administration, like City, the local community is suffering from the Quakers’ latest spell in financial limbo. The St Johns Ambulance charity is reportededly again left out of pocket – by £2,500– while one local hotel owner claimed she could go out of business as a result of the club failing to pay money owed for accommodating loan striker Liam Hatch.

All of which leaves the question of what price promotion into League One at the end of this season is worth? While we can all cast envious glances at Meadow Lane and the Arab-based consortium now in charge, few Notts County fans will surely believe the new owners’ motivation is anything less than a healthy return for the investment within five-ten years. The media glare will fall on City’s visit to County this Saturday with Sven Goran Eriksson appointed as Director of Football, but he and County’s success will be judged by how long he holds that role. Will the new owners take the approach Man City have so far in backing the manager, or will it be more like at QPR? It’s not difficult to envisage Eriksson in the away dug out when County come to Valley Parade in January, a scenario which would suggest things weren’t going to plan. As Stuart McCall can testify, it takes time to learn what it takes to succeed in League Two.

County have made some decent summer signings, but finished 19th last season – 10 points above relegation, 22 points from the play offs and 38 points off the title. A huge improvement is needed to live up the pre-season hype and this season looks set to be more of a transitional one.

A far better shout for promotion is Rotherham. But for their 17 point deduction, the Millers would have finished fifth. Mark Robins is proving himself to be a determined and talented manager and has a great chance to bring the title to South Yorkshire. As valued as that would be for the supporters, there is still much long term work needed for a club which has been on the financial brink too often in recent years. The Don Valley stadium’s un-football friendly set up is a good home advantage to have, but a horrible place to watch football. As important as money on the playing squad is, the new owners may need to find money to build a new stadium back in Rotherham as part of the council’s plans to build a community stadium.

Two clubs expected to be in the hunt again with no such off the field concerns are Rochdale and Bury. Both were beaten in the play off semi finals, but have good managers who can ensure they bounce back from such disappointments. Bury continue to hold onto the talented Andy Bishop while Dale striker Adam Le Fondre is blossoming into the sort of striker Keith Hill’s talented side of two seasons ago lacked. Other contenders will probably include Chesterfield, now managed by John Sheridan, and Bournemouth who picked up so well at the end of last season to avoid the drop.

Newly promoted Torquay will hope to replicate their Devonshire rivals Exeter in sailing through the division, while of those who were relegated from League One last season, Cheltenham may be in the best position to bounce back. Northampton are struggling financially, while Crewe no longer appear to be the stable club others aspired to be of a few years ago. City and Shrewsbury may have had to cut budgets, but should both still be strong enough to feature in the promotion-hunting pack.

Last season’s relegation battle was something of a non-event, with points deductions allowing many to sail through a nothing season in the comfort of mid-table. It might have been a great opportunity for some of the division’s traditional strugglers to build and move away from the dangers of non-league, and some may soon be kicking themselves should they be sucked back into such trouble this season. Accrington, Macclesfield, Aldershot and Barnet all appear likely contenders to be scrapping it out at the bottom, though newly promoted Burton’s momentum from previous manager Nigel Clough may continue to slow as it did towards the end of last season, ensuring their league status is short lived.

Hoping to be free of such matters and in the safety of mid table, with more than an eye on the play offs, are Lincoln, Hereford, Colin Todd’s Darlington, Grimsby, Port Vale and Morecambe. Dagenham were close to a play off spot last season, but have lost some of their star players and may struggle to hit such heights again.

Selling players – one of the traditional ways lower league clubs thrive. With two of last season’s four promoted teams succeeding by spending beyond their means, the question of who has the largest playing budget isn’t perhaps the most applicable when predicting the division’s promotion winners. Hereford were promoted two seasons ago largely due to bringing in loan players that they could never otherwise afford, but last season spent nothing and were relegated while Stockport, who spent beyond their means and ended up in administration, stayed up.

The ones celebrating promotion next May might prove to be the ones prepared to take the biggest gambles, though the same might apply to anyone who ends the campaign with points deductions or an uncertain future.