Football League writer Michael Beardmore provides his best bets for promotion and relegation from Sky Bet League Two for the upcoming 2022-23 season.
3pts e.w. Stockport County to win League Two at 7/1 (General) (e.w. terms 1/4 odds 1-3 places)
1pt e.w. Gillingham to win League Two at 20/1 (General) (e.w. terms 1/4 odds 1-3 places)
2pts Northampton to finish in the top three at 5/1 (General)
2pts Hartlepool to be relegated at 6/1 (BetVictor)
Of the four divisions that make up the hallowed ‘92’, Sky Bet League Two is usually the hardest to predict.
While the disparity in size between the bigger clubs and the rest in the Premier League, Championship and even League One makes things generally easier to call, that is hardly ever the case in the fourth tier.
Yes, there are still the haves and the have-nots but the difference is not as stark as higher up the pyramid.
And that is highlighted by the fact you can find a dozen clubs inside 20/1 to win the title.
Heading the betting are the three clubs with likely the division’s biggest budgets – newly-promoted Stockport County, Salford and Bradford City. It’s probable at least one will finish in the top three.
Salford have flattered to deceive since coming up from the National League in 2019 – they have been among the pre-season favourites on each occasion but are yet to even reach the play-offs.
With a rookie boss in Neil Wood and a released list as long as your arm, I’m avoiding the Ammies again. The Class of ’92 owned club will come good one year but they are too unreliable and too short to back with confidence.
Odds correct at 1230 (16/07/22)
We backed Bradford in this preview last year and were made to regret it despite the appointment of serial promotion winner Derek Adams as manager. The fact he departed and kept Morecambe up in League One suggests the club is the problem rather than the man in the dugout.
Mark Hughes should thrive at the level given his experience, contacts and pull but the fact their record was still middle of the road after he took over last season (W5 D3 L5) puts me off slightly in addition to the huge player turnover they’ve had.
They will both probably do well but I’m going to plump for the more settled club of the three and back Stockport County to build on their National League triumph by making it back-to-back titles.
County’s summer recruitment has impressed me – rather than splurging on marquee signings, they have cherry-picked some of the best, young, and hungriest talent from former non-league rivals and added some Football League experience too.
Torquay goal machine Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, Notts County’s Kyle Wootton and York’s Akil Wright have joined as have Northampton centre-half Fraser Horsfall and Fleetwood’s Callum Camps.
They already have a core of former Football League players, a defence that conceded a miserly 38 goals in 46 games to lead them back into the fourth tier and a shrewd boss in Dave Challinor so I'm on board with STOCKPORT TO WIN LEAGUE TWO.
Only twice in the past 10 seasons have any of the clubs relegated from League One in the previous campaigns failed to bounce straight back up.
I’m minded to quickly discount Crewe as they finished miles adrift at the foot of a very poor bottom half of League One last term, have a rookie boss in Alex Morris and their recruitment looks average.
Veteran defenders Alex Pearce and Chris Gunter should be astute signings for AFC Wimbledon at the level but the Dons have finished in the top half of a division just once in 11 seasons – and even that was seventh, sneaking up through the League Two play-offs.
I think they have a chance but it’s a tough back with that record in mind, plus a relatively unproven boss in charge in the shape of Johnnie Jackson.
So, if we are to pick one of the relegated sides – and history shows that to be a smart option – it comes down, in my opinion, to Doncaster and Gillingham.
Rovers are a big fish at this level but have near-rookie Gary McSheffrey in charge, while Gillingham have Neil Harris, a proven commodity at both Championship and League One level as a manager.
The Gills improved massively after his appointment last season and he took their survival battle to the final day, having looked a lost cause after a 14-game winless run under predecessor Steve Evans.
Importantly, they conceded just 18 times in the 18 matches Harris oversaw – he tightened them up hugely and League Two is a division where being well-drilled and organised takes you a long way.
They have lost striker Vadaine Oliver to Bradford but Mikael Mandron could be a decent replacement and Gills have signed an interesting mix of experience and youth over the summer.
The last time the Gills were in the fourth tier they went up as champions, a decade ago, and the 20/1 on GILLINGHAM TO WIN LEAGUE TWO is an inviting price on them to repeat the feat.
It’s only natural to look at those who just fell short last year – over the past decade, 13 teams who finished in League Two’s top 10 in a non-promotion season have gone up the following campaign.
In the same timeframe, only five teams have finished lower than 13th one season and been promoted the next. It's tough to improve enough to challenge, given the generally low budgets of those in the bottom half.
Forest Green and Exeter went up last year after finishing top 10 the previous year and if we go by that criteria, there are six clubs that qualify.
I’ve already specified why I’m avoiding Salford, while I’m not convinced either Tranmere or Sutton United have the necessary tools to make the leap.
Of last season’s play-off sides, Swindon have lost boss Ben Garner to League One side Charlton and, at first glance, their recruitment appears underwhelming.
They could contend but I’m inclined to look elsewhere – and, being honest, struggled to split Mansfield and Northampton, the two other teams to lose out in the play-offs.
It basically comes down to who gets over their disappointment best – Mansfield after losing a Wembley final or Northampton after being pipped to promotion on goal difference by Bristol Rovers’ last-day 7-0 win.
Mansfield have retained the majority of their squad and should be strong again but, of the two, I’m drawn in by the Cobblers’ cracking defensive record last term, the division’s best.
They have lost two members of that back-line, goalkeeper Liam Roberts and centre-half Horsfall, but have recruited strongly with Lee Burge, Akin Odimayo, Ryan Haynes, Ben Fox and, perhaps most eye-catchingly, Luton striker Danny Hylton all decent signings.
Jon Brady’s side also offer more value in the promotion market than the Stags – 5/1 compared to Mansfield’s 7/2 – so I’m plumping for NORTHAMPTON TO FINISH IN THE TOP THREE.
With only two relegation places in League Two and no real basket case clubs – Scunthorpe and Oldham last year’s examples – leaping out this year, the drop market is a tough one to pin down.
Going on the evidence of the past two or three seasons, it would be no surprise to see any of Barrow, Carlisle, Colchester, Stevenage, Rochdale, Harrogate or Walsall struggle.
Some of those clubs have recruited better than others but if you must have an interest in this market, then HARTLEPOOL TO BE RELEGATED would be my most confident shout.
They finished last season poorly, costing interim boss Graeme Lee his hopes of the full-time job and have since brought in Paul Hartley in a very amusing play on words (come on, work it out).
Odds correct at 1230 (16/07/22)
Hartley has enjoyed managerial success north of the border but this does not always translate to the EFL. Time will tell of course but it is Pools’ underlying numbers that are the reason for the selection.
Only bottom side Scunthorpe, who finished with an abysmal tally of 26 points, had a lower Expected Goals For (xGF) figure than Hartlepool’s 0.85 per game. Pools also conceded 64 goals – the division’s sixth worst record.
If those numbers are not addressed, Pools will struggle and the departures of leading scorers Luke Molyneux and Omar Bogle, plus defenders Timi Odusina and Niall Byrne – four of their most talented players, all leaving for League Two rivals – hardly bode well.
Odds correct at 1200 (16/07/22)
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