League One 2018-19 season preview

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Title challengers

After successive shattering relegations, Sunderland must not only halt an alarming slide but navigate an instant return to the Championship. The buck now stops with Jack Ross, the 42-year-old former St Mirren manager tasked with reviving a club floundering for respite. He must succeed where most recently Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman have tried and failed, in turn breathing life back into what has proved a hollow stadium of plight.

New owners, a new manager and 10 new players, but it remains to be seen whether Ross can usher in a new era. Will he be able to harness the expectations of a fan base starved of seeing their team win football matches? Across the past three disastrous seasons, they won a miserly total of 18 league matches (out of 122) and only 13 on home soil. Wholesale changes were a necessity in all departments, and at least since Stewart Donald completed his £40m takeover in May, there has been a hazy glimmer of optimism and considerably more transparency.

Sunderland are the biggest fish but another sleeping giant will fancy their chances. Portsmouth fell just short of the play-offs last term – consolidating in eighth on their first season back in the third tier – but can fare even better this time around. Kenny Jackett was usurped in his attempts to land Cheltenham striker Mo Eisa by Bristol City but won the race to sign highly-rated Derry City winger Ronan Curtis, while Lee Brown from Bristol Rovers is a sensible addition at left-back. Elsewhere, Charlton Athletic, where Lee Bowyer remains in caretaker charge, have the means to go close, while Daniel Stendel, another left-field appointment at relegated Barnsley, has a healthy squad, with which he has vowed will play attacking football.

Play-off contenders

Karl Robinson, Steve Evans and Chris Powell have had time to get their feet under the table after being appointed mid-season at Oxford United, Peterborough United and Southend United respectively – and there are more reasons to be cheerful. Oxford have made a number of eye-catching signings, adding Premier League pedigree in the shape of loanees including Everton’s Luke Garbutt, while forward Jamie Mackie is perhaps the pick of the bunch.

Another summer of changes has kept the Posh director of football Barry Fry busy, with 15 arrivals and 17 departures, the most high-profile of which was Jack Marriott to Derby County for in excess of £3m. The outspoken chairman Darragh MacAnthony has high hopes for Siriki Dembélé, who arrives from Grimsby Town at a club that is a revered stable for young talent. Meanwhile, the talented winger Marcus Maddison is primed to move on before 9 August.

It’s been another busy off-season for Peterborough United.
It’s been another busy off-season for Peterborough United. Photograph: Nigel Cole/ProSports/Rex/Shutterstock

Elsewhere, a neat blend of youth and experience served Coventry City well last season as they went up via the play-offs and there is no reason the feel-good factor cannot live on a little longer yet. The career of Tom Bayliss, the England Under-19 midfielder, is only going in one direction, while Reise Allassani, an intriguing signing from Dulwich Hamlet, will be determined to shine after being released by Crystal Palace in 2016. Mark Robins’s side remain raw in places and endured a poor pre-season, capped by losing livewire striker Marc McNulty to Reading. Joey Barton, who has signed his former Manchester City club-mate Ched Evans on loan, has taken the Fleetwood Town job with lofty ambitions, while a canny Burton Albion will compete after last season’s relegation.

Relegation candidates

Walsall lost their pintsized playmaker Erhun Oztumer to Bolton Wanderers and unless new faces Zeli Ismail and Andy Cook, a non-league poacher, can fill that attacking void, it is difficult to envisage anything but a season of struggle for Dean Keates’s side. The promoted pair of Accrington Stanley and Wycombe Wanderers will have to again eke out miracles from finite resources and their wafer-thin squads – but it did not limit them last season. AFC Wimbledon have lost last season’s top-scorer Lyle Taylor to Charlton, while defender Darius Charles rejected a new deal to join Wycombe, so their hopes rest on several new faces, including one-time ceiling fitter Mitch Pinnock, from Dover, and the experienced striker James Hanson. Shrewsbury Town have been ravaged for their finest pieces – namely manager Paul Hurst, Abu Ogogo and Junior Brown, the last two joining Coventry – but John Askey seems a smart appointment as Hurst’s replacement. Gillingham and Rochdale, meanwhile, look short of quality and who knows whether Jekyll or Hyde will turn up at Blackpool?

New Shrewsbury manager John Askey looks a shrewd appointment but faces a tough task.
New Shrewsbury manager John Askey looks a shrewd appointment but faces a tough task. Photograph: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images

Four players to watch

Liam Lindsay (Barnsley): Oakwell has been a fertile breeding ground for young defenders – John Stones, Alfie Mawson, Mason Holgate, James Bree – the list goes on. And in Lindsay, a 22-year-old Scot, they have another standout defensive performer. He signed from Partick Thistle last summer and will be key if Barnsley are to bounce back.

Sherwin Seedorf (Bradford City): His surname has raised expectations but the nephew of the former Ajax and Milan midfielder Clarence has a chance to carve out his own reputation after arriving on loan at the Bantams. The 20-year-old winger, formerly of Feyenoord, joined Wolves in 2017 after impressing on trial having been spotted playing for the Nike Academy. A direct runner blessed with electric pace, he has the tools to shine.

Jorge Grant (Luton Town): Nathan Jones failed with a cheeky attempt to sign the 23-year-old on a permanent deal – so settled on getting the Nottingham Forest winger on loan for the season. Grant impressed on loan at League Two Notts County last season, scoring 19 goals, and it would be a surprise if his rapid progress stalled now. Can count himself unlucky to have not been rewarded with a shot at Forest this term.

Liam Boyce (Burton Albion): The Northern Ireland striker will be determined to make up for lost time after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury five weeks into his previous pre-season. A £500,000 club-record signing from Ross County last summer, he returned to score in wins against Derby and Sunderland in April but will be desperate to deliver the goalscoring form (55 goals across three seasons) that earned him a move south of the border.

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