We’ve reached the halfway stage of the season in League 2, and this is the time of year the table takes shape. But how have all the clubs done in the first 23 games of the season?
Gillingham – A – Gillingham have been top of League 2 since the 4th game of the season, and that’s where they’ll be on Christmas day. Martin Allen has built a sturdy, balanced and attack-minded team, who have been by far the stars of the season so far. Danny Kedwell started the season slimmed-down, and in tremendous scoring form, and when his goals dried up, the likes of Deon Burton and Myles Weston were on hand to take their share of the goal-scoring burden. Their form has dipped of late, meaning other clubs have caught up, but they remain very tough to beat. Gillingham have the talent and the manager to secure promotion, and I suspect they’ll be celebrating in May.
Port Vale – A – Mickey Adams has done brilliantly in his second stint at Vale Park, and he really seems at home in the Potteries. Port Vale are the top scorers in League 2 and that record owes a lot to the brilliant form of Tom Pope. Only Crystal Palace’s Glenn Murray has scored more than Pope this season, and the striker’s 19 goals have propelled his team to 2nd. However Port Vale rely heavily on Pope’s contribution; they’ve only won twice when he hasn’t been on the scoresheet and they are yet to lose when he’s netted. His form has dipped of late and so have Vale’s results. But their attacking style of play, coupled with the general confidence around the club, should see them promoted.
Cheltenham – A- – Cheltenham have reacted excellently to the play-off heartache of last season. Mark Yeates has built on the success of last season and he’s mounting an even bigger promotion push. They’ve got a big third-round tie to look forward to in the FA Cup against Everton, but with a small squad they can’t allow it to distract them from the league situation. Cheltenham are the lowest scorers in the top 7 and they’ve only won three games by more than one goal. They play good football, and if they can work out a way of finishing more of their chances, they’ll surely be promoted too.
Southend – B – After a stuttering start to the season, Southend are going into the second half of the season in great form, on the back of a nine-match unbeaten run. Sturrock is once again making Southend hard to beat, and with limited finances, they once again aim to challenge for promotion, either automatically or through the play-offs. The aim is to put recent money troubles behind them and move on. Britt Assombalonga has extended his loan from Watford until the end of the season, which is great news for the club, and Gavin Tomlin’s form has been sensational of late.
Rotherham – B– – Big things were expected at the start of the season, but the Millers have been inconsistent for much of the season. Sometimes they can look like the best team in the league, but other times, they seem unorganised and dysfunctional. Manager, Steve Evans’s hefty touchline ban for an incident at his former club, Crawley, didn’t help the club at all. But if they can get a good run of results in the new year, they can go up automatically. The beautiful new stadium gave the club an initial boost at the start of the season, but they’ve failed to build on the early momentum. With a talented squad, and a manager who understands the league, there’s no reason why the Millers can’t go up.
Bradford – A- – How would they have fared in the league had it not been for the cup run? Phil Parkinson’s doing a fantastic job and he’s engineered a good, balanced team, with an excellent home record. But the fixture list is getting dense, with the Bantams still in two cup competitions, including a two-legged Capitol One Cup semi-final against Premier League Aston Villa. Do Bradford have the depth to fight for an automatic promotion spot as well as challenge for silverware? They need to be careful they don’t squander their play-off spot in search of trophies. City are too big for League 2 and after some dreadful, miserable years, they’re once again in a position to climb back up the leagues. They can’t waste this opportunity.
Exeter – B – Exeter have reacted well to their relegation from League 1, and have continued to play the beautiful football they have always played under Paul Tisdale. Unlike in League 1, it’s their away form they have to thank for being so high with seven wins in eleven away games. Jamie Cureton and John O’Flynn have a brilliant partnership up front, but at the back they’ve been very loose. The Grecians have the worst defensive record in the top half and they’ve kept just four clean sheets so far this season. They play the game the right way, they’re attack-minded and a lot of fun to watch, but are they reliable enough at the back to go up?
Fleetwood– A- – These days we expect Blue Square Premier Champions to do more than just survive in League 2, but Fleetwood still deserve credit for the way they’ve adapted to life in the Football League. However, competing for a play-off spot isn’t enough for ambitious chairman, Andy Pilley, who sacked manager Micky Mellon after a downturn in results. The new man at the helm is Graham Alexander, who made over 1,000 career appearances for four clubs in 21 years as a player. He’s hoping he can put his experience to good use, and lead Fleetwood to a second straight promotion. An automatic spot might be beyond their reach, but there’s no reason why they can’t get a play-off spot.
Northampton – C+ – The Sixfields outfit have what it takes to get a play-off spot this season after just missing out last year. But they are one of many clubs who have struggled for consistency. Adebayo Akinfenwa’s form is key to their success, and he not only gets goals, but also helps supply others with chances. They only have two away wins this season and that needs to improve if they are to challenge seriously for a play-off spot. There’s still more to come from the Cobblers.
Rochdale – C- – Rochdale don’t do promotions; their 2009 promotion to League 1 was their first in 41 years, and they could only muster two seasons in the third tier before last year’s relegation. John Coleman’s been under pressure and has been criticised for not galvanising his squad. The club had gone on a run of four successive defeats, but on Friday night they thrashed Cheltenham 4-1 with a performance which will undoubtedly reassure fans. The presence of strikers like Bobby Grant, Dele Adebola and Ashley Grimes mean Rochdale always look like scoring, but they’ve only won four home games this season and only three teams have conceded more goals than Rochdale this season. John Coleman’s a very honest manager, but fans still question whether he’s the man to take them back up.
Burton – B- – After a season spent fighting relegation, Albion’s fans will be very pleased with the club’s position at the moment. If they can get Calvin Zola on a good scoring run, they can push for a play-off spot. Zander Diamond has been brilliant in defence for the Brewers, and things are so tight in League 2, a solid defender who contributes goals can make a huge difference. Gary Rowett’s doing a good job in his first full season as Burton manager and he’s exceeding expectations. Burton are one of a number of clubs who are keeping up with the top 7, who will fancy their chances of getting a play-off spot. If they’re in a similar position in March, then we can start talking about Burton as play-off contenders.
Torquay – C- – Torquay have found it difficult overcoming the disappointment of last year’s play-off defeat and they have struggled for consistency this season. Rene Howe is still the driving force up front, and his 10 goals have helped keep them in touch with the play-off places. But this Torquay team lacks the zip of the past two seasons. Having said that, the Gulls are still unbeaten at Plainmoor in the league but only two away wins explains why they’re not featuring higher up the table. There is a need to be more cohesive and focused on the road if they are to make the play-offs for a third year in a row.
Chesterfield – C+ – Chesterfield were expected to challenge for promotion back to League 1 after last season’s dismal relegation (with the obvious silver lining of winning the JPT). But a tumultuous start to the season gave them a severe handicap. The strange timing of John Sheridan’s departure cast a shadow over the club, but new manager, Paul Cook is having a positive effect at the Spireites. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Spireites have a good defensive record and in Jack Lester and Marc Richards they have strikers who know how to score in this division. The 4-1 win against Cheltenham was very impressive and despite a jittery start they should be challenging for a play-off spot at the very least this season.
Dagenham and Redbridge – C – Most Daggers fans were dreading this season, fearing a relegation scrap, but halfway through the campaign they look pretty sure of their place in the division and they’re only three points off a play-off spot. They’re part of a congested mid-table where pretty much anybody could make a break for the play-offs. And Dagenham and Redbridge are on a decent run at the moment. After a winless first 8 games, the Daggers now won 5 of their last 7 games and they’ve solidified at the back in recent games too.
York – B- – They may not be matching the feats of Fleetwood, but York will be pleased with their return to the Football League. After eight years in the fifth tier of English football, they’ve made a steady but assured start to life back in League 2. Gary Mills has made York had to beat, with only six league defeats so far, but they’re also the league’s draw specialists with nine in total. The important thing for City’s fans is they’re unlikely to be scrapping for relegation, but with just four points separating them and 7th placed Exeter, why should they be looking over their shoulders?
Morecambe – C – Last season Morecambe started brightly but faded rapidly and finished the season 15th. This season they’ve failed to kick on and it’s hard to see them finishing above mid-table. Morecambe are another club who lack consistency but Jim Bentley’s side are winning the vital games which keep them away from the relegation scrap, and as long as they continue to beat the likes of Bristol Rovers, Barnet and Aldershot, they’ll be safe. There isn’t much money at the club and expectations have to be realistic.
Accrington Stanley – C- – It’s difficult to grade Stanley’s seasons so far as it’s unclear what their ambitions were pre-season. Last year they finished 14th after the most turbulent season in their recent history, so one would expect they had their sights set on a higher finish this season. But with Stanley’s poultry budget, can they really expect to finish much higher than 19th? They lost manager Paul Cook, with the club 16th, and under former player Leam Richardson there’s been no improvement in results. The aim for this season is to avoid the drop without too many scares, then look for stability.
Wycombe Wanderers – C- – Things were looking very grim for Wycombe a few weeks ago. Gary Waddock was sacked in September as a result of last year’s relegation and a poor start to the season. Veteran captain, Gareth Ainsworth, took over but initial results were slow to improve and Wanderers looked set for a season scrapping for safety. However Wycombe have four wins in their last five games and things look to be on the up. Ainsworth’s team have lifted themselves away from the bottom two. There are whispers of a play-off push, but after the nightmare start to the season, Wanderers will be happy with mid-table mediocrity. Joel Grant is a player I’ve always enjoyed watching and the form of young Matt McClure has been good.
Oxford United – D – They are the disappointment of the season in League 2. Many people expected Chris Wilder’s team to be pushing for promotion this season, but performances have been poor and results have matched them. The Us began the season with three wins in a row and they looked set for a great year, but since then they’ve won just four games and they’re closer to the relegation zone than they are to the play-offs. With players like Peter Leven, Tom Craddock and Alfie Potter, Oxford should have enough to stay up, but is that really enough for a club which began the season with high expectations?
Plymouth – D – This was supposed to be the season Plymouth put their financial troubles behind them and began rebuilding the club. But five wins so far is a disappointing return and Carl Fletcher has come in for criticism from some fans. They sit just four points above the relegation zone and unless they can find a goalscorer in January, they’ll be fighting the drop until the final days of the season. Joint top-scorers, Warren Feeney and Rhys Griffiths, have three goals each this season, and this explains why the Pilgrims find themselves 20th in the table. They’re in for a tough fight.
Aldershot – D- – The lowest scorers in the division are in trouble. Dean Holdsworth has come under fire for the poor results, with just five wins in the first half of the season. With little money to spend in January it’s going to be a very long second half to the season and Shots fans will be biting their nails until the end. Last season they finished in the top half, but they haven’t clicked at all this year. They’re averaging less than a goal a game, and that’s always problematic.
Barnet – E+ – The initial excitement surrounding Edgar Davids’ appointment has worn off. They were winless when the Dutch legend arrived in mid-October, but then the Bees won three out of four games (drawing the other) and things looked to be on the up. Unfortunately they failed to win any of their next six games and found themselves bottom of the league. Friday night’s brilliant 3-2 victory against Burton has dragged the club out of the relegation zone, and they’ll hope it can spur them on to better things. They’ve scored just 19 goals this season but Barnet have proved over the past few years, if anybody can defy the odds and escape relegation, it’s them. As miserable as their current situation may seem, the Wigan of the lower leagues could once again spring a surprise.AFC
AFC Wimbledon – E – The Wombles are worried, and so they should be. They’ve lost more games than anybody else in League 2 this season and they have dropped into the bottom two. The departure of iconic manager, Terry Brown, was unfortunate but inevitable after a poor start to the season. New manager Neil Ardley has had a tough start to managerial life, with just two league wins since his appointment. A spirited performance against MK Dons in the FA Cup gave fans hope, but that showing hasn’t been replicated in the league yet this season, where they’ve been desperately poor. Confidence is low going into the new year, and after a meteoric rise, AFC Wimbledon could very well be heading back to the Blue Square Premier after just two seasons in the Football League.
Bristol Rovers – F – This is not where Rovers expected to be halfway through the season. It’s been an absolute nightmare at the Memorial Stadium this season and they deserve their place at the foot of the table. Performances have been woeful, they have the worst defensive record in the league and they’re conceding an average of two goals per game. They recently sacked Mark McGhee, who labelled his team’s performances, “embarrassing.” The new manager, John Ward, is very experienced, and has a few good players to work with, but can he get them out of the current predicament?