Halfway through the season and League 1’s seen a bit of everything; sackings, scandals and financial troubles, and that’s just what’s gone on off the field.
Here’s how each club has fared in the first 23 games of the season:
Sheffield United – A- – Recovering from last season’s agonising play-off final penalty defeat was always going to be tough. United will be content with the way their season has gone so far. Danny Wilson’s team are extremely difficult to beat, with only two league defeats so far. Man City are the only club in the top four tiers of English football with fewer losses. But United’s lack of firepower has held them back; before this weekend they were the lowest scorers in the top 10 and seven of their eleven victories have been by a single goal, which is very unusual for a team top of the league. Nick Blackman has nine goals in the league, but United’s second highest scorer is centre-back, Neil Collins, with four goals. The Blades have been great at grinding out results, but they don’t look as strong as the team which narrowly missed out on promotion last term.
Tranmere – A+ – Tranmere’s form this season has surprised everybody, including manager, Ronnie Moore. Whenever Moore gets interviewed these days he keeps emphasising how stunned he is to be top of the league. The Merseysiders didn’t lose any of their first twelve games, and looked to be racing away with the league. They are the league’s top-scorers with 38 goals, and the goals have been shared with Jake Cassidy, Andy Robinson and Jean-Louis Akpa-Akpro all netting regularly. But they’re currently suffering their first blip of the season, which includes Friday’s shocking 5-0 defeat against Swindon. How they react will go a long way to determining where they’ll finish this season.
Brentford – A – Uwe Rösler’s side are the form team in League 1 going into the second half of the season. After a steady but unspectacular start to the season, the Bees burst into life in late October as they embarked on a nine match unbeaten run, which includes seven wins. In recent weeks they’ve recorded extremely impressive victories against Sheffield United and the MK Dons. Strategically and organisationally, Brentford have been the best team in the division this season, but their success has been helped by the goals of Clayton Donaldson. The big striker, nicknamed Donaldinho, is the league’s second highest scorer. The Londoners are on a roll and are aiming for promotion to the second tier for the first time in over two decades.
Doncaster – B – Dean Saunders has rebuilt the team after relegation, and the Yorkshiremen continue to play an aesthetically pleasing style of football. The star of the show has been David Cotterill, who’s been banging in the goals from midfield, and looks to have regained his confidence after some tumultuous times. Doncaster have more wins than any other team in League 1 and they have been very exciting to watch. However there’s still room for improvement. They remain on the lookout for a goal-poaching striker to take some of the pressure off Cotterill, and there have been some very unconvincing performances in the midst of all the great football. Automatic promotion is the aim, but a play-off spot would be a fine achievement.
Swindon – A- – Last year’s League 2 champions were expected to have a huge impact on League 1, and though they’ve been inconsistent, they’ve proved they have the quality to challenge at the top end of the table. With Paolo Di Canio as manager things were never going to be boring, and there’s been plenty of excitement at Swindon games. They’ve scored 37 goals and conceded just 18, but when they concede first they tend to lose; they’ve picked up just two points from losing positions this season. Matt Richie has continued his brilliant form from last term and he’s already netted nine goals this season. The magnificent 5-0 victory against Tranmere suggests Swindon could still challenge for an automatic spot if they develop a bit more consistency, although if they get a play-off spot nobody will want to face Di Canio’s side and their beautiful football.
MK Dons – B – It’s been a strange season for MK Dons fans. They’ve been used to seeing their side score freely and concede regularly in recent years, but this season the Dons have tightened things at the back at the expense of their attacking fervour. The Dons have been wasteful in front of goal at times, but perhaps that’s changing as we enter 2013. Along with every other club currently in the play-off spots, the Dons lack a top goal-scorer, and this is keeping them outside the top two. Karl Robinson’s team play some of the most beautiful football in the league, but in recent years they’ve lacked the killer instinct required to take them up. It remains to be seen if that’s changed this year, and although the Dons look a good bet for a play-off spot once again in May, they must be aiming for a top two finish.
Stevenage – B – After a blistering start to the season, Gary Smith’s side have lost their way slightly and have won just one game (against lowly Hartlepool) in their last six. They began the season with an incredible 11 match unbeaten run and it appeared as though the Boro were going to seriously challenge for an automatic promotion spot. Stevenage were unable to challenge healthily in last season’s play-offs because the squad was too small and tiredness had taken over, and this season the small squad once again looks to be having an adverse effect on their promotion push. Stevenage could do with a potent goal-scorer; Robin Shroot is an amiable, impactful forward, who will score a fair few goals over the course of the season, but a natural goal-scorer would go a long way towards securing another play-off for Stevenage. The aim for the season is to get back in the play-offs, but competition is fierce.
Notts County – C+ – After narrowly missing out on 6th place last season, County were expected to make a strong push for promotion this year. But after a positive start to the season the Magpies have found wins hard to come by, with only four league victories since September. County, like so many clubs in League 1, are in need of a goal-scorer who can turn draws into wins. Keith Curle’s team are resilient and difficult to beat, but four draws in their last six games highlights County’s frustrations this season. Notts County have the makings of a good side, and at times’s they’ve looked like genuine play-off contenders, but a lack of cutting edge could cost them a place in the top 6.
Bournemouth – C+ – Bournemouth’s turnaround from relegation battlers to play-off challengers has been astounding to say the least, and it’s down to one man: Eddie Howe. When he returned to Bournemouth for his second stint as manager in October, the Cherries were in the bottom four having won just once in their first eleven league games. However since Howe’s arrival Bournemouth haven’t lost a game and they’ve shot up the league with 27 points from a possible 33. Howe never settled at Burnley, and it’s clear he belongs on the south coast. He understands the club and knows how to succeed at Dean Court. Former Rotherham striker Lewis Grabban has flourished under Howe, and Bournemouth look like very good candidates for the play-offs, now that the club’s regained its confidence.
Crawley – B- – It’s fair to say Crawley expected more from this season. They won promotion convincingly last season, but a transitional summer was poor preparation and they’re now suffering as a result. The promising start to the season under Richie Barker now seems a long time ago; the Red Devils have won once in the last nine games, and they’ve steadily drifted down the table. If they are to mount a serious play-off push, they need to start winning again quickly, before their downward slide goes too far. Crawley will have no problem staying up, which is every promoted club’s first priority, but sights were set a little higher. Crawley’s best player so far this season has been Hope Akpan, whose physical performances in midfield have been highly impressive. Unfortunately his indiscipline has resulted in several suspensions, which doesn’t help the Crawley cause.
Yeovil – C+ – The Glovers began the campaign spectacularly; winning three and drawing one of their first four games. Then they lost six games in a row, sparking fears of another season fighting relegation. Since then they’ve been on a run of inconsistency, struggling to build any kind of momentum. They have no problems scoring goals, but at the other end they’ve been porous; they have the worst defensive record in the top 16. Yeovil will be happy if they avoid getting dragged into the relegation dogfight this season, and a mid-table finish would represent progress for one of the smallest clubs in the division. They’re far too inconsistent to challenge for a play-off spot this season.
Crewe – A- – Crewe were a joy to watch last season as their late surge took them up via the play-offs. But their joy was short-lived as they lost two of their top performers, Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood, to Man Utd and Aston Villa respectively. Unsurprisingly they were hot favourites for relegation, but they’ve defied the odds and look set to stay up comfortably. The signing of striker Mathias Pogba (brother of Juventus’ Paul Pogba) from Wrexham has been a good one and the team play an attractive, but sturdy style of football. There’s a brilliant team ethic at Crewe and manager Steve Davis deserves a huge amount of credit for the job he’s done. It’s doubtful they’ll be able to challenge for a play-off spot, having said that they enter the second half of the season in great form with just one defeat in their last seven games. They’ve done brilliantly.
Coventry – C- – Coventry fans must have thought things couldn’t get worse after their relegation from the Championship last season. But this is Coventry, and for the Sky Blues trouble always seems to be around the corner. Andy Thorne was sacked as manager just three games into the season, and Coventry went on a run of five consecutive losses before their first win of the season against Oldham on September 29. However since then, new manager Mark Robins has slowly but surely turned things around, and Coventry have now only lost once in their last nine games. With the team hitting form, and League 1 top scorer David McGoldrick (15 goals so far) continuing to impress, Coventry could compete for a play-off spot. Unfortunately off-field problems continue to cast a shadow over any on-field success. The club’s owners aren’t able to pay the hefty rent for the Ricoh Arena, and they could be forced to look elsewhere for a home ground, with non-league Hinckley United’s 4,329-capacity Greene King Stadium seen as a genuine possibility.
Leyton Orient – C – An up and down season for Orient so far, where losing runs have quickly turned into winning runs, and feast has quickly turned to famine. Orient fans really have no idea whether they’re in a relegation fight or whether they have an outside chance of getting a play-off spot. Amazingly, Leyton Orient have only drawn one game this season, against Crewe in September. The Londoners have 10 wins and 11 losses so far, making them one of the league’s most unpredictable (and exciting) sides. Kevin Lisbie continues to roll back the years, but his team-mates aren’t contributing enough goals. Orient have only netted 25 goals so far this season, although in recent games they’ve been scoring far more regularly. The tendency this season is that when Orient score, they win. They’ve only lost twice when they’ve scored this term.
Preston – D+ – Graham Westley still hasn’t settled at Preston and the play-offs look an unlikely proposition by now. Westley made wholesale changes to the playing staff in the summer, but that’s resulted in the team looking dysfunctional and awkward. The style of football has been criticised by fans who want to see less of a long-ball game from their team. The Lilywhites lack a potent goalscorer, and they struggle to win games. Preston are winless in their last six games and only Sheffield United have drawn more games than the Lancashire club this season. It’s tough to see Preston go down this season, but it’s even tougher imagining them snatching a spot in the top 6. Things aren’t clicking at Deepdale and fans are frustrated. Attendances are regularly less than 10,000 and there’s an air of negativity surrounding the club.
Oldham – C- – It’s another frustratingly low-scoring season for Oldham as they’ve averaged just a goal a game in their first 23 games. Paul Dickov was a tenacious striker in his playing days, but the Scot just can’t get his strikers to score, and were it not for the brilliant José Baxter, Oldham would be in severe trouble. The former Everton youngster has excelled in the Latics midfield, and he’s shown Premier League class on a regular basis, netting eight goals in the process. But Baxter’s only one player and Oldham sit just five points above the relegation zone. They’re once again scrapping for safety and with little money to spend in January, Dickov may have to make do with what he’s got. It’s going to be a long second half of the season for Oldham fans, who’ll be praying Baxter stays fit.
Walsall – C – The Saddlers started the season brightly and they were 4th as recently as October. But a dramatic collapse in their form has seen them plummet down the table. Their win against Colchester on Saturday was their first in 13 games, and a vital three points for the Midlanders. Manager Dean Smith has tried to get his team playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football, but unfortunately the players at his disposal probably aren’t good enough to play the style he demands. Apart from Carlisle, Walsall have conceded more than any other team outside the relegation zone, and with goals in short supply, it’s a worrying statistic. Walsall have defied the odds and miraculously stayed up for the past few seasons, and they’re hoping the win against Colchester can inspire them to do likewise in May.
Shrewsbury – C- – I expected more from Shrewsbury this season and I didn’t expect to see them so close to the bottom four. The Shrews were promoted last season thanks mostly to their brilliant home form, and it’s their results at New Meadow which keep them outside the drop zone this season. All 5 wins have come at home, while they’re yet to win on their travels. The team has changed little since last season, and perhaps Graham Turner should have bought more players who had experience of League 1 football. Marvin Morgan can be a real handful on his day, but he’s not consistent enough for Town. If he can get on a good scoring run, it would make a huge difference to where they finish. Safety would represent a good season for Shrewsbury after spending 15 years outside League 1. Turner has a united dressing room, with some good footballers, and I expect them to dodge the drop.
Colchester – D- – It’s been a bitterly disappointing first half of the season at Cuckoo Farm. John Ward was dismissed after failing to win any of the first eight games of the season. His assistant Joe Dunne has been in charge since then, and initially the appointment appeared to have galvanised the squad, with Colchester winning five out of their next six games to climb into the top half. But The Us have only won once since October and they’ve lost the other seven games, including a 5-1 hammering at Stadium MK. Their morale-crushing defeat against Walsall in the last game emphasised the extent of Colchester’s woes. They sit just two points and two places above 22nd placed Portsmouth. Their main problem is up front, where the strikers have found scoring difficult. Jabo Ibehre has four goals so far and Ian Henderson has three, and Colchester average just a goal a game, which is always cause for concern. Colchester are in a bad way, and if things don’t improve they could very well be heading back to League 2 after eight years away.
Carlisle – D- – Greg Abbott’s side are in deep trouble, and they could easily go down this year. Last season Carlisle finished a very respectable 8th, but the sale of star player Francois Zoko to Notts County meant a repeat this time round was unlikely. But there’s no way they could have predicted such a difficult season. It was the Cumbrians’ dreadful defence which cost them a play-off spot last season, but this year Carlisle have been chronic at the back. They have the worst defensive record in the league and have kept just one clean sheet in their first 22 games. United’s back four have been truly diabolical, but they’ve received little protection from the midfield. The defensive catastrophe puts a lot of pressure on forwards to counterbalance. 28 goals is a decent return for a team fighting relegation, but when the defence is so poor, there’s only so much the forwards can do. Carlisle will go down if Abbott can’t solve the defensive crisis.
Portsmouth – E- – It’s never dull at Fratton Park, and this season possibly been the craziest so far in Portsmouth’s fight for stability. After relegation from the Championship the entire professional playing staff was forced out of the club in order to keep Portsmouth FC in business. Since then Pompey have relied on academy products, short term contracts and loans from other clubs. At first the team struggled to adapt, but towards the end of September Michael Appleton got his team to function. But Appleton, fatigued by off-field matters interfering with his coaching, left Portsmouth in November to take over at Championship Blackpool. Caretaker boss, Guy Wittingham, is still waiting for a first win in charge, but the club seems doomed to another relegation. They remain in administration and a 10 point deduction seems inevitable at some point in the season. Though good players such as Scott Allen, Ákos Buzsáky, Gyepes Gábor and Luke Rodgers have represented the club this season, and Izale McLeod has netted 10 times in the league already, the team doesn’t look unified. Portsmouth’s fans are taking control of the club’s finances, and it’s the club’s existence which matters most to them at the moment. On the field, relegation appears to be unavoidable.
Bury – D- – Losing manager, Richie Barker, to Crawley shortly before the first game of the season was a bitter blow and it momentarily sent the Gigg Lane club into turmoil. Former Leeds and Sheffield United manager, Kevin Blackwell, took over from caretaker manager, Peter Shirtliff, eight winless games into the season. It wasn’t until October 23 that the Shakers recorded their first victory, with goals from Tom Hooper and David Worrall enough to defeat Hartlepool. They followed up this result with three wins in five games. They haven’t won yet in December but hope has been restored after a dreadful start. Steven Schumacher is still the leader of the team and an important influence as Bury try to drag themselves out of the mire. There are some very poor sides at the foot of the table, and Bury are by no means doomed.
Scunthorpe – E – After a disappointing season last year, the Iron were hoping for a much stronger campaign from Alan Knill’s boys. What they got was a dreadful set of results and a managerial change. Four straight defeats at the start of the season set alarm bells ringing and although Scunthorpe recorded two wins and two draws in their next four games, the poor form soon returned and Alan Knill was sacked with the club third from bottom. Former manager, Brian Laws, took over and when he won his first two games, it appeared as though everything would better from then on. But since then, Scunthorpe have lost three games, including a damaging defeat against relegation rivals Bury. The 1-3 victory at Leyton Orient on December 15 gives Scunthorpe slight cause for optimism, but it still looks like being a very tough season. They’ve only taken six points at Glanford Park this season, and only Carlisle have conceded more goals in the division. Brian Laws has a tough job on his hands.
Hartlepool – F- – Nightmares don’t get any worse than the one Hartlepool are suffering at the moment. With just one win and nine points in their first 22 games, the Monkey Hangers must already be preparing for life in League 2. Neale Cooper lost his job towards the end of October with the club rooted to the foot of the table. His replacement was John Hughes, who has improved the style of play at Hartlepool, but if anything the results have worsened. Hughes has picked up a solitary point since his arrival; a 1-1 away at Walsall. Hartlepool have by far the worst squad in the division, with a porous defence and strikers who can’t seem to score. 15 goals in 22 games is an appalling record by anybody’s standards, and they’ve only kept two clean sheets all season. As things stand the Pools don’t look confident or spirited enough to win games. They’re almost guaranteed to go down, and they’re doing it embarrassingly.