Two teams unbeaten, two without a win, 96 games played and 230 goals scored; the word outrageous may be a tad strong, but I’ve pieced five predictions for the rest of the League One season based on the opening month of the 2022/23 campaign.
Morecambe to be relegated
It may not come as much of a surprise to many that I’m tipping the Shrimps to face the drop this season, a claim I made before a ball was kicked now solidified with Morecambe’s uninspired start. However, the thing that makes this somewhat of an ‘outrageous’ prediction, is that it has never happened before. That’s right, for those unaware, Morecambe Football Club have never been relegated in their entire history, a stat that I’m sure many from their camp will be getting the best out of for the remainder of the season.
One of the two teams still yet to notch a win, the Shrimps have just four points from their opening eight games, most recently losing 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday.
Last season Derek Adams returned to the Mazuma Stadium after leaving the club following promotion to League One in 2021. Rejoining Morecambe in February, the Scottish manager was able to pick up five draws and four wins from the remaining 16 games which was enough to see his side survive by just two points.
A lot of credit for Morecambe’s unlikely survival last term must also go to striker Cole Stockton, who had the season of his life scoring 23 goals in the league. Adams swept away any interest from other clubs for his star man only for Stockton to hand in a transfer request in the dying moments of the transfer window. However, the 28-year-old didn’t get his move and will have to wait until January for any chance at finding a new home. It is yet to be seen whether the forward will use his time to impress any potential suitors or sit and sulk at not getting his wish, but one thing is for sure; Morecambe will be needing Stockton to be at his brilliant best once again whilst he’s here if they’re to have any hope at accomplishing another great escape.
In their defence, Morecambe’s four defeats have been at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons, Bolton and Peterborough, all of whom are tipped to have good seasons and all with the exception of MK have had strong starts. However, for me I feel that it will be a case of ‘second season syndrome’ at the Mazuma. They needed the individual brilliance of Stockton as well as a motivating dugout return to help them over the line last time out, both of which will be cards that they’ll struggle to find up their sleeve this year. #
MK Dons to disappoint
The Dons endured a summer of change after an impressive 3rd place finish last time out ended in Playoff Semi final disappointment and their most prized assets being pinched by teams in the division above. Dominant defender Harry Darling and impressive midfielder David Kasumu were granted Championship moves to Swansea and Huddersfield whilst perhaps the biggest loss, last season’s player of the year Scott Twine made a reported £5 million switch to Burnley. Almost the entire spine of that brilliant MK Dons team has been torn apart, with Liam Manning’s side bringing in 14 new recruits. Most notable names included highly-tipped youngster Louie Barry, experienced heads Bradley Johnson and Will Grigg along with one of last season’s best League One defenders in Jack Tucker. On paper, an encouraging window of business for Dons fans, though the reality is a little more tricky.
Struggling to gel on the pitch, MK have lost five times this season, mustering just two wins from the first eight matches, leaving them 22nd. A dagger to preseason promotion ambitious with the top two 14 points ahead. The positive side is that the top six still remains just six points out of reach, and there’s no doubt the talent in this MK squad, and Liam Manning will be hoping it’s just a case of when will they click.
Unfortunately though, I see it as a season of rebuild at Stadium MK. They lost arguably the best player in the division last season in Scott Twine who was directly responsible for 20 goals and 13 assists last term, any team in the world is bound to struggle after losing that influence. On top of that it’s a tough task for a young 36-year-old manager to have to go again after coming so close last year and almost start from scratch. Ultimately, it’s not a prediction that sits too easily with me as I rate Manning highly and the way MK Dons are set up I’ve no doubt they’ll ‘go again’ and be back amongst it soon enough. However, I feel there’s a lot of really good teams this season and this one may be one that requires patience in Milton Keynes.
Derby to miss out
Another team that had a busy summer was Derby County following a new dawn at Pride Park and the beginning of the Clowes era. A bare-bone squad was bulked with illustrious names like James Collins, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, James Chester, David McGoldrick, Tom Barkhuizen, Korey Smith and perhaps most impressive of the lot Conor Hourihane. The well-publicised summer rebuild saw the Rams’ promotion odds slashed and now sit as one of the favourites for Championship football next season. I really hate to rain on the parade Derby fans, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Apologies.
It was a dream start for Liam Rosenior’s tenure on the opening day, with the feel-good factor in full flow. New ownership, new squad, new season, full house and a late winner from their big name signing. You can’t blame Rams supporters for thinking they’d be in for a fun season. I’m here to remind them that this is League One and it is anything but fun for clubs like Derby County, as I’m sure they have already experienced. Rosenior’s men were quickly brought back down to earth with a 1-0 defeat at Charlton and have since had a steady start, picking up three wins, three losses and two draws leaving them 13th place.
Perhaps the most frustrating stat for Derby is the fact that they are the only side in the EFL yet to score an away goal. Possibly a sign that some at Derby are struggling to adapt to their League One surroundings and it’s not too surprising. Although the Rams squad is one with undoubted quality, it lacks in the field of third tier familiarity. Well, recent League One familiarity anyway.
Looking from a glance, Joe Wildsmith and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing seem to be the only players who were in this division last season whilst the rest from divisions above. On paper that might read quite nicely, with players coming from above surely a level ahead of their League One counterparts? Well, it doesn’t quite work like that. Going away to these small, tightly packed grounds with bobbly pitches and awful conditions causes quite the problem for players used to the nice facilities of places a level higher. It’s even more difficult when you go to these places and the opposition are more than happy to sit back, take their time and play for a goalless draw.
Another argument as to why Derby’s playing staff may struggle is the fact that none of them seem to be in their ‘prime’ years. Rosenior boasts an abundance of youth with the likes of Eiran Cashin, Max Bird, Jason Knight, Louie Sibley, Liam Thompson and Lewis Dobbin all no older than 21. The Rams also have a wealth of experience to call upon, with James Chester, Richard Stearman, Curtis Davies, Craig Forsyth and David McGoldrick all 33 years of age or older. In fact, Tom Barkhuizen is their only ‘big name’ who is between the ages of 21 and 30. Maybe I’m making this a bigger issue than it is in reality and it could be seen that there’s a nice balance of experience and youth at Pride Park. However, for me I look at it and see it as a lack of players in their ‘prime years’.
On top of that and the final reason I see the Rams ultimately coming up short this season is their manager. A big ask for any coach to completely rebuild a team following relegation. But, it’s an especially big ask for a manager to take it on for their first job in charge. Liam Rosenior, is by all accounts a very highly thought of coach and could perhaps claim credit for a lot of good work done during the Wayne Rooney era, having been a member of the coaching staff throughout the England legend’s reign. Nevertheless, I think Rosenior’s lack of managerial experience may well mean Derby miss out this year and it could often be a case of ‘learning on the job’ this season.
Again, not the easiest call to make. Looking at the list of names at Derby’s disposal it is tough to write them off and I wouldn’t be too shocked should the Rams stake a playoff claim come May. But, for me at least I don’t see it happening and although they might not be too far away from the mix I don’t see them making it into this season’s League One top six.
Cambridge on for a playoff push
One team I do think have a chance (the key phrase here being ‘a chance’) is Cambridge United. Now, this may well be a case of a team that has a really good start to the season but quickly peters out. Or, it might be similar to how Plymouth went about things last season, taking up a top six spot through most of the year, eventually missing out but is now one of the top teams in the division.
Winning half of their first eight games and drawing one, the Us currently sit in 6th position on 13 points. Kicking off the season with a surprise victory over MK Dons, Mark Bonner’s side have scored in all but one of their league games so far. Following promotion from League Two in 2020/21, Cambridge quickly settled into third tier life with a comfortable 14th place finish last season in a campaign which included a memorable FA Cup victory over Newcastle United at St James Park.
Unlike other teams on this list, Cambridge had a fairly quiet transfer window meaning they have a solid group under an impressive young manager in Mark Bonner who has been at the club for over two years. That familiarity amongst the players and the staff is something that has seemingly created a strong togetherness around the club and there appears to be a real feel-good energy at the Abbey Stadium, which isn’t to be underestimated.
A good bond only gets you so far, and Cambridge wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t possess a bit of quality too. With the likes of Jubril Okedina, Paul Digby and Adam May they’ve got a solid spine at this level. But, it’s their firepower that makes them a force to be reckoned with. Their deadly duo of Joe Ironside and Sam Smith struck 29 goals between them in League One last season and the pair have already made an explosive start to this campaign with Smith leading the way netting four times whilst Ironside is just one shy of that tally. The Us also have Harvey Knibbs who is capable of popping up with a few goals as well as summer addition Fejiri Okenabirhie who bagged 11 goals in his last fully fit season with Doncaster Rovers in 202/21.
I’m sure any honest Cambridge fan will happily admit that this one is my most ‘outrageous’ call, hence the title. I’m not saying Bonner’s side will absolutely be in the top six come the end of the season. But, they could be this year’s surprise side (there’s always one).
Portsmouth to be Promoted
One of the two unbeaten teams who sit joint top of the League One tree, Pompey could finally be on their way back to the second tier after an entire decade away. A 3-all thriller at Hillsborough on the opening day followed by a goalless stalemate with Lincoln sparked an epic six game winning streak seeing Danny Cowley’s side make their mark on League One. The question is, can they keep it up?
Well looking at their squad there’s no reason why they can’t. Well, they’ll not win every game for the rest of the season, but there’s no reason why they can’t remain in the top spots. A productive summer saw Pompey bring in some top talents at this level. Marlon Pack adds some proper steel in the middle as well as plenty of nous. Owen Dale and Josh Koroma add threat out wide, with Dale hitting 11 last time he was in League One with Crewe whilst Koroma enjoyed a goal or two over the year with Huddersfield where he scored 12 goals in the Championship. Speaking of goals they’ve added two strikers who have plenty at this level in Joe Piggott and Colby Bishop, with the latter already on five. Portsmouth even have somewhat of a wildcard in Tottenham youngster Dane Scarlett who is a forward that is tipped to have an exciting career.
And they’ve added this to an already strong squad which wasn’t too far away last season. Michael Jacobs and Ronan Curtis are excellent wingers for League One, with Curtis bound to get his customary 10 goals from wide. Joe Morrell is a Wales international midfielder and he has competition with Ryan Tunnicliffe, Louis Thompson and Tom Lowery who is another summer addition after impressing at Crewe last term. And to complete the set, they’re sound at the back having added the evergreen Michael Morrison to an already imposing defence of Sean Raggett and Clark Robertson.
Overseeing it all is the commendable Cowley brothers duo who made their name by guiding Lincoln City from the National League to League One, winning an EFL Trophy along the way. A mixed time at Huddersfield led them back to the third tier now with a point to prove at Fratton Park. Appointed in 2021, the Cowleys have a decent record at Pompey with a 46% win ratio and now having built their squad will be looking to go that next step this season.
There is a world in which I’m being blindsided by Portsmouth’s good start and maybe Colby Bishop’s goals dry up, Pompey have a few disappointing results, don’t respond and begin to spiral down the table. However, I think one way or another this team will be in the mix come May. There's some real quality within the ranks but on top of that they have some proper know-how at this level and seem to have that excellent knack for getting results over the line, even if it’s not sparkling at times. Again, not too sure if it’s ‘outrageous’ or particularly bold in any way, but I believe that Portsmouth will be promoted this season.