Over two and a half million pounds has been spent on over 300 signings in a busy League One transfer window. But which deals were the most eye-catching of the lot over the summer? I explain my five most surprising bits of business in the third division.
Disclaimer: I have tried (and failed in one instance) to keep it to a maximum of one transfer per club. Apologies to the likes of Marcus Harness and Mallik Wilks, (I know you’re reading this) although you made big moves you haven’t quite made the cut this time. Maybe next summer.
Conor Hourihane (Derby County)
In potentially the biggest coup of the window, Derby County kicked off their summer rebuild with the addition of influential midfielder Conor Hourihane. Released by Premier League Aston Villa, where he had previously played a big part in the club getting promoted to the top flight in 2018/19, Hourihane had plenty of Championship offers following loan spells with Swansea and Sheffield United in recent years. Instead, the Republic of Ireland international chose Pride Park, becoming somewhat of a statement signing by The Rams with many believing Hourihane to be far too good for League One.
At 31, Hourihane has plenty of nous with a CV of success including promotion via the Championship playoffs with his previous employers as well as a promotion from League One the last time he played at this level with Barnsley. In those two years playing third division football at Oakwell, the Irishman hit double digits in goals both seasons, swooping The Reds’ Player of the Year award in 2014/15. Barnsley’s playmaker continued to strut his stuff in the division avoid, earning the move to Villa Park where he really kicked on and became one of the best creative midfielders outside of the Premier League.
After promotion to English Football’s elite, Hourihane had a steady first season in the top flight but wasn’t able to force himself into Villa’s first team on a regular basis, leading to loan spells away before his release this summer. Leaving The Villains with a commendable record scoring 23 times in 132 League appearances, Hourihane’s exit was a respectable one with most supporters wishing their former man well.
The Cork-born midfielder is certainly one of the standout names this season with pundits aplenty stunned at Derby’s pulling-power attracting such a talent to drop to League One. And it wasn’t long before Hourihane’s star-quality began to shine for The Rams, scoring a terrific winner on his Derby debut in a 1-0 victory over Oxford United. Seven games in now and Hourihane is yet to add to that tally, claiming an assist in the meantime though many will suggest he’s unlucky not to have more, as his teammates have seemingly lost their shooting boots at times this season.
Leif Davis (Ipswich Town)
Ipswich Town added 22-year-old left-back, Leif Davis, to their ranks from Leeds this summer in one of the biggest deals of the League One window. Now, it’s not often a left-back is seen as one of the most notable signings in a division and you can be excused for being a little surprised if you’ve no prior knowledge of this transfer. The reason why many were so shocked at this addition was simply due to the seven figure transfer fee that The Tractor Boys spent on their new man. A reported £1 million for a full-back in the third tier is astronomical and it’s no great surprise that if various add-on clauses are met, Davis could become the most expensive defender in League One history.
So why has this happened? Coached by former Huddersfield Town boss, Carlos Corberan in Leeds youth set-up, Davis describes himself as a ‘modern-day attacking full-back’. The youngster made 14 appearances in the Championship as the Yorkshire Club gained promotion to the Premier League in 2019/20. Finding top flight minutes hard to come by, Davis was loaned out to Bournemouth last year, but again struggled to break into an impressive Cherries side, appearing just 12 times in the Championship through another promotion campaign. Perhaps it’s the defenders’ promotion record that convinced the East Anglians to empty their pockets?
Or, more plausibly, it’s the bright future that is undoubtedly ahead for their new talent. Despite just 16 starts in his senior career prior to his Portman Road move, it’s impressive that Davis even managed that amount in two very good Leeds and Bournemouth teams. Furthermore, Davis is the ideal candidate for that left wing-back position in the Ipswich lineup, with his attacking capabilities as well as solid defensive abilities giving him the versatility to also play as one of the three centre backs.
It’s not like Ipswich just coughed up a cool million, willy nilly. Davis had plenty of Championship suitors but the League One promotion-hopefuls won the bidding. His new boss Kieran Mckenna, delighted with his arrival said: “He ticks all the boxes that we’re looking for; really good age, lots of room to grow and improve, hungry to establish his career now and get a run of games and see what level he can hit.
"He's a fantastic athlete, a really good runner, good speed, good speed endurance, excellent at getting up and down the line and has a really good left foot.”
Money well-spent by all accounts.
Michael Ihiekwe & Michael Smith (Sheffield Wednesday)
I’m going to treat you here and drop two for the price of one, with two deals that seemed to come as a pair. On the 22nd June, a day after Paul Warne had claimed to have new deals nearly over the line, The Owls swooped for Rotherham United duo Michael’s Ihiekwe and Smith. The two turned down deals at the New York Stadium to join Wednesday on free transfers and was an early sign of intent from Darren Moore.
The new Wednesday boys enjoyed a magnificent campaign with The Millers as they played key parts in Paul Warne’s promotion-winning team that finished second in League One. Michael Ihiekwe formed part of a brick-wall back-three for Rotherham, keeping a phenomenal 23 clean sheets. The 29-year-old defender claimed 163 league appearances in a five year spell at the New York, including three promotions to the Championship and an EFL Trophy earlier this year.
The summer saw the Hillsborough backline completely stripped with Chey Dunkley and Sam Hutchinson released whilst Jordan Storey and Harlee Dean returned to parent clubs following loans. Ihiekwe was one of the standout defenders last term, etching his name in the 2021/22 League One Team of the Season bringing a real presence to Wednesday’s refreshed defensive barracks. Acquiring the impressive defender without spending a penny on transfer fees makes this deal even more stunning.
At the other end, Smith comes in to bolster The Owls forward options and will certainly give them some real firepower this season. Alike, Ihiekwe, the striker was one of the league’s most notable performers last season, lashing 25 goals with 19 of those coming in League One. Smith also knows a thing or two about getting out of this division having also been promoted three times with Rotherham. The ex-miller can also be a handful in the division above, scoring 10 times the last time he featured in the Championship.
Standing at 6’3 ft, Darren Moore’s latest frontman will bring plenty of aerial and physical threat uptop and could well thrive off balls into the box from the likes of Barry Bannan. Boasting an overall impressive record of 52 goals for his previous club, Smith’s exit went down like a lead balloon in Rotherham and the striker will be hungry to make the move worth it by firing The Owls back to the second tier.
Colby Bishop (Portsmouth)
In the only all League One deal on this list, Colby Bishop made the switch from Accrington Stanley to Danny Cowley’s Portsmouth for a fee of around £500K. The 25-year-old forward has been a consistent performer at this level for some time now, hitting double figures for the last three years running at Accrington and could well beat his previous best tally of 11 at his new home.
With a total of 31 League One goals in 109 games for John Coleman’s side, Bishop possesses that goalscoring touch whilst also having much more to his game than simply putting the ball in the net with the striker having all the physical attributes to be a handful for any defence at this level.
Bishop turned down an offer of Championship football with Blackpool to sign for Pompey and has started his career at Fratton Park like a player capable of playing a step higher, having bagged four times in his first seven games in the league as well as a goal in the Carabao Cup at Cardiff helping the striker become a fan-favourite already.
The man who scored 28 times in 49 appearances for sixth tier Leamington loves getting on the end of balls into the box and supplied by the likes of Ronan Curtis, Michael Jacobs and Owen Dale, the number nine could be amongst the most prolific names in the division come the end of the season.
Alfie Mawson (Wycombe Wanderers)
In 2018 Alfie Mawson agreed a four-year-deal with Premier League new boys Fulham, completing a £20 million move. Who’d have thought the defender would be signing for League One Wycombe Wanderers at the end of that deal.
The once highly sought after centre back has struggled with injury over recent years, but at 28-years-old still represents quite the coup for Wycombe with Championship clubs including Stoke City linked with the player. Whether any concrete offers were made from the division above remains a mystery, and Mawson rejoins the club with whom he enjoyed such a productive loan in 2014/15, scooping fans and players’ Player of the Year awards as The Chairboys missed out on promotion via League Two playoff final penalty shootout agony.
Since then, Mawson went on to help Barnsley to promotion from League One in 2016, played Premier League football with Swansea before that big move to Craven Cottage where he also enjoyed a promotion season. Most recently, the 6’2 ft centre half made 11 appearances on loan at Bristol City and is hoping to reignite his career back at the club he had such a fantastic breakthrough season.
The former England under 21s international has 80 top flight appearances on his CV and if he can have an injury-free campaign could be one of the most dominant defenders in the division.