League Two may not be the most glamorous step of English football, but it sits proudly in the EFL. Several clubs in the Fourth Tier have rich histories, from former FA Cup winners to early-day Premier League clubs to the oldest club and stadium in the world.
It also happens to be the tightest division anywhere in Europe at the moment.
Incredibly, there are just ten points between leaders Notts County and 19th place Newport County. No team in the top 19 is more than a single point behind the team above them, and there is no gap between teams larger than three points in the entire division.
It's difficult then to cut off the leading pack from the rest, as there aren't quite 19 teams in the promotion race, at least not at the moment. In truth, about half of them look as though they might be in with a shout of at least a play-off spot.
Realistically, with games in hand taken into account, the top nine are all right in the thick of the promotion battle. If Swindon Town win their game in hand, they'll fire themselves up to third. Of course, this could all change in just a couple of weeks, but such is the beauty of a tight league.
So who is actually in the fight, and who are the early-season pretenders?
The new boys
League Two is often advertised as being a huge step up from the National League. The Fifth Tier of English football is probably the hardest to escape, but it’s equally as difficult to remain in the Football League having been promoted into it. At least, it’s supposed to be.
After their enthralling title battle last season, Wrexham and Notts County are both looking to secure back-to-back promotions.
Wrexham have started well, with 20 points and only two defeats from their first 12 games of the season. They are only four points off the top of the league, but in such a tight division, that puts them all the way down in seventh, only inside the play-off spots on goal difference. Notts however are flying.
After their play-off victory at Wembley last May, the Magpies have won 7 of their opening 12 games, scoring over two goals per game. Their main man Macauley Langstaff, who scored 42 goals in the National League last season, has 8 goals and an assist already in League Two, as County continue to ride the wave of their play-off glory.
It's worth noting that the two promoted clubs came into the season with completely different mindsets. Notts have bounced back to League Two after a shocking relegation in 2019, whilst Wrexham are enjoying the culmination of a rebuild which began after their relegation to the Fifth Tier in 2008.
Similar stories yes, but at the same time very different. County played in the EFL just four years ago, but this is a brand-new experience for most of the players and staff at Wrexham. For Wrexham to be competing well enough to be in the promotion picture is arguably even more remarkable than Notts topping the table early on.
Newly promoted or not, both Wrexham and Notts County are truly in the promotion picture. They could do with cutting down on the ludicrous scorelines such as County's 5 - 4 defeat to Colchester United and Wrexham's frankly ridiculous 5 - 5 draw at home to Swindon, but the ingredients are certainly there for both sides to go up again.
From despair to delight?
For very different reasons, both Stockport County and Gillingham have a lot of pain to overcome from the 2022/2023 season.
Gillingham were relegated to League Two in 2021/2022 having been in League One since 2013. Gills fans expected a quick response, but this turned out to be very unrealistic. Gillingham were in the relegation zone for large parts of last season, and even though they managed to finish 17th, it was still regarded as a wholly disappointing first season back in League Two.
Stockport County had almost entirely opposing fortunes. In their first season back up from the National League, they finished just four points off an automatic promotion spot. They made it all the way to the play-off final and led 1 - 0 against Carlisle United with just six minutes to play. But a late equaliser from Omari Patrick took the game to extra time and then penalties, where The Hatters lost 5 - 4.
So Stockport and Gillingham came into this season with plenty of weight on their shoulders, but nobody seems to have told either club.
Both sides sit in the automatic promotion places, with The Hatters just one point behind leaders Notts County and a point ahead of the Gills. Stockport are the classic example of a promotion team, simply doing well because they can defend properly, something hard to come by in the EFL.
Gillingham are a slightly more bizarre example. The Gills have a fantastic defensive record, conceding just 12 times in 12 games. Remarkably though, they have only scored 11 goals. What's even more incredible is that despite scoring just 11 times, they've won seven league games. They started their league season with four consecutive 1 - 0 wins, before finding the goals in September.
Overcoming such a disappointing 2022/2023 season is crucial for Gillingham this year, whether they end up achieving promotion or not. The Gills seem to have got their mojo back, playing far more competitive football than they were 12 months ago.
Similarly, Stockport County had the unenviable task of avoiding a post-play-off slump. Coventry City for example, beaten Championship play-off finalists, have won just three of their eleven league games this season. But Stockport are competitive once again, looking to avoid the ordeal of play-offs altogether by holding onto their automatic promotion place.
How important is winning?
Extremely important, right? Well, maybe not.
Mansfield Town and AFC Wimbledon have just nine wins between them, only two fewer than leaders Notts County have alone. But because of their outstanding defensive records, plenty of draws have been enough thus far to force their way into a play-off spot.
Mansfield have won just four times, but have drawn their other eight league games. They join Arsenal, Tottenham and Portsmouth as the only unbeaten sides in the top five tiers. The Stags have also survived up to Round 4 in the Carabao Cup and will host Port Vale in a repeat of the 2022 League Two play-off final.
The Stags will look to turn around what was a dark day at Wembley, doing down to ten and losing 3 - 0 to Port Vale, who have remained in League One since.
Wimbledon haven't been quite as extreme in their "park the bus" tactics. The Dons have won five and drawn six, losing only to Stockport County. Wimbledon have arguably got a bit of ground to make up though. The former Premier League side haven't beaten another team currently in the top half, but will face four of the top nine in the space of a month from November into December.
Both Mansfield and Wimbledon have a chance at promotion, make no mistake. But it's still early enough in the season that one good run of results can put a team in the top seven. There are improvements to be made if either side are to maintain their position in a play-off spot.
No clever title for this one, but Swindon Town have certainly had a clever approach to trying to get out of League Two; score lots of goals.
The Robins have scored 27 times this season, just one goal behind top scorers Crewe having played a game less. In just 11 games, Swindon have had two 2 - 2 draws, a 6 - 0 win, a 5 - 3 win and a 5 - 5 draw. Pundits will argue until they're blue in the face about how effective it is, but there's no denying their style is incredibly entertaining to watch.
With their game in hand away to 21st-place Colchester, Swindon will back themselves to continue moving up the League Two table in a bid to return to League One after relegation in 2021.
Manager Michael Flynn seems quite content prioritising goal scoring over game management and somewhat surprisingly it is working for the Robins. So often pundits say defending is everything, but Flynn and Swindon are playing brilliant attacking football and they're having fun doing it. That budding team spirit will be vital at the business end of the season if they are to go up.
Both Crewe Alexandra and Crawley Town have made positive starts to the season. They are two of four clubs locked on 20 points (along with Mansfield and Wrexham) but are under threat from Swindon and Morecambe, both of whom have games in hand.
These clubs give off the impression of a fast start that might not make the cut. Neither has been particularly tight defensively having conceded 20 (Crawley) and 21 (Crewe) goals respectively. In all likelihood, a serious promotion challenge will require a tighter defence, especially given the defensive excellence of Mansfield and Wimbledon for example.
Morecambe are another side who are up there at the moment but The Shrimps are woefully inconsistent. In 12 league games this season, they have not had the same result (win, lose or draw) in successive games. Great after a defeat but not so promising after a win.
Much like Crewe and Crawley, Morecambe will need to find far more consistency if they are to seriously challenge for a spot in League One.
Early season form is no less important than performing in April and May. That being said, the season is long in any of the three EFL divisions, League Two being no exception. Swindon, with a game in hand, haven't even played a quarter of their league games this season.
It remains to be seen who can hold on to a top-seven spot for the rest of the season, but the likes of Notts County, Stockport County and Swindon Town have looked especially determined so far this League Two season.