It will be slightly unfamiliar territory for Tranmere when they kick-off the new season against Barrow on Saturday, with the club widely predicted to be heading for a mid-table or even lowly finish in the league.
That is according to a number of different websites and pundits who profess to know the granular detail of each of the 24 teams due to kick-off in League Two this weekend.
But then, how many of them put Stevenage and Carlisle among the promotion favourites last year? Probably none.
The interesting thing is, Rovers have headed into the last couple of seasons as one of the favourites, or at least a play-off candidate. Having a proven manager in charge in each of the last two years seemed to have glossed over the fact Tranmere’s recruitment had stunk and the squad was a long way from being one capable of mounting and sustaining anything like a promotion charge.
However, this summer, recruitment has actually been good. Rovers raided two of last season’s promoted sides for their top scorers in Luke Norris (14) and Krystian Dennis (21). They brought in a proven title-winning goalkeeper who was a mainstay of Forest Green’s impressive promotion team in 2021/22.
Wembley hero Connor Jennings has returned to add know-how, work rate and a goal threat going forward, not to mention, the likes of Jennings – as well as new captain Tom Davies – will drive high standards from teammates.
Sure, we’ve lost our two full-backs who were excellent, but in has come a Championship youngster with similar attributes (pace, strength, attacking drive) to fill the slot at left back while Lee O’Connor is likely to revert to his natural right back position. Not only has he become the most capped Republic of Ireland U21 player by playing in that position, he also has a senior cap in that role and was recognised in both the Man Utd and Celtic youth setups as a right back. He will be fine.
With a couple of players still to add, to many fans the team looks stronger and with more depth already than probably the last two seasons. If Rovers can land a player or two with some pace or creativity in the coming weeks, things could actually look pretty exciting.
Rovers, of course, have a rookie and unproven manager in charge – granted, that is a massive unknown, a risk too. Whether the team performs for Ian Dawes remains to be seen, but with the guidance of Nigel Adkins in the role of Technical Director, you cannot help but feel he won’t be short of the expert advice and experience that he is going to need at times this season.
So, what about the rest of the league?
Well, obviously, newly-promoted Notts County and Wrexham are high up on everyone’s list of teams expected to do well. Wrexham will be interesting; they’ll be without Paul Mullin for a couple of months now, and while they may move to replace him, you have to ask whether the rest of the squad is actually that good?
Notts County are an interesting one and have managed to secure most of their squad from last season to new or permanent deals. Added to that, signings such as Eddie McGoldrick are very impressive.
Of the rest, you’d expect Stockport to be up there again. MK Dons may have a go, but they will be an interesting case to watch, same with Forest Green.
Gillingham have a strong budget now and will compete up at the top end you’d have thought and their recruitment underlines that fact. They’ve already landed Jonny Williams from Swindon and currently have Macauley Bonne on trial with a view to a contract.
The likes of Mansfield and Bradford will make a real fist of it and be tough for anyone to face, before inevitably choking as usual in the final weeks of the season and dropping away.
Grimsby and Colchester are two interesting outsiders to watch out for. Grimsby were exceptional away from home last season and have done some clever business this summer. If they can maintain the away form while improving at home, they’re going to be a dark horse this season.
Colchester invested significantly to rescue their season last time around when at one point they looked guaranteed to go down. It will be interesting to see how Ben Garner gets on with a full pre-season under her built with the U’s.
Another team to watch could be Sutton United. Always a tough nut to crack and in and around the top seven at some point, Sutton have recruited well once again, with Omari Patrick probably the pick of their new recruits.
And so, what of the bottom end?
Two of the newly relegated teams could really struggle in what will be a very competitive division. Accrington and Morecambe may find things really tough, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them in the relegation scrap.
Harrogate may get drawn in, but they usually have enough quality to amass enough points to stay clear. Keeping star striker Luke Armstrong will help with that.
Crewe are shy of goals and experience and will face a tough campaign, while Newport County may also find the going incredibly tough this time around.