Something unusual happened in League One in 2017/18.
All three clubs that had been relegated from the Championship at the end of the previous season were promoted immediately.
Although over the last decade there have only been two campaigns where none of the relegated sides went back up at the first time of asking, but the last time more than one former Championship struggler won immediate promotion was at the end of 2008/09, when both Leicester and Scunthorpe returned to the Championship one season after being demoted.
I think there’s a pretty obvious reason for why that happened in 2017/18. The only clubs that had been in League One in August 2016 (ie the season before last) that improved in 2017/18 were Charlton, Gillingham (yes, you read that correctly), Peterborough and Shrewsbury: the rest regressed. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s no surprise that Blackburn and Wigan returned to the Championship: Rotherham finished 21 points adrift at the bottom of the second tier having almost conceded 100 goals in 2016/17, but they were also promoted.
Or to put it bluntly, League One wasn’t very good last season.
On the face of it, being relegated from the Championship looks like good news for at least one of either Barnsley, Burton and Sunderland but I’d say it’s probably The Black Cats that have the edge. Looking back at the teams that have bounced straight back over the last ten years, Leicester, Norwich, Wigan (twice) and Wolves arguably shouldn’t have found themselves in the Third Tier in the first place and Sunderland probably shouldn’t be there this season. However, before anyone gets carried away, before 2017/18 began, Sunderland were 14/1 for relegation from the Championship.
The undeniable fact here is that in six of the last ten seasons, the League One title has been won by a team that was relegated at the end of the previous season. In the remaining four campaigns, the title was won by a club that had finished almost exactly in mid table: that’s the sort of improvement that Shrewsbury had last season, but with the clear decline in League One standards last season I’m not sure if we’re going to see that in 2018/19.
That brings us on to automatic promotion: and that’s no clearer either.
In six of the last ten seasons, teams that had spent at least one campaign in League One were promoted in second place and that includes two clubs (Brentford in 2014 and Leeds in 2010) that had reached the playoffs at the end of the previous season. The remaining four sides were split evenly between clubs that had been relegated from the Championship or promoted from League Two: I’d expect Coventry and Luton to peform better than Accrington and Wycombe, but I’d be surprised if any of the quartet of new arrivals won promotion. Using that criteria Burton seem like a logical choice, but this is also where Charlton might be worth following when the season starts. I’d also add Portsmouth and Plymouth into the mix, but there’s too much potential for yet another Peterborough implosion for me to take them seriously as potential promotion candidates.
As for the playoffs, right now your guess is as good as mine. Check back at Christmas 🙂
A little bit easier to predict. Half of the forty clubs relegated over the last decade had finished in the bottom half of the League One table at the end of the previous season with ten of those clubs having finished below 18th. AFC Wimbledon, Walsall and Rochdale all fall into that category: in 2017/18 The Saddlers went backwards at a rate of knots and could face a season long struggle against the drop. It’s also striking that eight of the sides that won promotion were relegated immediately: Wycombe Wanderers have achieved that twice since August 2008 – on both occasions they’d finished third in League Two, just like they did last season.
A few observations to conclude with:
Shrewsbury were a massive- and pleasant – surprise last season, but I’d be amazed if they can reach the playoffs again. They overachieved last season and with the departures of key staff and players I think they’re facing a season of mid table anonymity.
Appointing Joey Barton as boss was a big decision by the powers that be at Fleetwood and I’d give The Cod Army at least ten league games before making any decisions about Barton’s managerial prowess. I think they’ll be better than last season, but not good enough for promotion.
Plymouth to Sunderland is a six and a half hour drive: Hamburg to Brussels is a shorter distance.
I don’t think Steve Evans will be Peterborough manager at Christmas.
Scunthorpe will finish in the top eight again, but won’t win promotion. Again.
Sunderland v Charlton (Sky Sports Football, Saturday 12:30pm kick off) is the televised curtain raiser for the League One season: don’t forget that the Saturday evening highlights package is now on Quest TV.