After a 25-year absence, Newport County returned to the Football League in May with an extraordinary play-off final win over Wrexham. For a club who were wound up, reformed and exiled to Gloucestershire in the intervening years, it is a phenomenal and heart-warming achievement. What’s more, they actually look half-decent, and we certainly wouldn’t bet against them to carry last season’s winning form into League 2 and trouble the top 10.
With the likes of Portsmouth and Scunthorpe to compete with, automatic promotion may be beyond the Ironsides, but a play-off push is realistic. Even mediocrity will be an achievement of sorts, if only to show disaffected fans of clubs like Coventry and Barry Town that it is possible to overcome bleak times and restore some semblance of stability eventually.
Also in League 2, Oxford United seem determined to improve and Jonathan Meades is a terrific signing for them while everyone has a good feeling about Burton Albion, who are signing the types of players that a club of their history and stature really shouldn’t, illustrating a determination to build on last season’s promise. More power to Gary Rowett’s elbow.
A level up, we hope to see Chris Kiwomya’s Notts County doing well in League 1, with Danny Haynes bearing the hallmarks of a terrific acquisition while Walsall had an ecouraging 2012-13 and could surprise a lot of people – although they may just turn out to be this season’s Tranmere. Similarly if Brentford can shake off the agony of that defeat against Doncaster, Uwe Rösler’s assembly of a quietly impressive team should continue to bring progress – nabbing Will Grigg from the previously mentioned Saddlers will help.
Bradford City too look to be on the up while Preston North End may finally reverse their post-Moyes decline. Now they have removed the cancerous tumour that is Graham Westley and with Simon Grayson at the helm, we expect them to have a real impact at the top of the League 1 table. Their little and large strike force of Stuart Beavon and Kevin Davies will cause defenders real problems and Grayson may be more prepared to give the club’s promising youngsters a chance, rather than build Stevenage Mk II like Westley did.
In the Championship, supporters of two teams were especially pleased to see their favourites appear among our hot tips to do well in our club-by-club previews last week, only to grimace with distaste that their bitterest rivals were also touted. Derby County are Championship dark horses (perhaps very dark horses, though Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes are huge talents in midfield) while Nottingham Forest have some serious firepower and although there is a suspicion that much of the hubbub is unfulfilled, the return of perhaps their least flashy player, Chris Cohen, to action in 2012 after missing most of the previous season through injury is a constant while the squad changes all around him. Billy Davies knows what it takes to launch a challenge in the Championship and this year will be no exception.
Bolton Wanderers should have been challenging last season, but Owen Coyle was unable to arrest the downward slide the club had suffered since the FA Cup semi-final thrashing by Stoke City in 2011. The appointment of Dougie Freedman was greeted with scepticism by supporters, unsure whether this was a manager whose promising introduction to management was enhanced by his Palace links – but after a steady, but unspectacular start to his reign the club steadily climbed the table.
Missing out on a play-off spot on goal difference, on the final afternoon of the season, was probably not such a bad thing as it’s arguable that both team and manager were not quite ready for the final push. Now, after a full pre-season with his team, some useful squad additions in Alex Baptiste, Jermaine Beckford and the potential for a full season contribution from influential midfielder Chung Yong Lee although not, sadly, the desperately unlucky Stuart Holden, the Wanderers look set for a promotion push in 2013-14.
We’d also like to think that Bournemouth could surprise a few people, but much will demand on whether they get outmuscled by bigger, stronger sides, while tipping Watford is hardly a bold prediction, given how hard it really is hard to see past the Hornets in the Championship. Not only have they retained and permanently signed most of their Udinese and Granada loan players, they’ve added a few more. With a year’s integration behind them, they should hit the ground running and will take some stopping.
For sheer entertainment value in every respect however, both on and off the pitch, you can’t really look any further than QPR.