At the end of the 1990-91 season, the penultimate four-tier Football League campaign before the secession of the top-flight clubs, Division Four finished with only four points separating the champions Darlington from sixth-placed Burnley. Since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981 it remains the largest field engaged in the tightest race for automatic promotion when the 46th round of fixtures kicked off. But the way in which League One is shaping up this season as Europe's most excitingly competitive division threatens to surpass it for tension and drama. Before Tuesday night's 11 matches two points divide Sheffield United at the top from Bournemouth in sixth while Brentford are three points further back with two games in hand.
Four of the top six have renovated their squads using the free transfer market alone and Bournemouth, who also found the wherewithal to pay Championship Burnley compensation to secure the return of Eddie Howe as manager in October having won one of their first 11 games, stand apart as the division's biggest spenders. The £500,000 they paid for the Swindon winger Matt Ritchie in January took their spending into seven figures (partly offset by the sale of Scott Malone to Millwall in the summer) and had the beneficial corollary of further exasperating Town's manager, Paolo Di Canio, who claimed the deal had been done behind his back, adding to the catalogue of grievances that ultimately provoked his resignation last week.
Tranmere's Ronnie Moore and Yeovil's Gary Johnson are, like Howe, also enjoying their second spells as managers of their respective clubs. Neither of them need reminding of Robert the Bruce's spider – unresentful and cordial perseverance has been Moore's primary virtue after preposterously impatient sackings by Oldham, Rovers and Rotherham United preceded his return to Prenton Park last March.
Johnson also endured frustrating stints at Peterborough and Northampton before agreeing to return to Yeovil where the club's promotion to the Football League for the first time in 2003 and then to League One in 2005 naturally guaranteed him the heartiest of hero's returns.
The two meet at Huish Park at the weekend but before that Yeovil, fifth in the table, travel to Colchester on Tuesday night as the division's form team following a remarkable run of eight successive wins since defeat by Bournemouth on Boxing Day, a sequence that was finally ended when they drew with Doncaster on Saturday. The Glovers' goal in the 1-1 draw was scored by Paddy Madden, a £25,000 signing from Carlisle in January, as the Dubliner established a new club record by scoring in eight consecutive games and took his total for the season to 19 in 26 appearances. "The gaffer here lets us play with freedom," Madden said. "You make mistakes and he doesn't mind when you're working hard. Down here there's a great chilled vibe. The place is buzzing."
Tranmere Rovers, who headed the division at the end of five successive months before being overhauled by Swindon and Sheffield United during the past three weeks, made that trip to Colchester on Saturday where they stopped the rot of four defeats in a row by walloping the home side 5-1. Rovers, like Sheffield United and Doncaster, have picked up more points away than at home this season and Doncaster's 10 wins and four draws in 16 games away from the Keepmoat gives them the confidence that their recent blip under the new manager Brian Flynn – three draws and a defeat from their past four – will not undermine their early season achievements before Dean Saunders left for Wolves in early January.
Doncaster – a mess last season as they strove to stay in the Championship with expensive short-term recruits such as El Hadji Diouf, Habib Beye, Pascal Chimbonda and Marc-Antoiné Fortuné – have flourished with a less expansive and significantly less expensive transfer policy. David Cotterill, the Wales winger who joined from Barnsley on a free, has been a hugely influential figure, bringing with him the touch and vision he demonstrated during two years at Swansea under Brendan Rodgers.
Although Swindon are unbeaten in their two games since Di Canio's resignation and hope in the town remains that he may be tempted back, the loss of the Italian and his technical staff diminishes their chances of sustaining their push even if the visit of 22nd-placed Bury on Tuesday should not trouble them. The joint caretakers, Tommy Miller and Darren Ward, have the experience to hold the fort but both remain important players, vital to the promotion cause and should not be overburdened or distracted for long.
Indeed it was only when Danny Wilson divested himself of half his job as player-manager of Barnsley in 1996-97 that he won promotion to the Premier League during his third season in charge. It remains his greatest achievement in a 19-year management career during which he also spent three years at Swindon. When he was appointed as Sheffield United's manager in the summer of 2011, despite fans' protestations because of his past service with Wednesday, he almost confounded his critics at the first attempt – only losing one and drawing two of their last three games of the season deprived them of automatic promotion as they were leapfrogged by, of all teams, Wednesday.
Having sold their leading scorer Nick Blackman to Reading last month there were concerns that they would be unable to sustain their momentum. Last season, when their top scorer Ched Evans was jailed for rape in April, they had only those three games to play. Four victories from five games since Blackman's departure suggests, however, that the arch-pragmatist Wilson who won a hard-fought and fractious match at Dean Court on Saturday has more depth this season.
With a little over two months to go League One remains absurdly open. Frank Casper, who topped the Division Four table with Burnley in February 1991 but lost in the play-off semi-finals after the tightest race yet, would confirm to all six managers plus Brentford's Uwe Rösler, how much is at stake.
• This article has been amended since first publication