After four years of purgatory involving penury, three relegations, byzantine ownership wrangles, redundancies, a seemingly ceaseless turnover of staff and farcical legal interventions, the good guys won at Portsmouth. Small wonder, then, that optimism is in the air following the takeover by the Portsmouth Supporters Trust that made Pompey the biggest community-owned club in England. More than 10,000 season tickets have been sold and they have been established all summer as the favourites for promotion, as short as 10-11 to go up and 4-1 for the title with some firms. While they have every justification to feel relief, elation and confidence for the future, their immediate prospects on the field are not necessarily as rosy as their odds suggest. Guy Whittingham, the manager, has impressed with the sincerity of his dedication and the calmness of his approach but even given that circumstances were desperate and the club were forced to field 45 players over the league season he won only five of 30 games. Eleven new players have been recruited to join the few survivors from relegation and while Joe Devera and Tom Craddock look solid acquisitions and Romain Padovani and Ryan Bird are intriguing gambles that may pay off, much will depend on the captain, Johnny Ertl, to both shore up the defence and drive the midfield on and David Connolly to find the net. A play-off place at this stage looks a more sensible punt.
Chesterfield's late-season surge took them from 14th and 11 points behind the play-off pace with 12 games to go to finish eighth, missing out by two points, and they have strengthened an improving, dependable squad considerably by signing Jimmy Ryan, Ritchie Humphries, Eoin Doyle and the League Two transfer coup of the summer Gary Roberts. The manager, Paul Cook, favours a fluent, attacking style and his signings promise to bridge the gap between narrowly falling short in May and automatic promotion next spring.
On the face of it Fleetwood's decision to sack Micky Mellon in December when the promoted side was seventh after 20 games of their debut Football league season and replace him with Graham Alexander who won seven of the remaining 26 matches as Town finished 13th was an impulsive error. But relations between Mellon and his chairman, Andy Pilley, had reportedly been wrecked by the manager's ambition to move to Championship clubs and Pilley, despite his disappointment at the way the season fell apart, has backed Alexander's overhaul of the squad. Fifteen players have left and nine brought in, among them Jeff Hughes from Notts County, a fine attacking midfielder, the blisteringly quick winger Matty Blair from York City and the busy defensive midfielder Stewart Murdoch from Falkirk. They look to have a more youthful and energetic squad and Alexander has been given the resources to repay his chairman's faith.
Burton Albion finished fourth last season, two points behind Port Vale, and were propelled up the table by the division's best home record that deserted them in the second leg of their play-off semi-final and knocked them out after they had done the hard work and defeated Bradford City 3-2 at Valley Parade. The forwards Jacques Maghoma and Calvin Zola who scored 26 goals between them last season may have left but they have hung on to the coveted finisher Billy Kee and recruited the bustling, powerful Rene Howe, a throwback target man from Torquay. If Lee Bell and Zander Diamond repeat the excellent form of their debut seasons for the Brewers, Gary Rowett's side ought to end their fifth successive season in League Two with promotion to League One for the first time.
Cheltenham Town lost the play-off final in 2012 and were knocked out of the semi-finals last season but the departure of the midfielder Marlon Pack, in the PFA's League Two team of the season for the past two years, has left a hole. Matt Richards, the former Ipswich and England Under-21 midfielder, most recently with Shrewsbury, seems a reliable replacement. If Jermaine McGlashan can continue to create chances then Jamie Cureton signed from Exeter after scoring 21 goals in this division last season can still convert them in golden boot-bothering quantities even though he turns 38 at the end of August.
The return of Keith Hill after 18 months at Barnsley has galvanised Rochdale but they still look a signing short of a genuine challenge for top-three place spot. The sale of Bobby Grant to Blackpool and Ashley Grimes's transfer to Bury has only been partially been offset by the recruitment of Scott Hogan who looks raw but capable out wide, the winger Matty Done and the rangy Peter Vincenti, but a more experienced forward is still required.
The past 10 years for defeated League Two play-off finalists provides an unhappy precedent for Northampton Town as none recovered to win promotion the following season and none of them were as comprehensively beaten so soon during the final as the Cobblers were by Bradford in May. Although the retirement of Clarke Carlisle and Adebayo Akinfenwa's move to Gillingham have deprived the club of their two highest profile players, Aidy Boothroyd's system is dependent more on the collective than the individuals and Roy O'Donovan and Clive Platt suit his strategy. Under Boothroyd Town will always be adequately durable; the question remains whether they will be penetrative enough. That would seem to depend on late signings.
York City are this author's shot in the dark after winning four and drawing the other of their final five games last season to move from 23rd place and three points behind Barnet to 17th and four points ahead of the relegated Bees. A hunch says they ought to kick on, but this will be a predominantly new side under Nigel Worthington who has signed a long-term deal after his temporary salvage job. Richard Cresswell has followed his manager by extending his stay and joins Ryan Bowman, Ryan Jarvis and even a few forwards not called Ryan at the club. With Northern Ireland, Norwich and Blackpool Worthington was very much a disciple of Howard Wilkinson with a pragmatic approach switching between 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 that, if he has recruited sensibly, should give them the solidity to exploit their attacking talents.
In his third spell at Scunthorpe United Brian Laws has come down on the side of experience as one always guessed he would, clearing out 12 players since their relegation from League One and signing the left-back Andy Dawson, 34, from Hull, Chris Iwelumo, a year older, from Watford and Deon Burton who will be 37 in October. It may work – one last blag by a veteran crew – but though the defence looks tight the midfield, after the sale of the vibrant Mark Duffy to Doncaster, may lack creative flair.
Bristol Rovers are a national enigma never mind a League Two conundrum and really ought to be a contender but still look too light though John-Joe O'Toole, having turned last year's loan into a three-year contract, has the talent to be among the division's best midfielders and the 19-year-old forward Ellis Harrison has the energy and vision to run defences ragged.
The two promoted sides, Newport County and Mansfield, should consolidate, though the former's tight budget has restricted Justin Edinburgh to signing two players from Oxford, Harry Worley and Adam Chapman, and Chris Zebroski, the nomadic forward from Eastleigh. But hanging on to Aaron O'Connor has been a major boost. Where County held on to their top scorer O'Connor, the Stags failed with Matt Green signing for Birmingham City and they need a centre-forward urgently. Much will hinge on the loan market.
Oxford United seemed to be well-positioned to take the next step towards a concerted push for promotion but have trimmed their squad. The signing of striker Dave Kitson on a two-year contract suggests that Chris Wilder is banking on Kitson's partnership with James Constable, and a strengthened defence, to push on.
Bury have new owners and hope to have put their financially torrid past behind them, declaring their optimism by signing 14 players and letting 16 go. The midfielder Andy Procter hardly enamoured himself to the fans at Preston but has experience at League Two level with Accrington while Kevin Blackwell has followed his traditional policy of taking prospects from top clubs' academies but will he actually put his faith in them and gives them a run in the first-team. Gareth Roberts, a dependable veteran signed from Derby is, at 35, closer to Blackwell's usual template.
John Sheridan was at his diligent and canny best when taking over bottom-placed Plymouth Argyle in January and leading them to safety with 28 points from 19 games, but after so much turmoil Argyle's supporters would be forgiven for rubbing their hands at the prospect of a first drama-free season for years while the team and club is methodically rebuilt.
Exeter City are to be commended for cutting their cloth according to their income and in Paul Tisdale they have a manager who uses the club's money as shrewdly as he would his own. Repeating last year's 10th looks a stretch with such a young squad and, though Sam Parkin, signed from St Mirren to replace Cureton, had a prolific spell at Swindon he has scored 30 league goals in the eight years since he left Wiltshire.
Southend United hired Phil Brown with eight games to go to lead them from ninth into the play-offs and win the Football League Trophy final. But they were defeated by Crewe at Wembley and he won one league game finishing 11th. The defender John White has been signed to replace Ryan Cresswell but the loss of Britt Assombalonga and Gavin Tomlin and their 28 goals last season means the cracks will be all the more evident.
Dagenham & Redbridge picked up a mere 10 points from their last 14 games of the season and survived in League Two on goal difference only because Barnet were defeated by Northampton on the final day. Brian Saah, a useful centre-half signed from Torquay, both reinforces their defence and diminishes a relegation rival's but Wayne Burnett has problems in attack and midfield that have not yet been addressed satisfactorily.
Neal Ardley won 12 of his 38 games in charge of AFC Wimbledon last season and finished in 20th place after the previous season's 16th. He says he's placing greater emphasis on playing out from the back and keeping the ball and admits his evolving squad and tactics are "a work in progress". Andy Frampton, the defender signed from Gillingham, will bring experience and authority and the quick, direct winger George Porter, on loan from Burnley, should give them more thrust but Ardley's other signings all have points to prove.
Fifth and losing play-off semi-finalists in 2012 Torquay United were undermined by the sales of Bobby Olejnik, Eunan O'Kane and Mark Ellis last season and, with manager Martin Ling absent with a stress-related illness, they ended in 19th, two points ahead of relegated Barnet. Under Alan Knill, elevated from the caretaker role he took in February, the exodus continues. Ryan Jarvis, Rene Howe, Brian Saah and Ian Morris have gone and though Elliot Benyon impressed on loan last season and has returned for a third spell on a two-year deal, the elastic band seems to be stretched to snapping point.
Victories over Morecambe, Oxford and Aldershot in April gave Wycombe breathing space last season. Joel Grant, who scored 19 League Two goals, has gone to Yeovil and Gareth Ainsworth hopes that Jon-Paul Pittman, Paris Cowan-Hall and Steven Craig, who hit 12 goals in Partick Thistle's Scottish First Division title-winning campaign, can make up for his departure but with the player-manager having hung up his boots one wonders whether they will find anyone to replicate his sparky leadership.
Only Accrington, Dagenham and Morecambe had average home attendances below 2,000 last season and the consequences of a 27% fall in two seasons for Jim Bentley's Shrimps is a significantly reduced squad. Gary McDonald, Nick Fenton and Will Haining started 110 games between then last season but they all turned down pay cuts to stay, and the manager has been forced to wager the season on youth and the hope that one of his five free transfers from Lancashire clubs (two from Bury, one each from Stockport, Macclesfield and Bolton) makes the difference for a cash-strapped club.
Hartlepool have a new management team in the former Middlesbrough duo Colin Cooper, playing the Brian Clough role 48 years on from Old Big 'Ead's arrival at Victoria Park, and Craig Hignett as his Peter Taylor. They have made one signing so far, the winger Jack Compton from Colchester who joins his 11th club in five years, and seem to be planning on giving the squad who finished a comfortable 13th in League One two years ago a chance to redeem themselves. If they revitalise Antony Sweeney and attract a couple of resilient loan signings they should be well-placed to make a promotion push next season but not this.
Although James Beattie is still registered as a player with Accrington Stanley and is in theory the sole player-manager in League Two he says he will concentrate on management this season. He will have to be an instant success to have much hope of saving Stanley from the drop. They were three points clear of relegation last season, have seen Lee Molyneux go to Crewe, leading scorer Rommy Boco to Plymouth and Aiden Chippendale to Bury and their only signing of note is the former Bolton right-back Nicky Hunt.
Players to watch
Gary Roberts (Chesterfield)
The left-winger helped Huddersfield into the Championship in 2012 and almost made it successive promotions with Swindon last season. He is a genuine matchwinner with an armoury of feints and tricks who is playing at a level at least a division below his talent.
Jeff Hughes (Fleetwood)
Another who should at least be a League One regular, Hughes was Notts County's top-scorer as a an attacking left-sided midfielder in 2011-12 and, although he tailed off last year and managed only seven league goals, he seemed to be back to being good enough to play in the Championship again after a chastening season with Crystal Palace six years ago.
Ian Sharps (Burton Albion)
Voted in the League Two PFA Team of the year for three successive seasons, the 32-year-old centre-half joined Albion on loan last season and quickly established himself as a dominant force at the back and a natural captain. Ryan Cresswell's move from Southend to Fleetwood also caught the eye among centre-backs on the move.
Ryan Bowman (York City)
Scored 15 goals for Hereford in the Conference last season and has the pace, energy and tenacity to succeed on his return to league football after dropping down the pyramid. He is an industrious soul, finishes well and has the appetite and ambition that make him an ideal acquisition.
Ricky Holmes (Portsmouth)
Moved to Fratton Park from relegated Barnet where the 26-year-old enjoyed a very promising couple of years as a winger or support striker. At his best behind a centre-forward and running at defenders he has had spells when he has looked unplayable. Edgar Davids preferred him playing as a right-footed left-winger because he cuts in and crosses so well, but he seems most likely to flourish playing off a proper No9.