League One 2023-24 preview: the contenders, hopefuls and strugglers

Automatic promotion contenders

This time last year Derby County were hurriedly trying to put pieces together after a much-needed takeover and, although relief ultimately turned to disappointment after missing out on the playoffs on the final day, a tilt at the title looks a distinct possibility. Sonny Bradley, club captain at Luton last season, Curtis Nelson and Callum Elder are fine acquisitions in defence and Paul Warne’s side should be hard to beat. Portsmouth had the makings of a fine team but also fell short last season so after a busy summer – with 11 new faces, including Regan Poole from Lincoln – they look well-placed to challenge.

Bolton, who did make the playoffs and lifted the EFL Trophy, appear primed to continue their impressive trajectory under Ian Evatt, who led the club back into this division at the first attempt two years ago. Former loanees James Trafford and Conor Bradley are set to shine elsewhere this season but Nathan Baxter and Carlos Mendes Gomes look to be shrewd additions. Evatt, a minority shareholder of the club’s owner, Football Ventures, has suggested the division is weaker without promoted Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Plymouth. And Bolton, who had League One’s second-meanest defence last season, plan to seize the moment. Charlton, again under new ownership, have recruited well, with Harry Isted, Panutche Camará and Alfie May, all of whom have excelled at this level, joining a talented squad. Michael Hector, at centre-back, is another classy performer.

Michael Hector

Michael Hector has impressed for Charlton since moving from Fulham in January. Photograph: Alan Walter/Shutterstock

Playoff hopefuls

Barnsley have lost Michael Duff, their manager, Mads Andersen, their captain, and Brad Collins, their goalkeeper. Luckily Duff’s replacement, Neill Collins, the former Wolves defender who spent the past five years managing Tampa Bay Rowdies, can call on Luca Connell, who is staying put, while Andrew Dallas, a prolific striker, is an eye-catching recruit from Solihull Moors. Darren Ferguson is targeting a fifth promotion at Peterborough, who, typically, have dipped into non-league to recruit Ryan De Havilland from Barnet and Archie Collins from Exeter. That said, question marks over the futures of Ronnie Edwards and Jonson Clarke-Harris breed uncertainty.

Archie Collins

Archie Collins has moved to the Posh from Exeter. Photograph: Paul Marriott/Shutterstock

Ferguson is in his fourth spell at Posh and Neil Critchley his second at Blackpool. “I tried as hard as possible to find someone other than Neil,” was the owner Simon Sadler’s veiled compliment. Critchley led Blackpool to promotion two years ago and Kyle Joseph is one of several smart signings. There is a quiet evolution going on at Adams Park, where Matt Bloomfield, the Wycombe manager, has brought in his former teammate Richard Keogh, 36, and added Luke Leahy, a star performer for Shrewsbury. They will dovetail with three Premier League loanees, including Dale Taylor, who spent last season at Burton. It looks a promising blend.

Burton Albion have lost key players to rivals, including Terry Taylor to Charlton, but the uplift under Dino Maamria last season – they were the ninth-best team in the league after he was promoted to the top job – coupled with some smart-looking recruitment suggests the Brewers could be a surprise package, if they tighten up at the back. Bristol Rovers have added defensive nous in George Friend and James Wilson, the former Bristol City centre-back, to complement the returning winger Luke Thomas and forwards Scott Sinclair and Aaron Collins. Elsewhere, Lincoln City are also looking up under Mark Kennedy.

Oxford United endured a miserable campaign last season but, after staying up, Liam Manning, so impressive at MK Dons, will be determined to mount another promotion challenge. Rúben Rodrigues, the Portuguese forward who dazzled at Notts County, is one of the league’s most exciting new faces.

Relegation candidates

The lifting of the gloom did not last long at Reading, who are back under a transfer embargo, which limits them to signing players on a maximum of £1,400 a week, and will be unable to pay fees during this window or the next two. Then there is the looming hearing for failing to pay wages on time on three occasions last season, which could result in a points deduction.

A turbulent summer is rarely conducive to a happy ending and Andy Pilley being jailed for fraud is hardly the ideal backdrop at Fleetwood Town, though it is unclear quite how the owner’s 13-year sentence will affect the club in the short term. The picture has been anything but straightforward at Wigan, where a stop-start summer and an eight-point deduction for failing to pay wages mean Shaun Maloney faces an uphill task, with the defender Jack Whatmough terminating his contract a week before the start of the season.

Wigan manager Shaun Maloney

Wigan manager Shaun Maloney must galvanise a depleted squad after relegation. Photograph: Phil Oldham/Shutterstock

Paul Simpson was effectively walking on water after hoisting his hometown club Carlisle back into the third tier for the first time since 2014, but he will do well to exceed expectations this time. Port Vale and Exeter may find a second season at this level tough going, though the latter’s capture of Tom Carroll, the former Tottenham midfielder, is striking. Promoted Northampton look light in key areas but Leyton Orient, the League Two champions, and Stevenage appear to have assembled squads capable of staying afloat.

It is all change at Shrewsbury Town, despite their best finish in five years. The former Portsmouth defender Matty Taylor has replaced Steve Cotterill in the dugout and they have a new chief operating officer and director of football.

The impressive job Wade Elliott did to steady the ship at Cheltenham Town in his first season in charge was overlooked and the arrival of Curtis Davies, plus the return of Luke Southwood in goal, can help them steer clear of trouble again. It looks set to be a slog for Cambridge United, unless they can replace forwards Harvey Knibbs and Sam Smith, both of whom have joined Reading.

Three youngsters to watch

Kian Breckin, Wycombe, 19 The Manchester City teenager, part of the Under-21s team that won Premier League 2 last season, is tipped to shine after joining on a season’s loan. He scored eight goals for City’s development squad last season. The attacking midfielder is the son of the former Nottingham Forest defender Ian, who played with the current Wycombe midfielder Garath McCleary at Forest. “He said Garath nutmegged him in his first session and it didn’t go down well,” Breckin said.

Kian Breckin

Kian Breckin joins Wycombe on a season’s loan from Manchester City. Photograph: Ryan Browne/Shutterstock

Kacper Lopata, Barnsley, 21 Born in Krakow but raised in Bristol, where he played for a college team led by the former Leeds manager Dave Hockaday, the centre-back joined Brighton’s academy in 2018. Since then he has spent time in Poland and on the books of Sheffield United, Southend and, more recently, Woking. He terminated his contract at Southend in March after the club failed to pay players’ wages. Lopata has signed a four-year contract with Barnsley. He excelled at handball as a teenager.

Jake Rooney, Derby, 19 A cousin of Wayne Rooney, the versatile defender recently signed a new three-year contract. Rooney joined from Burnley, for whom he signed as a 14-year-old after starting his career at Tranmere. Warne, the Derby manager, asked his players to tell teammates about their journeys during pre-season. “I added a [presentation] slide that said: ‘If I mention my uncle, I will pay the gaffer €50,’” Warne said. “The slide came up behind him and everybody was laughing.”

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