It’s nearly the halfway point in the football league and the top eight in League Two are separated by just seven points. The fourth tier of English football is renowned for being the tightest of all the divisions, with less of a financial gulf between the sides ensuring more of a level playing field. When Bristol Rovers were relegated from the division last season they were a mere 9 points off the top half, while at the other end, the top seven teams were all within 13 points of one another. This season is no different, and there are just 8 points between 1st and 9th. While some of the early season favourites – such as Portsmouth – have fallen away, there are still several teams in with a shout of taking the title, and Southend look a good bet at a very decent price to take the spoils.
The Shrimpers are currently in 5th in the league after a run of four straight victories, and are 4 points behind leaders Wycombe. They suffered the heartache of defeat in the play-off semi final last season against Burton, going down 3-2 on aggregate. In Phil Brown they have a very experienced manager, who tasted success at a much higher level when he took Hull to the Premier League. They were knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round in November by Chester, and having departed both the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and the Capital One Cup, they are left with nothing but the league to focus on. Brown has used the loan market well recently, bringing in the likes of Yeovil defender Jakub Sokolik and Northampton striker John-Joe O’Toole, while young midfielder Jack Payne has triggered a contract extension after starting 10 league games for the club. Brown has high hopes for the youngster, who has scored 5 goals in 17 appearances this season. They’ve come to form at a crucial time in the season, with the Christmas rush of fixtures just around the corner. They face tough games against fellow promotion hopefuls, Wycombe and Burton, in their next two fixtures, and positive results in those two can see the Essex club rise further up the table.
Shrewsbury – +275 with BetVictor
Shrewsbury were one of the early season favourites after relegation from League One last term. They were one of the most active sides in the transfer market in the summer, bringing in 16 new players along with new manager Micky Mellon. He will feel he has unfinished business in League Two, after being sacked by Fleetwood shortly after leading them to the division. He’s brought in some top level experience in former Stoke and Sunderland winger Liam Lawrence, and results have been good so far. They’re 3rd in the league, 2 points behind Wycombe, and are worthy favourites for the title.
Wanderers were tipped by many at the start of the season to struggle, but they’ve done the opposite and now sit proudly at the head of affairs with 38 points. They’ve been beaten just 3 times this season – less than any other team in the division – and have made people sit up and take notice. Manager Gareth Ainsworth had a tough time in the transfer market over the summer, but has got his squad performing well and they are there on merit. However, even in light of his club’s achievements this season, he admitted that he is still keeping one eye on the bottom half of the table, and will consider a top half finish as a success. Wycombe were close to going to the wall, and while the turnaround has been remarkable, question marks remain over whether they can sustain it for the rest of the year.
Luton were promoted from the conference last season and have started this campaign superbly to put themselves in third spot. Consecutive promotions have been achieved in recent years by Crawley and Stevenage, and Luton will hope to emulate their success. Their record so far has been built on the meanest defence in the division, as they’ve only conceded 12 goals in 19 matches, and that will stand them in good stead for an assault on promotion. This goes to further highlight the financial equality in League Two, and the Hatters have every chance of moving up another step on the ladder this year. However, at this stage the odds are plenty short enough for them to go on and win the title, and even a play-off position will be seen as a very successful year.
Burton lost out on promotion last season after losing the play-off final to Fleetwood, but that didn’t seem to affect them at the start of this season as they started with a bang. They’ve spent much of the season in and around the top three, and currently reside in 4th, just two points off the top. Recent form hasn’t been quite as good – they’ve only won 4 in 10 – but they remain there or thereabouts and are definite contenders for the title. The team is attempting to achieve a 3rd successive top seven finish, and it would be a disappointing year if they weren’t to at least qualify for the play-offs. Former top-level player and rookie manager, Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, has taken the reins after Gary Rowett took the vacant post at Birmingham, and things started well with two straight wins in his first two matches. Since then they’ve drawn one and lost one, and it remains to be seen if the ex-Chelsea player can galvanise a squad of players to the league title.
Beyond these teams, the likes of Bury, Plymouth and Newport are all within eight points of leaders Wycombe, and each could have a say in the title with a good run of form in the coming months. Plymouth and Newport may not have the squads to compete over the 46-game campaign, but Bury were another of the early-season favourites, and of the three, could be the biggest danger.
At the prices, Southend look a pretty decent bet, with most bookies offering 1/4 of the odds each-way for a top three finish.
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