With League One not appearing as strong has it has done over the last few seasons, news.bwin.com/en/ assess the market leaders and looks at what the 2012/13 campaign has in store for promotion hopefuls Sheffield United, MK Dons, Swindon Town, Preston North End, Coventry City, Bournemouth, Brentford and Notts County.
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Title odds: 9/2 (7/4 for promotion)
Sheffield United have been installed as favourites for the League One title after missing out on promotion last season in the most heart-breaking fashion imaginable and all the indications are that the Blades will once again go close in a division that looks considerably weaker than in recent years.
Danny Wilson’s side lost the play-off final to Huddersfield Town in May after a 0-0 draw and a penalty shoot-out in which all 22 players still on the pitch took a spot kick: a bitter blow in any circumstances, but even worse when it was arch-rivals Wednesday who had initially pipped them to the second automatic promotion slot which seemed for much of the season would belong to United.
Former Swindon boss Wilson will no doubt feel that with Wednesday, Huddersfield and Charlton Athletic promoted last year and replaced by the finally-stricken Portsmouth, Coventry and Doncaster – all of whom seem unlikely to challenge – the Blades have a great chance to return to the Championship at the second time of asking.
However, there are slight question marks that must be addressed. Defensively, United must improve, as 51 goals conceded was the worst record in the top six, while ten defeats were also the most among the top half dozen teams. The 29 goals scored by the sacked Ched Evans must also be replaced and Shaun Miller, signed from Crewe, has much to prove at this level.
Given these questions, not to mention the unknown psychological effect of losing the play-off final in the manner they did, means that preference for the title lies elsewhere at the price, even if United are sure to be in the mix come May.
Title odds: 13/2 (5/2 for promotion)
MK Dons have been the nearly men of League One for four seasons now but there is enough evidence to suggest that 2012/13 will finally be the year promotion to the Championship is secured.
The Dons have contested the play-offs in three of the last four campaigns, in the last two years losing to the teams that were eventually promoted in Peterborough and Huddersfield. And with three very good teams no longer an obstacle due to their promotion last season, the stage is set for Milton Keynes to finally seize the moment.
Manager Karl Robinson has been backed by the club’s eccentric owner Pete Winkelman and the signing of Ryan Lowe looks a masterstroke: the former Bury hitman is a proven goalscorer at League One level and has been promoted in each of the last two seasons.
Only champions Charlton won more points on the road than the Dons last term, while the Addicks were the only side to concede fewer goals and with some experience added to the group in the form of Alan Smith and Antony Kay, not to mention a midfield that looks packed full of talent, the Dons should be backed at 5/2 to continue their journey by winning promotion to the second tier.
Verdict: Automatic promotion
Title odds: 8/1 (3/1 for promotion)
Paolo di Canio was the surprise choice as manager of Swindon just over 12 months ago, but the controversial Italian can enhance his already burgeoning reputation by landing back-to-back league titles with the Robins.
Many eyebrows were raised when the former West Ham maverick was appointed at the County Ground but bar the odd escapade, Di Canio has taken to management seamlessly and once he overcame some early teething problems his Swindon side were unstoppable as they were crowned League Two champions at a canter.
And the Robins have nothing to fear whatsoever from the step up to League One as the gap between the bottom two divisions lessens every year. Transfer business has been encouraging, with Di Canio swooping for some of the most consistent and reliable performers in the lower leagues over recent years in the form of Andy Williams and Alan Navarro, while Jim Collins is an exciting purchase from Shrewsbury.
But it is Swindon’s form at the County Ground that should be the basis of their challenge. The Robins posted a 19-3-1 home record last term, keeping an incredible 19 clean sheets and conceding just eight goals. There is no reason why that kind of form cannot continue against the division’s lesser lights and with Di Canio as the stimulating and inspirational leader, Swindon are the bet at 8/1 to land the League One crown.
Preston North End
Title odds: 10/1 (7/2 for promotion)
It is perhaps the presence of Preston North End as fourth favourites for the title that showcases the lack of quality in League One this year.
The Lilywhites finished 15th last season and there is not much to suggest that a vast improvement on that placing is on the cards. Graham Westley took over at Deepdale from Phil Brown last December with his reputation on the rise after taking Stevenage from non-league to League One, but his tenure so far has been defined by arguments with players, bizarre behaviour and disappointing results.
Westley has overseen a huge turnover of players – many of those who left were told they were being released via a group text message – and another muddled campaign looks likely. The sheer volume of new players means a good start is inprobable and that is before you get to the quality of the new arrivals, which is questionable at best.
Goalscoring was a problem at Preston last year – North End found the net just 54 times – with Westley yet to address that obvious weakness and you won’t find many worse ante-post bets than 10/1 on Preston for the League One title.
Verdict: Miss out on the play-offs
Title odds: 11/1 (7/2 for promotion)
Relegated Coventry City will be attempting to get back into the Championship at the first attempt, but their ambitions look set to be thwarted as the club’s financial position continues to hold the Midlanders back.
After years of treading water, the Sky Blues finally succumbed to relegation to League One last year and could spend their first season in the third tier for 48 years in mid-table obscurity. Boss Andy Thorn has seen many of his star names sold, with Gael Bigirimana and Richard Keogh among those moved on to balance the books, and the financial constraints imposed on Thorn make his job very difficult.
Having said that, there have to be question marks over Thorn as well: he hasn’t been dealt an easy hand, but he won just nine games all year and Coventry’s away record was abysmal – 16 defeats and just one win on the road all season is terrible by anyone’s standards.
There are some quite talented youngsters in the squad but those brought in this summer for little money do not inspire in the slightest (Kevin Kilbane is not going to mastermind a promotion push) and Coventry look every inch a mid-table side.
Verdict: Miss out on the play-offs
Title odds: 12/1 (4/1 for promotion)
In such an open title race, there are a few sides that perk some interest at double-figure prices and one of those is most definitely Bournemouth.
The Cherries finished in the middle of the table last time out with inconsistency their trademark, but after years of barmy ownership and tight finances, there are reasons to be hopeful at Dean Court.
For the first time in a few years, there is money being spent at Bournemouth and manager Paul Groves appears to be using it wisely. Torquay’s Eunan O’Kane, Rotherham’s Lewis Grabban and Milwall’s Josh McQuoid, who enjoyed a successful goalscoring spell at Dean Court 18 months ago, are all very good additions to a squad that looks stronger than some of their rivals who have been quoted at shorter prices.
Doubts over the largely untried Groves persist – the former Blackpool midfielder hadn’t previously held a managerial post since being sacked as player/manager of Grimsby in 2004 – but nonetheless Bournemouth are worth considering as they look to emulate their 2010/11 effort by reaching the top six and entering the uncertainty of the play-offs.
Title odds: 14/1 (9/2 for promotion)
Brentford are another side at a double-figure price for the League One title who are looking to make the play-offs and therefore appeal in the promotion market.
Former Manchester City striker Uwe Rosler was much trumpeted on his arrival at Griffin Park, but the expected play-off push never materialised as the German enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, first year in charge.
The Bees finished ninth but never really looked like getting in the promotion picture and their record against the better sides was the principal reason: Brentford won just two and lost 12 of their 22 fixtures against the other sides in the top half and a lack of cutting edge undermined their cause – their tally of 63 goals was the second least in the top ten.
But the signing of Farid El Alagui from Falkirk could make all the difference. The Moroccan has scored 56 goals in the last two seasons for Romorantin and Falkirk and his purchase from the Scottish club could be the missing link.
El Alagui has been equally prolific in pre-season and his presence makes Brentford an interesting proposition in what could be a very tense battle for the prized top six places.
Title odds: 14/1 (9/2 for promotion)
Notts County are the last of the interesting trio of clubs who go off at double-figure prices for the title – but they look great value to be promoted.
The Magpies finished the 2011/12 season in great form under the stewardship of Keith Curle, who won ten of his 17 games after taking over from Martin Allen at Meadow Lane – missing out on a play-off place by goal difference only – and all the evidence points to County continuing in that vein.
Curle has bought extremely well in the off-season, adding some proven lower league players in the form of defenders Gary Liddle from Hartlepool and Dean Leacock from Leyton Orient, as well as some extra firepower in Tranmere’s Enoch Showunmi and Francois Zoko of Carlisle.
Add Southampton goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski to the mix and County, already with some fine players at League One level, look extremely well equipped to carry on the form that made them the fourth-best team in the second half of last term and the 9/2 on the Magpies getting promoted looks like a value bet.
Recommended bet #1: Swindon to win League One @ 8/1
Recommended bet #2: MK Dons to be promoted @ 5/2
Recommended bet #3: Notts County to be promoted @ 9/2
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