Main challengers for League One promotion assessed as Sunderland target automatic success

Jack Ross and his Sunderland squad have departed for their summer break after the heartbreaking end to their first attempt at winning promotion from League One.

By Phil Smith
Tuesday, 11 June, 2019, 13:41
Sunderland manager Jack Ross.

They will be determined to make amends next time around but who are the early challengers for the top two in 2019/20?

We run you through the runners and riders at this stage….

The favourites

Sunderland have been made the early favourites to claim the League One title and should benefit from some element of continuity.

Stewart Donald has insisted that he believes in Jack Ross and crucially, that any change of ownership structure will not see a wholesale change in the club’s planning for next season.

The key, the Chairman has said, is turning those 85 points into something closer to 100.

That won’t be easy in another competitive division but the hope will be that the experience of this season, allied with some savvy new additions to improve Sunderland’s quality and athleticism, can give them a great chance.

The obvious early challengers are Ipswich Town.

They have endured one of the worst seasons in their history, with results under Paul Hurst and then Paul Lambert desperately poor.

But they bring much positivity into the new campaign, with fans squarely behind Lambert who has united them and their support and belief.

They have a handful of academy products who should thrive next season, particularly the immensely talented creative midfielder Andre Dozell.

Their financial situation is far from ideal but owner Marcus Evans remains committed and they have made a strong start to their summer rebuilding. Highly-rated Gillingham keeper Tomas Holy has already agreed to join on a free, with free-scoring Tranmere striker James Norwood expected to follow imminently.

A raft of signings from League One did not work this season but those players could star in the next campaign.

Portsmouth are unlikely to be far away as Kenny Jackett looks set to have another go at improving his impressive League One record.

They will be tough to beat again, though it seems unlikely that they will be able to keep hold of star players Matt Clarke and Jamal Lowe.

Clarke seems certain to join Brighton, with new boss Graham Potter scouting him personally during the play-off semi finals.

Lowe has been linked with a number of Championship clubs and how Jackett replaces them will be key, particularly given that Clarke’s first-choice partner Jack Whatmough will be out with injury until December at the earliest.

Of the other sides relegated from the Championship, Bolton Wanderers look in serious trouble. They will start with a 12-point deduction after entering administration and with new ownership still not in place, valuable rebuilding time is already being lost.

Rotherham finished fourth last time they were in League One and sealed promotion via the play-offs.

On a tiny budget and with a limited squad, they had an exceptional go at surviving in the Championship and with Paul Warne still in situ, they will be there or thereabouts next year.

Their home form last season was key and will be again next year. They always offer a set piece threat and will be tough to beat.

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There are doubts over the future of their key players, with Will Vaulks and Semi Ajayi certain to have second-tier suitors, but Warne has proven now that he can sensibly recruit players who fit the ethos of the squad.

The new Luton?

Luton Town built superbly on their League Two promotion this year and blew away the opposition during an extraordinary winter run.

No side in League One had a stronger identity or playing system, one that survived the departure of Nathan Jones to Stoke City.

Next season’s promoted side look mostly to have a rebuilding brief, with Bury currently in dire financial straits.

Tranmere Rovers will have much to do over the summer, though MK Dons do have Championship pedigree in the not too distant past.

One side that will be backed by many to make an impact is Lincoln City.

They have a number of immensely talented players capable of immediately stepping up to the next level, particularly star forward Bruno Andrade.

Should they hold on to their rising managerial star in Danny Cowley, as they are expected to, then they might be able to launch a push for the play-offs and beyond.

The possible contenders

Last season saw a significant gap from the top five to the chasing pack, but there were teams who showed in glimpses that they have the potential to threaten over a longer period.

Top of that pile is without question Burton Albion.

Sunderland took just one point from their two games against Nigel Clough’s side, who also had a number of impressive results against sides near the top.

On their day, they were as athletic and as dangerous as anyone.

Clough admitted that they suffered something of a relegation hangover at the start of last year, and a run to the Carabao Cup semi final was also draining. They will surely be more consistent in 2019/20, and Marcus Harness is a player to watch after some very impressive individual displays towards the end of the last campaign.

Coventry City played some of the best football in the division last season under one of the most underrated managers in Mark Robins.

They have the pace and quality in the final third to win plenty of games, though questions have to be raised given the ongoing uncertainty over the ownership and the fact that so many of their big performers were on loan from teams higher up the pyramid.

Peterborough United will almost certainly be play-off contenders again and have made an impressive early addition in signing experienced centre-back Mark Beevers from Bolton Wanderers. They will have a talented squad again but will have to make a big step up in consistency if they are to challenge.

Doncaster will be one to watch again should they hold on to John Marquis, though how they cope without loaness Herbie Kane and Mallik Wilks is a big question. One side who have the individual quality to thrive is Oxford United, whose 12th-placed finish last season was a poor reflection of their budget and attacking threat. In both games against Sunderland last season, their pace in the wide areas made life very uncomfortable.