The big opportunity League One presents to Portsmouth this season
Kenny Jackett’s assessment was as diplomatic and measured as ever.
‘It’s a strong league,’ he said when assessing this season’s League One. ‘I feel it’s an open one and, as ever, a really competitive division.’
The Pompey boss then went on to politely swerve the request for predictions over the identity of the likely candidates for promotion, when delivering a message to supporters in this season’s pre-season Sports Mail special.
The rest of us, however, aren’t bound by the same constraints as the man who knows only promotion can be seen as success in his third season at the Fratton helm. Nor will our words be as readily used as motivational fodder by his rivals (though they actually have on occasions in the past).
So, here goes: This season, through these eyes, isn’t a particularly strong League One. In fact, it’s one which presents a huge opportunity to Jackett and his players.
Yes, it’s an open league and indeed it looks likely to be competitive. But Pompey are unlikely to get as decent a chance to finish in the top three as this for quite a long time.
It’s true, even a cursory glance at the field informs you this is terrain scattered with booby traps and pitfalls. A Steve Evans side in Gillingham ready to be an unfashionable surprise and kick everyone in the proverbials. Two new upwardly-mobile new boys in MK Dons and Lincoln happy to be dismissed before biting us all on the backside.
But there’s much loaded in Pompey’s favour. And they quite simply have to take advantage of the factors going for them.
For a start, it’s unprecedented for two clubs entering the third tier to start with a points deduction and in such disarray. And one of them, in Bolton, would ordinarily be one one of the strongest contenders for promotion having arrived from the Championship. They along with Bury begin on minus-12 and counting, with the league deeming it necessary to bar the latter from starting the season, at present
That pattern of the three sides being relegated from the second tier tending to bounce back well has been highlighted by Jackett, with five of those nine sides doing so across the past three seasons.
This year, however, there’s no Wigan or Wolves looking likely to blow away the rest of the field. Ipswich are a name but look like a club in transition after 13 players departed and the Tractor Boys looking to young talent for the season ahead.
Rotherham have regenerated, are nobody’s fools and the suspicion is they’ll be right in the mix but the fact the oddsmakers have both Sunderland and the Blues ahead of them is an indicator there’s no obvious powerhouse arriving into the division this time.
It’s Pompey’s familiar foes who’ve assumed position of clear favourites for the title once again. And quite right, too.
There’s been a trio of occasions this summer a side’s transfer business has caused admiring glances - and two of them were cast in Sunderland’s direction.
Jordan Willis was a defender seemingly headed for the Championship until he was tempted to the Stadium of Light, while Marc McNulty’s quality needs no introduction to Pompey fans. His 28 goals for Coventry the season before last is an indicator of the damage he can wreak.
So expect Sunderland to be right back in the mix, with a side with their budget and fan base quite rightly favourites with the bookies.
Mo Eisa’s move to Peterborough from Bristol City for a record fee in excess of £1.25m in June also saw a favourable eyebrow or two raised, with Darren Ferguson doing frenetic, early business. The Posh clearly are making a concerted push for a top-three spot.
Of the rest, Coventry look a club ready - on the pitch anyway - to push for a top-six spot. If Mark Robins’ side can put all the extraneous noise and distraction of playing home games at Birmingham to a side they may be a threat.
It’s off-the-field issues which may also be an issue for Fleetwood who possess the players and spending power to improve if Joey Barton can keep the long arm of the law at bay, as he answers to assault charges in October after that incident at Barnsley last season.
Everyone saw what impetus can do for a club as Luton took the momentum from promotion to the division and ran through it into the Championship.
MK Dons and particularly Lincoln may be capable of having a similar impact. Jack Payne looks a shrewd addition for the Imps, who will revel in their underdog status and, no doubt, cause a few upsets along the way with John Akinde bashing up defences.
But at the dawn of the new season the demand from Jackett and those who follow his side is to make continued improvement. And after going so close last season that means only one thing.
And at the third time of asking, there may not be as big a chance to make it happen this time around for a fair while.