After losing out in the play-offs in each of the past two seasons, 2014-15 finally proved to be the time for Burton Albion to gain promotion to the third tier for the very first time in their history. The Staffordshire side was able to keep the majority of their squad from those previous near misses, and under Gary Rowett they were the model of consistency right the beginning, establishing a commanding early lead at the top.
Form tailed off slightly before Rowett left to take charge of former club Birmingham City, paving the way for Premier League legend Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to take his first managerial role in England. And it did not take long for the Dutchman to adapt to the demands of League Two, following on from the fine work of his predecessors to eventually lead the Brewers to top spot, a thoroughly deserved accolade achieved with a week to spare.
Following them into League One are Shrewsbury Town, who in contrast made wholesale changes to their playing staff in the summer of 2014 after suffering relegation. New boss Micky Mellon guided the new-look team back up thanks largely to a superb home record and the Football League’s best defensive record, making up for an overall lack of flair by being very efficient. They even ran Chelsea close in the Capital One Cup, only losing to an own goal.
Pre-season favourites Bury grabbed the last automatic promotion spot on a dramatic final day, with a goal from experienced former Stoke City midfielder Tom Soares giving them the win they needed at Tranmere Rovers, while rivals Wycombe Wanderers and Southend United – who began the day in pole position – fell just short.
Wycombe, who avoided relegation to the Conference on the final day last season, had been in the top three for several months, but responded well to their near miss by seeing off the challenge of Plymouth Argyle in their play-off semi-final. The 5-3 aggregate victory came as a result of their superiority from set-pieces over the Pilgrims, whose defensive record was second only to Shrewsbury. The second semi-final between Southend and in-form Stevenage brought considerable drama, but the Essex club made it through a frantic tie after extra time, having previously missed a stoppage time penalty to win it.
The final at Wembley was a close game which looked to be heading Wycombe’s way after extra time, but a last-gasp Southend leveller took the game to penalties, which the Shrimpers won 7-6 as young goalkeeper Daniel Bentley saved twice. For Phil Brown’s side, it ends a five-year stay in the fourth tier.
Luton Town, promoted back to the Football League following a five-year absence in 2014, looked real contenders after a fine winning run from mid-September, only to lose their way in the final months of the season and even miss out on a play-off place. Newport County, who lost manager Justin Edinburgh in January, suffered the same fate, while Northampton Town and Exeter City – who improved significantly after a worrying start – were unable to match the consistency of the sides who eventually finished in the top seven.
The early pace-setters were Morecambe, but they could not quite maintain their form of the early weeks and ended up in a still highly creditable 11th, picking up a number of scalps along the way. While AFC Wimbledon were content with a mid-table finish, it was largely a season to forget for both Oxford United and Portsmouth, who expected much more than mediocre bottom half finishes. Pompey ran out of patience with manager Andy Awford as they came a disappointing 16th, while the only solace for Michael Appleton’s side was a strong late season run inspired by the goals of youngster Kemar Roofe.
In terms of the battle to avoid falling into the newly renamed National League for next season, Hartlepool United looked doomed from an early stage, and parted company with two managers by early December. Paul Murray, who replaced the sacked Colin Cooper, was shown the door after an embarrassing FA Cup loss to Blyth Spartans, so the North Easterners turned to the experienced Ronnie Moore, who dramatically led them to safety with a week to spare thanks largely to a run of four successive wins from mid-March.
At one stage Pools were 10 points adrift, so no wonder Moore described the escape act as his biggest achievement as a manager. By coincidence, that sensational run helped to relegate former club Tranmere Rovers, who suffered a second straight demotion and become the latest big club to slip out of the Football League. It will be tough for the Merseyside club to bounce back at the first time of asking.
Despite making a strong start, Cheltenham Town joined them. Two changes of manager could not save them as they badly lacked a goalscorer and barely won a match after the end of October, so thus their 16-year stay among English football’s top 92 came to an end. Barnet and Bristol Rovers are the sides who come up from the Conference.
The two unlucky sides lost a battle which involved a considerable number of sides, with poor defensive records leaving Carlisle United and Mansfield Town worried until a fairly late stage, Dagenham & Redbridge looked in danger until a strong run lifted them to mid-table, while York City just about got the wins they needed in the nick of time. Newly promoted Cambridge United faded along with Accrington Stanley, but were never drawn into a scrap.
And the U’s did show a glimpse of what League Two has to offer by taking Manchester United to an FA Cup fourth round replay. Next season promises to be even more competitive in the fourth tier, which always provides entertainment in abundance.
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