League Two Season Review 2015-16

They may have been plagued by off-field tribulations due to a tumultuous change of ownership, but throughout the 2015-16 season Northampton Town were a machine, powering past and reigning over all those who stood in their way. Having the look of a strong outfit from the start, they won the title at a canter and ended with a 24-match unbeaten run.

Manager Chris Wilder had been managing in League Two for several seasons without being able to sustain a promotion bid, but this time his charges were unstoppable and he had a big say in all of that; instrumental in hurrying the takeover proceedings and getting the best out players such as John-Joe O’Toole, whose attitude has been questioned often in the past.

There were also members of the squad who could produce moments of magic, most notably Ricky Holmes who came up with a number of spectacular strikes to help win tight games, but the Cobblers led the way from the beginning and never looked back following a winning streak that lasted 10 matches from the end of December.

Promotion was sealed on April 9, after which the attention turned towards who would join them in the third tier, and it was an enthralling race that went right to the wire, with free-scoring Oxford United eventually joining them after overcoming the challenges provided by their patchy home form. Third place was then between Accrington Stanley and Bristol Rovers, for whom Matt Taylor led the League Two scoring charts with 27 goals.

It would have been a famous achievement for both, with Accrington possessing one of the division’s lowest budgets and Rovers having only just returned from a season in the Conference and like Northampton boosted by the arrival of new owners. Stanley were in the running all season, while a strong final three months propelled the Pirates into contention.

Accrington had the advantage going into the final day as they led by two points going into a home encounter with Stevenage. A win was all they needed, but they could only manage a goalless draw and were left sweating with an inferior goal difference.

Bristol Rovers were at home to already-relegated Dagenham & Redbridge and fell behind early, only to reply within minutes. They then proceeded to miss a shed load of chances in a high-octane, intense and one-sided affair, but eventually in stoppage time at the end of the game a rebound fell kindly to left-back Lee Brown, who guided the ball into the empty net with his weaker right foot to spark joyous scenes at the Memorial Stadium.

It meant that Accrington had to pick themselves off the floor to contest the play-offs against AFC Wimbledon, who had a fine second half of the season to finish a comfortable seventh. Despite a comeback in the second leg it was not to be, so it was Neal Ardley’s side who went into the final against Plymouth Argyle.

For many months it had seemed as though the Pilgrims were certain to fill an automatic promotion spot, only to dramatically fall away. They got things together again in the play-off semi-finals as a late goal saw them deservedly get the better of a highly fancied Portsmouth side that was back on the up, but at Wembley they were totally nullified.

Though it was a match that provided little in the way of entertainment, AFC Wimbledon were always the superior side and two second half goals including a late penalty from the cult figure that is Adebayo Akinfenwa sending them up to League One for the first time in their short history and continuing their remarkable rise up the pyramid.

Akinfenwa was part of arguably the strongest collection of strikers in the division, which helped the Dons find the consistency that was lacking in their fellow competitors for a place in the top seven. Cambridge United were hotly tipped and Leyton Orient made a flying start by winning their first five games, but neither team could sustain such form.

Also in contention at times were Wycombe Wanderers who found goalscoring a problem, Exeter City who made a fist of it late on, Carlisle United who were much improved in Keith Curle’s first full season in charge, and Mansfield Town who were left to rue a poor start to 2016. Despite posting a top half finish, Luton Town badly underperformed and were never seriously in the mix.

At the other end of the table, settling the relegation issues proved to be much more straightforward as Dagenham and York City were both cut adrift and were virtually doomed to losing their Football League status from a relatively early stage, with managerial changes doing little to suggest a recovery would be forthcoming.

Only three other sides flirted with the drop, the most surprising of whom were Stevenage, a side that was involved in the play-offs last season but who appointed former England striker Teddy Sheringham with little success. Elsewhere, Newport County cobbled a squad together and were safe before a late slump, and Yeovil Town avoided a third straight relegation after club hero Darren Way took over as manager.

Along with Stevenage, the big underachievers were Morecambe, who despite a strong attack had League Two’s worst defensive record and sunk down the table during a woeful run after the turn of the year. Relegated duo Notts County and Crawley Town both endured difficult campaigns, while Barnet and Hartlepool United were both comfortable in lower mid-table.

All in all in was a very entertaining season in League Two; full of goals and a gripping promotion race. Next season has a lot to live up to, and it will include the return to the Football League of Cheltenham Town and Grimsby Town, both promoted from the Conference this year.

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