After five years of seeing pre-season optimism fade away into increasing depths of mediocrity, supporters of Sheffield United awaited 2016-17 with bated breath as their side again approached a campaign as favourites for promotion under another highly regarded new manager.
This time it was self-confessed Blades fan Chris Wilder who took over the reins following the bitterly disappointing tenure of Nigel Adkins. Fresh from leading Northampton Town to a storming League Two title success, Wilder soon introduced a 3-4-3 formation, which would eventually turn out to be the most effective in the division.
After a slow start which saw the club languishing in the lower reaches of the table, they soon became an unstoppable force. As the months passed by, the wins just kept on coming as Sheffield United soared to 100 points by the final day, agonisingly ending six painful years in the third tier.
Key to their success were the goals of experienced striker Billy Sharp, whose poaching prowess shows no sign of stopping. Wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty were a constant threat, while creativity came in the shape of deep-lying playmaker John Fleck.
The second automatic promotion place was less nailed on. Inspired by the performances of midfielder Josh Morris, Scunthorpe United topped the table for much of the first half of the season, but a run of seven defeat in 10 from late January meant they had to be content with a play-off place.
Having dropped down to League One, Bolton Wanderers were always in contention but were prone to inconsistency, and Fleetwood Town were the surprise package, showing great tenacity throughout the season despite manager Uwe Rosler only taking charge three days before their opening match.
The two clubs from Lancashire of contrasting stature jostled for position as the race hotted up, but Bolton managed to pull clear with a succession of wins from the middle of March, with promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt secured on the final day.
Fleetwood had to make do with the play-offs, where they would face a Bradford City side that spent the entire season in the top six and were very tough to beat, but whose bid for automatic promotion was constantly undermined by a succession of draws.
The final place in the play-offs was highly sought after, but it was Millwall who emerged triumphant thanks to a dramatic victory on the last day of the regular season to hold off the brave challenge of Southend United, who had surged up the table following a poor start where a relegation battle looked on the cards.
All four sides to have made the play-offs looked fairly evenly matched, so it was no surprise that each game was a close affair. But in the final reckoning, Bradford always had the edge over Fleetwood, while Millwall triumphed by the odd goal in five at Glanford Park following a goalless first leg with Scunthorpe.
The final was an absorbing contest despite a lack of clear chances, but Millwall grew stronger as the second half wore on and Steve Morison was in the right place to grab the winner five minutes from the end, lifting the Lions back into the Championship after two seasons away.
Perennial entertainers Rochdale were in with a shout of making the top six going into the final day, but fell short to finish ninth behind Oxford United, who were the best of the sides promoted from League Two in 2015-16. In a marathon campaign, Michael Appleton’s side also reached the fifth round of the FA Cup and the final of the EFL Trophy, losing out to Coventry City.
Bristol Rovers had their sights on what would have been a sensational third straight promotion and remained in the play-off race until the closing weeks, achieving a highly respectable top-10 finish. Inconsistent Peterborough United and away-day specialists Milton Keynes Dons – where Robbie Neilson replaced Karl Robinson as manager – completed the top half.
Shortly after leaving the Dons, Robinson resurfaced at Charlton Athletic, who endured a difficult and often dismal season amid continued discontent towards owner Roland Duchatlet. Walsall were mid-table most of the time, AFC Wimbledon were comfortable throughout despite a poor finish, while Northampton Town kept their heads above the water successfully after a promising start descended into turbulence.
The relegation battle was engrossing, although even divine intervention would not have been enough to save a Chesterfield side that looked increasingly out of its depth and finished last behind Coventry, whose trophy success was mere consolation as their nightmare 21st century plunged to new depths, with protests an all too frequent occurrence at the Ricoh Arena.
Swindon Town paid the price for poor recruitment and a management structure that flummoxed even the fans, but the other relegation place was far from assured. A change of manager eventually worked in favour of Oldham Athletic and Shrewsbury Town, and after a terrific start was followed by a horrific 12-game losing run, Bury just about had enough to save themselves.
It ultimately came down to two clubs that had begun well but then proceeded to fade dramatically. Port Vale‘s home record saw them among the pace setters in mid-October, but a complete loss of form cost manager Bruno Ribeiro his job, as was the case with Justin Edinburgh at Gillingham.
In the end, Gillingham managed to cling on, mainly thanks to the failings of others. That meant Port Vale’s four-year stay in League One would come to a close, as a result of just three wins from the beginning of January, and a shocking away record which included just two victories.