This was a season that, above all, demonstrated powers of recovery. Three clubs that have undergone some extremely testing times in the recent past emerged from the gloom and disappointment to gain automatic promotion to League One as reward for showing by far the greatest degree of consistency in a highly competitive fourth tier.
As recently as 2010, Portsmouth were in the Premier League and participating in the FA Cup final, but a series of financial woes and frequent changes of ownership led to the club suffering a demoralising three relegations in four years, and in three previous attempts they had failed bounce back.
They clearly possessed the best squad in League Two, but a smattering of poor results meant that automatic promotion was far from a certainty. The turning point came when they lost 3-0 at Stevenage in March, as Paul Cook’s side would go on to drop just two more points and end up claiming the title ahead of the two sides which seemed odds on to contest the crown.
Yet there was never any doubt that Plymouth Argyle and Doncaster Rovers would be going up. After relegation in 2016, Doncaster rebuilt efficiently and the goals of John Marquis helped them top the table for the majority of the season, with promotion sealed with weeks still to spare.
However, a poor finish would see them slip behind the dockyard duo, with Plymouth showing superb resilience to cruise over the line after losing in the play-off final last time around. As well as taking Liverpool to a replay in the FA Cup, Derek Adams’ close-knit side were a highly effective unit capable of winning many a tight game.
If the destination of the automatic places was fairly easy to predict, forecasting which four teams would contest the play-offs was anything but, as numerous sides experienced contrasting periods of form and seemed to suffer from a bout of vertigo whenever they managed to breach the top seven.
Luton Town were the only team capable of holding their form together to any reasonable degree throughout the season, and deservedly finished fourth. Exeter City responded from a terrible start to put together an imperious sequence of results which eventually provided the platform to book their place in the play-offs.
Those two spots were confirmed with a week to spare, but on the final day there were seven teams in with a shout of claiming the two remaining places. Carlisle United looked for a long time like they would comfortably achieve automatic promotion, but after losing just once up until the turn of the year, they suffered a total loss of form amid a catalogue of injuries and just about managed to maintain a play-off berth thanks to a final day comeback at Exeter.
Blackpool lacked consistency for long periods of the season, but came good towards the end to finish seventh, ahead of a succession of teams that were left bitterly disappointed. Colchester United sunk to second bottom in November, but a dramatic improvement saw them fly up the table, but a lack of away wins ultimately cost them.
Wycombe Wanderers and Cambridge United were also slow starters, but rose up the table steadily to put themselves in the mix, only to miss out despite the goalscoring contributions of Adebayo Akinfenwa and Luke Berry respectively. Stevenage went on a club record run of eight straight home wins to climb as high as fourth, but a failure to win any of their last six outings cost them dear, while an eye-catching Mansfield Town side also came up short.
Once the play-offs got going, it was non-stop entertainment as both semi-final ties contained 11 goals apiece. Both were also decided by last-gasp winners, as Exeter finally found the telling blow to see off spirited Carlisle, while Blackpool came through a topsy-turvy affair against Luton in a match that swung both ways.
It all set up a potentially free-flowing final, where Blackpool – despite a boycott by many of their fans – came out on top to ensure a swift return to League One. It was a tight affair where Exeter deservedly pulled level on half-time, but the Tangerines were the more dangerous side after the break and so delivered some delight after three punishing years.
After missing out on promotion in heartbreaking fashion in 2016, Accrington Stanley took some time to get over their disappointment, but finish strongly. Grimsby Town and Barnet both parted company with two managers over the course of the season, although neither drifted too far from mid-table after promising starts.
It was another season of turbulence for Notts County, who were fancied to do well, but ended up needing the impact of new boss Kevin Nolan to steer them clear of danger. Crewe Alexandra‘s youthful side showed promise, but provided supporters with their fair share of frustration, and at one stage Morecambe looked like dark horses for the play-offs, only to fade away dramatically in the face of ownership issues.
Crawley Town and Yeovil Town were two more clubs that lost their way after a half-decent start, but were never in any real danger of being dragged into a relegation scrap. The same could not be said for Hartlepool United, who hovered above the precipice for many months, and eventually slid into the mire during the disastrous tenure of Dave Jones.
Cheltenham Town were always battling to avoid an immediate relegation back to the National League, but for a while it had seemed inevitable that Newport County would be joining crisis club Leyton Orient in dropping out of the Football League. Orient, a club beset by protests towards owner Francesco Becchetti, went through as many managers as the number of home wins they achieved, and continued their miserable slide.
Unlike the Londoners, Newport were resurgent, and a succession of home wins including a final day victory over Notts County saw them complete a great escape at the expense of a dejected Hartlepool, who are the latest side to succumb to non-league. Taking their place will be FA Cup heroes Lincoln City, and ambitious Forest Green Rovers.