League One contains a wide variety of clubs, from former Premier League members to former non-league clubs, but success is never guaranteed.
League One is the junction at which football in England meets. One-third of its 24 clubs have played Premier League football, while half have played non-league football in the last half-century. And this season, the numbers at the top of the table simply don’t add up. With only three promotion places available and just two, three or four games left to play, there remain eight clubs who retain aspirations of going up come the end of this season, and nothing is quite decided.
At the very top of the table is a three-way race for two automatic promotion play-off places, between Wigan Athletic, Rotherham United and Milton Keynes. Wigan are four points clear at the top of the table on 87 points, with Rotherham and Milton Keynes four points behind and Milton Keynes having played a game more than the top two. Should all three of these teams suddenly implode in their final few matches, fourth-placed Plymouth Argyle could still theoretically reach one of the automatic promotion places, though Plymouth are a further four points adrift and it would take a surprising run of results over the last couple of games of the season to push them up to second.
Plymouth will be expected to take up one of the play-off places. alongside the loser of the race between the top three and two of Wycombe Wanderers, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford United. Oxford are now five points adrift of the last play-off place and would require slip-ups above them to get up to sixth place, and at the time of writing it’s Sunderland who occupy that final play-off place, although Sheffield Wednesday could yet leapfrog them by winning their game in hand.
It seems likely that the crucial round of fixtures for these clubs will come with the final midweek round of matches on April 26, when Sunderland play leaders Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday travel to play Fleetwood Town on the same evening. Results on that evening could confirm the final four to make the play-offs with a game to spare, while Wigan could secure promotion or perhaps even the title itself with a win against Plymouth.
The variation of clubs to be found within this division is a reflection of both the ups and the downs of mobility within the league system. On the one hand, there is a theme between most of the League One clubs which have spent time in the Premier League. Wigan, Bolton, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth and Charlton – six of the eight – have all experienced serious financial distress over the years, while only Ipswich Town have drifted down to this level without this aggravating factor. And if the top half of the table has looked congested this season, it’s not likely to improve much next time around. Two of this season’s relegated clubs from the Championship, Derby County and Barnsley, have also played Premier League football.
But at the other end of the scale, that half of the clubs in the division have had at least a spell in the non-league game does say something for the fluidity of promotion and relegation in this country. Few would have expected, say 20 years ago, that Burton Albion, Morecambe and Fleetwood Town would end up as EFL stalwarts, but the pattern of promotion and relegation between the EFL and the National League has long favoured clubs coming up over those going down. Even after 35 years of automatic promotion and relegation, no club promoted from the Football Conference or National League has been relegated straight back at the first attempt, and the National League is now stuffed with former EFL clubs who are unable to get back up as quickly as they would like.
But, just as League One represents a bottoming out for most clubs who fall from the top flight, so does it start to look like something of a ceiling for the realistic ambitions of most clubs embarking on an upward trajectory from the non-league game. There are exceptions to this in both direction. Just as a couple of bigger clubs have slid down into League Two – step forward Bradford City and the apparently cursed Oldham Athletic – so have a couple of former non-league clubs made it as high as the Championship, although Wycombe Wanderers, Yeovil Town and Burton Albion were not able to stay at that level, and Yeovil Town, who were playing in the Championship as recently as 2014, are already back in the non-league game again.
This wide variation in clubs manifests itself in the division’s attendance figures. This season, seven clubs have had an average attendance of less than 5,000 while six clubs have averaged 15,000 or more. At the top of that table sit two clubs whose desperation to get back towards the top flight, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, is clear, with Sunderland’s average home crowd of more than 30,000 being more than ten times that of Accrington Stanley, who boast an average home crowd of just under 3,000.
But despite the fact that this reflects itself in a vast disparity of turnover between clubs within the division, this doesn’t seem to manifest in wildly differing outcomes. There is no vast gulf in quality between the clubs with the biggest revenues and the rest, as we see in the Premier League – Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday occupy sixth and seventh place in the table but Accrington aren’t that far below them in 14th – while the financial disparity isn’t completely distorted in the same way as the Championship, where Premier League parachute payments give the recently-relegated a huge financial advantage over those who don’t receive them.
The sheer number of clubs who’ve fallen to this level and been unable to get back up, whether to the Premier League or the Championship, makes the top of League One look congested, and the likelihood is that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There are only so many spaces in the top two divisions, and mismanagement is usually worse for a club than good management is beneficial. And regardless of who does make it up into the Championship come the end of this season, we already know fully well that there will be half a dozen other clubs with their nose pressed against the window, wondering what might have been. The trick, it would seem, is not to be mismanaged in the first place.