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How the mighty have fallen

Automatic promotion: Leeds, Norwich
Play-offs: MK Dons, Charlton, Huddersfield, Bristol Rovers
Relegated: Hartlepool, Yeovil, Stockport, Walsall

It is rather too convenient to just be chance. As the League One season begins on Saturday, Exeter City, a Conference side 15 months ago, travel to Elland Road. The computer may devise the fixture list, but it can surely be subject to mischievous programming. A mere 119 years after the club's foundation, it is Exeter's first league meeting with Leeds United, who were four divisions above them five years ago. If it is a game that could be subtitled 'how the mighty have fallen', it is a description that could be applied to the entire League One season.

The relegations of Charlton, Southampton and Norwich from the Championship last season, all Premier League clubs in the 2004-05 season, means Leeds are not alone in experiencing a swift decline. It also means at least one will spend the 2010-11 campaign outside the top two divisions and points to a fiercely contested battle for promotion.

Charlton, until recently a byword for stability, have slumped quickest by being demoted twice in three seasons. Southampton and Norwich, who came up together from Division Three in 1960, have both spent the last 49 seasons at higher levels. The lower leagues, however, have a habit of providing unpleasant surprises to those more accustomed to elevated surroundings. Leeds can testify as much: in two previous seasons at this level, they been beaten home and away by Cheltenham and been knocked out of the FA Cup by Histon and Hereford. Such embarrassments may await Charlton, Southampton and Norwich.

But Leeds remain the prize draw. The 2000-01 Champions League semi-finalists managed to attract more than 37,000 to a fixture last season and were forced to delay a pre-season friendly because of crowd congestion. Moreover, they have a strong case to be regarded as the favourites for promotion. They averaged more than two points a game after Simon Grayson replaced Gary McAllister as manager in December and have reinforced their squad this season. Grayson has been restrained in his dealings, but adding the Australian Patrick Kisnorbo to the mid-season acquisition of Richard Naylor suggests Leeds will have height and reliability in a defence that could previously be accused of lacking both.

Just as importantly, Grayson's biggest assets are still at the club. The precocious Fabian Delph has been targeted by Tottenham, Everton and Aston Villa, but chairman Ken Bates' prohibitive pricing has ensured the teenager has stayed so far. However, it now seems he will be heading to Villa Park after a fee was agreed. The prolific Jermaine Beckford, who managed 34 goals in 37 starts last season, remains despite a summer on the transfer list. He enters the final year of his contract with the possibility he will end it as the division's top scorer.

Continuity has not been an option for the relegated clubs. Charlton used 39 players last season, many of whom were on loan or have since been released while the only arrivals have been defensive. Norwich have lost Lee Croft and Sammy Clingan, arguably their standout performers last season, but Bryan Gunn has made 10 signings. Central defender Michael Nelson and striker Grant Holt, adding inches at either end of the field to a short team, may be the most significant.

At Southampton, meanwhile, the changes extend to a new owner (Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr) and a new manager (Alan Pardew). A change in fortunes is still more important to a team that begin with a 10-point penalty for going into administration last season. A summer in limbo means Pardew's team is yet to take shape, and the predictable departures of Andrew Surman and David McGoldrick may be followed by those of the highly-paid pair of Marek Saganowski and Grzegorz Rasiak.

Talk of promotion is inevitable, but with reinforcements in both defence and attack probably necessary, consolidation should be the first objective. For each of the bigger clubs to have dropped so far, League One has represented the nadir. Each has secured promotion within three seasons and Sheffield Wednesday's 16th-place finish in 2004 is the lowest to date. Southampton, starting 10 points behind their rivals, may need 85 to secure a play-off place and 60 to prevent a drop into League Two.

In any case, as Scunthorpe and Peterborough showed last season, a Premier League past is not required to go up. There is a school of thought that Brentford will emulate Darren Ferguson's team by threatening back-to-back promotions. Millwall, enterprising overachievers, reached the play-offs and could challenge again. Huddersfield, in Lee Clark's first full season in charge and with a sprinkling of promising signings, may be well placed. If Rickie Lambert can manage another 29 goals, Bristol Rovers should be in contention. And Southend, under Steve Tilson's low profile but effective management, have a habit of sneaking under the radar.

Others tend to command more headlines. Pardew excepted, the two most eye-catching managerial appointments are Liverpool alumni. After a one-year sabbatical at Blackburn and on the golf course, Paul Ince is back at Milton Keynes Dons, older and, presumably, wiser. Meanwhile, there is an alternative Anfield midfield at Prenton Park with John Barnes being assisted by Jason McAteer at Tranmere following one of the summer's stranger sagas. Under Ronnie Moore, Rovers were two minutes away from a play-off finish. Moore was offered a new contract, only for it to be withdrawn while the club cited declining gates as a reason for his sacking. It means that, in a division unusually replete with big names, Barnes and McAteer provide two more.

While Leeds start against Exeter and the 2003 and 2004 FA Cup finalists clash as Southampton host Millwall, Barnes visits Yeovil, a non-league club when the Tranmere manager was the finest footballer in the country. He may have taken a tumble over the past 20 years; but the worry is that someone will fall still further this year.


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