After seven games of the 2012/13 season, football fans may be surprised to see Tranmere Rovers sitting happily at the top of the League One table, two points clear of second placed Stevenage. Both sides are yet to lose a game and have put in performances that have delighted their fans.
Of course, with 39 games yet to play it is still early days in the season. However, the table as it is now is perhaps an indicator of how lower league football is shifting.
In recent years, League One has included several wealthy clubs; all with extensive squad lists, expensive wage budgets and transfer funds to match.
Current Premier League sides Southampton, Swansea and Norwich have all spent time in League One over the past four years, whilst former top flight clubs Leeds United, Leicester, Hull, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton, Blackpool and Nottingham Forest have also been a League One club for at least one season since 2004/05.
As is illustrated by promotion up to the Championship (and beyond), these clubs, due to their financial backing (thanks to the size of their club or a chairman with deep pockets) have been able to build squads stronger than other League One clubs.
Only on a handful of occasions have less wealthy clubs been able to break the habit. Scunthorpe, to the credit of Brian Laws and Nigel Adkins, have twice been promoted to the Championship since 2006/07, whilst Colchester United and Southend United both achieved promotion in 2005/06. None of these clubs, however, had the financial power to stay in English football’s second tier.
This season, however, there appears to be a changing of the tide. Tranmere currently sit top, Stevenage second and Notts County third.
In 2011/12, League One saw Charlton Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town promoted to the Championship. Financially struggling Portsmouth, Coventry and Doncaster Rovers replaced them following relegation from the division.
There does, therefore, appear to be fewer clubs with such financial clout in the division compared to previous years.
There are, of course, still some clubs with a strong financial foothold in the division – that is to say, able to pay higher wages than your average League One club. Sheffield United, themselves a Premier League club as recently as 2006/07, can call upon a number of experienced and expensive (again, in comparison to many League Clubs) players, whilst Preston North End signed 17 players during the summer transfer window.
MK Dons, managed by Karl Robinson and chaired by Peter Winkelman, could also be classed as a bigger club in terms of budget, whilst Swindon Town and Crawley Town, both promoted from League Two last season, have big financial backers.
The Blades and North End currently occupy sixth and fifth place in the table, whilst Crawley, who host table topping Tranmere on Saturday sit fourth, MK Dons seventh and Swindon, managed by Paulo Di Canio, eighth. Their money is, therefore, still able to push them high up the table.
These five clubs aside, however, the division does appear to be a stark contrast financially to what it has been. For example, of the top seven from 2009/10, two now play in the Premier League, four in the Championship.
League One this season therefore provides a fantastic opening for teams with less money to mount a challenge for promotion.
If you can build a team with a strong core, capable of scoring goals and keeping them out at the other end, then you’ve got a great chance of finishing in the top six. That has never changed. The difference this season is that you perhaps don’t need to have spent as much money to do that, as Ronnie Moore at Tranmere has shown.
It’s still early days in League One, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s hugely refreshing to see clubs like Tranmere and Stevenage at the top of the table. Only time will tell whether they can maintain their early season form and retain a place in the top six, but the way both sides are playing, nobody would put it past them, and it would provide a welcome boost to other less well off League One clubs as to what they can achieve with next to no money.