Ah, the fourth tier of Scotland's professional ranks, a division that seemed to contain the same clubs year after year, without the resources to move up the leagues nor apparently the ambition to do so. Then the relegation playoff was brought in; whilst the first three seasons have claimed only one victim, it has forced the others to buck up their ideas sharply to avoid being replaced by more upwardly mobile clubs.
Last season was highly competitive, with winners Arbroath managing only 66 points and bottom club Cowdenbeath (who preserved their league status by beating East Kilbride on penalties) 35 points, a respectable total for tenth spot. Expect more of the same.
It seems a bit lazy to tip the sides relegated into this division as favourites to go back up, but Peterhead are able to pay much higher salaries to part-timers than most of the clubs in League One, let alone League Two. Amongst their new arrivals are veterans David McCracken and Wullie Gibson, while Greg Fleming - who should be the best goalie in the division - and Paul Cairney pitch up after refusing to go full-time with Ayr United. Oh, and they still have goal machine Rory McAllister, who should traumatize defences at this level.
The other demoted side, Stenhousemuir, are a different kettle of fish - they operated on the smallest budget in League One and did well to stay their for as long as they did. Manager Brown Ferguson has brought in pretty much a whole new team - 13 players at the time of writing - including plenty who could do a job at a higher level such as Martin Scott, the Dunlop brothers Michael and Ross, Mark Ferry, Mark McGuigan and Jamie Longworth. They will certainly be expected to be at the top end of the table though.
But the team best placed to challenge Peterhead may well be Clyde, who have undergone considerable surgery since their freefall last season that almost got them relegated. They've made plenty of signings, but the most important is new manager Jim Chapman, poached from Annan. He too has constructed a whole new squad, containing many faces from his old team. Crucially, they have convinced David Goodwillie to hang around; whilst his employment is undoubtedly controversial, there's no question that he is the most talented player in this league by a country mile. Stuck in this division since 2010, this is their best opportunity to go up in a long while.
Annan Athletic, third last year, may head in the opposite direction of their former manager's new club. The loss of Chapman delayed their summer activity significantly and reduced the time his replacement Peter Murphy has had to put together a team. There are a few gems there, such as ex-Hearts and Partick attacker Ryan Stevenson - if he can be convinced to hang around - and a quintet of Queen of the South castoffs. But the loss of top scorers David McKenna (to the juniors) and Max Wright (to Clyde) are a blow.
Last season's other playoff side, Montrose, finished last season incredibly strongly and have come on leaps and bounds under Stewart Petrie's leadership. But they don't have a lot of cash and the momentum might be hard to sustain. The arrival of Dundee United's Sean Dillon as player-coach is intriguing and they have given ex-Cowdenbeath defender Dean Brett a way back into senior football after his gambling issues. Whether that will be enough to sustain another playoff push is another matter, though a few loanees from Tannadice and Pittodrie might help.
Elgin City should have been in those playoffs but collapsed in the run-in after losing striker Shane Sutherland to a serious knee injury. He won't be back for a few months yet, so they really need Calum Ferguson, signed from Albion Rovers, to provide goals. Jon-Paul McGovern, fresh from being Clyde's co-caretaker manager at the end of last season, has come north too. However the loss of stalwarts Craig Gunn, Archie MacPhee, Daniel Moore and Mark Nicolson to the Highland League will be hard to account for.
There's more reason for positivity at Stirling Albion, where Cuptie Mackay found his feet after a tricky start as manager and will be looking to push on. The apparently ageless Peter MacDonald should still be good for goals, but crucially they have held on to most of last season's team which should be an advantage in the early weeks. And Mackay's contacts from his playing days should produce a few decent loan players.
Edinburgh City, whose first season at this level went far better than most expected, are a bit of an enigma. The signing of former sex offender Craig Thomson has certainly polarised opinion, and time will tell if it will be to their benefit. But he has been the best player in the juniors for a number of years. The club benefit from a good relationship with Hibs which has led to the arrival on loan of young talents Lewis Allan and Sean Mackie, while ex-Brechin defender Gareth Rodger was an excellent acquisition. Craig Beattie is still here too, though Derek Riordan has left. And sadly for all fans of lower league football, big Joe Mbu has hung up his boots.
Cowdenbeath avoided the trap door by the skin of their teeth last season, thanks to a new manager bounce from Gary Locke; his shock exit well into pre-season is a blow (no, really!). With little time to act, it was no surprise the club appointed assistant Billy Brown to replace him, but those who remember Brown's "bin places, dun hings" spell at East Fife will be filled with trepidation. Locke had done some decent business, tying up permanent deals for former loanees Robbie Buchanan and David Syme (who just a year ago was signed by Partick Thistle) but a number of senior players left. It's a team that lacks experience - keeper David McGurn aside - and with questionable leadership.
The other team who may be dicing with the drop are Berwick Rangers, who struggled to eighth spot last season. Manager John Coughlin has made no secret of the financial constraints they are operating under. Half of their eight newbies are loan signings. though it will be interesting to see how Rangers youth Robbie McCrorie fairs in goal. Berwick had the worst defence in League Two last season and will have to improve that if they are to survive, let alone thrive.
So this is how I think it'll finish:
4. STIRLING ALBION
6. EDINBURGH CITY
7. ANNAN ATHLETIC
8. ELGIN CITY
9. BERWICK RANGERS
Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.