Those of you who have read my previews before (all three of you) will know that I put a large onus on budget as a factor in how well clubs will do.
And with good reason. After all, last season League Two had Kelty Hearts; the season before that there was Queen's Park, who won the title by 16 points in a campaign only 22 games long; in 2019-20 Cove Rangers were 13 points clear when the final quarter was written off.
And for 2022-23 we have, well, nobody who really stands out. Which should mean a wide-open title race.
There are maybe three teams I'm confident will not be in with a shout (famous last words...). The first is newly promoted Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic who simply do not have the resources that the likes of Kelty and Cove boasted when they came up and who so far have made only modest additions to the squad that got them up in the first place. Sweet stories like that of striker Kieran McGachie, who played for the club when they were still in the Junior ranks, only take you so far. But they'll be hoping the nous of veteran striker Kevin Smith (signed from East Fife) will help establish them in the SPFL. And let's face it, the champions of tier 5 are generally at least mid-table League Two standard.
The next to be written off are Albion Rovers, partly because it's no secret that their wage bill is essentially buttons. Manager Brian Reid has moaned that everyone dismisses them as relegation candidates out of ignorance, but really it's because Rovers have finished in the bottom half of League Two four years in a row. Reid has attracted Ayrton Sonkur from Stranraer and Kyle Fleming from Annan, and most crucially he convinced midfielder Charlie Reilly to stay another season. But three players decamped to Dumbarton, including skipper Aron Lynas, and the loss of Kyle Doherty and Declan Byrne leaves them pretty lightweight up top.
And then there's Elgin City whose recruitment seems more limited by geography than ever. Their most southern signing of the summer came from Jeanfield Swifts and the exits of Euan Spark and Conor O'Keefe leave them rather short of depth. Expect a number of loan signings before the end of August, and expect further dependence on striker Kane Hester to fire them out of trouble. Elgin chose to stand by boss Gavin Price by bringing in Jim Weir as his assistant in a relationship that has a very Evans-Houllier feel, and one suspects a similar endgame.
What about the top end? Obviously the clubs relegated from League One come to mind. Dumbarton stood by boss Steve Farrell despite a second consecutive relegation from that division (he took Stranraer down the year before) and gave him licence to bring in ten new players, with an onus on experience in League One or Two. Keeper Brett Long, defender Aron Lynas, midfielder Ally Love and forward Ryan Wallace should add nicely to the backbone provided by Gregor Buchanan and Ryan McGeever at the back and Joe McKee and Stuart Carswell in the middle of the park.
East Fife also took the chance to rip it up and start again; Stevie Crawford has signed a mixture of experience (goalkeeper Allan Fleming and forward Alan Trouten) and youth (defenders Sam Denham and Lucas Williamson and forward Ryan Schiavone) but has also lost most of the better players he inherited midway through last season. The midfield looks particularly underwhelming and the Methil side are likely to be very active in the market in weeks to come.
Annan Athletic are the apparent exception to my beloved budget rule. They were narrowly denied promotion in the playoff final by Edinburgh City and enter their fifteenth season as a league side...and as a fourth tier side. Manager Peter Murphy is very much this division's "why on earth is he not managing at a higher level?" candidate as he seems to lose his best players every summer and yet still manage to cobble together a competitive team despite one of the smallest budgets. Owen Moxon, who has got his big move to Carlisle United, will be their biggest loss by some way this time around while former Leeds youth Josh Galloway is probably the most intriguing of a typically unexciting bunch of new faces who will probably go on to do perfectly well, just like their predecessors. Their outstanding League Cup campaign suggest they should be thereabouts again.
One place above Annan in the table last season, Forfar Athletic lost in the playoff semis to the borderers but will fancy they can build on that. Forfar used the loan system well last year and expect them to do the same in weeks to come; in the meantime Roberto Nditi, Tomas Brindley and James Keatings (if he stays fit) look like great additions. The midfield quartet of Kyle Hutton, Craig Slater, Craig Thomson and Callum Moore might be the strongest in the league. They will surely be in the mix again.
Stenhousemuir have also been super-busy wheeling and dealing. Stephen Swift brought in an entire squad last year and has ditched the players that didn't work out to make space for another ten signings. They got better as the season went on and will look to carry that momentum. 35 year old Craig Bryson is League Two's marquee signing this window but keeper Conor Brennan and defender Daniel Higgins should also strengthen them. There are high hopes that ex-Stranraer frontman Matt Yates and lower league goal machine Will Sewell can provide plenty of firepower.
As for Stranraer, they underwhelmed under Jamie Hamill last time out and to be honest they haven't done much to suggest they're on the up. Bringing Scott MacLean back north might provide a creative spark but a number of key players including the aforementioned Sonkur and Yates plus Sean Burns have moved on. They also have very little up top other than 38 year old Darryl Duffy.
And finally there's Stirling Albion, who probably underachieved under Kevin Rutkiewicz even if he suggested otherwise on his departure. Darren Young knows this level well and went back to former club East Fife for a trio of players including winger Danny Denholm. Robert Thomson is a good solid striker and loanee Harrison Clark should be better than this level. Stirling certainly have ambitions to finish above mid-table.
And therefore my predicted table is:
1. FORFAR ATHLETIC
2. ANNAN ATHLETIC
5. STIRLING ALBION
6. BONNYRIGG ROSE ATHLETIC
7. EAST FIFE
9. ELGIN CITY
10. ALBION ROVERS
Fans of the bottom trio might want to screenshot this so they can use it against me in nine months time...
Here, for interest, are what the Twitterati think...
Let's see who's right, me or the folk who clearly know this division a whole lot better!
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.