It didn’t seem like that long ago that the new season still seemed like an age away, but it has crept up on us with alarming stealth and begins this Saturday. We’ll be running complete previews for English football throughout the week, starting off with the Blue Square Premier this evening. If the team that you support has been selected for a place in the relegation positions, then don’t be too angry. It’s only a game, after all. The Blue Square Premier starts this season in a state of some confusion. There is, at the time of writing, still no sign of a new television deal and many clubs will spend much of the coming autumn, winter and spring struggling to make ends meet. Even a new television deal will be unlikely to be as lucrative as the one that they lost during the summer. Add that to the propensity for BSP clubs to wildly overspend and sail close to administration from time to time, and there could be choppy waters ahead.
1. Luton Town: If a large support and determination to stick one over the Football League count for anything, it’s difficult to see much past Luton Town to win the BSP this season. They have already sold over 4,000 season tickets and signed a new sponsorship deal with Easyjet and, on top of this, being newly relegated means that they have avoided the banana skin of the Setanta money that never was. New signings such as Shane Blackett, Andy Burgess and Liam Hatch are solid players with Football League and BSP winning experience – after two disastrous seasons, there is little to suggest anything other than a reversal of fortunes for The Hatters this season.
2. Oxford United: Another very well supported club, Oxford are another club whose finances have been secured by excellent season ticket sales during the summer – over 3,000, so far. This is another club with a point to prove – this time to the BSP itself, after a five point deduction cost them a place in the play-offs last season. After the departure of manager Darren Patterson last season, new man Chris Wilder oversaw a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes, and nine wins in their last eleven matches saw them build up a head of steam which, if they can maintain that momentum, could see them run Luton close this time around. Should they fail to set the league alight again, though, expect much derision from supporters of other clubs – there remains still a widespread belief that the club is a little too big for their boots.
3. Wrexham: Wrexham started last season with one of the biggest false dawns that the Football Conference has ever seen – a 5-0 win against pre-season favourites Stevenage Borough tha proved impossible to live up to. Manager Dean Saunders had a grand clear-out during the summer, perhaps unsurprisingly considering that he fell out with several players during the second half of last season, a period in which the club slumped to mid-table in the BSP. So far, nine new players have come in and thirteen have been departed. The good news for them is that a forty-six match season allows a little room for teams that make a slow start to catch up. Saunders will be in trouble if they’re not in the play-off places by the autumn.
4. Cambridge United: It was one of the more ridiculous sackings of the summer. Gary Brabin had taken his team to second place in the BSP and won the BSP Manager Of The Year award (with the Burton vote split by Nigel Cloughs departure to Derby in January), but he was sacked after their play-off final against Torquay United even though they completed an extraordinary turnaround to beat Stevenage Borough in the semi-finals. New manager Martin Ling – latterly of Leyton Orient – has a mixed managerial history, and won’t find it easy in a competitive division. The good news for them is that their sought after player-coach Paul Carden – who might have followed Brabin out of The Abbey Stadium – is staying at the club. Cambridge should be good for a play-off place again.
5. Stevenage Borough: Stevenage’s failure to seriously challenge for the BSP championship is one of the league’s more enduring mysteries. They won the FA Trophy at Wembley last season (the second time in three seasons that they had lifted the competition), but have had to make budget cuts to cover an estimated £100,000 loss this summer and, moreover, the club’s average crowds dropped by almost ten per cent last season, though a derby match against Luton Town may plug some of that gap this time around. Question marks remain over manager Graham Westley, who has long given the impression of being at least largely mouth and seldom trousers.
6. Kettering Town: The Poppies were one of the surprise packages of last season. Newly-promoted into the BSP, they finished in eighth place and reached the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, giving Fulham a game and a half before going down 4-2 at Rockingham Road. They were slightly embarrassed when captain Guy Branston exploited a loophole in the paperwork and left the club for Torquay United on a free transfer after an £18,000 transfer fee had been agreed, but manager Mark Cooper seems like a safe pair of hands and new signings Ian Roper and Damian Francis are good solid players. They could cause a surprise or two this season.
7. Eastbourne Borough: Another club with a financial deficit to fill, Eastbourne Borough spent last season defiantly refusing to get involved in a relegation battle and showing local rivals Lewes (who had beaten them to the Blue Square South title the year before) how to survive and flourish in the higher division. Eastbourne have made a couple of decent signings during the summer, including Gary Elphick, formerly of St Albans City and Havant & Waterlooville, who has been one of the most consistent defenders in the Blue Square South over the last few seasons and thoroughly deserves his step up the football food chain.
8. York City: The good news for York City supporters is that this season is highly unlikely to be as bad as last season, when they only narrowly avoided relegation from the BSP. They have also bucked the league’s trend for belt tightening by splashing out £55,000 on Michael Gash from Ebbsfleet United. It’s a lot of money to spend on one player at this level, and he has a lot to live up to. Gash started his York career by getting arrested in the city centre early on Sunday morning along with three other players, who have all been released on bail on suspicion of affray. Perhaps a call to Steven Gerrard’s legal team might be in order.
9. AFC Wimbledon: After two successive promotions, could this be a step too far for Wimbledon? Probably not, actually, and for three reasons. Firstly, in Terry Brown they have a highly experienced manager. Secondly, there is enough flotsam and jetsam in the lower reaches of the BSP to ensure that they are unlikely to get sucked into a relegation battle. Thirdly, they remain a financially prudent club, capable of bringing in decent players such as Paul Lorraine and Derek Duncan. The backbone of their club, however, is the one that only struggled up from the Ryman League two years ago and a third successive promotion seems likely to be beyond them. Still, they have sold over 2,500 season tickets and will sell out Kingsmeadow a few times this season.
10. Rushden & Diamonds: It has been a turbulent summer for Rushden & Diamonds, who dodged a winding up petition from HMRC last month. They have had some decent results in the pre-season, beating Blackpool on penalties after a 1-1 draw and beating Peterborough United, but if they have had difficulties paying the tax man, it seems unlikely that they will have much spare money to strengthen their squad should it be necessary. Another season of consolidation in mid-table beckons.
11. Kidderminster Harriers: Kidderminster surpassed expectations last season, finishing sixth in the table and getting to the Third Round of the FA Cup. They have held onto the majority of their players, but have lost a couple and their replacements don’t really set the pulse racing – Kyle Hadley and Duane Courtney both came from Stourbridge, though Courtney did once cost Burnley £25,000 from AFC Telford United. Their biggest signing of the summer is Chris McPhee, who played for the club on a short term deal after the near-collapse of Weymouth and signed for them on a two year contract. Mid-table again.
12. Mansfield Town: Mansfield had an appalling start to last season, before David Holdsworth took over in December 2008 and steered them towards safety. Mansfield do have several outstanding players, such as striker Daryl Clare (who scored a goal every other match during his spells at Boston United, Chester City and Burton Albion), former Lincoln City goalkeeper Alan Marriott and new signing Gary Mills, but financial constraints may mean another season of mid-table frustration for The Stags.
13. Crawley Town: Crawley Town, so beset by financial problems of late and still managed by possibly the most unpopular manager in non-league football, Steve Evans, finished in mid-table without seriously troubling either the play-off or relegation places last season, and have made a couple of decent signings during the summer in the form of Jefferson Louis from Wrexham and Eddie Hutchinson from Oxford United. They seem set for more of the same this season, though now debt-free they could cause a surprise and make a push for a play-off place. It’s difficult to see them seriously troubling the top four or five, though.
14. Histon: Another club widely reported to have had serious financial difficulties last season, Histon received a bit of a buffer from their FA Cup run, although they have reported that they are tightening their belts ahead of the start of the new season. Manager Steve Fallon is surely unsackable, but third place in the BSP – the almost unbelievable position in which they finished last season – is surely unrepeatable and, with the purse-strings tightened, mid-table with no serious relegation worries seems more likely this time around.
15. Tamworth: Tamworth have become something of a yo-yo club over the last couple of years, and were promoted back into the BSP as champions of the Blue Square North at the end of last season. They haven’t strengthened as much as they should have done during the summer, but there are certainly clubs in a worse position than them financially and there are skinnier looking squads elsewhere, too. Likely to have a brush with relegation again, but just about strong enough to steer clear of it if the wind is blowing in the right direction.
16. Altrincham: Eyebrows had been raised over Altrincham’s three successive great escapes from relegation – finishing in the relegation spots and then being avoiding the drop due to the financial misdemeanours of others certainly set the conspiracy theorists’ tongues wagging. However, last season they finished in fifteenth place, and can expect more of the same this season. They are another club to have had a quiet summer on the transfer market, and their comparatively meagre squad means that they may struggle this season should they suffer any injuries.
17. Ebbsfleet United: Ebbsfleet manager Liam Daish started this pre-season with just three full-time players and MyFC had to raise £12,000 in order to allow him to strengthen his squad. That this money was spent on securing five new players demonstrates the wind of financial reality currently blowing through Stonebridge Road at the moment. Daish is a canny manager, but the club’s new part-time status means that they are likely to struggle this season. Events elsewhere will probably be in their favour but with a reduced wage budget it seems likely to be tougher or them this season than it was last season.
18. Gateshead: Gateshead’s return to the BSP at the end of last season was one of the surprises of the close season, and problems elsewhere may just about be enough for them to hold their heads above water, especially if they can pick up a few disaffected Newcastle United supporters on the way. Their 4-1 win against a strong Sunderland side was one of the stand-out results of the pre-season, but it was the exception rather than the rule – they lost at Whitley Bay on Saturday.
19. Barrow: Barrow finished just one place above the relegation places last season, and supporters have been expressing their concern over their team’s lack of attacking options ahead of the start of this season. They still look lightweight, but a year’s experience and circumstances elsewhere should be enough to see them claw their way to safety. It could be close thing for them again, though.
20. Hayes & Yeading United: Another surprise promotion team last season, this time from the Blue Square South. They have a couple of decent players including striker Scott Fitzgerald, and their biggest signing of the summer, Marc Canham, has come from the now-dissolved Team Bath and plays for the England futsal team, while Sami El-Abd is the brother of the Brighton player Adam El-Abd. They seem likely to be more dependent than most on loan players due to financial constraints brought on by a most unexpected promotion.
21. Forest Green Rovers: Forest Green might have hoped that their move to a new stadium in 2006 might have signalled the start of an exciting new era for the club, but last season saw a return to battling against relegation and they finished the season in a disappointing eighteenth place. More worrying than that, though, are rumours of a serious schism between manager Jim Harvey and the club. Harvey has allegedly been reported for a serious breach of contract after apparently applying for the vacant Cambridge United job earlier this summer. Harvey is said to have sought legal advice. Regardless of the truth, such instability a week before the start of the season could have a disastrous effect upon a club that only finished three places above the relegation places last season.
22. Grays Athletic: Grays’ crowds dropped by twenty-five per cent last season to under seven hundred, a figure that must send a shiver down the spine of new chairman, former West Ham United player John Moncur. The Setanta collapse couldn’t have come at a worse time for them. Owner Mick Woodward may not be literally in charge, but he is still likely to be pulling the strings and Grays hasn’t seemed to be a terribly harmonious place recently with his continued involvement in the club. They used over fifty players last season, and will struggle again this season.
23. Salisbury City: Salisbury were frequently mentioned last season as one of the clubs most likely to struggle financially last season, and they seemed to be perpetually close to insolvency. Still, they are still going, although an indication of how bad things are there can be gauged by the fact that they were put up for sale for £1 in April and haven’t been able to find a buyer yet. The majority of their players this season are on short term or loan contracts, and they have a painfully thin squad. Administration and a subsequent ten point deduction – not out of the question – would surely all but seal their fate.
24. Chester City: Ten points already deducted, quite possibly to be increased – and that’s if they’re allowed to start the season at all. They were expecting to find out whether the FA would grant them a license to play today, but nothing was forthcoming and a press release issued this evening confirmed that a full statement will be released in the next forty-eight hours. They have played no pre-season friendlies and remain in adminstration. Survival will be a massive achievement for Chester, and avoiding a drop to the Blue Square North will be little short of a miracle. Whether either of those outcomes are in the long-term interests of non-league football or even Chester City supporters – as discussed on here before – is another question altogether.