Right, here we go, then. The new season starts for the Blue Square, Ryman, Unibond and BGB Southern Leagues tomorrow, so I’ve managed to fit in a quick preview of what I think is going to unfold this season. Last season was a good season for well-run clubs, but this year looks like being a year in which money talks. There are a number of clubs starting this season with wealthy backers, which would all point towards a depressing season of chest-beating. So, which egos will be left standing at the end of the season?
The Blue Square Premier: At least English football’s fifth division is stating with everyone on zero points, which is a start, although they lost Halifax Town to the primordial gloop of the Unibond League after their financial situation finally became untenable. The pre-season favourites are Stevenage Borough. During the 1990s, Stevenage’s regular attempts to muscle their way into the Football League provoked much mirth on the other side of Hertfordshire , where I come from, and they haven’t launched a sustained title bid for several seasons. Last year, they flopped dismally under the tutelage of Peter “The Man That Made David Beckham England Captain” Taylor, but they got rid of him after failing to make the play-offs, replacing him with the unctuous Graham Westley. They are stronger than they were last season and have, in Iyesden Christie and Lee Boylan (newly arrived from Kidderminster Harriers and Cambridge United respectively), an outstanding front line for this division. Whether Westley has the tactical nous to take them all the way is, however, another question altogether. Supporters of last year’s two relegated clubs, Mansfield Town and Wrexham, will be hoping for a better season after a few years of scrabbling around at he bottom of League Two. Mansfield, however, still haven’t exorcised the ghost of Keith Haslam from Field Mill and anything other than an excellent start will see old tensions resurface. Wrexham are better-placed to launch a sustained promotion bid, with manager Brian Little having dumped twenty-two players during the summer. There were some raised eyebrows that he stayed in the job after last season, though, and again a good start is criticial for them. Torqay United have good players in the likes of Roscoe D’Sane and Elliott Benyon, but they slumped towards the end of last season and may struggle to capture the same form as they did at the start of last season, while things can’t go as badly again as they did last season for Oxford United, and manager Darren Patterson has strengthened his team with a number of loan signings.
At the bottom of the table, it’s difficult to see how newly-promoted Lewes, having replaced their manager Steve King more or less on the last day of last season, are going to be able to cope with teams of this calibre. Rivals Eastbourne Borough are better placed to be able to cope, having brought in a couple of players from Lewes in Jean-Michel Sigere and Simon Wormull, but will still struggle. Altrincham survived having finished in a relegation place yet again last season, but they look likely to be able to pull clear of danger this season, but the signs are looking for ominous for Histon, the village club from near Cambridge. The suspicion is that their, ahem, “rustic” style of play will be found out this season and easily contained. They may come to struggle from “second season syndrome” this time around. Barrow, having sneaked into the play-offs at the tail end of last season and then won them, also look too lightweight for this step up, and Northwich Victoria did just enough to stay up last season, but will probably struggle this time around.
Blue Square North: In the Blue Square North, the bookmakers are unable to choose between AFC Telford United and Southport, who both lost in last year’s play-offs. Telford will draw the biggest attendances of the season, and their big crowds may prove to be the deciding factor, should things be tight and they need to strengthen their squad in the January transfer window. Of the others, King’s Lynn were impressive in winning the Southern League last season, and are capable of a play-off place at least, although challenging for the championship may be beyond them, and Stalybridge Celtic finished last season strongly and were somewhat unfortunate to lose the play-off final to Barrow. At the bottom of the table, there are tough times ahead for also-rans such as Vauxhall Motors, Solihull Moors and Burscough, who lost ten players and their manager to Southport during the summer.
Blue Square South: This year’s Blue Square South seems likely to be a two horse race between, you guessed it, the clubs with the most money. Havant & Waterlooville are newly minted since their FA Cup run last season, but they don’t seem to have massively strengthened their squad over the couple of months – will they do better without the distraction of the FA Cup? More likely champions are newly-promoted Chelmsford City who, you may remember, contain the spine of the Canvey Island team that demolished all before it for three or four seasons before starting to feel the pinch. Manager Jeff King is enormous(ly experienced in this area), and Chelmsford could easily make it two back-to-back title wins. I suspect that a second promotion will probably be too much for AFC Wimbledon, though Tom Davis is an excellent signing, and a play-off place wouldn’t be beyond them in such a mediocre division, whilst Newport County will be expecting to improve on last year’s disappointment of missing out on a play-off place, and Worcester City might be a decent bet to sneak into the play-offs, having transferred from the BSN. At the bottom of the table, financial constraints have rendered Bognor Regis Town and Basingstoke Town to a mixture of youth players and cast-offs. Relegation surely beckons for both of them. Weston-Super-Mare only survived thanks to Cambridge City’s harsh demotion for ground grading reasons.
The Unibond, Ryman and BGB Southern Leagues: The Unibond League Premier Division is possibly the most interesting league of all, with an expected clash of the egos between the moneyed chairmen of Leigh Genesis and Bradford Park Avenue. I can’t see how the behaviour of the BPA chairman in the pre-season bodes well for a season of stability at Horsfall, though, and Leigh’s full-time players may it find it something of a culture shock to be playing in front of crowds of a couple of hundred or so. A better bet for the title are Boston United, demoted yet again for reasons that have nothing to do with football. They took a strong Mansfield Town team to the cleaners in a recent pre-season friendly and the understandable siege mentality that has descended over York Street over the last couple of years or so might just breed the required team spririt for a sustained run at the title. FC United of Manchester can most likely look forward to a season of consolidation after a rapid rise up the pyramid. They lost some of their best players during the summer, but there should be enough flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of the table to prevent them from being dragged into a battle against relegation.
In the Ryman League, it’s difficult to see past Dover Athletic and Dartford renewing old hostilities, though they can expect a challenge from AFC Hornchurch and relegated Sutton United. Finally, in the BGB Southern League, the bookmakers don’t seem to know who has a chance of winning the league – they have no less than five teams, Halesowen Town, Brackley, Cambridge City, Corby Town and Farnborough, as joint favourites. Cambridge have held onto the majority of the BSS team from last season, whilst Farnborough seem to be in a hurry to get back to th BSS, from whence their predecessors, Farnborough Town, were ejected at the send of the season before last. Those two clubs get the romantic vote but, in practical terms, there seems to be money lavished about at Corby at the moment and, typically in modern football, money does seem to talk.