Firstly, a quick word about the European Cup tonight. I am hoping amongst hope that we’ll have none of the dreary cod-patriotism that usually mars ITV’s coverage of it. Why, exactly, do they assume that everyone watching it wants English clubs to do well? If Manchester United and Liverpool’s victories in it in recent years have proven anything, it is that Premiership clubs become even more insufferably arrogant when they win this competition. I don’t want this. I want Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal to be humiliated, and I’d prefer it to happen sooner rather than later. I know it won’t, but I don’t want it made even worse with ninety minutes of Peter Drury telling us how “great” it will be for English football if one of these over-commercialised behemoths wins another trinket.
See, the thing is, I know that Peter Drury is an Arsenal supporter. I also know that Clive Tyldesley is a Manchester United supporter. I even know that Guy Mowbray used to be such a staunch Arsenal supporter that he used to be the editor of the Arsenal fanzine, “The Gooner”. It’s a long way from an interview that I read with Barry Davies many years ago, in which he refused to even divulge who he supported as a child, in case it allowed people to cast aspersions over his impartiality as a commentator. A simple, more innocent age. I can just about handle a touch of partiality when it comes to international matches, but this creeping bias in club matches makes me want to punch my television screen in.
But enough of that. The Nationwide Conference season starts on Saturday and, my, hasn’t it come a long way since it was founded as the Alliance Premier League in 1979? Twenty of the twenty-four teams are fully professional now (only my lot, St Albans City, Stafford Rangers, Altrincham and Tamworth are semi-professional nowadays) – and the League has lost some of its appeal as a result. With nine former league clubs amongst the Conference’s ranks, if we’re generous and include Aldershot Town (who are a new club formed after the original collapsed in a flurry of bouncing cheques in 1992) and Southport (voted out by the League in 1978), the Conference now gives the impression of having half a dozen or so (minimum) teams that seem to have something of an attitude problem when it comes to their new status.
Well, I’ve got news for them. You’re non-league now, whether you like it or not. It might only be for a year, but until you get back up, you’re no more a league club that any of those teams in the feeder leagues just below you. I’d be thoroughly looking forward to this season much more if it wasn’t for many of the things that this more “professional” league has to offer: stewards telling me to sit down, segregation, the possibility of hooliganism, having “shit ground no fans” rammed down my throat for nine months, paying £13 or more to get in, and so on and so forth.
But anyway – rant over. Who are likely to be celebrating in front of enormous Nationwide flags with “We’re Going Up!” printed on them come next May? Oxford United and Stevenage Borough are the clear favourites. Oxford United, of course, are the “big boys” of the league, and in a competition in which gate money is all-important, the having the biggest ground and the biggest crowds certainly looks like it will count for a lot. Stevenage Borough managed two of the transfer coups of the summer by bringing in manager Mark Stimson from Grays Athletic and signing former Luton Town & Bristol City striker Tony Thorpe, and they appear to have had an injection of cash as well. I’d go for Oxford out of the two of them, though.
The race for the other three play-off places is somewhat tighter, however. If Weymouth’s famously cash-profligate manager Gary Hill can persuade his millionaire chairman to open the purse strings again, they could be thereabouts, but I think it’ll be a step too far for them this season, and although the signing of Lee Boylan from the sinking ship of Canvey Island is a great one for Grays Athletic, one I can’t see the loss of the aforementioned Stimson as being a major blow to them. Likewise, I am surprised to near-speechlessness by Dean Sturridge’s decision to join Kidderminster Harriers, but, ermmm, one Harrier does not a swallow make, and I think that Exeter City may struggle more than some think, having lost manager Alex Inglethorpe over the course of the summer. With those three four (rather too easily dismissed), I’m going for Halifax Town, York City & Morecambe to take the remaining play-off places. Morecambe were terribly unlucky in last year’s Conference play-off semi-final against Hereford United, and with Sammy McIlroy now in charge, can expect another good season. Halifax Town, the yo-yo team between the Conference and Division Three, have the experience to go one better than last year’s losing finalist place, and York City could, I sneakingly suspect, just turn out to be the surprise package. Having overcome the very worst of their financial dire straits, they did excellently to finish eighth last year and will be starting a new season full of optimism for the first time in some years.
At the bottom, the part-time teams have a mountain to climb. Tanworth were only spared the drop last season by Canvey Island’s resignation, but may have just enough experience to pull clear this time around. At the time of writing, it’s looking highly doubtful that Crawley Town will even start the season at the time of writing. They have twenty-four hours to find new owners, or they’ll be closing down before a ball is even kicked. Even if they pull off a miracle and get that arranged, they’ll be starting with a threadbare squad and ten points worse off than anyone else, due to currently being in adminstration. Things look pretty bleak for St Albans City too. At present, we have a squad of just 19 players, which is clearly not enough for a 46 match season. Still, it’ll be an experience. Although it’s entirely possible that it’ll be a long, miserable, lonely experience. The other newly-promoted team, Stafford Rangers, also look dangerously under-resourced, and I can’t see how they’re going to stay up. Finally… and it’s a tough call… Forest Green Rovers, the perennial Conference strugglers, are moving to a new ground, but leaving their cramped and sloping home, The Lawn, may lose them as many points as it will win them. Surely their luck has got to run out soon, hasn’t it?
So, there we go. I’m expecting a long, hard, miserable season, peppered with right-royal thrashings and, hopefully, the occasional hard-earned win. Which I will probably miss, because I moved away from the area in April and I’m expecting to only make about half of their matches. This could turn out to be something of a blessing in disguise.