The Twohundredpercent Pre-Season Previews: The Isthmian League Premier Division
The Premier League is again a case of totting up balance sheets. The Championship’s glorious unpredictability is gradually being eroded by the distorting effects of parachute payments. The most important aspect of Leagues One and Two could again be those dreaded asterixes against points totals which don’t add up to games won or drawn. The Blue Square Bet Premier title was, some might say, bought by ‘mystery’ investment last year and chronic financial mismanagement has changed the look of the league almost as much as promotion or relegation since I was writing about Farsley Celtic, Chester City and Leigh Genesis for the Non-League Paper in 2008.
So, where to go to get away from the overbearing influences of finance on football? The Ryman (Isthmian) League, you say? Possibly. Sutton United ran away with the title last season based rather more on football merits than Crawley could ever manage (and, as I am a Kingstonian season-ticket holder, I hope you will understand that I now need some minutes to wipe away the tears after writing that). And beneath them, there was an almighty battle for the four play-off places which went down, literally, to stoppage time on the last day. To pick an example purely at random (ahem!), Kingstonian were three-up at Margate needing to win to reach the play-offs and…drew 3-3, with Gate’s equaliser arriving in the 81st minute (and, as I am a Kingstonian season-ticket holder, I hope you will understand that I now need some minutes etc…
But money is talking at our level too. Much of the major close-season activity has surrounded Carshalton Athletic – now nicknamed ‘Cashalton’ by a mixture of the satirical, the envious and those who can’t spell. The Robins’ recent history, on and off the field has been the dictionary definition of ‘turbulent,’ thanks almost entirely to the actions of one man, owner Paul Dipre. In his three years as owner, Dipre has run through the off-field ranks, moving through spells as director of football and reserve team manager, before appointing rookie manager…himself as first-team boss in March this year – a move predicted by many that know the self-confident owner of a local publishing company.
Miraculously, the severe budgetary restrictions under which predecessor managers had to work have disappeared this summer; with some big-money signings (at this level) arriving and much being made of a recent win over arch-rivals Sutton. Less has been made of that fact that the Robins’ 1-0 triumph followed a 3-0 defeat in the first leg of the Sutton Advertiser Cup. The bookies aren’t impressed, either, as the cash-rich Colston Avenue outfit are only fifth-favourites. And many, inside and outside the club, are itching for Dipre to fail, with disaffected former players and managers expressing concerns, and dissenting fans banned from the club. As a club statement noted: “The stated intention of the group was to bully and harass Paul Dipre in the expectation that he would find their campaign so uncomfortable that he would leave. We believe that remains their aim and they believe this behaviour to be reasonable.” Such are the trials of the overwhelmingly self-confident.
Bookies’ favourites, as is so often the case, are new visitors from the Blue Square Bet South, Lewes, who have been Isthmians of yore and have undergone – and largely overcome – off-field upheavals of their own, after moves last summer to make Lewes a “Community Football Club”, with high-profile involvement of comedian and playwright Patrick Marber. The Rooks host second-favourites Lowestoft Town on the season’s opening day. Lowestoft themselves were Premier Division new boys last season, alongside fellow Suffolk side Bury Town. Both social climbers maintained a play-off challenge for much of last season, and met in the semi-finals, Lowestoft winning 2-1 at Bury before losing to Tonbridge Angels in the final.
Bury’s ‘influential’ striker, former Ipswich Town ‘star’ James Scowcroft, recently signed a new deal keeping him at the club in both a playing and ‘benefit of experience’ coaching role. Lowestoft have been finding the net regularly in pre-season against Ryman opposition. Both are rightly among the promotion favourites again. Ks were play-off final losers two years ago, before narrow failure last year, hence their fourth-favouritism. Their 2010 loss to Boreham Wood was made (in)famous when their centre-half was hit in the face by a Wood fan during the game. Defeat was sealed by a 35-yard screamer by Dewayne Clarke, who recently signed for…Ks.
Another of Clarke’s former homes, Harrow Borough, are always there or thereabouts – with striker Rocky Baptiste in the 134th season of his playing career. Borough lost their play-off semi-final last season 3-2, after extra-time, to Tonbridge, with Baptiste dragging Boro’ back from two goals down before the Angels’ eventual triumph. Ulsterman Dave Anderson has taken over as manager from Dave Howell, who spent seven years in the Earlsmead hot seat. Anderson managed AFC Wimbledon to the upper echelons of the Ryman League between 2004 and 2007, winning promotion to the Premier Division but resigning after failing to win promotion from it. Manager of Harrow’s neighbours Wealdstone, Gordon Bartlett, has seen any number of grounds and off-field shenanigans in his remarkable 16-year tenure. The Stones were the height of inconsistency last season but are promotion contenders, with impressive 21-year-old midfielder (and Montserrat international) Alex Dyer signing a new contract and prolific striker Richard Jolly to aim for – Jolly having scored half-a-million goals in his career, including a packet during a short loan spell at Wealdstone last season.
The Canvey Island derby “graces” the fixture list, with the eponymous Canvey Island facing the challenge of upstarts Concord Rangers for a second season. Concord were capable of raising their game to beat almost anyone last season but were labelled a big-game side as a result. Canvey narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, thanks largely to a crushing 4-0 home defeat to Concord in the season’s last midweek. Concord won their home derby 1-0. There’ll be derbys-a-kimbo this season, apart from the Harrow and Canvey family affairs, as suburban Surrey is hugely represented, despite Sutton’s elevation. Alongside Carshalton and Kingstonian are promotees Metropolitan Police and Leatherhead, who escaped Ryman League One South’s clutches last season. Promoted from Ryman One North are East Thurrock United – based some miles “east” of Thurrock – and Wingate and Finchley. And all four sides will fancy their chances of survival, given the recent propensity for promotees to challenge for consecutive promotions. Aveley’s struggles last season came after they won a play-off place the previous season, their first in the Ryman Premier. The Millers and Hastings United managed a last-day survival when they met at Hastings’ Pilot Field in April, Aveley staying up despite finishing in the ‘last’ relegation place – thanks to the reorganisations which flowed from Rushden and Diamonds’ expulsion from the Blue Square Bet Premier.
On the basis of their late survival, rather than their improved late season form, Hastings are relegation favourites this year, alongside Horsham. When the two met at Pilot Field last season, all hell broke loose. Horsham were three-up and yawning until they had three players sent-off in…eight minutes and had to hang on for a 3-2 victory – “a sensational, if tainted, three points,” noted the Horsham website, correctly. The Hornets are among the relegation favourites because of swingeing budgetary cuts, which cost them the services of club legend John Maggs, a full-time manager who could no longer be afforded, when his contract wasn’t renewed in May. The club have struggled to find a new home since selling their Queens’ Street ground to property developers in 2008 and they currently share with neighbours and one-time fellow Ryman Leaguers Horsham YMCA. Moves to a new ground are semi-progressing in fits and starts. In the meantime, on-field struggles loom.
Also ‘in-between’ home grounds are Hendon, embarking on their second season of supporters’ trust ownership and playing their home games at Wembley… FC’s Vale Farm ground, and Cray Wanderers, “London’s oldest association football club,” who have spent the last three of their (eeek!) 151-year history at Bromley’s Hayes Lane home. The Wands are marking time until a potential move to “Sandy Lane” in 2014. Making up the numbers in the bookies’ relegation positions are Tooting and Mitcham United (former ground also Sandy Lane), whose budgetary cuts and subsequent dip in form occurred midway through last season and who ended last season with thirty-plenty-year-old Geoff Pitcher, an FA Trophy winner at his peak… eleven years ago, in midfield. Rumours of financial troubles continue. But young manager Mark Beard has kept some important names from last year’s squad and if he can find the right mix between that experience and the consistent supply of players from the club’s youth system, Tooting may be OK. In the bookies’ mid-table are Billericay Town, AFC Hornchurch and the destroyer of my dreams, Margate. Billericay and the Urchins finished in very mid-table last season. But both were just four points from the play-offs. And the battle for promotion this season looks likely to be as tight and, for some of us, traumatic.
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