It’s time to turn our attention to the Blue Square sponsored Football Conference for the last of our divisional previews. Non-league football remains in a state of flux, but the Blue Squaare Premier continues to resemble an extra division of the Football League rather than the divisions below it. All life is here, within these twenty-four clubs – there has been grotesque overspending at Crawley Town, rather more modest investment at Forest Green Rovers and savage cost-cutting at Histon, this division continues to have as wide a spread of clubs as any other in the country, but which clubs will be celebrating come next May?
1. Luton Town: Widely-tipped to win the competition last season, Luton finished in second place and were beaten in the play-offs by York City. They have had a bit of a clear-out during the summer, with experienced players such as Sol Davis leaving the club, but they have hung on to the BSP’s third highest scorer from last season, Tom Craddock, and have strengthened in bringing in new players such as Adam Murray and, intriguingly, the Czech defender Zdenek Kroca, who played several seasons in the Gambrinus Liga in the Czech Republic for FC Tescoma Zlín. This is a team that is packed with experience and, while it is possible that nerves could play a part in their season again, the high expectations of the start of last season may have been tempered by not getting promotion straight back into League Two last season. The title remains theirs to lose.
2. York City: Two years ago, York City came closer to relegation than anybody at Bootham Crescent would have liked, but they transformed themselves last season and lost the play-off final to Oxford United at Wembley. Richard Brodie was their main man last time around – his thirty-four goals were the most scored by a York player in a single season for over fifty years – but can he replicate that sort of form again this season? York are also very defensively solid – last season, only the two promoted teams, Oxford United and Stevenage Borough, conceded fewer goals than them in the league. Whether they can get through the play-offs or not is always debatable, but York’s bloody-mindedness will make them one of the most difficult teams to beat in the division.
3. Grimsby Town: They may suffer somewhat for the loss of Jean Louis Akpa Akpro, who has stepped up two divisions to play for Rochdale this season, but midfielder Micky Cummins was a reasonably accomplished midfielder for Port Vale, Darlington and Rotherham United, while goalkeeper Kenny Arthur seems to have been around forever but is actually only thirty-one and even made the Scotland squad for a couple of games while playing for Partick Thistle earlier in his career. The orientation period required when dropping into non-league football may prevent Grimsby from winning the Blue Square Premier this season, but if they can recover from the psychological trauma of dropping into the new league, they should make the play-offs.
4. AFC Wimbledon: A place in the play-offs proved to be too much for Wimbledon in their first season in the BSP last season, but eighth place was an encouraging finish and they are certainly in a position to be able to push on and into the play-offs this season. Some familiar names, such as Paul Lorraine and Derek Duncan, have departed, but a couple of their new signings seem like great acquisitions, such as the former Barnet defender Ismail Yakubu and the young left-sided player, Andre Blackman, who played as a trainee for both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Most importantly of all, the club managed to fend off the unwanted advances of Crawley Town for their influential captain, Danny Kedwell. Kedwell is a class act, probably too good for this division, and his leadership should see Wimbledon improve on their encouraging start to life in this division.
5. Crawley Town: There can be little question that Crawley have, in the space of the last few weeks, become one of the (if not, the) most unpopular clubs in non-league football. It’s not – as will doubtlessly have been claimed elsewhere – jealousy at their newly-found wealth, more irritation at the fact that they seem to be making a habit of making unwanted passes at other clubs’ players, like a wealthy middle-aged man in a nightclub at three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes, though the middle-aged man’s wallet is enough, and there can be little doubting the abilities of the likes of the former Brighton & Hove Albion goalkeeper Michel Kuipers and Matt Tubbs, once of Salisbury City. Building a team, however, is not merely as simple as flashing a gold credit card, though, and whether the near-universally reviled Steve Evans has the ability to fashion a team out of all this flux is open to question – as is, of course, the question of whether he should even be allowed anywhere near a football club in the first place.
6. Newport County: Newport return to the league that they were in when the old club folded twenty-one years ago on the crest of a wave. Manager Dean Holdsworth came close to getting the sack a couple of years ago but after the club’s supporters trust stepped in to help with the running of the club in December 2008 they flourished and became the first senior club in the English league system to get promoted last season – in the middle of March – and ended the season with a massive one hundred and three points. The club has further strengthened its squad with the acquisition of players such as the Kidderminster Harriers defender Lee Baker, and they haven’t lost any of their most important players during the summer either. They are more than ready to make the step up into the Blue Square Premier.
7. Cambridge United: With chairman George Rolls now long gone and manager Martin Ling now with his feet comfortably under the table at The Abbey Stadium, Cambridge United will hope to make progress on the pitch this season, although the club, which would in most parallel universes be at or near the top of the table, continues to be hamstrung by the rent that it has to pay just to stay in its home ground. Goalkeeper Danny Naisbitt has signed from local rivals Histon, and he was the man that kept a clean sheet in knocking Leeds United out of the FA Cup for them two years ago, whilst thirty-two year old striker Daryl Clare scored forty-two goals in ninety-odd games for Burton Albion during his time there and should add a little sharpness to their attack.
8. Rushden & Diamonds: Rushden’s fourth place finish last season was a surprise to some, but it probably shouldn’t have been. Justin Edinburgh is a shrewd manager, and the team that he built last season was a tidy one. They might not hit the same heights again this year, but they should be in touch with the play-offs again even if they can’t quite match last season’s outstanding performance. The problem that they have is that jthey have a smallish squad and that, in the course of a forty-six match season, such considerations become important. Jamie Day, signed from Peterborough United over the summer, played over 100 games for The Posh and looks like a particularly astute signing.
9. Wrexham: Since dropping out of the Football League, Wrexham haven’t really managed a sustained challenge to get back, but they are understood to be entering into talks which may even end up in the club’s supporters trust taking ownership of the club, which might, after years of seeming to perenially be on the verge of one crisis or another, see a little of the torpor lift from over The Racecourse Ground and a little stability return to the club. Doubts remain, however, over whether Dean Saunders is the right man for the manager’s job at the club and there remain too many ifs and buts at present to believe that they will be able to challenge, but Wrexham’s biggest leap forward could yet take place off the pitch this season.
10. Darlington: Darlington have been here before, but their previous stay was only for a year and was over twenty years ago – the Football Conference has changed a lot since then. Still, the worst of the club’s financial crisis seems to have finally stabilised, and they have made a couple of interesting signings during the summer, including Chris Senior, a diminutive striker who scored fifteen goals for Altrincham last season, and Kelvin Jack, the Trinidad & Tobago who was his country’s first choice at the 2006 World Cup finals, but missed out on the first two matches against Sweden and England after picking up a late, late injury. Darlington, of course, have to break the losing habit, but there is nothing that leaps out which suggests that they won’t and a season of stability whilst possibly flirting with the play-offs might just suit them fine.
11. Mansfield Town: Their wage bill has been cut this summer, but the top half of the Blue Square Premier table was tight last season and promises to be just as tight this season, so Mansfield could yet improve upon last season’s performance. Adam Smith looks like a handy signing from York City, and veteran defender Steve Foster, who was born in the town and whose father Colin played two hundred-odd games for the club during the 1970s, has returned to Field Mill after a lengthy career that saw him make almost five hundred appearances for a variety of clubs in the Football League. The loss of striker Jake Speight, who has made the step up to play for Bradford City, may cost them, though – he scored a goal every other game for Mansfield last season.
12. Kidderminster Harriers: It has been all change at Kidderminster Harriers over the summer, with thirteen new players arriving at Aggborough. This might have been a cause for mild concern, but manager Steve Burr – a non-league name which in itself screams stability - has opted for a level experience which suggests that the club could make slight progress on the thirteenth place that they managed last season. A good example of this policy is Lee Morris, who was playing for Derby County a decade ago and made a couple of appearances for the England under-21 team, and is still only thirty years old. If Burr can forge a team from this, the play-offs aren’t beyond the Harriers, but mid-table may be more realistic for this season.
13. Kettering Town: Perhaps surprisingly for a team that had the continuing distraction of issues over the lease to their Rockingham Road ground (or raising the money to build a new ground in the town), the Poppies finished in sixth place in the table last season, although they were twelve points from fifth place and the play-offs. A similarly high position may be beyond them this season, but manager Lee Harper has made a couple of astute signings this summer in the form of Sol Davis from Luton Town and Ashley Westwood, whilst the anticipated return from injury of Moses Ashikodi should also be a boost for them. Chairman Imran Ladaak also claims to have made “a substantial five-figure offer for a striker who we have been monitoring since last season”, although no-one seems to know who this is yet. With the defence and attack already strengthened, perhaps this money could be better spent on a midfielder.
14. Altrincham: On one of the tightest budgets in the league, that Altrincham got through last season without any significant relegation scares is one of the achievements of the season in the Blue Square Premier. Graham Heathcote is now the longest-serving manager in the division (at eight years), and this stability demonstrated its own value last season. Heathcote has also made one of the most astute signings of the summer, in bringing the former Morecambe striker Michael Twiss to the club. He replaces veteran striker Colin Little, who retired at the age of thirty-seven. It is, of course, not inconceivable that they will struggle, but they moved in the right direction last summer.
15. Forest Green Rovers: The BSP wouldn’t be the same without some sort of midsummer nonsense, and this year’s came with the demotion of Salisbury City to the Southern League. Forest Green are the traditional beneficiaries of such japes, and they start the new season knowing, yet again, that they have to improve to survive. This season, though, might be different. They might just do it. Local businessman Dale Vince has put some money into the club and, while a Crawley-like extreme make-over would seem a little on the unlikely side, an improvement to mid-table would be a start. The return from injury of defensive midfielder Mike Fowler will be a significant benefit to them.
16. Eastbourne Borough: After an excellent first season in the BSP two years ago, Eastbourne surprisingly struggled last season and finished the season in nineteenth place, dangerously close (although not as dangerously close as they thought they had been on the last day of the season) to the relegation places. The club consistently runs itself properly, and this should mean that if any BSP clubs do go financially crazy in the coconut this season, at least Eastbourne won’t be one of them. However, this has the according effect on the wage budget. The arrival of striker Richard Pacquette from York City gives them an extra option up front, and we can expect them to improve upon last season.
17. Tamworth: Another team with limited resources, Tamworth did well to steer clear of the relegation place that many had predicted for them at the start of last season, and we’re putting them down for a similar season this year. Former Telford United and Mansfield Town striker Kyle Perry is a decent signing for the club – at 6’4″ tall, he will be a presence up front for the Lambs, if nothing else, whilst former Nottingham Forest defender Aaron Mitchell, another strapping player at 6’5″ tall, should have similar effect at the back. He impressed manager Gary Mills after agreeing to play for the club for free when he was released by Nottingham Forest.
18. Southport: Comfortable winners of the Blue Square North last season, Southport have been something of a yo-yo club between the two divisions in recent seasons. As at Tamworth, Southport have decided that height is a good option up front and 6’5″ Matty McNeil, formerly of Macclesfield Town and Stockport County, will certainly give them an aerial threat. It’s a big step up from the BSN, however, and Southport will end the season reasonably happy to avoid the drop.
19. Fleetwood Town: Fleetwood Town having been spending lavishly over the last couple of years and followed Southport into the BSP at the end of last season, through the play-offs. John Miles, Ian Craney and Peter Cavanagh are amongst the numerous new signings that they have made over the summer, but the BSP is completely uncharted territory for them and it may take them a while to adjust to their new surroundings. They still, however, seem likely to avoid relegation at the end of the season.
20. Barrow: Barrow cut it fine last season before recovering to fifteenth place in the table, and they may have work to do again this time around in order to ensure their survival. The loss of goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson to Port Vale is a big loss for them, as is that of Andy Bond to Colchester United. On the positive side, new signing Danny Forrest (who has made one of the longer transfers possible in English football, from Crawley Town to Barrow) is experienced at this level and new defender Matthew Heywood earned experience playing for five Football League clubs over thirteen years before giving up Grimsby for Barrow.
21. Hayes & Yeading United: Whilst it is a pleasure to see Church Road, one of the last, untouched traditional non-league football grounds still in the BSP, one cannot feel that last season’s avoidance of relegation was about as good as things are likely to get for Hayes & Yeading. The club’s promotion into the league the year before had been something of a surprise in itself, after all. Garry Haylock is a decent manager, but the club’s wage budget is a reflection of the extent to which they struggle for crowds.
22. Bath City: Promoted from the Blue Square South, Bath City are familiar with the BSP but seem likely to struggle this season. The club, like several others that are likely to be in or around the relegation places this season, are part-time and will struggle to compete with the bigger clubs in the division. This combined with a lack experience when compared with the part-time clubs that have been in the BSP for a few years, may mean that their spell in the top flight of non-league football is a brief one, though they are likely to fight tooth and nail to stay up.
23. Gateshead: Gateshead survived in the Blue Square Premier by the skin of their teeth last season, and questions have to be asked over the wisdom of turning full-time when they averaged crowds of 674 last year. Manager Ian Bogie does, then, have more money to spend, and signing twenty-one year old striker Nathan Fisher from Northern League side Chester-Le-Street Town (where he scored forty-four goals in forty nine games) is certainly a bold move. If he can make the step up, his goals might just save them, but it is a big step up for such a young player. The concern for Gateshead is the sustainability of the full-time structure, and a poor pre-season, which saw them score just five goals in eight matches.
24. Histon: Histon’s finances have been believed to be in bad way for a while now, and this situation has deteriorated in the summer – the club’s debt as quoted as being £800,000 earlier in the year. The club has taken an axe to its wage budget, and with a fanbase of around 500, it is difficult to see a happy ending to their current troubles that doesn’t involve dropping a couple of levels and getting themselves sorted out. Finishing outside of the relegation places would be a major, major achievement for John Beck, who returned to the club after caretaker manager Alan Lewer didn’t take up the option to take the job on full-time.
Please feel free to point out any errors in the above – due to time constraints I was only able to check the sources for these stories from a couple of sources, either of which could have been colossally wrong!