Although the weekend before last was, strictly speaking the “start” of the football season, the fact that the leagues below the Conference didn’t kick off until last Saturday left the schedules looking somewhat empty, as far as I was concerned. This week, normal service has returned, with the Ryman League, British Gas Southern League and Unibond Bond leagues all playing their opening fixtures. Normal service, finally, has been resumed. The Football League continues to rumble on (24,000 people turned out at Elland Road for Leeds United’s first home league match against Southend United – I am treating this sort of crowd as a vote of confidence for Ken Bates, and am thus finally giving up on Leeds United’s supporters as being utterly beyond hope or redemption from now on), but I’m going to try to not get into the habit of giving you a standard weekly round-up every Monday. You can get that sort of thing in a million other places on the internet, and I am going to at least try to offer something different on here.
Having said all of that, the start of the non-league season offers me my first chance of the season to take a little look at what is going on slightly further down the football pyramid, where (as I have undoubtedly mentioned before) things are just as interesting, if not considerably more interesting than they are elsewhere. I’ve said on here before that small clubs, focussed on their communities and owned by their supporters are a more than viable alternative to trying to cling to the coat-tails of Football League and senior non-league clubs that are living beyond their means and are heading for a big, big fall. The opening day of the season provided a few pointers to where the success stories of the coming season may turn up. Here are six of the best from last weekend:
AFC Telford United 1-1 Boston United: I’ve got a piece for here about Telford stored up and ready to – the original Telford United (Conference regulars, FA Cup giant-killers and FA Trophy winners in the 1980s) were wound up in 2004, and reformed immediately at a lower level by their Supporters Trust. They won promotion into the Conference North through the play-offs at the end of last season, and have kicked off the new season with two wins and a draw. On Saturday, they forced a 1-1 draw against Boston United, who last summer suffered the indignity of being relegated two divisions from the Football League and will be hoping for a season of relative stability at their new, lower level. A late equalizer forced a point for Boston, but the stand-out statistic is the crowd of 2,203. This is an outstanding attendance for a match at this level (we’re talking about two divisions below the Football League, don’t forget) and, even more significantly, is a considerably bigger crowd than the old Telford United could regularly attract when they played in the Conference.
AFC Wimbledon 2-0 Ramsgate: After failing in the play-offs again last season, there might have been a worry in south-west London that AFC Wimbledon would stagnate this season. However, the appointment of former Hayes and Aldershot Town manager Terry Brown appears to have injected a fresh lease of life into them. They followed up encouraging pre-season performances against Conference clubs Salisbury City and Woking with a comfortable opening day win against Ramsgate, with both goals coming from new midfielder Sam Hatton. They will have more challenging opponents this season than Ramsgate and certainly need to set straight their unwanted habit from last season of failing to finish off teams that they should have beaten, but it was a solid start for the Ryman League Premier division’s best-supported team. A crowd of 2,829 (600 more than watched the League Two match between Macclesfield Town and Franchise, might I add) also seems to indicate that talk of their bubble bursting is premature, to say the least.
Lancaster City 2-1 FC United of Manchester: Having had two seasons of endless success, FC United were brought back down to earth with an opening day defeat in their first match in the Unibond League Division One North against Lancaster City, one of last season’s most celebrated crisis clubs. Lancaster took a two division drop after a financial implosion that left them close to closure, but gave every indication of having turned a significant corner by beating United, who are going to find the Unibond League considerably more difficult than they might have expected. Their supporters’ message board’s reaction to the defeat seemed to indicate a healthy acceptance of their place in the non-league hierarchy – there seems to be general acceptance that this is a season to enjoy and hope for the best, as opposed to getting too worked up about worrying about championships and the like. Most notably, they took a travelling support of around 2,000 people to Lancaster in a crowd of 2,257 – away support like that will be a massive financial boost to all of the clubs in their division this season. It may take them a while to adjust, but I still expect to see them challenging near the top of the league before the end of the season.
Witham Town 2-4 Enfield Town: Down in the Ryman League Division One North, Trust-owned Enfield Town kicked off their season with a 4-2 win at Witham Town in front of a decent travelling support, all of which bodes well for the season ahead. Town have struggled to get out of this division over the last couple of years or so, but their future looks healthy. They held Conference South club Cambridge City to a 1-1 draw in the Supporters Direct Cup a couple of weeks ago, and received some much-needed publicity with the hosting of a live BBC London radio show from their clubhouse at Brimsdown after the match. A new council in the borough are also making encouraging noises about finding them a new home of their own. The potential for a successful club in the London Borough of Enfield is massive, and the dissolution and reformation of the runtish Enfield 1893 in the Essex Senior League surely makes them the only candidates as “the team to take seriously” in that part of the world.
Dartford 2-2 Maldon: Staying in the same division for a moment, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a club that could create major waves in non-league football over the next few years or so. As reported on here before, Dartford were swept away and left homeless in the aftermath of Maidstone United’s collapse in the early 1990s, and ended up spending more than a decade away from their home town. They returned to Dartford, to the magnificent Princes Park, last season, and appear to have caught the imagination of the local populace again – nearly 1,000 people were at their first home match of the season on Saturday. Formerly regulars in the Southern League Premier Division and the Conference in the 1980s, they’re building up from the foot of the senior ladder and, whilst they’re not owned by their supporters, they are proving the benefits of a positive relationship between a small club and its local authorities. Dartford’s new stadium shows the potential for small clubs to work with local councils for the benefit of their communities. More on Princes Park here.
Godalming Town 3-3 Farnborough FC: It has been a pretty thankless task, being a Farnborough supporter over the last few years or so, and the original Farnborough Town club finally gave up the ghost, resigned from the Conference South and folded at the end of last season. This was not, however, the end of senior football in the town, and FAST, the supporters trust, worked hard over the summer for the newly-formed club to take their place in the British Gas Business Southern League Division One South & West (yes, I’m going to have to come with a way of shortening that) in time for this season. Over 200 Farnborough supporters made the short trip to Godalming on Saturday for their first match, and it looked as if they were going to go home happy when they went in at half-time 3-0 up. Their inexperience showed in the second half, however, and they were eventually pegged back to a draw. Still, their supporters have got a team to watch and, after the last couple of years, that really is the most important thing.