Well, you asked for it. Well, precisely one of you did. It’s time for my annual non-league predictions – a little late, I know, but only the Blue Square Leagues (henceforth to continue to be known as The Conference on this little blog, at least) have actually started so far, so let’s take a brief (very brief, in the case of a couple of the divisions concerned) at how the teams underneath the Football League will be shaping up this season.
The Conference: Last season, Oxford United imploded in the new year, leaving the way clear for Dagenham & Redbridge to charge up the table and into the Football League. This season’s Conference looks like being just as interesting. Oxford United should again challenge near the top, and with the League’s biggest crowds behind them (there were over 5,000 at The Kassam Stadium for their first match) and the experienced Jim Smith still in charge, they can be expected to have shaken off some of the complacency that marred their first season in non-league football since 1964. However, Exeter City, last year’s losing play-off finalists, are my tips to win the League. They lost several key players during the summer, but played the most attractive football in the division last year, and have signed Oxford’s experienced Steve Basham, who should be worth a few points to them. All the signs from Devon are that it could be quite a successful season for the county. Torquay United might have fallen off the bottom of the Football League (and their chairman may be as mad as a box of frogs), but they have stabilised over the course of the summer, and expect them to challenge close, along with Oxford United. If they can arrest their habit of losing matches to lower-placed teams, I anticipate a strong season from York City and, though it pains me to say it, Stevenage Borough might well build on their FA Trophy success to take a step up and into the play-offs this season.
At the bottom of the table, all eyes will be on the newly-promoted semi-professionals. Of the four, Salisbury City look the best-placed to consolidate with a mid-table finish this season. I fear for Droylesden and Histon, neither of whom appear to have strengthened enough for a forty-six match season against (mostly) professional clubs. Farsley Celtic find themselves in the same boat, though they did give a decent account of themselves in beating Stafford Rangers on the opening day of the season. Having escaped the drop thanks to financial misdeeds elsewhere for two years in a row, I expect Altrincham to fair better this season. The key question at the bottom of the Conference is whether Crawley Town can find the £100,000 that they reportedly need to find in the next few weeks, in order to stay afloat. They exited the CVA that had cost them ten points last season, but the much-hated Majeeds are still in charge, the club’s Supporters Trust has issued another vote of no confidence in them, and I fear that, yet again, only three teams that will be relegated from the Conference because of what happens on the pitch.
The Conference South: The reorganisation of non-league football in 2004 created a strange situation, in which a number of clubs that had spent years treading water accumulated in the Conference South. I would go so far as to say that a good dozen or so of the teams in the divisions below them are as strong as any in the Conference South. Havant & Waterlooville have been splashing the cash, as have Bromley, but I’m going to go for Dorchester Town to win it. They were, reportedly, very impressive in beating St Albans City 3-0 on Saturday. They went professional during the summer, have made some decent signings and look likely to challenge near the top of the table. Havant & Waterlooville are strong enough for the play-offs, and I’ll go for Braintree Town, Cambridge City & Lewes to make up the rest of the places. At the bottom of the table, Hayes & Yeading United may have merged, but remain a team made up of the players from two teams that struggled last season, Fisher Athletic are apparently back in financial trouble yet again, Thurrock are perennial strugglers (in my mind’s eye, at least) and Maidenhead United are my random selection to go down.
The Conference North: There are a lot of strong teams in this division, but I’m going for Kettering Town to end their recent run of bad luck and bounce up into the Conference. Last year’s two relegated teams, Southport and Tamworth both look strong and will be likely to challenge, and may have to settle for a place in the play-offs. AFC Telford United stormed to Unibond League Premier Division promotion last season and I expect them, under the sensible ownership of their trust and with possibly the biggest crowds in the division behind them, to challenge again. Finally, I’ll go for Boston United mount a strong challenge for promotion, though they will be pushed hard by Nuneaton Borough. At the bottom of the table, there is still a lot of dead wood, which was kept safe from the drop last season by the spectacular implosions at Scarborough and Lancaster City. Leigh RMI seem likely to drop with Vauxhall Motors, and I’ll go for Gainsborough Trinity and Solihull Moors to join them.
The Isthmian League: In the Premier Division of the Ryman League, the title appears to be a two-horse race, and I think that AFC Wimbledon, with the vastly experienced Terry Brown in charge and former Dons legend Marcus Gayle on the pitch, to edge out Chelmsford City. City should still be good enough for the play-offs, though, along with newly-promoted AFC Hornchurch and Hastings United. In Division One North, Dartford must surely be too strong for the rest of the division (although I would anticipate strong challenges from AFC Sudbury and Enfield Town, who both lost out in the play-offs last season, and in Division One South, I’ll go for Worthing, who looked pretty handy when I saw them pre-season, and Tooting & Mitcham United.
The Southern League: We’re getting into the realms of the leagues that I don’t know too much about here, but since when has not knowing anything about something prevented me from commenting upon it? Kings Lynn are my tips to go up as champions in the Premier Division, with Bedford Town to follow them up. In the Midland Division, there are a couple of biggish names from the past looking to recapture former glories. I’m sticking a pin in the metaphorical donkey’s tail here, but I’ll go for Leamington and Aylesbury United to go up. In the Western Division, expect a strong first season from the newly-reformed Farnborough FC and, erm, Taunton Town.
The Unibond League: Witton Albion were pipped to the post in the play-offs last season and, with the possibility of a new stadium on the horizon, they should go one better this season. I’ll go for North Liverpool’s Marine to join them. In Division One North, I fully expect FC United Of Manchester to continue their upward trajectory in what looks like a pretty weak division, with Bradford Park Avenue, reportedly flush with cash, sitting in just behind them. In Division One South, erm… expansion in the Unibond League has brought in a wealth of new clubs that I haven’t much heard of. Sheffield FC, the oldest football club in the world, are in there, so I’ll go for them (it would be nice, wouldn’t it?), and I’ll go for… umm… Skelmersdale United to join them.
So there you go. Don’t blame me if I’m utterly, hopelessly wrong.