Last year was pretty clear cut in the Conference North, Alfreton were pretty much definitely going up despite having a ridiculous backlog of games, the play-off places were fairly clear early on and Redditch were dropping like a stone from around February time, but this season it looks set to be a bit closer at both ends of the table and closer still in the middle.
Along with relegated Altrincham and Histon there are the promoted pair of Colwyn Bay and FC Halifax, and the 22nd most northern team at Step 2 – Bishop’s Stortford, shifted over the north/south divide in the fall-out from Rushden and Diamonds’ demise. Bishop’s Stortford, like Histon and like Worcester before them will soon wise up to the difference between the two Step 2 leagues (Gloucester have only ever known the Northern side of the imaginary moving line which hovers over the Conference’s map).
It would be hard to bet against FC Halifax Town being somewhere near the top of the table, The new boys have bulldozered their way back up the table and boast hot-shot striker Jamie Vardy as one of their key assets and laughed off an offer from Stockport to take him of their hands for a rumoured £50,000. Manager Neil Aspin has made a few key signings and if the Shaymen are as good as all their fans claim they are Massifax will ‘do a Newport’ and win the league before Easter.
Nuneaton and Boston both fell at the final hurdle last season, perhaps running out of steam after a promotion into the Step 2 the season before. Nuneaton will run close again this year, they’ve been squad building and have a potential lethal weapon up front in the shape of Danny Glover (from Worcester) and Lee Smith (from Forest Green Rovers.) Smith, as he tells pretty much everyone, scored 21 goals from midfield for Gloucester City in their first year in the BSN, he had a mixed season with FGR, but in a new role as a loan striker could be back in form with Nuneaton.
After losing Paul Hurst and Rob Scott to Grimsby along with a few players Boston United had a bit of an end-of-the-season-wobble (also see: Eastwood). Along with Halifax and Altrincham, Boston are seen as one of the ‘sleeping giants.’ Jason Lee and Lee Canonville have a good budget, decent fan base and the image of being a ‘big club’ – it’s a lot to live up to but after a solid pre-season, they are looking like at least repeating their form from last season.
Having a small budget in the Conference Premier equates to a modest to decent budget in the league below so Altrincham should find themselves towards the top of the table, if not challenging for a play-off place. They attract decent players but it is likely to be a very close run thing between them and the likes of Guiseley, Harrogate and Stalybridge Celtic.
Despite an AGM Cup reprieve in 2009/10 and a solid mid-to-bottom-table finish last season Harrogate Town could well be a surprise package this year, manager Simon Weaver has been given a nice little spending pot from his dad (and chairman) Irving. The club have made some very good signings, including Paul Brayson from Blyth. Dark horses.
Jim Harvey’s young guns at Stalybridge Celtic are now in their second season of full-time football. He has a knack for picking fast, small lads who terrify some of the slightly more senior defenders in the league so they could be dangerous, if they get a good run they might even sneak a play-off place. They’ve been given the ‘ones to watch’ tag too, but many others have had that before and not done so well (see: Gainsborough.)
After a stellar run which saw them battling for a play-off place, Eastwood’s season fizzled out like a dodgy sparkler dropped in a wet field on Bonfire Night. The unbeaten run of 19 games across the entire season was overshadowed when the club was told by the Conference they were not eligible for promotion because although they had the correct number of seats at Coronation Park they were spread across three stands and not two, therefore they did not meet the ground grading. Cue the club being put up for sale and general panic. Thankfully over the summer this has calmed down – there is a new chief executive in the form of Neil Vanderwalt and a new management team led by Craig Armstrong and Jamie Brough. There is talk of getting the work done to meet the ground grading and Armstrong is pretty clear about his ambition for the club. If they find their groove again they won’t be a bad bet.
Everyone always assumes that the clubs which drop down from the league above will be immediate contenders for promotion but when it comes to Histon, well, they might not be going straight back up again. Being docked points for not meeting the Conference’s new financial reporting rules and spending part of last season with a transfer embargo is hardly a good omen. Their money issues might be behind them but the debt hasn’t disappeared overnight and they’ll have the same travelling trials as Gloucester (without the £12k golden ticket of their near neighbours Bishop’s Stortford.)
Workington and Droylsden are solid Conference North fixtures, the Reds are the most travelled team in the league and tend to find the games stacking up after the winter freeze but they are a tough team to play against and will no doubt find themselves securely in the middle of the table, perhaps even in the top ten, they’ve strengthened their squad and could be real dark horses, as opposed to Harrogate who everyone is tipping and who have spent loads of cash. Dave Pace’s Droylsden looked knackered by the end of last season, they just missed out on the play offs and had a few injury niggles, if they can get a solid start they’ll be challenging Altrinhcam and the like nearer the top of the table, but only if they don’t run out of puff again.
Hinckley United are usually bang average, despite having a fairly healthy budget, a good squad of players and a tidy little ground in a good footballing-catchment area. They won’t set the league alight and probably won’t trouble either end of the table. Bang average.
Gloucester City manager Dave Mehew hasn’t made many signings this summer and has lost a couple of players – both Tom Evans (Frome) and Tom Parrinello (Mangotsfield) have dropped down the leagues rather than deal with the travelling in the BSN. But with Steve Davies signing from Forest Green Rovers and impressive youngster George Lloyd (a Team Bath student) breaking through into the first team alongside some of the talent from the new Development Squad Gloucester have a versatile side. Don’t forget they beat Alfreton and Nuneaton and drew with Telford at the end of last season.
Marcus Bignot has some big boots to fill at Solihull Moors after taking on the manager’s post after the death of Bob Faulkner last season. Moors finished 7th last year and Bignot has a decent squad to work with to make his mark in his first full season in charge. There’s been a change in management up at Blyth Spartans too, Steve Cuggy has arrived from FA Vase winners Whitely Bay and brought some of his cup winning squad with him.
STRUGGLING BUT SAFE
After overcoming FC United of Manchester in the play-offs to make the jump up to the Conference North it’s been an unsettled summer Colwyn Bay. Not as unsettled as nearby Wrexham but they may find the Conference North tough going but they’ve got new owners and have kept hold of captain Damien Allen, who opted not to take up the offer of a trial at Luton.
They’ve got a cracking new ground, tacked onto the back of the old Rockingham Triangle (you open the door at the back of the stand and can walk from the old ground straight into the new one), but Corby Town really struggled towards the end of last. Having seen them at the beginning of the season and again at the end they looked like two different teams and not in a good way, they were shocking at the end of the season, managing one shot on target in 90 minutes. With a revolving door of loanees and new signings and the shock of the death of their chairman Corby need to claw their way back from the disjointed mess of last year. Their budget was slashed at the tail end of last season, unless the crowds flock to Steel Park they are going to struggle.
Probably the biggest underachievers in the league Gainsborough Trinity have a healthy budget and a vastly experienced manager in the form of friendly pensioner and former Villa boss Brian Little. But for some reason they been stuck in mid-table obscurity for a while now, like the kid who can’t quite reach the biscuit tin, even if they stand on their tippy tip toes. On paper they are a decent side, boosted for the new season by Jamie Yates and Rory Coleman (from Boston) and a couple of other impressive signings but it remains to be seen whether they can actually fulfil their potential. Every year they sign good players, are tipped to do well and then don’t.
Hyde gave us a bit of a scare last year, what with the chairman and the secretary quitting, then manager Neil Tolson quitting, a general sense of doom did hang over Ewen Fields for quite some time. Now the clouds have cleared and a kindly visitor, from sunny climes has arrived, in the form of former England-manager and ghost believer Glenn Hoddle. Glenn’s shipped in his academy from Spain. Basically Hyde will become a shopfront for Glenn’s boys as well as fielding their own players. Gary Lowe has brought in a few players from his old club Curzon Ashton and after a relegation dogfight last season Hyde should fare better this time round.
Although not having to worry about budgeting for travel costs thanks to £12k from the Conference Bishop’s Stortford chairman Luigi Del Basso has been moaning that they’ve lost players due to being switched from the south (although keeper Ross Kitterage had left to join Dover before the league switch was made) and the fans seem to think the club is ill prepared for the North. Still, they have a decent budget and capable players but time will tell if their pre-season would have been better spent properly preparing for the league rather than kicking up a stink and whining ‘its not fair.’ Step 2’s 22nd most northerly team will struggle if they don’t adapt to the rough and tumble of their new league.
Vauxhall Motors don’t score many goals, they don’t really play very exciting football and yet somehow they finish in an anonymous position in the teens of the table, every year, they are 50-1 for promotion, don’t waste your money on a wild punt, they won’t do, they never do.
Worcester City have lost a fair few players over the summer; Danny Glover’s gone to Nuneaton, Mark Danks has gone to Hendesford and captain Graham Ward has gone too. Arguable their best three players and undoubtedly the spine of the squad. Glover bagged 20 goals for Worcester last season and he’s be replaced by Mike Symons, released by Gloucester, who scored five. Time will tell if Symons can find his spark with new boy Luke Corbett and replace Glover and Danks but neither has been prolific at this level. After a 2009/10 reprieve and a 17th place finish last time out added to the departure of key players it isn’t looking great for them.
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