There is a lot of money flying about in the Blue Square South this season as the teams jostle to fill the void at the top left by Braintree Town and Ebbsfleet United. The gap between those with a decent budget and those without seems to be growing a bit more in the southern half of Step 2 than in the northern half. Oh and all the teams who have enjoyed a nice little comfort zone around the M25 and M4 corridor have a lovely jaunt down to Cornwall to look forward too.
Woking seem to be nailed on favourites to win the league and its certain that they have a very strong squad. But they will face some stiff competition from Dover Athletic, Chelmsford City and Eastbourne Borough. Gary Hill turned the squad when he joined as manager last season so expect big things in his first full season in charge, reports from pre-season games suggest they are looking like a quality side already. The fact that some players have taken a wage cut in order to stay suggests a team with proper ambition.
Dover Athletic may have lost talisman striker Adam Birchall to Gillingham but they should still give the top teams a run for their money. In comes George Purcell from York CIty, he’s full fit after an injury-ravaged season but should be on for the top three but only if they can improve their woeful home form from last season which meant they finished just shy of the play-offs
Perhaps wary of the ever-changing line which separates the Conference North and South, Chelmsford City have beefed up their line-up, maybe in anticipation of a possible shift to the other side of Step 2 if they fail to get promoted. In come signings including ex-Colchester midfielder Sam Corcoran and Joe Benjamin, whilst out goes midfielder Matt Lock, who’s already made the move north to join Gloucester City. A couple of Conference North players who have come up against Chelmsford this season have comment on how big and strong the side are.
Eastbourne Borough can boast an impressive summer signing in Gary Hart, who’s joined from Brighton on a free. But manager Garry Wilson hasn’t retained many of the squad who dropped down from the Conference Premier last season so the team is a bit of an unknown quantity but with the versality and experience they could well jump straight back up again.
Dartford have had a torrid pre-season, conceding ten goals in two games against Gillingham and Millwall but they could well be one of the surprise packages of the midtable teams, a bit like Welling United who might have lost Jack Parkinson but still have a solid squad. Welling finished sixth last year and will be wanting to carry that forward look at a push for a higher placed finish. Liquidation and being booted out of the Conference National hasn’t really stopped Salisbury City’s progress, they’ve stayed full time and stepped straight out of the Southern Premier League which is no mean feat, the fact that they’ve lost players to league clubs says a lot about the calibre of players they attract (and can afford,) they have another strong squad including Cheltenham Town’s Kyle Haynes who has been sent to Wiltshire for a long loan.
Basingstoke Town seem to have made a fair few signings this summer with Frank Gray’s spending spree including Wilson Gondwe, Toby Little and Rob Gradwell. Fans will be hoping that returning striker Tim Sills will repeat the form he enjoyed during his last spell at the club which saw him score 44 goals in 133 games between 1999 and 2002.
Boreham Wood have already been poaching players from Farnborough and could well take more (see below) with their new signings they have the potential to finish higher than last season’s 14th place. Meanwhile managerial changes at both Bromley – where former boss Mark Goldberg is back for a third spell with the club – and Hampton and Richmond – where Mark Harper has replaced Alan Devonshire – could mean improved fortunes for both sides. Eastleigh have added former Bristol Rovers keeper Mike Green to their squad and have turned full-time, they’ve snaffled up a few younger players with a lot of league experience. But they’ve not started throwing huge amounts of cash about so are likely to be a long-term project for promotion rather than a Crawley-style steamroller. The pre-season friendly against Real Betis might have grabbed the headlines for Havant & Waterlooville but they’ve seen a few decent players leave the club, like Guiseppe Sole, who joined from Newport last year and has left for title chasing Woking. Manager Shaun Gale is under pressure from the fans and has been given the dreaded ‘full confidence of the board.’
Sutton, like Truro and Salisbury are new to the league, but they probably lack the spending power of both. That said if ageing striker Craig Dundas can strike up a decent partnership with new singing Leroy Griffiths they should do well. New boys Truro City will be super confident, unlike the teams around them they are used to travelling all over the place for games, they’ve been doing it forever and besides they flew to a game when they were in Step 4, not an EasyJet to Luton job, a chartered plane. They have wads of cash, attract some good (but often journeymen) ex-League names and could even nick a play-off place if they get a good run. Weston-super-Mare, like Chelmsford, are getting closer and closer to the division between the two halves of Step 2. However unlike Chelmsford they haven’t really beefed up. They’ve kept the same core squad, including Jamie Price and Nat Pepperell and a smattering of local talent and former academy players from the two clubs up the road in Bristol.
Struggling but safe
Maidenhead were at the lower end of the table last season with a pretty young squad. They’ve added Leigh Henry, west country journeyman (Bath, Weston, Swindon, Swindon Supermarine, Newport) along with a couple of long term loanees from Aldershort but they lack the killer instinct and the budget needed to get any higher. Staines Town have a few new faces and Steve Cordery has been positive about his side’s prospects for the year ahead. Adam Everitt is one of the stand out signings, the defender has experience in the league with St Albans. He is joined by lofty defender James Tyrrell who played for Havant last season and has also spent time at the Glenn Hoddle Football Academy in Spain.
Dorchester Town are a team who always seem on the brink of some sort of upset. Improvements to the teams who finished around them in the table last season haven’t really been replicated so they could struggle. Tonbridge Angels boss Tommy Warrrilow will be wrapping his squad up in cotton wool and hoping for the best, he’s signed a squad of 16 and has no budget left for anyone else, the players are fairly young and it looks like the Angels’ will face a baptism of fire following their promotion. Its a similar story at AGM Cup Winners Thurrock, they struggled last season (hence their relegation) and its hard to see what improvements have been made to their squad
If you’d asked me on Friday I’d have probably tipped Farnborough to do pretty well, a solid top half finish. But on Sunday major shareholder Simon Hollis announced that he was stepping down as chairman and director with immediate effect. Eek. The statement on the club’s website is a bit worrying and it would be pretty surprising if this doesn’t disrupt their season in some way. They are a full-time club which has just had its main income stream pulled, its hard to see how there will be a happy ending to this one.
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