After last year’s comfortable win in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League (and, for those of you that are wondering, we are dropping the sponsors’ names from this and the Southern League to avoid confusion, since they are both being sponsored by the same adhesives brand this year) for FC Halifax Town, this year’s competition seems set to heavily feature another reformed former Football League club, this time in the form of Chester FC. Chester won promotion on the last day of last season in just about the most dramatic circumstances possible, and it seems reasonable to explain away their frittering away of a comfortable lead in the closing weeks of the season as a serious case of title run-in nerves, which manager Neil Young will presumably have sought to address over the course of the summer. Still, Chester have strengthened over the summer and it is difficult to imagine that they will not be there or thereabouts come the end of April next year. If the jitteriness that afflicted them in the last few matches if last season kicks in again, though, the title could be up for grabs.
The team that won promotion with them through the play-offs, Chorley, may have more modest ambitions for this season – although challenging for a place in the play-offs certainly isn’t beyond this team in an open division – but tensions between the two sides which boiled over into a reasonably serious disturbance at Chorley’s Victory Park during the spring means that the matches between these two sides will need to be better managed off the pitch this time around. Indeed, at this level of the game the behaviour of crowds can be an issue. There remains a tendency in the part of some with no particular interested in the clubs concerned to turn out for the relatively “bigger” matches that clubs have to offer in the full knowledge that policing levels that will be low to non-existent and that stewarding may be ineffective.
One club that seems to occasionally attract opposition “supporters” (though it may be more accurate merely to describe them as “locals”) is FC United of Manchester. Fortunately, the club and its support is largely self-policing, although this doesn’t mean a tendency in the part of such shadowy institutions as “police intelligence” offering advice on how to treat their travelling support which borders upon the ridiculous. The example if their FA Cup match at Brighton last year, which was treated as a Category A match by the authorities. Unsurprisingly, World War Three didn’t break out at Withdean or in the North Laines that day, but the unwarranted reputation may continue to follow them into this season.
FC United’s biggest battle of this season is likely to come away from the pitch this season, but in an altogether more constructive sense than anything to do with crowd trouble. Having had the rug pulled from under their feet over their proposed development of the Ten Acres Lane site last year, they have set their heart on a site in the Moston area of Manchester. This battle is far from won, but approval to build a home of their own would cast any disappointments on the pitch into a very long shadow indeed. Considering the perpetually almost hyperreal that the events of last season carried for them, it seems implausible that such drama could be repeated. It still feels difficult to say “never”, but for some – perhaps many – FC United supporters, next season will see a continuation of falling in love with football again and, no matter how many knocks they receive along the way, after seven years a club that was derided by some critics as something that wouldn’t “last six months” isn’t going anywhere.
The other team that will be talked about in terms of being truly capable of challenging near the top of the table will be Bradford Park Avenue. Avenue have signed a clutch of decent players over the course of the summer, but they retain the feel of a club that could lapse into some sort of crisis – perhaps unforeseen, perhaps not – at any point. At the moment, though, “colourful” owner Robert Blackburn seems relatively flush, but his work will be cut out in overcoming a club with the resources that Chester – who are clear favourites with the bookmakers – will most likely have at their disposal. Other clubs that will be looking in the direction of the play-off places will include Northwich Victoria, Hednesford Town and Stafford Rangers, all of whom have seen better days and may feel that they are due a return to an upward trajectory at some point in the future.
Financial worries sadly rear their head in this league in the same way as they do in many others. Burscough looked as if they were going to fold at the end of last season after the owners Chequer Properties dismissed two directors and agreed a ground share with Skelmersdale United. There was talk of a breakaway club, but this was put on hold and those running the club have been making statements that have hinted that the move to Skelmersdale will only be a temporary move and the club’s new chairman has sought to reassure disillusioned supporters that moving away from their Victoria Park home will only be until a new ground is built, but it still feels from the outside as if the atmosphere around the club is tense and it starts the new season with an uncertain future still hanging over it.
Chester, however, remain the team to beat and any club that manages to overhaul them will consider their job a job very well done. It is worth pointing out that the strength in depth of the English game can be seen writ large in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League. At least FC United and Chester will comfortably attract average home crowds that run to four figures, and there will be other clubs that will also show healthy attendances in what is, let us not forget, the regional seventh division of English football. The clubs of this league have a long way to go just to get to the Blue Square Premier, yet that they exist at all should perhaps be a point of pride for all of us that enjoy the non-league game.
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