This coming weekend sees kick off for the National League North and South divisions, a further week to wait for the top division to get going but the two underlying sets of teams will be desperate to complete the new season for the first time in three years.
Two years without a completed season and minimal promotion from both divisions and no relegation has in my opinion led to a bit of stagnation, similar to Steps 3 and 4.
There is no doubt in my mind clubs are desperate to move and some of the signings this summer have been what I call intent! Intent to win, intent to compete, intent to give it a go.
Over this blog I plan to take a look at those I feel should be in the mix come the end of the season in both divisions, this game of opinions won’t please everyone and I don’t want it to, that’s the beauty of the game we love.
Starting in the North and being a southerner I can’t confess to following it as closely as the other end of the country but the eyes are on it don’t you worry! In both divisions there are some big clubs, big by name and history and big by the support they command. That though means nothing when it comes down to 11 vs 11 on the pitch.
When the season finished for these clubs in February, some let out a sigh of relief that things hadn’t gone to plan, namely Darlington and Blyth to pick out just two. Others such as Gloucester, AFC Fylde and a clutch of clubs just outside those play-offs who felt they had a chance of getting into those end of season games and probably let out sighs of anger instead.
And when you look at the quality that have arrived this summer in the North division, you know teams mean business and are desperate to get promoted. Striker Clayton Donaldson returns to York City to form an impressive front line with Kurt Willoughby and Jason Gilchrist, Steve Watson’s men were on the fringes of the play-off’s last year and those three the reason why they’re one of the bookies favourites.
AFC Fylde under Jim Bentley will be expected to challenge for the title as a full time outfit and having secured a majority of last season’s squad Bentley will hope continuity provides them with promotion foundations along with Stephen Dobbie as their stand out signing.
Gloucester will be looking to show last season was no flash in the pan and like quite a few other clubs have also retained most of last season’s squad. With experience at both ends of the park in Jake Cole and Matt McClure manager Paul Groves will be expecting more of the same from his side.
Boston Utd are another team who are one of the favourites to progress in front of their own fans at the new Jakemans Community Stadium. Impressive signings added to last season’s ranks include experienced defender Jake Wright and striker Danny Elliott, the latter a National League promotion winner at Hartlepool just last season.
A season that promises so much in the North, the title could go to a number of clubs in all honesty and I think if you finish in front of these four clubs then it’s all yours. One last word on this, the likes of York, Darlington, Chester, Gateshead and Spennymoor will believe the chance is there for them too and I can’t wait to watch the race unfold over the next nine months.
The South meanwhile has a few friends of mine in it, but that’s not going to cloud the judgement as we take a look at their division. Like the North division there were massive disparities in games played and while Dorking Wanderers were starting to pull away and an eight point gap from the last team in the play-off’s to the next games in hand for those below could have changed a lot for everybody.
As strong as Dorking were last year, they’ve strengthened again. Experienced keeper Lee Worgan and midfielder Bobby-Joe Taylor are two in the door and of course the goals of Jason Prior will keep them in the hunt. Dartford under Steve King are always there or thereabouts and the signing of striker Jake Robinson and once again shows they mean business.
Eastbourne Borough were third when the season ended, surprising a few people but not themselves. Danny Bloor is a very canny manager and gets the best out of his players, despite losing keeper Franco Ravizzoli to MK Dons they have retained most of last season’s squad and their strong link with QPR should once again see one or two on loan at Priory Lane.
Billericay Town under Kevin Watson are starting to build a good team and I expect them to be in the mix. Like quite a few other clubs in their division the ability to persuade players to drop down from the National League top division can well be the difference in quality, Charlie Lee and Marvel Ekpiteta are two who have made the move and with Watson able to keep the likes of Lawrie Wilson at New Lodge then play-off’s should be the ambition.
Maidstone Utd and Havant & Waterlooville will also be expecting better this time around, Haken Hayrettin at the Gallagher Stadium has also put together a squad with all his hallmarks on it while Paul Doswell will be hoping after a much changed squad last season didn’t quite get going consistently things improve this time around.
I like the signings Steve McKimm has made at Tonbridge Angels and they should certainly improve on what was a steady campaign last time out, the experience of Doug Loft has added to what is already a good spine of the team in Jonny Henly, Sonny Miles and Joe Turner.
Ebbsfleet have also recruited well, nine in total I believe it is now, and were going close last year at the time of the season’s suspension. Like a few others they have persuaded players to drop into the South such as Alex Finney and Craig Tanner from Aldershot, Joe Martin from Stevenage, whilst Elliott Romain has moved across from Dartford.
Not surprisingly Dorking and Dartford are seen as the favourites and like the North division, finish in front of those two and the title will more than likely be yours. However, this is a division of firepower and it might well come down to goal difference if someone is going to steal a march on another or someone is going to spring a surprise from within the pack of clubs I haven’t mentioned.
Come April next year we’re talking about an exciting season full of moments, drama, title wins, play-off wins and heartache and relegation despair, only then will we know football is truly back……………..