Somewhere Beyond The Leagues: The Big Kick-Off
With all the pomp and circumstance coming to a close down in Stratford and the Premier League big boys not starting until next week. It falls to the Non-League to provide the first week’s worth of top flight entertainment, as the Blue Square Premier jumps into life this week. Last season saw the big money of Fleetwood Town saunter their way to league football, and York City finally got promoted via the play-offs. But who are the likely lads this season? One thing to know for sure – it is going to be very competitive.
You would assume that the relegated Football League sides would be firm favourites – but you would be dead wrong. A relegated Football League club has never gone automatically back up in ages and often, it takes a few attempts to get back up. I am going to write both Hereford and Macclesfield Town off right now as automatic promotion contenders, and look to some of the former Football League clubs that have acclimatised to the rough and tumble of Non-League.
Luton Town surely must think their time is now after going so close on so many different occasions, and have brought him promotion expert and former Torquay boss Paul Buckle to ensure they go up at the fifth time of asking. Mansfield Town will also be strong favourites for automatic promotion, after their impressive finish end to the season. Three defeats in their last twenty-four games only to lost to York City in the play-off final would have been a bitter pill to swallow for Stags fans, and Paul Cox has strengthened the squad to prevent the same mistakes being made. Jake Speight, Nick Wright, Godfrey Poku and George Pilkington – signed from promotion rivals Wrexham and Luton respectively should make sure it’s one from these two come the end of the season. Look out for Wrexham to be up there also, since any other season they would have waltzed to promotion last season. To amass 98 points and not go up is almost impossible, but last year they ran up against the Fleetwood machine and only were going to come up short. Andy Morrell will be thinking that anything other than automatic promotion is a failure.
Ever since the play-offs were brought in during the 2003/2004 season – there has always been excitement and drama in this shoot-out for the big time. Last year York City won a thrilling play-off final, and a number of clubs will be hoping to get a shock promotion through this lottery of luck and some looking to avoid it all together. Kidderminster have missed out on the play-offs two years in a row and Steve Burr will be hoping the third times a charm. Burr has worked wonders on a shoestring budget over the last few seasons and this year – I think persistence will finally pay off.
Forest Green Rovers could shock the world this season and grab play-off glory in my opinion; they certainly have the budget to do so. Owner Dale Vance is not shy when it comes to pumping money into the club, and manager Dave Hockaday has the skills to push for a play-off berth this season. My dark horse for promotion.
Stockport County under Jim Gannon should be there or there abouts in the final few games, alongside the relegated League 2 sides Hereford and Macclesfield Town, and Lincoln City also. A final team to keep an eye out for are Newport County, who I think might make a decent push for promotion.
As tough it is at the tough, the battle to stay in the Premier is even tougher. Hayes and Yeading, fallen idols Darlington, Bath City and Kettering Town fell through the trap door last season – and some of the smaller clubs will be battling to stay in the league this season. Barrow look favourites for the drop, but they can be an unpredictable side so who’s to say where they will be come the end of the season. Hyde United and AFC Telford also seem destined for the drop, alongside Liam Daish’s side Ebbsfleet United – who will be working on a very small budget. Throw Braintree in there as well and it should be a fascinating relegation battle.
Dartford came up from the Blue Square South and where many will think that they will struggle this season. However, with Tony Burman at the helm, you should see a few miracles being worked this coming season down at Princes Park. See them finish comfortably in mid-table.
So there you have it, the runners and riders in the Blue Square Premier this season. It should be a great season to watch for fans of non-league and for any Premier League fans that want a break from the norm, go scope out your local non-league side. Cheap and cheerful, but never skimping on the quality; Non-League is always a great alternative.
- Luton Town
- Mansfield Town
- Forest Green Rovers
21. Ebbsfleet United
22. AFC Telford
23. Hyde United
UPDATE: The first game in the Blue Square Premier was between the two relegated sides from League 2 as a Marlon Jackson strike helped Hereford beat Macclesfield Town 2-1.
It’s also a big day for all of the lower level clubs in non-league who are start their journey in the FA Cup today. Yes, the FA Cup starts this early. My pick of the tie is AFC Liverpool making a journey up the M6 to face AFC Blackpool. Another unique story is that of Wembley FC, who will also be starting their journey in Britains most legendary knockout competiton against Langford FC. Thanks to their unique partnership with FA Cup sponsor Budweiser, a group of legends will play for the semi-pro side for the FA Cup only. Former Fulham striker Brian McBride, Martin Keown, Claudio Caniggia and Graeme Le Saux will be lining up for the london side today, hoping to roll back the years and ensure a memorable season for the Wembley fans.
Next week we will be covering the final non-league ladder to start, the Conference North and South and most importantly, pick my teams for the coming season to follow as I traverse the lower tiers of English football.