Ok folks, with the season kicking off this week and with some of these clubs having already kicked their first ball in anger this season, it’s time for me to once again go deep into the depths of my sanity and write several thousand words on the chances of fan owned football clubs this season. The four football league teams will get their own post before we kick off on Saturday so it’s just the glories of fan owned non-league football for you. We are going from the lowest Steps to the highest so sit back, enjoy and wonder just how far my life must have veered off track to be writing this up.
Hinckley AFC – Midland Football League Division 1 – Step 6
So this will be the first ever season for Hinckley AFC joining the newly formed Midland League, which is the same level of the pyramid that 1874 Northwich found themselves placed in last season. The season has already started for Hinckley AFC with their first ever competitive game ending with a 3-0 win. However, they came back to reality after being spanked on the 5th August 6-1, which is not the way their first home game was supposed to go.
Three promotion places are up for grabs and despite having just suffered what will be their worst result of the season and may stay in their history books as the worst defeat for a long time, Hinckley AFC will have one of the higher attendances in the league and with the club perhaps only a season or two away from going home to Hinckley, it could be that a similar first season awaits them as it did for 1874 Northwich.
Prediction: Top 3, Promotion and party at Simon Blyth’s house… probably.
AFC Croydon Athletic – Combined Counties Division 1- Step 6
Last Season: 7th
Last season can go down as one of transition, in between the joy of their first season back which came with a cup win and going home in their third season. With the club about to return to their proper home in Thornton Heath, the club can start to actually feel like a football club again, putting down roots.
Increased revenues boosted by fans who stayed away and will be coming back plus having beaten Chessington & Hook Utd (who have just been relegated) 3-2 in their first game of the season, AFC Croydon should fancy their chances of getting a top three spot and promotion, giving Chairman Paul Smith and his heroic band of volunteers much deserved success.
Prediction: Top 3, Promotion and party at Keith Tuckey Stadium.
Saffron Walden Town FC – Eastern Counties Football League Division 1- Step 6:
Last Season: 5th
Saffron Walden Town FC is a club on the up since becoming community owned in August 2013. The strong finish last season combined with a good pre-season leave them in a strong position to go and get promotion.
Prediction: Top 3, Promotion and party in Essex (shudder).
AFC Rushden & Diamonds- United Counties League Premier- Step 5
Last Season: 3rd
The Diamonds have recently had to come out and issue a statement about their view of the now dead clubs old ground of Nene Park (here), which can be seen as a distraction but also a reminder of the need for the club to eventually find it’s way back into the Rushden area.
Still on the field was certainly interesting with great runs in the FA Cup and FA Vase plus a solid finish in a league, which was brought by the winners Spalding. Step 5 only offers one promotion place which is what makes it such a ballache to get out of.
This season the Diamonds will hope for a season of being serious contenders for promotion, combined with more cup runs as the FA Vase represents a serious chance for the club to get to Wembley and raise their profile back in Rushden. However, there could always be a chance of a moneybags team coming through so I won’t be sticking my neck out here.
Prediction: Top 3
Fisher FC- Southern Counties East League- Step 5
Last season: 14th
Shamefully, I still haven’t put my post up when I went to see the Fish but I’m sure they will forgive me. Anyway, the main requirement this season is for the Fish to raise £250,000 which will then build their shiny new stadium back in Bermondsey complete with 3G pitch. It’s a big chunk of money to find but I wouldn’t bet against them achieving it and when they are back home in time for the 2015/16 season, then the club can start looking up. This season another harmless lower table finish waits.
Prediction: Bottom Half.
Newport (Isle of Wight) FC – Wessex League Prem – Step 5
Last season: 4th
Another club I need to get to and another club stuck fighting for a single promotion spot. Last year it was taken by FA Vase winners Sholing, who had only dropped down the year before for financial reasons having finished in the top half of Step 4 in the 2012/13 season. Bar Sholing and Alresford Town the remainder of the top places were tightly contested. Top 3 will be the aim and to be in with a shot at promotion come the seasons end.
Prediction: Top 3.
AFC Liverpool- North West Counties Prem – Step 5
Last Season: 7th
I do feel slightly bad having a pop at this club every time I write about them as they are fan owned and having never seen them play, they have never had a chance to defend themselves. Still, I do wonder what purpose their existence serves and despite a win in their opening game of the season, a lower top half to mid table finish is my bet.
Prediction: Mid Table.
1874 Northwich – North West Counties Prem – Step 5:
Last Season: 3rd in NWC Div 1 (Promoted)
After Formby folding their promotion spot went to 1874, it’s not the way they would have wanted to go up but they’ll take it. Now only one league off the shell of a club that is Northwich Victoria, perhaps some fans will be dreaming of another promotion. Well it’s unlikely to be this year as without a proper home and the infrastructure that comes with it, it will be a challenge to ensure the fan base doesn’t stagnate. They will be up against some tough opponents including Glossop North End and none other than fellow fan owned club Runcorn Linnets.
This season, a top 4 finish isn’t beyond the realms of possibility but two wins in the FA Cup (this being the clubs first season in the FA Cup) will line up a tasty tie against FC. United, which would be a great game and memory to take away from this season of transition.
Prediction: Top 5
Runcorn Linnets – North West Counties Prem – Step 5
Last season: 2nd
An agonising 2nd place finish last season meant they just missed out on promotion to Step 4, where if they had gone up I fully expected them to more than hold their own with an infrastructure, fan-base and setup that could see them maintain Step 3 status comfortably.
As it is they are stuck again in Step 5 and with Glossop North End making an impressive start, the Linnets may find it just as hard to come out on top as last year proved to be. However, they will challenge and if you are an 1874 Northwich fan this is the club you will seek to emulate in years to come.
Prediction: Top 2
Merthyr Town- Calor League South and West – Step 4
Last season: 2nd Losing Play-Off Finalists.
If the Martyrs are honest, last season they blew it. A poor run at the end of the season left them just three points short and despite a crowd of over 2,000 they couldn’t get the job done in the play-off final. This season is the clubs first full season at their 3G home surface of Penydarren Park and I fully expect them to make no mistakes this time around, taking their clubs record to 3 promotions in 5 seasons. However FA Vase winners Sholing, with their difficulties behind them, may be dark horses to challenge.
Prescot Cables- Evo-Stik Div One North- Step 4
Last season: 20th
Prescot Cables are the first of four fan owned clubs in the Evo-Stik Div One North, with both Darlington and Bamber Bridge failing to go up via the play-offs plus Scarborough Athletic being transferred across. Of those four, the Cables will struggle the most but every year the club seems to do just enough to survive and I expect this season to be just as difficult for the club but for them to stay up.
However, the club that 1874 Northwich will have to beat (after Maine Road) to play FC. United is none other than Prescot, so it could be the Cables who get the big game and the extra boost to the coffers.
Scarborough Athletic FC- Evostik Div One North- Step 4
Last season: 7th (Div One South- Transferred)
Some sense has been restored now that Scarborough, still based at Bridlington, are now in the northern section. The league they have walked into is the toughest it’s been in years and although the Seadogs were only two places off the play-offs last season, in points they were miles behind.
The best of the rest might be the aim again this season with moneybags Salford set to buy the league, hotly pursued by Scarborough’s fellow ex- football league and fan owned club Darlington FC. Not to mention newly promoted Spennymoor Town, Warrington Town and a clutch of other clubs fighting it out for playoff spots. This season, a top half finish that allows the big boys to clear off whilst Scarborough are two seasons away from going home seems the most likely outcome.
Prediction: Top Half
Bamber Bridge- Evostik Div One North- Step 4
Last season: 4th Losing Play- Off Finalists
The Play- Off final defeat for little Bamber Bridge was all the more crushing due to the fact it’s unlikely to happen again. That is not a mark against the Bridge but an acknowledgement of how unlucky they are to be in this league from hell next season. Teams with bigger budgets and finances already mentioned, plus the fierce competition just to get in the play-offs last time, means I can see Bamber joining Scarborough among those competing for a top half finish.
Prediction: Top Half
Darlington FC- Evostik Div One North – Step 4
Last season: 2nd Losing Play- Off Semi- Finalists
After last season’s setback in not getting up first time some of that momentum that has carried Darlo may ebb away. If Salford hadn’t been brought by a bunch of multi-millionaires who are going to buy their way up the pyramid until they get bored, then Darlington would be my bet to go straight up.
As it stands, Darlo will have to work hard just to get a play-off spot this season, let alone a Title. Still they will be back in Darlo at the very latest, for the start of next season and if they can get themselves up this season the clubs charge back to the Football League (or more likely the Conference to join a bunch of ex- Football League clubs) will be back on track.
Prediction: Play- Offs
FC United- Evo- Stik Premier- Step 3
Last season: 2nd Losing Play- Off Semi- Finalists
FC United losing in the play- offs, who’d of thought it? Well I can imagine a lot of you poor FC. United fans but have no fear, this year you will go up. There are no more moneybags left, no real challengers and the Northern Prem looks the weakest of all three Step 3 leagues this time around. By Christmas at the latest you will be in your shiny new stadium playing in front of 2,000 plus on a regular basis.
A new chapter is about to begin for your club and like buses, you wait so long for a promotion and then two might come back to back. Be warned, if you don’t go up this season the season after will be even worse as you can look forward to Salford winning the league followed by losing to Darlington in the Play- Offs. But you are going to win the league this year, aren’t you?
Prediction: Promotion… or else.
Enfield Town FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Last season: 19th
A heroic last gasp survival was secured on only the last day of the season after looking dead and buried by Christmas. Enfield Town have been doing it the hard way since they were formed. Despite being near the relegation places according to the bookies, I don’t see that myself as the form of the back end of last season would put them comfortably mid table. A community share issue scheme has been launched to further improve the club with debts being paid off in good fashion, combined with the great support of the ETFC Ultras and I think Enfield will be comfortable if not one of the surprise packages this season.
Prediction: Lower- Mid Table
Hendon FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Last season: 8th
Same league as Enfield and despite being homeless miracles continued to be worked on and off the field which put Hendon in a position of making a late run at the play-offs. Having kept hold of their Manager Gary McCann who, considering what he’s been working on and the results he’s got, would be worth bigger clubs taking a look at. More good news is the potential of a move back to Hendon in the next couple of seasons which is all the more incredible when I was speaking to Chairman Simon Lawrence in November, he seemed a man fighting a lost battle. The league this year will be hotly contested between several sides throwing cash or with big attendances, so a mid-table finish would be more than good enough and an FA Cup run wouldn’t go a miss.
Prediction: Mid table
Lewes FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Last season: 16th
The second half of the season for Lewes was dire, winning only 5 of your last 23 games is relegation form but compared to the awful season before that it can be considered progress, sort of. A loyal band of 500 plus turned up all season regardless and with facilities being developed plus the sizeable fan base you have to think if Lewes can get it right on the pitch, then potential is there. Next season is unlikely to be the one with Margate buying the league and Maidstone, who averaged 1700 plus last season, chasing them all the way. Lewes need to be building a team to have a real crack at the league in 2015/16 time and a top half finish would show progress is being made.
Prediction: Top half
Dorchester- Calor Southern Prem – Step 3
Last season: 22nd Conference South (Relegated)
The Trust who own 27.5% and run the club had to make a series of painful cuts to secure the clubs future and a horrendous season came to an end with relegation, rock bottom of the league. There was to be no honeymoon period for the Trust unlike at similar clubs which reform right at the bottom, Dorchester had been aiming for survival.
I don’t know how they will do next season, I don’t expect them to go down and I think they will stabilise and push on in future years in a league which won’t get any easier in years to come if Kettering and Merthyr get promotions this season.
However and this is important, here are two teams they won’t be playing next season: Hereford and Salisbury. Why? Because these clubs which are or should be bigger than Dorch have been brought to their knees and in the case of Hereford is now dead, thanks to being run unsustainably on money they couldn’t afford until the bubble burst. One set of fans in the HUFC Trust are in a furious campaign to ensure the ground they have seen Hereford play at for years isn’t asset stripped and Salisbury, having sold the club to a man promising the earth and surely thinking they had their own Arab Millionaire, have been completely swindled.
So my hats off again to the Dorch Trust for stepping up and keeping the club going and I would like to know of the Dorch fans upset, which club would you rather be, Hereford or Salisbury?
AFC Telford United- Conference Prem- Step 1
Last Season- 1st Conference North (Promoted)
So Telford got out of the Conference North at the first time of asking and a good job too, seeing as how Barrow will be buying that division this season. The man who led Telford to the clubs first title in donkeys was Liam Watson, who has experience in keeping smaller teams than Telford in the Conference.
When I saw Telford vs FC United in a preseason friendly it was like I expected, FC United tried to play football on a bad pitch and a Liam Watson Telford side bundled in a set piece and then to my surprise scored a screamer. His teams may not be the prettiest but considering the budget gap in Football League Division 4 between teams at the top is huge, he works with what he has.
Last time Telford was in this league, they finished bottom with 35 points and had a winless run of 30, even longer than Hyde. Teams walked over Telford as they embarrassingly departed the league.
I can tell you for a fact under Liam Watson, no one is going to walk over Telford this season and any team that shows up thinking they can is going to be in for a bloody rude awakening when they go up against Telford. They will not be good on the eye but they will be tough and will take a couple of scalps this season. Telford will stay up and then we will see if they have answered the question of: What next?
Chester FC- Conference Prem- Step 1
Last season: 21st (Reprieved)
After the drama of the final day and post season, although Chester will have started to assemble their squad later as a result of Hereford getting kicked out, the club will be rewarded for their financial sustainability. Clubs in trouble include Macclesfield with a reduced budget, Dartford (themselves reprieved after Salisbury got told to do one) and Southport being teams who will struggle again. Alty, who came up through the Conference North play-offs may find life tough as could Dover and even Steve Burr’s former team Kiddy could have financial difficulties affect their season as we progress.
When you look at the League and just see the list of traditional Football League teams in there you can see why so many people see it as an extension of the Football League. I think Chester will get a mid-table finish and that is a good achievement in a League which is only going to get tougher.
Prediction: Mid table
Wrexham FC- Conference Prem- Step 1
Last season: 17th
Last season was ugly and sadly led to Andy Morrell, who had the season before put the club a game away from returning to the Football League, falling on his sword. Many teams suffer a post Play-Off final hangover season and Wrexham was no exception. Wrexham got in Kevin Wilkin as Manager from over-performing Nuneaton last season and despite not getting great results Wilkin has had time to assess the squad and build, much like John Still at Luton two seasons ago.
Johnny Hunt was a loss but Wrexham will be confident that in this 150th year of the clubs existence, which the fans worked so hard to keep alive, it will be a season to enjoy and remember for the right reasons.
Prediction: Top Half/ Playoffs