Right folks, it’s that time of the year with less than three weeks until the kick off of the new season to run through the ever growing list of fan owned clubs competing in the English pyramid. This time last year, Hinckley were the newest fan owned club but a host of other teams, including Football League Newport County, are now on the list of clubs which will be leaving me bankrupt before I finish this trip.
I suspect this two part series (with the Football League preview coming up tomorrow) to be my last post for a while until my return to sunny Britain from my travels in early September (unless I get stabbed in Serbia) , so I’ll wish you all a good start to the season. Anyway, deep breath, here we go…
Newark Town – Central Midlands League North – Step 7
Last season: 4th
A new club to this list and also the lowest placed in the pyramid, which is also the lowest level I am prepared to travel to. As a result of this low stature, they perhaps sneaked under the radar as they have had an IPS ownership model since June 2012.
Due to the weird way the feeder leagues work in the Midlands there appears to be only one promotion place from this league and as a result it appears difficult to make progress. I will be honest, bar knowing they came fourth last season I have no idea how they will do and your guess is as good as mine.
Prediction: Screw it… Promotion
Hinckley AFC – Midland Football League Division 1 – Step 6
Last season: 3rd
A terrible start to the season was followed by a 26 undefeated league run, which was just a little too late to grab the one promotion spot up for grabs. Averaging 150+ crowds and with movement slowly being made on returning to Hinckley, there is a good chance that Hinckley will be challenging for promotion against perineal underachievers Bromsgrove Sporting. Plus, this year Hinckley AFC will find itself competing in the FA Cup for the first time in their existence.
Prediction: Top 2
AFC Croydon Athletic – Southern Counties East League- Step 5
Last season: 2nd (Promotion from Combined Counties Div 1)
Last season, AFC Croydon Athletic got the job done and will now look have to look to compete in the level of the pyramid that can act as a massive barrier to further progress, Step 5. Only one promotion spot is available at a level where a significant amount of money can be washing around and they will join fellow fan owned club Fisher FC as they look to make the step up.
Having got back to their proper home last year and now able to generate some of their own revenue in sponsorships and fundraising events, concerns about trying to obtain promotions are at least one season down the line. This season, a year of safety combined with having a tilt at the FA Vase will represent a good season for a club only four years old.
Prediction: Lower half.
Fisher FC- Southern Counties East League- Step 5
Last season: 16th
A gap of 58 points to last season’s Champions and subsequent promotion winners may be too much to make up in one season but things are definitely looking up for the Fish. This season, they will return to their clubs true home in Bermondsey with excellent 3G facilities, which should make attracting players and crucially a new generation of fans possible.
So this season looks set to be a good one and if the performances on the pitch can match the heroic effort off it, it should be a good time to be a fan of Fisher FC.
Prediction: Top Half
Saffron Walden Town FC – Eastern Counties League Prem- Step 5
Last season: 3rd (Promotion from Eastern Counties Div 1)
Saffron will finally be at the level they should at the very least be competing at, with attendances even at Step 6 being competitive for Step 4. However, as with all Step 5 leagues getting out of it will be a bloody nightmare. This season should be one of consolidation and finding their feet at this level, whilst trying to get a couple of wins out of the FA Cup. Still, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them push near the top.
Prediction: Top 10
Newport (Isle of Wight) FC – Wessex League Prem – Step 5
Last season: 7th
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Newport IOW will not be going up this season because Salisbury FC will. Serial boom and bust Salisbury are showing the distorting effects that going bust has on the whole pyramid, stunting the growth of clubs that are sensibly managed at whichever level they compete.
Still, this season represents a chance for Newport to try and build a squad who they can have in a position to push for the title next season. A depressing thought now but with the pressure off, there’s nothing to stop Newport playing good football without having to be concerned about it costing them.
Prediction: Top 10
Congleton Town- North West Counties Prem – Step 5
Last season: 8th
A new one for the list this season, despite becoming fan owned in June 2014 and slipping under my radar. Last season, a solid 8th place finish has left them in a good position to have a tilt at moving higher up the table and with no moneybags teams (to my knowledge) throwing silly money at the league, it should offer more of a chance.
However, with only one promotion spot and with another fan owned club surely ready to get out of this league, a title challenge looks out of reach for this season at least but there’s a chance now to put the building blocks in place, as Congleton start only their second season under fan ownership.
Prediction: Top 6
AFC Liverpool- North West Counties Prem – Step 5
Last season: 9th
Not really sure what to say that I haven’t said before. The club will remain plodding along unless it wants to carve out their own unique identity or stand for something a little bit more inspiring then a Liverpool C team.
This could be possible as Liverpool fans come out of their mass delusion and realising 5th is as good as it is ever going to get but the way AFC Liverpool formed may actually be a hindrance to a real protest group who are sick of huge ticket prices for soulless games and a predictable finish.
AFC Liverpool could still be that vehicle but until it states it loud and clear then AFC Liverpool is a club going nowhere fast.
Prediction: Mid Table
1874 Northwich – North West Counties Prem – Step 5:
Last season: 3rd
In good contrast to AFC Liverpool is 1874 Northwich, who know exactly what they stand for. As they enter their third season of fan ownership, the club have never finished anywhere but 3rd. Although some may worry that, with the other Vics returning to Northwich (groundsharing at Witton) 1874 may lose fans, I found this highly unlikely. In fact, it’s more likely the other Vics go bust before they force the collapse of 1874.
Returning to matters on the field, with Glossop promoted it is getting closer to the time that 1874 Northwich will start to rise back to where you suspect they could manage sustainably (Step 3) and could be in a real promotion fight with Runcorn Linnets.
Progress on trying to find a home of their own continues and if 1874 Northwhich can put themselves in a title fight for as long as possible and perhaps a Vase run, it should help them sustain their fanbase in what could be their most challenging season yet.
Runcorn Linnets – North West Counties Prem – Step 5
Last season: 2nd
Our obsession with the number three continues as it will have to be third time lucky for Runcorn Linnets, who have finished 2nd in the last two seasons to clubs who have spent significant amounts to beat off the challenge from the Linnets.
Last season, even after taking their foot off when the league was lost, they were head and shoulders above the vast majority of the league (bar 1874 Northwich) and to my knowledge there is no moneybags team in the league this year who will buy the league from the Linnets.
As a result, I have to be brave and put my money on the Linnets who have served their time in this league and competed whilst doing things the right way, in terms of building infrastructure first. So, sticking my neck out, top spot and promotion is my bet.
AFC Rushden & Diamonds – Southern League Central – Step 4
Last season: 1st (Promotion from United Counties Prem)
One team who did escape Step 5 was the Diamonds, who romped away with the title last year and promotion in the process. Although still ground sharing at the Dog & Duck, the Diamonds average attendance (500 plus) comfortably outstrips the vast majority, if not all, of the clubs in their league and therefore should have no worries about competing at this level.
In their three seasons of senior football, the Diamonds have obtained two promotions and never finished lower than third. Whether that will be possible this season is harder to predict but a play-off finish wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility.
Still, a season where the club acclimatises to Step 4 and make a serious challenge the season after, whilst competing in the FA Trophy for the first time in their history, would represent a good return as the Diamonds find their way back to their natural level as a Step 2 club.
Prediction: Top Half
Banbury United – Southern League South & West – Step 4
Last season: 21st (Relegation from Southern Prem)
Also entering Step 4 but from the other direction is Banbury United, who were just four points off survival last season. Although not fan owned yet, the transition to fan ownership is underway and should be completed before Christmas, with the current membership rates and money being put in to the Community Share scheme more than on target.
With so much happening off the pitch, it may be that what needs to happen on it is overlooked. The aim for this season should be nothing more than mid table security, with perhaps a good cup run to make the transition to sustainability easier, before pushing for the playoffs next season when Hereford walk the league and Salisbury finish second.
Prediction: Mid table.
Prescot Cables- Evo-Stik Div One North- Step 4
Last season: 20th
We head up north now to a league that boasts a significant number of fan owned clubs including Prescot Cables. This entry will be like Groundhog Day, as I think that Prescot will yet again be fighting for their survival in this division and eventually you’d think there’s only so long you can fight against the tide.
Still, I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong and if they can get past a very strong Glossop side in the FA Cup that may act as a springboard for a stronger season.
Scarborough Athletic FC- Evostik Div One North- Step 4
Last season: 6th
In an immensely competitive league last season, Scarborough achieved a very strong sixth place finish. With Manchester United ‘B’ team Salford and ex-Football League team Darlington both sealing promotion, some room at the top has opened up.
Off the pitch, great news was secured last month when a return to Scarborough appeared to be entering the home straight, with council backing for the Weaponess Sports Village project and a return to Scarborough probably happening for the 2017-18 season.
Despite playing miles away in Bridlington, the Boro still had an attendance higher than a majority of teams in the league so if Boro can get into the play-off picture this time around, momentum can be maintained before their return to Scarborough and inevitable rise up the leagues in the near future.
Overall, despite being massively handicapped by their ground situation and with Warrington, Witton and Glossop who will all add to the completion, a playoff push will be the realistic goal for a club seeking to reclaim former glories.
Bamber Bridge- Evostik Div One North- Step 4
Last season: 3rd (Play-Off Finalists)
Despite doing us all a favour by beating the other Vics in the play-off semis, yet again Bamber fell at the final hurdle. Whether it can be third time lucky for the club will be a tough ask but the club should take confidence from the fact that they were the best in the league, taking out the two teams who clearly were playing below their level.
This season looks ever harder to predict who will win it unlike last time around, in what will still be a highly competitive league, with no teams like Salford or Darlington set to run away with it. They have a good stadium, a good player catchment area in Preston and should be there or thereabouts come seasons end.
Hyde United – Evostik Northern Prem- Step 3
Last season: 22nd (Relegation from Conference North)
Step 3 of the Non- League pyramid is crammed with fan owned football teams, across all three regions and we will start up north with a club who have become infamous for their inability to compete on a football field.
Hyde have suffered a horrible fall from grace over the last two seasons after taking Man City’s money and surrendering their heritage in the process. Promotions to the Conference followed but when the plug was pulled, the crash was hard, with just four wins in their last 88 league games. This year, the fans have got their club back and the restoration of the traditional crest, name and colours are all well under way, offering the perfect tonic to the last two seasons of misery.
This does represent the best time for the fans to take over as the club are at their natural level and can now grow gradually with a long term plan as opposed to boom and bust, with a chance to bring in new fans and old ones who may have walked away in the last two years. Sponsorship has come in from a variety of sources, including the nauseatingly unfunny ‘Lad Bible’ but credit to them for putting their money in all the same.
The same management team remains in place and they will have a fan base that makes them as competitive as anyone else, bar Salford and Darlington. Like Dorchester last season, it’s just important to stop the rot and get the fans back to seeing a few wins again. As a result, a mid-table season is my bet and should be the aim.
Prediction: Mid- Table
Darlington FC- Evostik Northern Prem – Step 3
Last season: 2nd (Play-Off winners Evostik Div One North)
So much of this depends on when Darlington get back to Darlington. They were supposed to be back in by January last season, then the start of this one and now there are serious doubts that the proposed move to Blackwell Meadows is going to happen. What should have been the time when Darlington pushed on is now in danger of losing momentum, with fans perhaps dejected by the promises of a move home now being shattered.
As a result, another season at Bishop Auckland beckons and this is certainly going to be a massive missed opportunity, as Darlington start life at Step 3. They will still have the largest fanbase in the league but will be outspent by Salford and will face a stronger test from the likes of Blyth and Workington this season.
Overall, the play-offs might be possible but a top half finish looks more realistic this time around and although they will always be there or thereabouts in this league, Darlington may struggle to go up from this level whilst they remain nowhere near Darlington.
Prediction: Top Half
Merthyr Town – Southern League Prem – Step 3
Last season: 1st (Promotion from Southern League South & West)
One club who don’t have to worry about where they will be playing as they also begin life at Step 3 is Merthyr Town and there probably hasn’t been a better time to be a fan of the club. A 3G facility, an average attendance that puts them right up at the top of the league and back where the old club went bust but now in a much stronger position.
You never quite know how a club will do coming straight up and also this Southern Prem will still be tough. Poole, Weymouth and St Neots either have big money or a strong fan base for this level but Merthyr will be competitive.
A disappointment last season was the lack of a good cup run and with no pressure on them to go and win the league this could perhaps be more of a focus this season. Overall, I’m hedging my bets with a top half finish but wouldn’t be shocked if they sneaked into the playoffs and found themselves with back to back promotions.
Prediction: Top 10
Dorchester- Southern League Prem – Step 3
Last season: 17th
A worrying start meant two successive relegations was a real possibility and a strong finish to the season, with the extra satisfaction that both Poole and Weymouth stayed down, will have given Dorchester fans much to look forward to.
Like Merthyr, they command a good fan base but this is in times of little success for Dorchester and as a result, there is more potential for Dorchester to push the 600 barrier. A club legend in Mark Jermyn is the Manager and with a summer to put his stamp on the squad, a play-off push should be the realistic aim for a club who are more than ready for the good times to return.
Prediction: Top 8
Tonbridge Angels – Ryman Prem – Step 3
Last season: 20th
We now head to the Ryman Prem, a division for the most part breathing a collective sigh of relief that moneybags Margate and ex-Football League side Maidstone United have buggered off. We also have yet another new addition to this list in the shape of Tonbridge Angels, who have transitioned into fan ownership over the summer after starting the process last year.
Last season, Tonbridge only just managed to stay up which, considering that their average gate of 461 puts them in the top three (now M&M have gone up), was a disappointment. However, the main thing after being relegated the year before is always to survive and with that goal accomplished, they can push on.
This season, already 100 fans have become owners and if 25% of the fan-base signs up this is a healthy amount. Now stability has been secured off it, on the pitch fortunes should turn around with a fresh start at a level the club should be successful at. A swell in the crowds and in the future Tonbridge should be a regular challenger but for this season at least, a top half finish would be a good start.
Prediction: Top Half
Lewes FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Last season: 19th
Just one place ahead of Tonbridge was fellow fan owned club Lewes, who have not realised their potential on the pitch since fan ownership. A brand spanking new community 3G facility should generate some more income and the attendances despite years of underperformance remain impressively high for a Step 3 club at 503, which puts them behind London based Dulwich Hamlet only.
I am tired of writing this about Lewes, it’s about time someone got hold of this club and started to get them competing at the top of the league where they should be. A playoff push may be a step too far but a top half finish should be the minimum expectation.
Prediction: Top half.
Enfield Town FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Last season: 7th
Only missing out on the play-offs due to a ridiculous points deduction imposed by the FA at the end of the season despite being informed of the situation for months, Enfield Town had every right to feel cheated.
However, this season they need to channel that anger with two places opening up at the top of the league to finally crack the play-offs. Off the pitch, a community share scheme is underway which should further enhance the facilities at the QEII stadium.
Another successful season beckons but for the years of steady progression by Enfield to continue, the play-offs have to be the aim and goal for the club this time around, regardless of points deductions.
Hendon FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Last season: 2nd (Play-off finalists)
Hendon have not dwelt on the crushing play-off final loss to Margate despite being 10 points clear of them at the end of the normal season. The club has just announced the signing of a rent free 10 year lease at 3G facility Silver Jubilee Park back in Hendon, saving roughly £250,000 in the process and hopes are high that the club can begin the 2016-17 back in the ground.
Unlike Darlo, the countdown until the return of Hendon to a home in their local area is very much on, which should give the club a chance to plan events and rebuild a fanbase badly damaged by their nomadic state.
On the pitch, Hendon have retained the services of Gary McCann as Manager and with the two biggest teams long gone, a title push will be very much on his mind and heading into the Conference South would be the perfect way for Hendon to begin life at Silver Jubilee Park.
That’s not to say they will have it their own way, Dulwich Hamlet will be up there and Kingstonian may re-emerge along with their fellow fan owned clubs in the league but the play-offs will be the minimum standard set for the always overachieving Hendon FC.
Prediction: Play- Offs
FC United of Manchester – Conference North – Step 2
Last season: 1st (Promotion from Evostik Northern Prem)
Title Odds: 10/1
(Note: I’m not calling it the National League North, that’s a stupid name)
So they have finally done it, promotion from Step 3 and FC United begin their first ever season at this level in their shiny new ground at Broadhurst Park. The club was already averaging 2000 plus a game at Step 3 whilst being without a home, FC United could now easily push 3,000 a game and may still end up being the largest club at their level, despite Stockport pulling in over 2,500 in 2014-15.
This season, optimism should be high and if they can take the traditional superhuman effort in the second half of a season into this one, there is no reason they can’t make a playoff push and a first home game of the season on a Tuesday night vs Stockport (which will be a sell-out) should be a good test early on. However, FC United are notoriously slow starters and this year they simply will not get away with it like they have done in previous years because this League will just be too strong for that sort of sluggish start.
A great FA Trophy run last season to the Quarter Finals where they beat AFC Flyde and Chorley, both teams competing at the top of Step 2 and old rivals, will give Karl Marginson plenty of confidence that FC United can make a good run at it.
Flyde, Chorley, Stockport, Boston and AFC Telford will all provide a serious test for FC United this season but anywhere mid table and perhaps a better FA Cup run will be more then good enough for a season that FC United fans have waited a long time to begin. The good times keep coming for FC United fans and long may it continue for a club who stuck to fingers up to the way modern football is run and have been loving it ever since.
Prediction: Top 8
AFC Telford United – Conference North – Step 2
Last season: 23rd (Relegation from Conference Prem)
Title Odds: 11/1
Although Telford would have only been six points off survival last season bar a post season points deduction, in reality they were down with months to spare. Last time Telford played at this level in 2013-14, they went back up as Champions but the league they are entering this time will be a hell of a lot harder.
Neither moneybags AFC Flyde or Chorley (who averaged 1,163 last season), were in the league two years ago. Nor were FC United of Manchester, who now they have their own ground will be yet more competition and now that Stockport have had the anvil of huge rent payments taken away from them by the council buying their ground, they will also start to re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with.
This summer the loss of Tony Gray to Airbus and Ian Sharps to Chester means two key components of the spine which you could build a team around have gone but Dave Hibbert coming in should hopefully be finding the back of the net on a regular basis.
Overall, this could be one of the tougher seasons for Telford fans as struggling to compete against money and re-emerging Football League teams, combined with the realisation that Darlington and moneybags Salford are only one promotion away, could make for a long tough season. A top half finish is likely but I don’t see them finishing in the play-offs this time around.
Prediction: Top 10
Chester FC- Conference Prem- Step 1
Last season: 12th
Title Odds: 40/1
We move now to our last Step on the Non-League pyramid, the Conference Prem (or whatever they are called this week) and take a look at two fierce rivals who share the same problem: Just how can a fan owned club try and compete in a league full of ex-Football League sides and moneybags teams, all running at eye watering losses, with only two promotion spaces.
Could this be the season that Chester hit the ceiling? After five seasons of consistent progress, the next step of competing for a play-off place in the Conference is going to be the hardest ask of all. There is a possibility the aim this year should be to be the ‘best of the rest’ when you exclude the 4 (Tranmere, Grimsby, FGR and Eastleigh) but even then there is a new moneybags in Barrow who will average a crowd similar to Chester.
Chester have made some solid defensive signings in the shape of Ian Sharps and Jonny Hunt which should strengthen the squad and having conceded 76 goals last season, the highest outside the relegated clubs, this should mean a few more points come seasons end.
Still, everyone who was hunting the playoffs last season had at least one man with some serious firepower and when John Rooney was the highest league goal-scorer last season for Chester with 11, you suspect this will stop then being a challenger.
Honestly, I think a top 10 finish would be a realistic aim which isn’t very inspiring when you came 12th the year before but it is just so hard to break in without bankrupting the club. So, a trip to the 1st round of the FA Cup and a serious tilt at the FA Trophy should be the order of the day. They may not get to Wembley via the play-offs but you only need to win through five rounds to get there for an FA Trophy Final.
Prediction: Top 10
Wrexham FC- Conference Prem- Step 1
Last season: 11th
Title Odds: 12/1
After the appointment of Gary Mills, I expected Wrexham to make a play-off appearance but now with the departure of top goal-scorer Louis Moult for an undisclosed fee to Motherwell, I am not so confident.
Wrexham scored the joint fewest goals in the top 15 sides in the Conference last season with 56 and have now lost a man who got 15 of them. No one who he has brought in or is in the squad currently has any decent goal-scoring at this level.
So what to make of it all, well despite the poor form of Wrexham for the start of the last two campaigns (only going on a winning run when it was all too late to care), Wrexham still boasted a 3,000 plus attendance putting them the third highest in the League. Now we know this matters less when teams like FGR will spend like crazy but it does show the stature of the club is still there if Mills can get it right.
I do not expect the clubs that finished 6-10th last season to be as strong and if Mills can start on a good run and be in the playoff race by Christmas, the swelling of attendances will give him money to strengthen around January.
Will they make the playoffs? I don’t think they have the goals in the side as it stands to do so but Wrexham fans deserve a side to be competing at the very least and I think this season Gary Mills will deliver that.
Prediction: Top 8
So that’s your lot for the Non-League sides, we will be back tomorrow with a preview of all five fan owned teams including the latest team in Newport County, whose millionaire backed squad denied Wrexham a return to the Football League just two seasons ago. It’s a funny old game I suppose.