After a season of change for many of our clubs , with many moving up (or down) into new divisions and some like FC United hopping into new grounds, it could’ve been expected this season would be one of transition for many teams.
We had six promotions last season but only one relegation so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that (in the Non-League at least) the picture isn’t as rosy as last season. Despite this fact, it doesn’t mean that we do not have promotion challengers and by the end of the season we could be hailing a few more success stories.
So then, without further delay, let’s dive in…
Hinckley AFC – Midland Football League Division 1 – Step 6
Well after a very strong ending to their first season, hopes would’ve been high at Hinckley they could take that sort of form into this season and give themselves a chance of getting out of this division. However, they are an ocean behind Coventry United and constant bridesmaids Bromsgrove Sporting.
However, this is not to say the season has been in any way a disaster. Hinckley are still close to matching their points tally from last season at their current rate of progress. This was also the club’s first season back in the FA Cup which marks yet another sign of rehabilitation and Hinckley acquitted themselves well, going from the extra preliminary round through to the FA Cup 2nd Round Qualification.
The club is also averaging in or around 200 whilst still ground-sharing at Heather and for the club to make the next steps, finding a way to get hold of the old ground will give the club a stable future and chance to progress up the Non-League Pyramid.
Prediction: Top 6
AFC Croydon Athletic – Southern Counties East League- Step 5
Things are going reasonable well for AFC Croydon Athletic in their new league after last season’s promotion. Although there is a significant gap to the teams at the top, the Rams are in no real danger of going down and have a long term home at Thornton Heath which they can expect to be in for many years to come.
Although the team will be disappointed to find it’s struggling to break three figure attendances, it’s worth noting a lot of bridges were burnt when the old club went bust and I’m sure, in the fullness of time, AFC Croydon Athletic can look forward to brighter days.
Prediction: Top Half
Fisher FC- Southern Counties East League- Step 5
Ok, so I am miles off in my pre-season prediction with Fisher struggling near the foot of the table but the only thing that really matters about this season is that before the end of it, Fisher FC will move into their brand new home.
It has been years of painstaking work by many people and a special shout out has to go to Ben Westmancott for getting a club, which no sane person would’ve predicted could survive, to within touching distance of a home back in Bermondsey.
With this, Fisher FC can re-engage in their local community and will provide a facility for use to the entire area all whilst enabling to challenge at the right end of the table. Things are looking up for the Fish and with stands going into place, it’s only a matter of time perform the Fish have a place to call their own.
Prediction: Stay up, with shiny new home.
Saffron Walden Town FC – Eastern Counties League Prem- Step 5
Another wildly optimistic prediction of a top 10 finish for yet another club who are struggling near the bottom of the league. With three relegation places in this division it looks like it could be going right down to the wire.
If Saffron can survive this season, you can be fairly confident they will build on this season and start pushing near the top of the league. Home attendances have been fairly health, with some 300 plus crowds for good measure, so I’m going to say that Saffron will have pulled themselves clear before the end of the season.
Prediction: Bottom half.
Newport (Isle of Wight) FC – Wessex League Prem – Step 5
This has been a pretty decent season for The Port, all things considered. A league that as soon as Salisbury were demoted into it looked like being wrapped up already could have the potential of demotivating teams but Newport have gone on a strong FA Vase runs which came to an end with a Fourth Round tie against Ashford United.
If the Port can build on this for the final portion of the season, they might be able to compete when Salisbury bugger off next year.
Prediction: Top 8
Congleton Town- North West Counties Prem – Step 5
Moving into the North West Counties Prem, this Step 5 League is rammed with fan owned teams and we begin with Congleton Town FC. A good run to the FA Cup 2nd Round Qualifying and getting to the 1st Round of the FA Vase has been met with poor league form.
Well I say that but due to the sheer amount of games they are behind others in the League (postponements being an occupation hazard at this level for many teams), Congleton look well placed for a top half finish even if they win just a handful of their several games in hand.
Prediction: Top Half
AFC Liverpool- North West Counties Prem – Step 5
They will finish mid-table, that is all. Another fan owned club in City of Liverpool FC is aiming to play for 2016 and whose irrelevance I suspect will be similar.
1874 Northwich – North West Counties Prem – Step 5:
These are fairly tough times for 1874 Northwich with extensive postponements denying the club vital revenue. Fortunately, the club does have other revenue streams including a highly enjoyable yearly beer festival.
In the FA Vase, the club had to withdraw thanks to FA incompetence at demanding they play a cup replay against Morpeth. The 400 mile round trip was not possible for the majority of the team who, at Step 5, actually have to work for a living. Yet another example of the FA doing sweet FA when it comes to developing the game and non-league football.
In the league, the club is some distance behind Atherton Colliers, Colne and the Linnets but a top 4 finish should be the target and the top 3 is not out of sight yet. Off the pitch, progress towards a ground in Northwich is a painfully slow process but the more community work the club engages in, the more favours and friends should be gathered who will support them in the future.
At this point it is worth mentioning the other club, who thankfully were knocked out by Northampton of the FA Cup in the most painful way possible and now appeared to have choked despite having a massive lead at the top of the Evo Stik Div One North. Having lost their manager, it looks likely they will still only be one division away from 1874 Northwich for at least one season more.
Northwich are now established at the top of the Step 5 pyramid but breaking through from this level is notoriously difficult, just ask our next club…
Runcorn Linnets – North West Counties Prem – Step 5
So Runcorn Linnets find themselves in a familiar position at this stage, top of the league but with a team behind them with a ton of games in hand. Last season it was Glossop who ran away from them after an awesome run, the year before it was Norton United (who now no longer exist) and now it’s Colne breathing down their neck.
The Linnets are nine points clear of Colne who have four games in hand meaning that yet again, the Linnets could be locked in a title race that goes all the way down to the wire. The club beat Colne 4-0 when the sides met and got a last gasp 1-0 in their previous game, it is those type of results the Linnets will need to break the 100 point barrier and finally get promotion.
AFC Rushden & Diamonds – Southern League Central – Step 4
The Diamonds have made a great start to life at Step 4. The Diamonds continued this phoenix clubs trend of strong FA Cup performances, narrowly losing in the FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round in front of a 1,000 plus crowd and the club sits atop the league ahead of a mass of teams all breathing right down their necks.
Off the pitch, the club recently expressed their dismay at plans to turn the old Diamonds home (Nene Park) into a shopping and cinema complex, with no facilities planned for a club of AFC Rushden & Diamonds stature. You can read the full response here.
It is vital for the long term future of the club to have a secure home but whether that future may be at Nene Park (which the last time I spoke to the Chairman it wasn’t an option) or somewhere else in the area is another matter. Nene Park may not be considered viable for a club at this level but if Rushden continue their progress through the League then it could be maintained by a club a Step 1, due to the National League effectively having clubs of Football League stature and away followings.
For now though, the concentration will be on yet another title winning season but for a club to have made so much progress, off the field (with it’s impressive community work) and on it within such a short space of time, is a testament to all at the club.
Banbury United – Southern League South & West – Step 4
Another club who have made a strong start to life at Step 4 is Banbury United. Having been relegated last season, Banbury have made a positive start back to life at this level with impressive performances putting them right in the play-off mix.
Disappointing cup performances can be put to one side with the club averaging the highest crowds in the league and scoring goals for fun, Banbury United will be hoping their impressive form can see them into the lottery of the play-offs.
Prescot Cables- Evo-Stik Div One North- Step 4
We move into a Step 4 league which promised so much for the fan owned clubs involved but has in reality been a major disappointment for the majority of clubs. One club who will be fairly pleased with their season so far is the Cables.
13 points clear of relegation and a couple of games in hand could see the club cement in the mid table pack. They are set for their best finish for several season and will be hoping this is a sign of a brighter future.
Prediction: Bottom Half
Scarborough Athletic FC- Evostik Div One North- Step 4
A season of mixed emotions for the Seadogs, where on the pitch concern is met by off the pitch joy. On the playing side, having narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season an extremely underwhelming season has seen the joint management team resign and replaced by Steve Kittrick.
Steve Kittrick was fired by another fan owned club whose season and finances of the club have been damaged by him, after bringing in a host of players on contracts who put Telford rock bottom. We’ll return to this later but Scarborough represents a chance to rebuild his shattered reputation and it could work at well for both, provided the club keeps the financial leash tight.
Off the field, the club have finally taking the very real step of heading home to Scarborough, after work finally got underway at Weaponess Sports Village. The club are on track to be back home by the summer of 2017 in a 2,000 capacity stadium.
Although not big enough for Football League criteria (which could be a problem in the future), Weaponess does give Scarborough a real future as a top Non-League side. Historically the club has managed to pull in around 2,000 when based in Boro and the club should be looking to fill the ground on a regular basis when they go home.
As a result, Kittrick has a real chance that most Managers don’t get, which is a genuine long term project to take a club back to their historic place to the top of the Non-League Pyramid. Provided he can keep them up this season of course.
Bamber Bridge- Evostik Div One North- Step 4
A season of play-off hangover for Bamber Bridge, in the bottom half with an ocean of games in hand which could easily take them into the top half with just a few wins but with the play-offs well out of sight, motivation for the final part of the season could prove difficult.
A run to the play-offs is not impossible but extremely unlikely and with Bamber just missing out the FA Cup 1st Round Proper, this is probably going to be a season to forget for Bamber Bridge fans.
Prediction: Top Half
Hyde United – Evostik Northern Prem- Step 3
An absolutely horrific run of form in the league (with just three points in 12 games) has seen what looked like a comfortable mid-table season turn into a genuine relegation battle. Hyde made a decent start to life back at this level but they need to get a few wins soon just to move clear of the drop zone and build for next season.
Darlington FC- Evostik Northern Prem – Step 3
In a league which includes the rolling BBC lovefest that is the Man United C Team of Salford City, it is good to see their less moneyed rivals in Blyth and fan owned Darlo more than matching them. For Darlington, it has all largely been good news on and off the pitch.
Although yet again flattering to deceive in the FA Cup & Trophy, the league has been a different story. They are 14 points behind leaders Blyth with four games in hand but more realistically Darlo should comfortably secure a play-off position this season.
With a confidence boosting victory over Blyth just before the New Year and two games against Salford still to come, all the pressure is on the other two clubs when it comes to the play-offs. Salford for the sheer amount of money spent and Blyth would have blown the title if they end up in the play-offs. As a result, it could be back to back play-off successes for Darlo.
Off the pitch, the ongoing saga of will they won’t they return to Darlo seems to be coming to a positive conclusion but until there is a definite confirmation of a return it’s very much Darlo in a state of limbo.
Overall then, play-offs this season would be another season of progress and if Darlo were to just miss out, they could be confident of having less competition for promotion next season around. If they were to obtain promotion, it would see them have reached their peak until a return to Darlo is secured.
Prediction: Play-Offs, beating Salford in the final under the watchful gaze of the ex-Valencia Manager.
Merthyr Town – Southern League Prem – Step 3
I have to say, I expected better for the Martyrs this season but if survival is secured, it can still be seen as a step in the right direction. A hugely underwhelming defeat in the 2nd Qualifying Round of the FA Cup to a team two steps below them was followed by a respectable run in the FA Trophy.
In the league, a real concern about being relegated has largely dissipated with recent form and there is a chance to get on a decent run with upcoming home games. Attendances have remained solid if not spectacular, with Merthyr having the 4th highest attendance at 437. The Martyrs will look to finish the season having more wins than losses to set themselves up for a real assault on the league next season.
Prediction: Bottom Half
Dorchester- Southern League Prem – Step 3
Well this is more like it for the Dorch. After last season’s stabilisation job to prevent successive relegations, Dorchester now find themselves hanging onto the coat-tails of the play-off pack. With no real cup runs to speak of, the longer Dorchester can stay in the pay-off race the more people may find themselves heading through the gates and keep that average attendance above the 400 mark.
Overall, a good season so far for the Dorch and if they don’t make the play-offs this season, that will have to be the target next time around.
Prediction: Top 10
Tonbridge Angels – Ryman Prem – Step 3
Another club who stabilised last season to come on strong this year is Tonbridge Angels in the Ryman Prem. Three points off the play-offs with a game in hand, they are still in with an outside chance of claiming the title and with ex Salop player Nathan Elder pumping in the goals along with Luke Blewden, you wouldn’t back against them if they do make the top five.
So the foundations for this club are pretty solid and for as long as they stay in this division, they will always be threatening much like Dulwich Hamlet. Attendances are in the healthy 500’s and if Tonbridge can stay in the play-off picture it’s a chance to bring on a new cohort of fans meaning regardless of where the Angels finish this season, they should be in a strong position to build on next year.
Overall then, things are looking good for the Angels who will be targeting a ticket to the lottery of the play-offs.
Enfield Town FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
An awful start has been recovered from to leave the Towners with an outside chance of the play-offs. Just missing out on a trip to the FA Cup 1st Round will be a disappointment but again it’s another solid showing from the now established Step 3 side.
It seems unlikely to be this year and the calibre of teams coming up to the Ryman Prem next season means next year will be just as tough but Enfield will always be there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future.
Prediction: Top Half
Hendon FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Post Play-Off Blues has stricken Hendon with a season of reconstruction and still in a relegation battle. Being knocked out of both the FA Trophy & Cup by Step 8 side AFC Sudbury can’t have helped and just nine wins in 31 league games leaves Hendon in 18th place, nine points above the last relegation spot but with Brentwood Town (who occupy it) having five games in hand over Hendon.
So cause for real concern at Hendon but things are coming together when it comes to getting a real home, after several years of a nomadic existence. Their soon to be permanent home of 3G facility Silver Jubilee Park, combined with the significant amount of youth teams, is a massive improvement from where the club were just a few years ago.
The facility is already being used by youth teams and progress looks good for Hendon to be in their new home for the start of next season, meaning improved crowds and a long term future for a club that was close to disappearing forever.
Provided Hendon can stay up, there are brighter days to come.
Lewes FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3
Probably my worst prediction of the season, with a top half estimate being horrifically wide of the mark. There is no way to sugar coat just how dark this season has been for Lewes with just four wins in 30 league games and 13 points off safety, Lewes are definitely heading down.
Still, there are a few positives that can be found even now, the 3G facility has been built and is bringing in crucial revenue streams for the club. They will be playing in the Ryman Div One South which will most likely be sending two of it’s four biggest clubs up via promotion, meaning if there is a ‘good’ season to go down this will probably be it.
Lewes have consistently failed to match their off field efforts with on field success, having spent several years now fighting relegation and failing to win more games than losses in a season, it could do them some good to actually get back to that winning feeling in the league below.
So the building job for next season is probably already underway and hopefully it will be a different story in one year.
FC United of Manchester – Conference North – Step 2
It’s already been quite a season for FC United with a move to a new ground, off the field issues which would need a post all to themselves and the sort of boycott that wasn’t in the FA Cup. With all that going on, it is easy to not focus on the football but that is where we will start.
In the League, after a ridiculous 4-3 comeback win over the weekend, FC United are now seven points clear of the drop with a game in hand on a few teams above them. Finishing above now rivals Stockport County is a very real prospect at this stage of the season, which shows just how far FC United have come (and also how low County have fallen). A top half finish isn’t beyond the realms of possibility but after the poor start, FC United will no doubt be glad for survival.
In terms of the Cups, FC United couldn’t match their impressive Quarter Final FA Trophy run last season, being dumped out by AFC Telford United (a club with plenty of their own problems) but it was the FA Cup which gave FC United their best (and perhaps worst) moments of the season.
A great run came to an end against Chesterfield but it was the drama surrounding the game which ended up turning what should have been a good occasion into one which left a bitter taste in the mouth.
A warning of things to come had already happened when FC United rebuffed the BBC’s attempts to interfere with their game against Sporting Khalsa by turning into a soap opera but this was averted. However, the inevitable move of their game vs Chesterfield for TV (onto a Monday night) set off a sequence of events which left nobody happy.
The FA also attempted to alter the ticket prices which eventually was not carried out but the atmosphere got very poisonous between fans on whether a boycott should be held or not. Although I suspect plenty of people who would’ve gone refused to buy tickets (and the bizarre protest of not going to the first half despite buying a ticket), the official attendance recorded looks like a mistruth, to put it most politely.
Briefly, for me if you agree to enter the competition and take the prize money over several seasons (which is generated by the TV coverage) I don’t really see the argument against it. The club can always choose not to take part in the FA Cup and it is likely that anytime the club makes the First Round, they are more likely than not to be on the telly.
Still, the FA Cup money should allow for the final few touches to go into the stadium which include completing the terracing behind one of the goals. Only one game in the league has pulled in less than 3,000 and if FC United secure their Conference North status, then attracting a higher calibre of player should allow them to challenge near the top over future seasons.
Prediction: Mid Table
AFC Telford United – Conference North – Step 2
The next three clubs are all victims of the sheer amount of money needed to challenge at the top of Non-League to various degrees, with Telford being the most extreme example after a season from hell.
Steve Kittrick was left in charge and allow to blow through a budget despite a less than impressive record in the second half of the AFC Telford United 2014-15 Conference season. It is criminal that a fan owned club allowed a manager to go over budget and the results meant he got the sack after five games of this season, with this season being a desperate attempt to control the wreckage of his time in charge. It seems all the money from the 2014-15 FA Cup money has been blown and a vote was held to look for options other than fan ownership.
However, I feel the need to say again: What other model is there? There is no money in owning Telford and calls for investment are really calls for someone to throw lots of money at the team for no return. Telford are largely victims of the fact the Conference is effectively the Football League, with some teams like FGR spending millions to buy one of the limited places into the Football League.
Still, despite the absolutely awful season Telford are still pulling in 1,000 plus and their current form (with a recent crushing loss against Hednesford included) is midtable. The problem is the cub are so far behind they need to go on a run of wins just to give themselves a chance of staying up. Telford lie rooted to the bottom of the league, three points off survival with the clubs above having two games in hand.
And yet, it still isn’t curtains as we approach a time of the season where an increasing amount of clubs have little to play for, Rob and Larry can still find a way to get out of the drop and fellow fan owned club FC United could do fan ownership a huge favour by gifting Telford three points in their next game.
Prediction: Survival… Just
Chester FC- Conference Prem- Step 1
Chester, like a host of ex Football League teams, are a victim of the disgustingly rigged two up two down system between Non-League and the Football League which is slowly killing a host of football clubs.
The reality is, unless you spend an obscene amount of money, you have zero chance of making the play-offs in the Conference and the financial arms race to gain those limited places has turned the Conference into the worst football division in this country.
For fan owned teams like Chester, it is even worse, with the club charging £15 for a standing ticket just to have a budget which allows for a mid-table side. On the pitch, what looked like another season of mid-table meandering is rapidly becoming a serious relegation battle, just seven clear of Boreham Wood who have two games in hand.
Chester have just two points in their last five league games and one win in 11 games, this is relegation form but it is in the FA Trophy which represents Chester’s only chance of glory this season (and in reality, their only chance until the joke of two up, two down is finally destroyed).
Chester have gone on a great run in the Trophy and have a difficult but winnable away tie against a resurgent Halifax Town. The reality of being just three rounds away from a trip to Wembley, which due to the FA Trophy and Vase being held on the same day should lead to a significantly higher crowd then last season’s 15,000, should be more than enough motivation for Chester players to give the fans something to cheer.
Prediction: Survival and trip to Wembley (hopefully)
Wrexham FC- Conference Prem- Step 1
If I had been writing this a month ago, I would have had Wrexham nailed on for a play-off appearance but now they will be lucky to finish in the top half. A truly awful run including loss to relegation threatened Halifax sandwiched between losses to bottom half Southport has meant that Wrexham went from being in the driving seat for 5th to probably also-rans.
Their next game is up against financial dopers FGR but after that they are facing teams either looking at relegation including Alty and a now doomed Kidderminster, plus Welling and Bromley. Those losses to Halifax and Southport have damaged them immensely but bar FGR, all those games are winnable and 10 points from those four games will give Wrexham an outside chance of making the playoffs.
Off the field, it highlights yet again the financial challenge facing clubs that are run properly and the cancerous effect of the FA doing sweet FA about the indefensible promotion/ relegation system being run by the Football League.
Wrexham have posted their first profit under fan ownership for the season 2014/15 (their 150th year) of £11, 587 but repeating this success may be unlikely with crowds dropping off from peaks of 5,000 plus this season down to the 3,000’s, plus runs to the FA Trophy final and FA Cup ties against Stoke all would have boosted the coffers.
The current way the Football League has decided to make the Conference clubs act is to choose between running in a sustainable sensible way or actually competing in the league. Next season is even worse with the Football League, instead of reforming the system, choosing to increase parachute payments to clubs who come down fully aware that they are doing this to rig who comes back up.
The collapse of ex Football League clubs in the Conference such as Hereford and no doubt many more in the future can be laid at the door of Football League, who should now keep their mouth shut about the behaviour of the Premier League. This rigged system, more than anything else, is why Wrexham fans will continue to be frustrated and will lead many to ask why their club (like all fan owned clubs) continues to be pushed for choosing not to cheat.
Prediction: Top Half