The Vanarama National League South gets underway next Saturday, on the 4th of August, and if this season proves anywhere near as exciting as last we’ll be lucky. Dartford and Havant & Waterlooville going head to head for the title right to the wire. Whitehawk staging an improbable, and ultimately doomed, post-Christmas fight for survival. Hungerford staying up on the last day. Braintree Town finishing 7th then winning away three times in a row to go up. Sam Higgins, Alfie Pavey, Jason Prior. Last season was great. And guess what, I think it’s going to be at least as good this time around. With some huge teams coming down (Torquay United were EFL League One a decade ago!), and some fascinating sides joining from the Isthmian and Southern leagues, it’s promising to be a bumper 9 months. Come this way for a bit of a season preview/predictions mash up…
Who will win the league?
I know this won’t be popular (and it certainly won’t be a surprise), but I think Billericay Town are the team to beat. Having accrued a brilliant 99-point league winning haul last year, and boasting 57-goal Jake Robinson, Ricay already looked strong before this summer. Then, owner/manager Glenn Tamplin made the crucial decision to hand the reins to Harry Wheeler, and the Essex side went on to pick up some great summer signings. Simon Walton from Sutton United arrives to provide experience and steel in the middle, whilst Adam Coombes guarantees Step Two goals, particularly when supported by the likes of new boys Jake Howells and Moses Emmanuel from midfield. This is before they’ve even confirmed the possible signing of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. At the back, bringing in Ben Gerring and Scott Doe to firm up the defence, it’s hard to see many teams living with Wheeler’s side. Frankly, I’d back this squad to finish in the Play Offs in the National League, and it’s hard to see anyone stopping them.
Predict the top seven?
There is a real strength in depth in the National League South this season, and probably 10-12 teams who could realistically be aiming for the Play Offs. Woking are one of those sides, and having signed Alan Dowson and half the Beavers’ squad, will be hoping that group can go one better than their Play Off Final defeat last season. In Charlie Wassmer and Josh Casey, “Dowse” has brought two of the division’s best defenders with him, and crucially, he’s also persuaded Max Kretzschmar to join him at the Cards. The Kingston-born midfielder is one of the silkiest players outside the Football League, and I’d be astonished if he doesn’t hit double figures from midfield again. Joining them in the Play Offs will be the other relegated side, Torquay United. Losing Luke Young to Wrexham is undoubtedly a blow, but the pace and power of Ruari Keating and Jason Banton up front could be explosive. Morale at the Gulls seems immeasurably higher than this time last season, and I think Gary Owers will finally get them moving in the right direction again.
I think Sammy Moore’s new charges at Concord Rangers will surprise a few and end up in the Play Off spots. Moore has built a great reputation at Leatherhead, and has brought along players he knows he can work with. On top of that, whilst they’ve lost Steve Cawley, Billy Roast and Amos Nasha, they’ve brought in Ryan “best left foot in non-league” Hayes and have made (for my money) the Step Two signing of the summer, bringing in Essex lad Billy Knott from Lincoln City. On the subject of Steve Cawley, I strongly suspect the firepower available to Hemel Hempstead will see them finish in the Play Off places again. Along with Cawley, Dean Brennan has brought back Charlie Sheringham, and added Phillip Roberts, both of whom are proven goalscorers in this league, and crucially, they haven’t lost anyone they won’t have wanted to.
Also joining them will be Welling United, under new manager Steve King. Again, as often happens in non-league, King has brought in players he knows, such as L’Ghoul Gassim, Arnaud Mendy, and the powerful midfielder David Ijaha. John-Paul Kissock, the former Everton Academy man will add spark from midfield, and Steve King proved he can get results in the National League South with his post-Christmas run at Whitehawk. Finally, completing the Play Off spots, are Chelmsford City, which brings me to…
Who else will go up?
The Clarets finally making it out of the Play Offs. Having suffered Play Off heartbreak two years on the trot, it’s time from Chelmsford to make the step up, and they definitely have the squad to do it. Rod Stringer’s side finished 3rd last season, and I fancy them to take 2nd this time out, giving them the “easiest” Play Off run. Just like Hemel, they’ve kept their key players, but have added to the squad well, especially Jai Reason, Rob Swaine and Ross Warner on a season’s loan from Sutton United. I also love the signing of Amos Nasha, who was one of my players of the season last year, however, it’s up front where Chelmsford look really frightening. Jordan Chiedozie has joined from Margate, where he hit 29 goals last season, Alex Akrofi from Tonbridge Angels, Scott Fenwick from York City, and ex-Arsenal man Rhys Murphy. If they can fit three of those four into a line up each week, they’ll score shedloads.
Where are Dartford and Hampton & Richmond then?!
So clearly I don’t fancy two of last season’s Play Off contenders to make it this year, and here’s why. Both sides lost managers who were crucial parts of the structure in the summer, and with them the squads have changed dramatically. Whilst maybe the time was right for Burman to go, he had been at the club for a long time, and as good as Adam Flanagan and Jamie Coyle undoubtedly are, they’ve got a job on their hands to keep pace with the leading pack. Similarly, whilst I have a huge amount of time for Gary McCann, I just don’t think the players he has brought in have the same quality as those who have departed. A look through the talent that has departed Beveree and Princes Park this summer is quite something: Alfie Pavey, Berti Schotterl, Charlie Wassmer, Jack Cook, Josh Casey, Lyle Della-Verde, Max Kretzschmar, Nathan Collier, Ryan Hayes. Those are some big shoes to fill, and that’s before the gut-wrenching injury to Dartford’s Andy Pugh in pre-season. Don’t get me wrong, some good players have arrived, particularly Shaun Lucien at Hampton, and Billy Roast at Dartford, but I can see both sides in mid-table.
St Albans City, Wealdstone and Bath City may also have aspirations at the Play Offs, but like the Darts and Beavers, I see them falling short. Bobby Wilkinson has built a delightful squad at Wealdstone, but I don’t think they have the strength in depth for the long haul, whilst Bath City still have some gaps in key areas. St Albans are probably the best equipped of the rest to break into the Play Offs, with the likes of 20-goal Sam Merson and Kieran Monlouis still in place, and the livewire running of Braintree Town’s Roman Michael-Percil added.
How will the promoted teams fare?
Well, as we’ve discussed, I think Billericay Town will win the league. I really do wish you’d listen. Away from them, I can see both sides staying up, with Slough Town maybe requiring a bit more effort to do so. Dulwich Hamlet are equipped with one of the best up-and-coming managers in Gavin Rose, who has consistently managed to polish the rough gems released from professional academies. The likes of Erhan Oztumer and now Reiss Allassani are just two of those who have moved up after a spell under his tutelage. Nyren Clunis slotted in 19 last season, and he’s only going to get better, whilst Ibrahim Kargo and Preston Edwards looked as though they’d be very comfortable at the higher levels. A smattering of National League experience has been added in the form of Magnus Okuonghae and Anthony Cook, and I think the Hamlet will be safe.
As for Slough Town, they earnt their place in this division the hard way, overcoming probably the most competitive set of Step Three Play Off rivals. After Hereford romped to 113 points, King’s Lynn Town, Slough Town, Kettering Town and Weymouth still managed to share an astonishing 396 points between them. Neil Baker and Jon Underwood’s Rebels may have been one of the quieter sides over the summer, but their two key signings Sam Togwell and Louie Soares both add real ability. I think Slough’s smaller squad may hinder them, but I think they will have enough to finish above some of the league’s weaker sides.
Who’s going down then?
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the absence of one of last season’s Play Off Eliminator Round contenders from higher up the list, and here is why. As much as I hate to say it as a proud Cornishman, I think Truro City are going down. The last minute confirmation of a season played at Torquay, a full four hour round trip to a different county just to watch home matches is a disgrace, and will really hinder the White Tigers’ ambitions. With uncertainty around the future of Stadium for Cornwall, it’s unclear how long Truro will be playing outside God’s County, but of one thing I’m fairly certain – when they return they won’t be a National League South side, and that makes me sad. Lee Hodges is such a good manager, and there is talent in the squad, but not enough. I like Tyler Harvey and Noah Keats, as well as Ed Palmer in defence. But Ben Gerring is gone, Cody Cooke is gone (St Mirren) and Tom McHale is gone (TBD). The replacements coming in are a mix of young loanees and lower league signings and with the bond with the fan base damaged, it looks like a long year at not Treyew Road. Which will be a Lidl.
Joining them for me are another side based outside their home county in Gloucester City (playing in Evesham). A 14th place finish last season is deceptive, and was built on a relatively strong defence. Unfortunately that defence has been significantly hindered by the departures of Kieran Parselle (Chippenham Town) and captain Keiran Thomas (Hereford), and ‘keeper Tom Hadler has returned to parent club Gillingham. That weakening in defence will expose their poor forward line, which was outscored by all but four sides last season, two of whom went down, and the a third almost did – Hungerford Town. Which brings me on to Hungerford. Nothing should take away from their remarkable escape in 2018, but as one of the weakest sides in the division they couldn’t afford to lose Alex Wall and Louie Soares. Ramone Rose is a decent addition, but it isn’t enough, and I think the Southern League is their next stop. If you’re interested, I think these sides will be replaced by Whitehawk (or Dorking Wanderers), Weymouth and Salisbury.
This is a very competitive field. There really is so much attacking talent in the division this season. One thing’s for certain, there will be plenty of goals. I can see Ryan Brunt hitting the ground running at Bath City, where he’ll look dashing in their glorious new kit, whilst Gethin Hill just down the A368 in Weston-super-Mare practically guarantees 20 goals a season. Equally, you can’t discount Sam Higgins being in the mix, and East Thurrock keeping him is great business (it’s why they don’t feature in the relegation places…), but I can’t look beyond two Essex based players for this. Jordan Chiedozie looks just right for Chelmsford to me, and I think he can go on to repeat his Margate heroics, but overall, I’m absolutely having Adam Coombes. Playing for Billericay Town, he’ll get chances, and his pace and finishing (20 in 24 appearances at Welling United in 2016/17) will ensure the man from Carshalton is in the mix.
Predicted League Table…
- Billericay Town
- Chelmsford City
- Hemel Hempstead Town
- Torquay United
- Concord Rangers
- Welling United
- St Albans City
- Dulwich Hamlet
- Bath City
- Hampton & Richmond Borough
- Chippenham Town
- East Thurrock United
- Oxford City
- Slough Town
- Eastbourne Borough
- Truro City
- Gloucester City
- Hungerford Town