Vanarama National League 2018/19
It’s now less than a week until the National League kicks off again. It certainly doesn’t feel like long since Macclesfield took the league title by a ten point margin which seemend a lot closer right up until the last minute. Had Sutton United not dropped off in the last month of the season, the race could have gone right to the wire. I was lucky enough to be at the Play Off Final at Wembley as well, to see Tranmere Rovers secure their return to the Football League. Whether Boreham Wood and Sutton can come as close this time around will be one of the interesting sub plots to the 2018/19 season. As will how the promoted sides fare, and whether or not Chesterfield can arrest their slide after two consecutive relegations. Without further ado, here’s how I see the season unfolding…
Who will win the league?
There is one team who have very obviously laid down a summer marker, as the Class of 92 attempt to join the 92. However, as brilliant as that Salford City side look, it takes a brave/foolish man to bet against Martin Allen. Having signed on from Barnet in the summer, “Mad Dog” has won this division before, and is truly the man to stop the rot for the Spireites. Chesterfield have released some of their bigger earners, and those they couldn’t move on have been loaned out (Louis Dodds to Port Vale). Whilst Kristian Dennis’ departure to Notts County will leave a big hole, Zavon Hines, Chigozie Ugwe and Lee Shaw (50 goals in two seasons at Grantham Town, including an absolute belter when I watched them against Warrington last year) should fill the gap. Allen has also brought across two solid yet cultured defenders in Will Evans and Michael Nelson to complement Laurence Maguire and Jerome Binnom-Williams. Curtis Weston, Charlie Carter and Sam Wedgbury add a nice blend of youth and experience, whilst Shwan Jalal knows what it takes to win this league. The defence looks solid, the midfield looks vibrant, and the frontline looks dangerous. Chesterfield won’t be hanging around in the National League.
Predict the top seven?
Looking through the list of clubs, there are probably 14 or 15 who you could make a genuine argument for as Play Off contenders, but standing out from them all is Salford City. The Ammies finished six points clear of Harrogate Town last year to win the National League North, but scored 20 goals less than their rivals. Having brought in Adam Rooney (rumoured £375,000 fee with a £4k salary!) and Danny Lloyd they won’t struggle to score this year (not that they did last season, you understand). Lloyd bagged 16 goals in 25 League One starts last year and his energy and enthusiasm will cause nightmares for National League defenders. Nathan Pond and Danny Whitehead are great midfield signings, and after the money Graham Alexander has spent, anything less than the Play Offs would be a huge disappointment.
Just an hour along the M61 are AFC Fylde, who have also strengthened over the summer. Dave Challinor has signed a new contract, and they’ve staved off Football League interest in 24-goal Danny Rowe. Last season’s top scorers, the defence needed work, and that work has been done with the arrivals of Joe Cardle from Dunfermline, and Gateshead’s Neil Byrne. The Coasters have added well in the middle of the park too, bringing in Ashley Hemmings after a confusing summer involving a stop over in Salford, and Danny Philliskirk. Breaking their transfer record for the £50,000 signing of England C’s Ryan Croasdale is one of the biggest and best transfers of the summer, too. Staying in the north, and Hartlepool United look well equipped for a Play Off challenge as well. Matthew Bates has built upon his great work at the back end of 2017/18, making some nice additions, whilst retaining the bulk of who he wanted. Rhys Oates may have departed for Morecambe, but I believe bringing in Niko Muir from Hendon and Luke James from Forest Green Rovers is an upgrade, whilst Andrew Davies, Peter Kioso and Paddy McLaughlin are all astute signings. And of course there’s one Liam Noble coming in from Notts County, who is surely the signing of the summer.
Another side who had a disappointing season overall last time out were Leyton Orient, and I’m confident they’ll be stronger for the experience. Macauley Bonne, scorer of 22 goals last season, is still at Brisbane Road, and Justin Edinburgh has kept almost his entire squad together. Adding sparingly, he’s brought James Alabi with a point to prove, and Dale Gorman from Stevenage. Key men Sam Ling, Charlie Lee and James Brophy are still in place, and Josh Koroma could be one of the surprise packages of the division. Futher around the M25 are the other relegated side, who have replaced Martin Allen with Dagenham’s John Still. Barnet needed to cut their cloth over the summer, and sent John Akinde to Lincoln, whilst Charlie Clough, Alex Nicholls, Curtis Weston and Michael Nelson all departed as well. However, in Dave Tarpey they have a proven National League goalscorer, and have complemented him with Medy Elito, Byron Harrison and Josh Walker from Fulham. There are goals in that group, and Ricardo Santos will prove himself to be one of the top defenders in the division. Andre Boucaud, Craig Robson, Charlee Adams and Daniel Sparks are all good players who have followed Still from the east end, whilst Cheye Alexander has been one of Aldershot Town’s most consistent players over the last few years.
Speaking of the Shots, they look well placed for another Play Off challenge. They spread their goals around last season, and without an obvious focal point (though Dan Holman may be through the door soon), they’ll have to do so again this year. Their biggest asset is Gary “The Wadfather” Waddock, and once again he’s shown himself adept at building a squad. He’s lost some crucial players this summer, but those coming through the door look capable of maintaining the status quo. Marvin McCoy, Luke Howells and Luke Wanadio are all good players, and Regan Booty comes from Huddersfield very highly rated.
Who else will go up?
That’s a damned strong Play Off line up, and picking winners from that lot is a fool’s game. However, that fool is me, so I’m going for AFC Fylde. Any of those clubs could beat each other on a given day, but I think the power of Danny Rowe, allied to the physical strength they have across the pitch (Lewis Montrose, for example, is one of the biggest bastards I’ve ever seen on a football pitch, truly lovely stuff) could give them the advantage in knock out football. On top of that Ryan Croasdale can unlock any defence, and I fancy this as the year that the Lancashire side achieve the Football League status that their facilities and set up deserve.
So talk to me about who’s missing out…
There are a raft of strong clubs who I think will fall just short, including last season’s Play Off semi finalists Sutton United. It’s no secret I have a soft spot for my local club, and Paul Doswell has done miraculous things down at Gander Green Lane. He’s opted for a smaller squad this season, bringing in proven quality such as Dan Wishart and Dale Bennett, and his attacking options in Tommy Wright, Harry Beautyman, Tom Bolarinwa and Kieran Cadogan are a delight. Craig Eastmond will continue to be the most metronomic footballer in the league, and Jamie Butler is an asset in goal. The biggest problem Sutton will have is that the division is just stronger this year, and I think some of the full time teams will have too much for them.
I think two Kent sides, Ebbsfleet United and Bromley will also go close, but ultimately fall short. Bromley’s acquisition of Marc-Anthony Okoye is very shrewd, whilst signing Omar Bugiel on a permanent transfer could be crucial. However, having seen Josh Rees and Louis Dennis go through the door to League One this summer, I don’t think players of that quality are easily replaced. At Ebbsfleet, whilst Ebou Adams is a great signing (and one that pissed off a minority of Leyton Orient fans), it’s not enough to get them across the line.
How will the promoted teams fare?
Another two teams in that mid-table push for the Play Offs should be promoted sides Havant & Waterlooville and Harrogate Town. Both have enough about them that mere survival should not be the limit of their ambitions. The Hawks have brought in three quality young strikers in Alfie Pavey, Nicke Kabamba and Aaron Cosgrave to replace Dorking bound Jason Prior and Matt Tubbs who’s gone to Gosport. Ex-Pompey striker Lee Bradbury is the perfect manager to develop their games, and with the experience of Paul Robinson arriving in defence from AFC Wimbledon, an already strong squad looks well equipped to attack the National League.
Harrogate Town have also added to an already impressive squad, particularly in the defensive areas, with Liam Kitching arriving on a season’s loan from Leeds United, and the eye catching acquisition of Callum Howe from Port Vale. Crucially, they have retained Dominic Knowles, and he has hit the ground running with a great pre-season. After scoring a hundred goals last season, Simon Weaver’s side should have the firepower for a midtable finish.
It doesn’t look quite so rosy for Braintree Town though, who face a more taxing return to the National League. Brad Quinton admirably brought back his whole promotion squad from last season after their remarkable late season run, telling me at the Play Off Final that they had all earnt their chance. True to his word, the vast majority have been given contracts, including key men Reece Grant, Luke Allen and Billy Crook. Sadly, Crook will miss the first five weeks of the season after being handed a misconduct ban despite very, very circumstantial evidence. Skipper Okoye’s departure to Bromley is a huge loss, and Irons fans will hope that new arrivals Olu Durojaiye, Lyle Della-Verde and Michael Clark can hit the ground running.
Who’s going down then?
Sadly, I think Braintree Town will be one of the four, I just don’t think their squad has the depth or quality in some key positions. Joining them will be Gateshead I think, though I wouldn’t like to see it. Steve Watson has been swimming against the tide this summer, and the list of players who have headed through the door on Tyneside is eye watering. A summer of boardroom upheaval and a much reduced budget (but not the threatened move to part time) has seen the exit of James Montgomery, Dan Hanford, Theo Vassell, Neil Byrne, Jamal Fyfield, Paddy McLaughlin, Rees Greenwood, Russ Penn, Wes York, Richard Peniket, Danny Johnson, Jordan Preston and Jordan Burrow. That is literally an entire team plus a couple of subs, and despite a few promising young arrivals and loans from Middlesbrough, I don’t see Gateshead surviving.
Also down towards the bottom I think AFC Barrow will be unable to repeat their survival heroics last time out. Another side who have seen a huge summer upheaval, I think Ian Evatt’s first year in full time management could be a long one. There have been some good signings – Matthew Elsdon from Middlesbrough and Rhys Turner from Morecambe stand out for me, but the departures have been far more damaging. Steve Arnold leaves big gloves to fill following his move to Shrewsbury, and Moussa Diarra almost certainly can’t be replaced. Finally, and this is a tough one to call, I think Solihull Moors could go down. I won’t dispute that Tim Flowers has signed well, and the squad looks stronger than it did this time last season – I just think other sides are better. Adi Yussuf, Kyle Storer and Kwame Thomas are all good players, and Darren Carter’s experience is invaluable, but I think the Moors will come up short.
And the rest?
Just ahead of the bottom four, this could be a long, draining season for Eastleigh, Dagenham & Redbridge and Maidstone United. Maidstone looked on borrowed time for a lot of last season, and could well have gone down but for Woking’s post-Christmas collapse. Shamir Mullings and Jordan Wynter look like good signings, and Mullings, Jamar Loza and Joe Quigley should score enough to keep them safe. Eastleigh have had a competent summer, getting much of their business – particularly new contracts – conducted quickly. Alex Wynter and Josh Hare have come in from Maidstone, swapping one relegation battle for another, and ex-Southampton man Oscar Gobern has arrived from Yeovil. I fancy this could be a break out campaign for Cavaghn Miley too, and wouldn’t be surprised to see him move up the league(s) mid-season. The Daggers, meanwhile, face a season of consolidation under Peter Taylor. They have lost too many big players in the last 6 months to challenge, and mid-table stability would represent a successful season. Maidenhead United will again be safe comfortably, and have replaced the Blackpool-bound Harry Pritchard with Dover’s prolific Ryan Bird. Also off to League One was Sam Barratt, but he too has been replaced by Max Worsfold, who I fancy to compete with Harold Odametey for the title of Maidenhead’s best player this season. Halifax Town and Wrexham are going to be two other clubs in the mid-table mire. England C Captain Josh Staunton’s arrival at Halifax Town is an absolute coup, likewise Luke Young and Luke Summerfield coming in at the Racecourse Ground. Wrexham struggled for goals last season though, and whilst Mike Fondop-Talom has impressed in pre-season, I don’t think it’s enough.
Well then where are Boreham Wood and Dover?!
That leaves only two sides, and I’ve saved them for last because I think they’ll struggle the most to reach last season’s heights. Chris Kinnear has consistently had Dover Athletic punching above their weight on the fringes of the Play Offs, but I think this season that will change. There is no doubting Kinnear’s ability to organise a defence, but I don’t think Dover have anywhere near enough going forward. Only Wrexham scored less in the top half last season, and now Ryan Bird and Mitch Pinnock (AFC Wimbledon) have gone as well. Although Moussa Diarra and Anthony Jeffrey are good signings, they don’t address the obvious problems, and with Femi Ilesanmi, Giancarlo Galifuoco and Manny Parry leaving, the defence is weaker too.
Boreham Wood hugely overachieved last season, reaching the Play Off finals at Wembley on merit. Luke Garrard is one of the best managers in non-league and is surely destined for the Football League in the next season or two, but I think Wood peaked last year. Top scorer Bruno Andrade has gone to Lincoln, along with Goalkeeper of the Year Grant Smith, and the loss of key loannees Jamie Turley and Michael Folivi will hurt. Scott Doe and Alex Davey are also gone, and the furore caused by Morgan Ferrier’s agent has dogged the club through the summer. Ryan Huddart is an adequate replacement for Smith, and the summer arrivals from Dover will offset the defensive losses, but Andrade was the X-Factor of this team, and his departure has not been addressed.
There are some genuine Football League quality strikers spread throughout the division this season. Danny Rowe and Macauley Bonne both hit over 20 last season and would expect to do the same this year. Salford also didn’t spend all that money on Danny Lloyd and Adam Rooney without wanting at least 40 out of the two of them. Dominic Knowles and Byron Harrison have proven throughout their careers that they know where the goal is, but I like the look of two from slightly left field. Jonah Ayunga has come in at Sutton United from Brighton, and with the quality of supply he will get in South London, I fancy this to be a breakout season for him. However, Alfie Pavey, the National League South POTY has had a wonderful pre-season at Havant, and seems to have really found a home. He hasn’t looked back since his release from Millwall, and I think he’ll take the National League firmly in his stride.
- AFC Fylde
- Leyton Orient
- Salford City
- Hartlepool United
- Aldershot Town
- Sutton United
- Havant & Waterlooville
- Ebbsfleet United
- Maidenhead United
- Boreham Wood
- Harrogate Town
- Dover Athletic
- Halifax Town
- Maidstone United
- Dagenham & Redbridge
- Braintree Town
- AFC Barrow
- Solihull Moors