Vanarama National League 2019/20
It’s now less than a week until the National League kicks off again, and this August we have some big clubs joining – from both ends of the table. Last season, a tight title (tightle?) race went right to the wire, as Leyton Orient pipped Solihull Moors in the final week, ending their two year stay in the National League. Joining them in the Football League were Salford City as The Ammies won promotion at the first time of asking, beating AFC Fylde convincingly in the Wembley Promotion Final. At the other end, Havant & Waterlooville, Braintree Town and Maidstone United dropped to Step Two, in a bad season for southern clubs. Sadly, we also lost Gateshead, who were relegated to the National League North due to off-field concerns – meaning a summer reprieve for Aldershot Town. Replacing those relegated sides are Chorley, Stockport County, Torquay United and Woking – all of whom will be looking to make their mark over the next ten months. So, without further ado, let’s get to the first big question…
Who will win the league? Last season I had my fingers burnt when I predicted big-boys Chesterfield to bounce straight back, and looking at the sides who have come down, I’ll be making no such mistake this season… With the absence of big-spending Salford, and “too-good-for-the-National-League” Leyton Orient, I believe the division looks a lot more even this time around. There are some strong sides who have been there or thereabouts for a few years now, such as Wrexham, and you can guarantee someone will pull a Solihull Moors (maybe even Solihull?) and threaten unexpectedly. But, in a league where I think positions two through to twelve will be more difficult to predict than Boris Johnson’s next gaffe, I think the side who stand out are AFC Fylde. Now entering their third year in non-league’s top flight, the Coasters went as close as you can go last season, and look stronger again. Dave Challinor is now well-established in the hot seat, and has used the summer well. They had the third best defence in the division last season, and scored a lot too, but they were overly reliant on Danny Rowe. He got 28, and Andy Bond was next in line with seven. Stop Danny Rowe, and seemingly you stop AFC Fylde… I can’t see that being the case anymore. Challinor has signed FC United’s Kurt Willoughby and Halifax’s Matty Kosylo, and they should ease the burden on Rowe. Creatively, James Hardy is obviously a loss, but Mark Yeates was one of the stars of the division in 2018/19 and is one of a host of players brought in who potentially represent an improvement on last season’s squad.
Predict the top seven? This is undoubtedly where things start to get difficult. Wrexham are the obvious choice to make the Play Offs, and after finishing fourth last season, will back themselves for a similar position this season. The Red Dragons were solid at the back (quelle surprise…) but struggled up front, where they were outscored by nine teams. Much will depend on Jason Oswell rediscovering the form that earnt him a move to Morecambe last summer, and JJ Hooper continuing his goalscoring exploits with Bromley. Crucially, Wrexham haven’t lost anyone they wouldn’t want to, and again will look to Shaun Pearson’s organisational ability to form the bedrock of their campaign.
Joining them in the Play Off spots, I think Yeovil Town look the better placed of the two relegated sides to make a fist of it in the National League. Manager Darren Sarrl will be looking to rebuild his reputation after being sacked at Stevenage and subsequently leaving Watford under something of a cloud. Picking up Rhys Murphy could me a masterstroke, as he’ll be desperate to prove last season’s 25 goals for Chelmsford weren’t a one off. Some of the high-earners have gone, and Yeovil have put together a compact squad, supported by what they perceive to be a good group of youngsters. Also well placed are Harrogate Town. Another of last season’s Play Off contenders, Town got their business done early, bringing in a mix of youth (Will Smith), league experience (Sam Jones) and league lots-of-experience (Jon Stead), not to mention livewire winger Brendan Kiernan – off the back of a great season for Welling United. Simon Weaver knows how to get the best out of his players, and the likes of Callum Howe and Jack Muldoon will again be crucial.
So three more to pick – and next up are a side who I think have performed the best transfer business of the summer. Dover Athletic had half a horrible campaign, and then after the arrival of Andy Hessenthaler as manager, half a brilliant one, eventually finishing in 13th. This summer they’ve shifted some of their more inconsistent players (Anthony Jeffrey, Kadell Daniel, Tobi Sho-Silva) and brought in proven National League quality. Oscar Gobern, Michael Woods and Steven Rigg would improve many sides in this division, whilst Nassim L’Ghoul is a potential star on the wing. Kurtis Cumberbatch from Farnborough could also be an interesting addition, but will need time to adapt to the level. Mitch Walker to Aldershot is obviously a big loss, but Turkish youth international Yusuf Mersin should be a more than capable replacement.
I think I may be in a minority of people who also fancy Barnet for a Play Off run. They struggled initially to adapt to this level, and were distracted by a brilliant FA Cup run, but should be stronger for the experience. Their squad was more bloated than Thomas Brolin last season, and they’ve trimmed it by 13 over the summer, adding only (the very impressive) Scott Loach from Hartlepool. Between Shaquille Coulthirst, Mo Bettamer, Jack Barham and Josh Walker they should score plenty, whilst Callum Reynolds remains one of the most technically adept defenders in the division. Then, finally, I’m going to plump for Gary Johnson’s Torquay United. Newly promoted, I believe they’ll have one of the best first XIs in the league, and only their lack of depth will prevent them from challenging for the title. At the time of writing their squad consists of 15 senior players, but you can bet under Gary Johnson they’ll be going all out to score. Jamie Reid hit 29 last season and will be joined by new arrival Manny Duku. Behind them, a midfield picked from Asa Hall, Armani Little, Jake Andrews and Kalvin Lubombo-Kalala will be among the finest in the division.
Who else will go up? Well. In the lottery of the Play Offs it really is anyone’s game. That said, in the last two seasons, the side with the strongest squad (Tranmere Rovers and Salford City) to qualify have run out winners. So with that in mind, I’m going to have to say Wrexham. I think their defensive solidity could get them over the line this season – though a part of me really wants to say Dover!
So talk to me about who’s missing out… Obviously this means some very good sides will fall just short, and to my mind, chief among them are Bromley and Dagenham & Redbridge. Peter Taylor’s Daggers have undergone a huge change of personnel this summer (14 out and 13 in), and I believe they’re good value to improve significantly on last season’s 18th place. Conor Wilkinson was their top scorer last season, and he’s gone to replace Macauley Bonne at Orient, but has been quickly replaced by Reece Grant, who I think can be a very effective striker at this level – especially with the likes of Harold Odametey, Angelo Balanta and Alexander McQueen supplying the ammunition. Neil Smith at Bromley has also recruited well, particularly with the signing of Billy Bingham from the Football League. I don’t think Mark Cousins is as good as David Gregory in goal, but Chris Bush is a fine acquisition in defence. Alongside Marc-Anthony Okoye, who has become a cult hero at Hayes Lane after only one season, Bromley will be difficult to break down.
So Torquay in the top seven, what about the rest of the promoted sides? I think it could be a long, hard season for Chorley, and I think it’ll end up with them heading straight back from whence they came. Taking nothing away from the squad who went toe-to-toe with Stockport County last season, the Magpies just haven’t strengthened enough. There’s still time, of course, but Chris Holroyd’s three goals for Wrexham last season don’t scream that he’s the man to keep them up. Lewis Baines is a classy signing, but I suspect it won’t quite be enough. Stockport County should fare marginally better, but have also struggled to add to their squad. Alex Curran from Step Four Colne is the only addition, and whilst he’s highly rated he’s an unknown quantity at this level. Whether or not he’ll be able to step up and replace the goals of Matty Warburton (or if Nyal Bell or Frank Mulhern can do so) could be the crucial question for their season. I think they’ll be safe, but surely anything from 20th upwards would be seen as a success for the Hatters on their re-entry to the National League.
And from the south, Woking make up the promoted sides. As the only fully part-time team in the south of the division, they will have their pick of the part-time players, but this will come at the obvious cost. If Dave Tarpey can find the boots he used at Maidenhead they should be comfortable. Max Kretzschmar has earnt a crack at Step One after the former-Beaver scored thirty plus goals from midfield in his last two seasons, whilst Godfrey Poku – newly signed from Wealdstone will be relishing the chance to run at a new set of defences. They may struggle defensively, where Ben Gerring and Manny Parry may struggle for pace against the league’s better strikers, but I fancy them for lower mid-table.
And what about Notts County? I think this season is going to be a real struggle for Notts County, and I really feel for them and their fans. Yet another club in English football who are suffering for bad owners, the drop to non-league could be a real shock, and I fear that doing a “York City” may be on the cards. The only club not to sign a single player, how County start the season will be crucial. Desperate to cut costs, the club have released a lot of experience, and in a squad of 19 have 11 players aged 23 or under. In a tough, physical league, it could be too much. Sadly, I think the fans in Nottingham may be facing another relegation come May.
So Notts County, Chorley, and who else? With the departure of 27-goal Paul McCallum to Solihull Moors, I think Eastleigh will drop this season. They were the first side in the history of English football (top five tiers) to make the Play Offs with a negative goal difference last season, and with McCallum and Yeates gone have watched over half their goals depart. With Josh Hare, Joey Jones and Oscar Gobern also hitting the road, it looks like curtains for Eastleigh. Scott Rendell is not the player he was, and I don’t see him getting double figures. Defensively they’ll be mid-table, but I can see them being the lowest scorers in the league.
Finally, I think it will be tight for the last spot between a few clubs (Boreham Wood, Stockport, Maidenhead and Ebbsfleet all run the risk), but I think it will be FC Halifax Town who complete the relegated quartet. Watching Jamie Fullarton walk out the door, leaving a squad of just 15 doesn’t smack of ideal preparation, and I don’t think their signings represent much improvement on what’s already there. I simply can’t see how Jamie Allen and Tobi Sho-Silva will be an upgrade on Kosylo and Jonathan Edwards. Last season’s top scorer was Devante Rodney, with seven, and he’s now in north Wales. Defensively, a lot could depend on how quickly former-Bantam Jacob Hanson finds his feet, but unless the newly appointed Chris Wild can bring in reinforcements quickly, they could find themselves playing catch up all season.
And the rest? There has been a large turnover at both Ebbsfleet United and Sutton United this season. Garry Hill’s have well documented issues, and many sides would have capitulated under the leadership of lesser men, but Garry Hill is an experienced and shrewd operator, who has managed to put together a strong squad given the circumstances. It’s not good enough to keep them in touch with the top half, but should keep them in the division. As for Sutton, it’s time to rebuild at Gander Green Lane. They’ve said goodbye to Paul Doswell after (approximately) 73 years together, and he’s packed most of his squad in a minibus and headed down the A3 to Havant. New man Matt Gray may have been an unexpected appointment, but he’s shown some nous already, bringing in some exciting talent such as David Ajiboye from Worthing (16 goals from wide last season) and Aaron Jarvis, to add to the likes of Craig Eastmond – still the best deep lying midfielder in the National League for my money.
Along with the Us, Hartlepool United and Solihull Moors will round out the top half. The midlands side had such a good year under Tim Flowers last time out, but I just can’t see them repeating it. He makes them tough to play against, and keeping Jamey Osborne is great business. Jermaine Hylton and Adi Yussuf may have left, but in Paul McCallum, Nathan Blisset and Danny Wright they should be fine for goals. The big question though – how much more can Flowers squeeze out of Darren Carter? At 35 years of age he is still crucial to how they play, and has missed only three games in the last two years. Hartlepool have put together one of the biggest, strongest forward lines in football –with Gime Toure, Niko Muir and Nicke Kabamba all coming in well over six foot. Ben Killip is an astute signing in goal, and, along with Peter Kioso at right back, could well be headed to the Football League with another good season in 2019/20.
Aldershot Town should be comfortable, despite (more than) flirting with relegation last season. Danny Searle has come in from Braintree Town and swept through the EBB like a whirlwind. The signings are a blend of exciting (Alfy Whittingham and Ethan Chislett in particular will get the fans off their seats), and solid (think Mitch Walker, Robbie Tinkler and Kodi Lyons-Foster) and the Shots should have a much more enjoyable season. Also likely to have a less emotional time of it are the Spireites, with Chesterfield expecting to put last season’s chaotic experience behind them. Martin Allen turned out to be (almost) as mad as the nickname suggests, and it wasn’t until John Sheridan came in that they found some consistency. A raft of good youngsters have joined this season, but with a good amount of departures their huge squad of 2018/19 looks a lot more manageable. A full season of Scott Boden, feeding off Sam Wedgbury and Joe Rowley is something to look forward to as well.
Making up the division are Barrow AFC, Boreham Wood and Maidenhead United. Alan Devonshire continues to work wonders in Berkshire, and (literally as I’m writing this) has managed to add the exciting Bernard Mensah to his squad. Some long-standing Magpies have departed this summer, but I’m really looking forward to seeing how Freddie Grant steps up to the National League after joining from Wealdstone. Barrow have made a few solid acquisitions (Scott Quigley, Bradley Barry) and with the exception of Dan Jones have kept all they would hope to. Ian Evatt’s decision to bring in Dior Angus is exciting as well, after he was a solitary positive note in Nuneaton Borough’s horrible season last year. At Boreham Wood, I think their flirtation with promotion two seasons ago was definitely a one-off. Luke Garrard is a high-quality young manager, but he is going to struggle to build a consistently challenging team at Meadow Park. It looked like Ralston Gabriel could be the man to fire them back into contention – he scored 26 in three divisions last season – but his extra-curriculars seem to have deprived the Wood of a good goalscorer. Kabongo Tshimanga has come in from Oxford City off the back of a career-best season, but the squad just looks a bit thin for top half this season.
Top scorer? Danny Rowe. 27 last season, 24 the year before. If he continues the pattern he’ll hit 30 this year. Anyone betting against it? Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good strikers about in the National League – Scott Boden, Paul McCallum, Jack Muldoon and Michael Cheek all know how to hit the net at this level. There are players such as JJ Hooper and Adrian Clifton have gone to new clubs and could be in the mix. Newcomers Rhys Murphy, Kristian Dennis and Jamie Reid will all want to make a name for themselves, and of course Rowe’s new partner Kurt Willoughby is coming in with a burgeoning reputation. However, Danny Rowe is simply the man at this level – for National League football he’s an 8/10 in every striking discipline, and no one has yet learnt how to keep him quiet.
Disclaimer – this is just a bit of fun, I am well aware that predicting a league table is an entirely absurd thing to try and do…
- AFC Fylde
- Yeovil Town
- Harrogate Town
- Dover Athletic
- Torquay United
- Dagenham & Redbridge
- Hartlepool United
- Sutton United
- Solihull Moors
- Aldershot Town
- Barrow AFC
- Boreham Wood
- Stockport County
- Maidenhead United
- Ebbsfleet United
- FC Halifax Town
- Notts County
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