Vanarama National League South 2019/20
The Vanarama National League South gets underway next Saturday, on the 3rd of August, and it looks like being much stronger than last season. Last time out, Billericay Town raced out of the blocks, with Jake Robinson hitting 13 goals in what felt like about 20 minutes. However, with Gary Johnson taking over at Plainmoor, and Alan Dowson working his magic at Woking, it wasn’t long before the Gulls and the Cards made it a two-horse race. Torquay pulled away in the spring, and sealed the title by ten points, forcing Woking to do it the hard way – and they did, beating Welling United 1-0 in the Promotion Final. Truro City, East Thurrock United and Weston-super-Mare were the losers in the tightest of relegation battles, with Hungerford Town and Gloucester City both enjoying late-season surges (though you won’t see The Tigers this season as they’ve gone to the National League North). Some strong sides have come down, including Havant & Waterlooville (now complete with Paul Doswell…) and Maidstone United, whilst promoted Dorking Wanderers are on the rise.
Who will win the league? A lot of people – none more so than Glenn Tamplin himself – are urging punters to get out and splurge on ‘Ricay, particularly after their recent signings of Matt Rhead, Gavin Gunny and Craig Robson. Without a doubt, it’s a good squad, but not as strong as Paul Doswell’s. The former Sutton manager has given Havant & Waterlooville a real shot in the arm since arriving, and they look like the team to beat. They were quite a way short of survival last season, but make no mistake – this side is much stronger than the one who pipped Dartford to the National League South title in 2018. Jonah Ayunga has been smashing goals in during pre-season, and it’s not unreasonable to think he, Alfie Rutherford and Danny Kedwell could bag fifty plus between them. Further back, Dos has brought in players he knows he can trust to play his style, and to grind out the difficult points – the likes of Ross Worner, Dean Beckwith and Simon Walton following their manager down to Hampshire. And of course, Nicky Bailey. I actually believe he and Paul Doswell get withdrawal symptoms if they’re apart for too long.
Predict the top seven? Well the aforementioned Billericay Town are sure to be in there. Tamplin and Harry Wheeler really have put a strong team together, and it all just feels a bit more “grown up” this time around. Jordan Parkes is a superb signing after the season he had at Hemel, whilst Rhead, Doug Loft and Ben Nunn all represent improvements to the squad. No money has been wasted on former Premier League players just for the name. Moses Emmanuel, Alfie Potter, Jake Robinson and Sam Deering are all important players who have been retained, whilst if Charlie Wassmer can stay fit he could be a real asset. The question mark though, as always, is Tamplin himself – and the money. Will he stay interested if results dip? Will he become too involved? In a tougher division, ‘Ricay can’t afford a mid-season slump like last term.
Another strong side are Maidstone United. The Kent side joined Havant in coming down this summer, and have done their business well – and quickly. John Still and Hakan Hayrettin are both big draws for players at Step Two, and that has enabled The Stones to bring in some proven quality such as Jake Cole, Gavin Hoyte and George Elokobi. They have lost some good players too, such as Blair Turgott who will test himself at Graham Potter’s former club, Ostersunds, but Ibrahim Olutade – signed from Leatherhead on the back of a good season could step up.
I think two other sides who have recruited well are Bath City and Welling United, and I fully expect both to repeat their Play Off challenges of last season. Owner and (now) manager Mark Goldberg has wasted no time in rebuilding after the departure of Steve King, and has signed an astonishing fifteen players (and apparently instigated a shuttle bus between Park View Road and Champion Hill…). Rob Swaine is a great replacement for the Brackley-bound Thierry Audel, whilst Nathan Green, Anthony Cook and Adam Coombes will be an exciting attacking set-up. Keeping Jack Jebb was crucial, but keeping him fit will be more so. One odd note was the signing of Kudus Oyenuga, who was then swiftly packed off to Isthmian League Margate on dual registration.
Down in Somerset, Jerry Gill’s Romans could (once again) be the division’s dark horses. They had the best defence in the division last time out, but struggled for goals, outscoring only two other top half teams. The signing of Truro City’s hirsute Tyler Harvey should help to solve that, though whether Gill will take a risk and partner him with Brunt is uncertain. Anthony Straker has departed, and Robbie Cundy moved up to the Championship – both are big losses, so keeping Ryan Clarke for another season is a big bonus. Connor Riley-Lowe is in to replace Straker though, and he has been developing well over the last few years.
You can’t write a Play Offs section without featuring Chelmsford City, who are contractually obliged to reach the post-season, but fall agonisingly short. Indeed, they’ve now done it three seasons on the trot. It’s been a case of out with the old, and in with the even older this season, as Rhys Murphy has headed up a division, to be replaced by Clarets old boys Shaun Jeffers and Sam Higgins. Higgins top scored at this level two seasons ago in a poor East Thurrock side, so with the likes of Billy Knott, Jamar Loza and Chez Isaac behind him, he could really tear things up.
Finally, making up the top seven, I think that with a full season at their rightful home, backed by their huge crowds, Dulwich Hamlet could be a threat. As I said last season, Gavin Rose is a very proficient manager, and has shown a real ability to rebuild a side. Signing Folkestone’s 16-goal Ade Yussuf is a shrewd acquisition, and Danny Mills has the potential to play Football League. He just needs to fall over a bit less in the box. Connor Hunte, Richard Orlu and David Ijaha will bring much needed solidity to the sixth worst defence from last season, and they just look stronger right across the park.
As Chelmsford obviously won’t win the Play Offs, who will? I have to say I like the look of Bath this season. They were absolutely miserly last season, and whilst it is true that two of their top defenders are gone, the system was the true star of that record. This will be their 8th season at Step Two, and it looks like they may have strengthened enough in the rest of the team to avoid making it nine.
So no Braintree in the Play Offs? I don’t think so. Braintree Town were woeful in the first half of the season at National League level, and it wasn’t until Danny Searle came in that they really competed. Had he not have moved around the M25 to Aldershot they could have been in with a chance, but his replacement Glen Driver has had to completely overhaul the squad, and they don’t look good enough to challenge. Losing one of non-league’s best ‘keepers in England C’s Ben Killip is a blow, as is Luke Allen’s departure to Dartford. They have, however, signed Roman Michael-Percil, and when he plays for Braintree they go up – but I don’t think that’ll be enough this season. Mid-table beckons.
What about the other sides just missing out? Sammy Moore has really overhauled things at Hemel Hempstead Town since coming arriving from Essex, and the Tudors would be within their rights to expect big things. The likes of Alex Wall, Jake Howells and Sam Beasant won’t have come cheap, and the fans have watched favourites such as Laurie Walker and Jordan Parkes moved on to make room. Isaac Galliford is a really interesting acquisition, and is a player I think could make a big impression following his move from Hitchin – but if Hemel aren’t up around the Play Offs by November, I don’t think Moore’s honeymoon period will last long.
Dartford are another side who should be in the mix, and will look to continue the late season form under Adam Flanagan and Jamie Coyle which almost snatched them a Play Off place in May. The evergreen Ryan Hayes continues to wield his left-foot on the wing, and the defence looks as solid as ever. Sadly, Dartford’s mission to replace Alfie Pavey continues, and though Charlie Sheringham is good, he will be denied the chance to build on the partnership with Phil Roberts after the Irish striker went AWOL at the end of the last campaign. For the life of me I can’t find where he’s gone…
Making up the top ten could well be Ian Allinson’s St Albans City. It’s been three years since they finished outside those places, and I see no reason for that to change. Allinson has raided Biggleswade Town, and picked up two very exciting prospects in Solomon Nwakuokei and David Longe-King. In particular I think this could be a break-out season for Longe-King. None of the players who have left will be particularly mourned (Kieran Monlouis, Saints fans?), whilst the return of Rhys Murell-Williamson to Clarence Park gives him a chance to put his difficult season at Hampton & Richmond behind him.
How will the promoted teams fare? In a season where only two sides go down, this represents probably the best chance for promoted sides to gain a foothold in the division, and I fully expect Dorking Wanderers in particular to grasp that chance. The Surrey-side have been promoted five times since 2010, and are most definitely upwardly mobile. Marc White has built a great atmosphere in the squad, and such is his confidence in the players he’s added only Jake Gallagher and Ed Harris – both very good players at Step Two. Jason Prior was the division’s top scorer last time he played at this level, whilst Elliott Buchanan is a natural foil. Slav Huk in the Dorking goal will win admirers this season with his gutsy style, and it will be intriguing to see if Matt Briggs can really start to fulfil his obvious potential. I think the Wanderers should be comfortably mid-table, and reinforcements during the campaign could even see a Play Off push.
As for Weymouth, I believe their prospects diminished the second Brandon Goodship sailed off to Southend. There was no way they could hope to keep him – or even replace him – when the Football League came calling, after he had scored 75 goals in 81 appearances across the last two seasons. You simply can’t replace those goals with one player, so that task will fall to Brett Williams, Ben Thomson and Yemi Odubade. Jordan Rose and Andy Robinson come in following the Dos-inspired exodus in Havant, and Mark Molesey has quietly moved on the players he didn’t think would be able to stay up. I think the Terras should have enough to stay up. Just.
Who’s going down then? But, I don’t think Tonbridge Angels do. I think even the most diehard Angels fan would acknowledge that their promotion was unexpected – though richly deserved after the Super Play Off marathon. Seeing Arthur Lee choose not to stay on almost immediately must have been frustrating for Steve McKimm, and a look through the incomings shows they’ve found it difficult to bring in players of the right calibre. Tommy Brewer could be a good signing, but Rian Bray will need to show more than he did in Hampton last season. Joe Turner, Chinedu McKenzie and Alex Read were central to Tonbridge’s success last season, and if they are to stay up, will all have to perform equally well at this higher level. Unfortunately, I still don’t think it’ll be enough.
Joining them will be Hungerford Town. After successive 19th place finishes, I think the gig is up for the Berkshire side, and that Ian Herring’s end of season miracle working might not cut it this year. Alfy Whittingham, Marvel Ekpiteta, Darren Foxley and Danilo Orsi-Dadomo have all gone, and that’s an awful lot of quality to replace from a squad that didn’t have much to begin with. Connor Lynch managed three goals last season, and either Zidane Akers or Liam Ferdinand will have to find their feet at a much higher level (Thatcham Town and Bracknell Town respectively) very quickly if Hungerford are too survive.
So surviving by the skin of their teeth are… Well, no one, really. I think that Tonbridge and Hungerford are a fair way off the pace from the rest of the division. Eastbourne Borough and Hampton & Richmond Borough both had pretty horrible campaigns last time out, but both should be much better this season. Gary McCann seems to have made good use of the loan system, bringing in Laurie Walker from MK Dons, as well as Brad Pearce and Jude Mason from Sutton, whilst Dean Inman is a great acquisition at the back. McCann recruited heavily from Hendon last summer, but most didn’t make the grade, and his business looks a lot better twelve months on. Lee Bradbury’s Eastbourne also look much improved, having brought in experienced National League campaigners such as Elliott Romain and Nicky Wheeler. There have been no significant departures, and I expect them to survive much more confortably.
The biggest fallers are likely to be Concord Rangers and Oxford City. The Hoops will massively miss the goals of Kabongo Tshimanga, who moved to Boreham Wood over the summer. He got 24 last season, whilst the next cab off that particular rank was Kyran Wiltshire with six. Since the Congolese striker departed, Mark Jones has signed Stefan Brown as a replacement, and I can’t see him getting anywhere near that many. Oxford’s goal difference last season was only +1 – they can’t afford a big drop in that figure. Concord, meanwhile, have lost their management team and a good core of their squad from last season. A host of new arrivals have pitched up at Thames Road, including the exciting Joel Nouble from Haringey Borough, but with the time it’ll take them to gel, I think the side from Canvey Island will struggle to replicate last season’s heroics.
And what about the rest? I think Slough Town will again be comfortably mid-table. They have two great strengths under Neil Baker and Jon Underwood – consistency in the playing squad, and work rate, and will again have both this season. Three in, three out represents great continuity, though whether Ryan Bird will be up to the job remains to be seen. He’s only hit double figures once in the last six seasons. I think they’ll be challenging for league position with the likes of Wealdstone, who have swapped Bobby Wilkinson for Dean Brennan. Wilkinson did a good job in north-west London, but irked some fans with his attitude. Brennan has come in from Hemel and signed a lot of players, perhaps too many. 14 arrivals in one summer is a lot to incorporate, and the departures of David Pratt, Godfrey Poku and Freddie Grant have shorn the squad of arguably their three best players from 2018/19. They’ll be comfortable, and a lot will be expected of Billy Clifford and Ross Lafayette, but don’t expect a Play Off place like last season.
Finally Chippenham Town. They finished 13th last season, and I expect a similar effort this time around. Their captain Greg Tindle has dropped a division to join Weston-super-Mare, as has striker Nick McCootie, but he has been more than replaced in the form of David Pratt. Luke Hopper from Salisbury is also an interesting addition, but the key business was certainly keeping Karnell Chambers and Nat Jarvis. They got 27 between them last season, and with more quality behind them (and Pratt) could make a push for the top half.
Top scorer? Of last season’s top scorers, the top three have all departed for the National League (Jamie Reid promoted with Torquay, Rhys Murphy off to Yeovil and Kabongo Tshimanga to Boreham Wood), whilst numbers four and five have switched clubs. Alex Wall is again a good bet to score big, in his new home at Hemel, as is Tyler Harvey at Bath. Additionally, any of Moses Emmanuel, Jake Robinson or Matt Rhead could smash them in at Billericay. Jason Prior at Dorking has been here and done it before for Havant, too. But, it’s to Havant I am looking for this season’s top scorer, and any of Rutherford, Ayunga and Kedwell could take it. Ayunga has scored six in four (at the time of writing in pre-season), whilst Kedwell bagged 13 for Ebbsfleet last season. In the end, I’m going to plump for Alfie Rutherford, who could follow up his 15 for Havant at Step One with close to double that number this season.
Disclaimer – I know this is an entirely futile thing to do, but is just for a bit of fun. I don’t genuinely think I can predict the league table. This may seem like an unnecessary disclaimer, but after some of the comments last year I think it’s worth pointing out…
- Havant & Waterlooville
- Maidstone United
- Welling United
- Bath City
- Billericay Town
- Chelmsford City
- Dulwich Hamlet
- Hemel Hempstead Town
- St Albans City
- Dorking Wanderers
- Chippenham Town
- Slough Town
- Braintree Town
- Concord Rangers
- Eastbourne Borough
- Oxford City
- Hampton & Richmond Borough
- Tonbridge Angels
- Hungerford Town