Last week I had a look at Orient and Newport, two teams that hopefully we won’t play next season as they’re on a collision course with the National League, and our sights are firmly set on their place in League Two. Today I conclude the look at teams we don’t want to play next season by speculating on the four sides that are coming up from the leagues below us.
Some may not find this entirely relevant, but I suspect at least one of those teams will gain league status before we reach the year 2020, and key players from this seasons squad cut their teeth in the leagues below. Elliot Whitehouse for instance, and Sean Raggett. Alex Woodyard played there, as did Joe Ward. Even Lee Angol made his name at the level below. The list goes on, proving that although the National League North and South may seem like a barren football wasteland which signals the end of a clubs Football League aspirations, it is in fact a rich and vibrant breeding ground for the stars of tomorrow, and for the odd future Football League.
I’m going to pick three teams from each division, the two who are most fancied for promotion and finally a dark horse from each as well.
National League North
Only one winner here, and that is ambitious AFC Fylde. They’ve been out in front all season, and despite ‘only’ holding a nine-point advantage over Kidderminster, they’re nailed on for a stab at the non-league’s top flight. Our local sides Boston and Gainsborough harboured play-off ambitions, but they battle away in the lower reaches. In arguably the most competitive and money-laden second tier in history, Fylde have shown their strength and their future intent.
Fylde come from the north-west of the country, and despite playing in Wesham they take their name from the wider Borough of Fylde. For those not crash hot with their geography, they’re as close to Blackpool as you can get without being ale to buy rock and kiss-me-quick hats.
Whilst their famous rivals have plummeted in recent years, Fylde have experienced a real resurgence. Under the chairmanship of David Haythornthwaite they have made their Football League aspirations very well-known. Haythornwaite’s investment really kicked in after Fylde (under the former name of Kirkham and Wesham) won the FA Vase at Wembley in 2008. They recently moved to Mill Farm, a purpose-built ground that has been constructed with the promotion in mind. The 6,000 capacity stadium has been built to a really high spec, and there’s plenty of space around the ground to develop as they climb the ranks.
Fylde are two-time play-off losers in the National League North, losing in the semi-finals to Guiseley in 2015 and in the final to North Ferriby last season. There will be no play-off foray this season though, they’ve led throughout and in former Imp Danny Rowe they have a real goal threat.
Rowe didn’t reach his peak at Lincoln, in his first two campaigns with Fylde he hit 54 goals but this season he’s already managed 42. Many may so he has ‘found his level’, but that would be disrespectful to him and to the quality of the National League North.
They have a really strong squad capable of competing in our current division, as well as Bohan Dixon. Nothing will stop them winning the title, not even a visit to York Street before the end of the season. The one crumb of comfort for relegation haunted Gainsborough is that their final game of the season is against the other team vying not to go down, Worcester City.
All being well we will not have to face Fylde next season, but I virtually guarantee at some point in the next couple of years, they will be a Football League club, and we will have to visit that shiny new stadium. Given the collapse of Blackpool they’re getting a few bums on seats as well, their crowd this Saturday against Darlington was 2,365. That was more than seven of our National League rivals. They have the fans, they have the money and they have the ground. It might not be a familiar name right now amongst Football buffs, but they’re coming and very little will stop them.
I suspect the play-off winners might just be a former league club in FC Halifax Town. They’re battling with Kidderminster for second in a show down between two former Football League clubs. The two met on Saturday at Kidderminster, with Halifax running out 2-1 winners. Their success early season was helped by the form of on-loan Alex Simmons, but now it is the form of former Imps Scott Garner and Danny Hone in defence that is helping their push. Up front former Huddersfield man Jordan Sinnott has nine goals, including the winner against Kidderminster.
In Billy Heath they have a manager who guided North Ferriby to play-off success last year, only to jump ship when the money dried up. His experience, and that of the squad should see them in our league next season. Heath was linked with Lincoln before the messiah and his brother turned up in June, and I suspect his National League chance might fall at his feet just twelve months after missing out.
The outside bet would be Stockport County, another former Football League club. They’re currently two points outside of the play-offs with 64 points, but they have a favourable run-in. They face both Gainsborough and Worcester who are woeful at present, and both Bradford PA and Telford who are not yet mathematically safe. Their toughest game comes against Gloucester at home on the final day, but with average attendances of 3200 you wouldn’t bet against them making a late surge.
They also have (arguably) on of the best forward players in the division amongst their ranks, another former Imp, Danny Lloyd. Lloyd was coveted by Lincoln the season after we first came down, and his decision to remain part-time was not based on a lack of ambition. He’s skilful, has an eye for goal and can exploit some of the weaker defences in the division, like the seven they have yet to face.
National League South
It’s looking odds on that the winners of the National League South will be Maidenhead United. They’re managed by former West Ham man Alan Devonshire, a manager who brought Braintree Town to the top-flight for the first time. He knows the southern game as well as Danny and Nicky, ad this season his experience has injected some real life into Maidenhead.
Their York Road ground is the oldest ground in the world to be continuously used by the same club, and so they have the history if not the on-field success behind them. They’re three points clear at the top of the table at present, and on April 22nd they host their closest rivals Ebbsfleet at York Road. On current form they should have enough to see them grab a place in the National League, they’re unbeaten in ten and have won their last six games straight. This weekend they hammered mid-table Bath City 5-1 at Twerton Park, with talisman striker Dave Tarpey grabbing a hat trick.
Tarpey has 41 goals this season, and he knows the level well having been at Hampton and Richmond and Basingstoke before joining Maidenhead. His goals alone should be enough to ensure a trip to Leyton Orient for the Magpies.
Second placed Ebbsfleet are the only side really pushing Maidenhead for the top spot, and I think they’ll be red-hot favourites for a final appearance and a place back in the National League. They dropped out of the National League in 2012/13, and ever since then have been rebuilding with a view to getting their status back.
They’re in second place on 83 points, eleven clear of third placed Chelmsford. Of course league position means nothing once the play-off lottery begins, but they’ve had a consistent season and are on a superb run of form. They’re unbeaten in 13 games, 11 of which they have won. They haven’t lost in the league since Boxing Day, and if they don’t manage to topple Maidenhead by the time the season draws to a close then they’ll surely have the upper hand in the play-offs. They’ve got some really good young players too, one to watch out for in the future in 21-year old Danny McQueen. He’s an ex-Ipswich youngster who has produced some really good football this season, and he looks to have a Football League career ahead of him. In Danny Kedwell they have a player at the other end of the spectrum, a former AFC Wimbledon player who has been around enough to know what it takes to succeed at the business end of the season.
They also have the highest average attendance in the National League South of 1,200. It is perhaps interesting to note that the same average attendance in the National League North would leave them ninth. It may not be an indication of the quality of the two leagues, but it is perhaps why I can pick and one from seven teams as a dark horse in the north, but only one of three from the south.
It is hard to pick a ‘dark horse’ in what seems to be a two-horse race, but should either of the top two slip up at the play-off stage then I’m plumping for third placed Chelmsford City to climb into the National League. Chelmsford is a big city (111k population) and they arguably could adequately support an emerging football team. although they’re 11 points behind second place, they have a 10 point gap between themselves and sixth place Hungerford, meaning they’ll almost inevitably be involved come May.
They’ve won five of their last six, and their only league defeats this season have been against Ebbsfleet and Maidenhead. This Saturday they host fifth placed Poole in what will be a real test of their promotion credentials. They’re the current side of former Imps defender Chris Bush, but the jewel of their defence is former Luton, Dagenham and Cambridge defender Michael Spillane. Another former Imp is having a good season in their midfield, Luke Daley. He came to City under David Holdsworth and made five appearances, which is the same amount he has made for the Clarets in 2017.
Finally up front they have Louis Thephanous, a player I linked with a move to City in January. He netted 15 times for St Albans, but his move to Chelmsford indicated their ambition. He was rumoured to interest clubs higher up, but he choose to move to Melbourne Park, perhaps seeing their ambition matches his.