Hit The North! – National League North Preview

If you are looking for a storyline in National League North in the 2017/18 season then it’s more than likely to be a tale of ‘haves and have-nots’. Whilst that tends to be true at most levels of football, it’s increasingly becoming the case further and further down the pyramid; talented players unable to find a place to play in the EFL, coupled with aspirational owners looking to move up to the EFL, are producing a sea change in how teams are operating in the National League North.

The standard of football is increasing as a result and, as a division, it is probably more competitive than it has ever been. For some fans it’s an exciting prospect, for others it threatens what they love about football at semi-professional level, intangibles such as their club’s identity,  and a sense that players are playing as much for pride and enjoyment of the game as much as the financial rewards.

With that in mind, what can we expect in National League North this season?

Play-Off Expansion

The National Leagues North and South have expanded their play-offs, with teams from second place down to seventh qualifying, instead of from second to fifth as in previous seasons. If you’re wondering how that will work, the teams finishing in second and third will automatically qualify for a home semi-final place, where they’ll face the winners of the two ‘quarter-finals’, fourth versus seventh and fifth versus sixth. All two-legged matches have been done away with, meaning that in all instances, the team with the higher final league position will have home advantage. Last season in NLN, Darlington finished in the play-off positions but because of ground grading requirements were denied a play-off place, with the team in sixth place (Chorley) being admitted and making the final, where they lost to FC Halifax Town. If the same happened in 2017/18, the team in eighth could, in theory, earn promotion. Club owners and chairmen have been more enthusiastic for this change than the fans, but they may feel differently if it’s their team that benefits; only eight months to wait to see if it works!

Salford City

They are a story-line all by themselves, and their rise to become the team that everyone is gunning for marks a remarkable turnaround for a team that has spent most of its recent existence in the North West Counties League and Northern Premier League. The catalyst for that turnaround is the involvement of the ‘Class of 92’; when former Manchester United stars Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, decided to make the Moor Lane side their post-playing days project the interest was inevitably huge. Add to that mix the backing of Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, and the BBC’s decision to make the club the subject of their ‘Out of Their League’ documentary series and the script writes itself. However, the redevelopment of Moor Lane and decision to take the club full-time, allied to the calibre of signings brought in, mean that Salford can no longer reasonably claim to be the team striving ‘against all odds’, as the documentary tagged them. ‘The Ammies’ are promotion favourites and, as is often the case, are simultaneously envied and loathed by fans of opposition clubs, especially those who feel that their presence makes the division uncompetitive. Their anticipated cruise to the title will have to withstand Salford being the club that everyone wants to beat, and that a lot of people want to see fail. Management duo Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson have brought the club a long way; it will be interesting to see how the club’s ownership might respond should the title charge get off to an indifferent start.

Title odds: 7/2 favourites

The North-East Resurgence

Whilst the footballing hotbeds of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough continue to experience a yo-yo existence between the Premier League and Championship, in non-league circles the game is enjoying a reawakening. In the National League’s top division Hartlepool and Gateshead will represent the region strongly, whilst South Shields will attempt to follow their FA Vase final victory with an assault on promotion from the Evostik North. However, in National League North the region has no fewer than three teams, with Blyth Spartans and Spennymoor Town joining Darlington following their promotions last season. Teams with the momentum of a promotion behind them often fare very well in the division, and Darlington reached the play-offs last season at the first attempt before being denied a shot at promotion by a failure to reach ground grading requirements; Martin Gray’s team will want to put right that wrong in 2017/18. Blyth have been in this division previously, and gained a reputation as being a club who extended a warm welcome off the field, even if Croft Park proved to be less hospitable to visiting teams on the field. Spennymoor are experiencing life at this level for the first time, and have been racking up some impressive margins of victory in pre-season; however, the acid test will come when they kick-off on opening day, a visit from former league side Stockport County showing just how far they’ve come, as well as how far County have fallen.

Title odds: Darlington 12/1; Blyth Spartans 25/1; Spennymoor Town 30/1.

 

Fairytale of New York?

Just as Stockport County have taken time to adjust to National League North, might the same apply to York City? Having been relegated from the EFL in 2016, the Minstermen found life in non-league to be just as stressful and a final day 2-2 draw with Forest Green Rovers and a stoppage time Guiseley equaliser against Solihull consigned them to the drop for a second consecutive season. Manager Gary Mills has stayed on at Bootham Crescent and the club have stayed full-time, retaining players such as captain Sean Newton and the much-derided but highly effective John Parkin. There are plans for the club to move to a new ground outside of the restrictive confines of the city’s walls and tightly-packed streets, which gives cause for optimism that the club may be on the cusp of a rebirth. City are among the promotion favourites but, as Stockport fans can attest, being viewed as a ‘big club’ who, by dint of their history, don’t deserve to be at this level, can come across to some as a form of arrogance. The best lesson that York can absorb is to grasp that they are in National League North for a reason and that their status will make them another club to be shot at by smaller teams wanting their scalp. City will aspire to bounce back at the first attempt, but may only do so if they accept the reality and be prepared for their new surroundings.

York City: 4/1

Sandgrounders Run Aground

Another relegated club for whom life appears complicated are Southport. As one of the few clubs in last season’s National League to remain part-time, the Lancashire outfit always looked likely to face a battle to maintain their status. Appointing and then sacking manager Andy Bishop by the first week of September didn’t bode well, and the arrival of the highly respected Steve Burr didn’t turn the ship around. Burr departed at the end of January, and the club’s third manager of the season, Andy Preece, couldn’t bring about the miracle needed to save the Haig Avenue outfit. However, it’s not just on the field where things have proven difficult. Long-time chairman Charlie Clapham resigned his position following relegation, citing criticism in the media and online as making his position “untenable”. New investors were sought and found, in Adrian Shandley and James Treadwell; however, their arrival was not roundly welcomed. Another potential investor, Phil Hodgkinson, claimed that his own efforts to acquire the club had been “completely ignored” and has mobilised the support of a significant number of the club’s supporters in his continued attempts to take control. Against the backdrop of protests and boardroom uncertainty the club will attempt to rebuild; however, their situation has echoes of Altrincham, a similarly well-established non-league club who were relegated in 2015/16 and fancied to mount a strong challenge. It never materialised, and with a squad which many would have felt were too strong to be relegated the unthinkable happened. Off-field instability so often proves not to be conducive to on-field success; will Southport find their hopes built on a foundation of sand?

Title odds: 25/1

Can Sulphurites Hit The Heights?

Perhaps encouraged by the success of AFC Fylde in 2016/17, Harrogate Town is the latest National League North team to switch to operating on a full-time basis, supported by the financial clout of club owner Irving Weaver. The North Yorkshire club reputedly spent big on salaries last season but saw a catalogue of injuries wreck their promotion hopes, finishing 11th. Weaver has already invested in a 3G pitch at the club’s Wetherby Road HQ, and the switch to full-time leaves few hiding places for the club’s manager should the investment appear not to be yielding the expected results. Or does it? That may ordinarily be the case, but when the manager is Weaver’s own son Simon, it’s likely that the level of patience extended to him will exceed that which might otherwise be expected.

Title odds: 18/1

And The Rest…

Those look to be the likeliest places to find the big storylines in 2017/18, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of National League North holds no interest or intrigue.

Kidderminster Harriers

The Worcestershire side will look to maintain their reputation as one of the best footballing sides in the division and would be disappointed with anything less than second consecutive play-off spot, despite losing some key players in Ryan Tunnicliffe, Zaine Francis-Angol, Arthur Gnahoua and Keith Lowe.

Title odds: 10/1

Stockport County

Shorn of last season’s top scorer Danny Lloyd, County need to not only replace him but to find more goalscorers full-stop. Teams that stopped Lloyd seemed to stop Jim Gannon’s side; however Gannon is an astute judge of a player and has taken a chance on bringing in Jason Oswell, a prolific scorer in the League of Wales for Newtown.

Title odds: 12/1

Alfreton Town

After a decade of achievement under former manager Nicky Law it’s all change at the Impact Arena. Law’s assistant manager, Russ O’Neill, departed at the end of the season, so the interest lies in seeing how new boss John McDermott’s approach affects the character of a side renowned for being hard-nosed and tough to play against. McDermott has brought former Grimsby Town skipper Craig Disley with him from Blundell Park, an experienced campaigner.

Title odds: 18/1

Chorley

Matt Jansen’s Magpies were one of the surprise packages of the 2016/17 season, lsoing in the play-off final to FC halifax Town. Stability looks to be the key at Victory Park, as Jansen retained virtually every member of his squad and supplemented it with the addition of players such as Josh Wilson, the much-travelled forward returning closer to his North-West roots. They’ll undoubtedly be looking to remain a top-six side.

Title odds 20/1

Boston United 

The Lincolnshire club saw results and their league placing improve once Adam Murray replaced Dennis Greene in the York Street hot seat in November 2016. There’s been a big player turnover in the summer, Murray will be hoping his team mesh together quickly, as getting a good start in this division is important, but getting a bad start can be fatal.

Title odds: 25/1

AFC Telford United

The Bucks have been through a summer of change, with former management duo Rob Smith and Larry Chambers replaced by former Wolves first-team coach Rob Edwards. The former Welsh international carries a good reputation and an almost full set of coaching qualifications but is new to the National League North. Early signs are that he will look to change the on-field style and bring with it a higher level of professionalism; however, fans will want to see results too if they are to remain patient during the club’s transition.

Title odds: 25/1

FC United of Manchester

The ‘Rebels’ of FCUM finished 13th last term and a similar placing looks likely for the Broadhurst Park outfit. They’ve lost forwards George Thomson, who opted to sign full-time terms with Harrogate Town, and club stalwart Jerome Wright, but still have Karl Marginson at the helm. They were one of the least predictable teams in the division last team, capable of beating top sides but equally as likely to lose to the strugglers.

Title odds: 30/1

North Ferriby United

Relegated from the National League last season, the Villagers should be competitive, even if challenging for an instant return to the top tier looks unlikely. Manager Steve Housham knows all about this level, having previously served at Gainsborough Trinity.

Title odds: 30/1

Brackley Town

The price offered on the Northamptonshire side looks good value. Manager Kevin Wilkin opts again for a small squad loaded with tried and trusted players at this level. In James Armson they possess a genuine match-winning talent, and Wilkin has supplemented his ranks with players such as Andy Brown, who played for him at Nuneaton Town.

Title odds: 30/1

Nuneaton Town

Title odds: 30/1

A poor start cost manager Kevin Wilson his job last season, but the Boro recovered under new boss Tommy Wright, the ex-Corby Town chief. Wright bolstered a youthful line-up with the likes of loan signing Ashley Chambers, who has now made his signing a permanent one. The summer’s other transfer dealings have also brought in Ryan Beswick, a title-winner with Solihull Moors two seasons ago, and as a result they look ready to push on towards the top-half.

Title odds: 30/1

Tamworth

After looking capable of securing a play-off place, Andy Morrell’s side fell away in the final third of the campaign. The key factor for the Lambs may well be how they cope with the loss of influential forward Danny Newton, who has made the jump into the EFL with Stevenage. The club’s 3G pitch hands them an advantage, but in a division looking stronger than it has ever been the Staffordshire outfit will do well to challenge once more.

Title odds: 45/1

Bradford Park Avenue 

Former Guisley boss Mark Bower transformed Avenue last term with some astute additions, and they pulled away from the relegation zone with ease. Bower has continued to retool his squad, adding plenty of experience, including former Altrincham and AFC Telford United captain Gianluca Havern. It would be a surprise to see them near the bottom of the table for a second season in a row.

Title odds: 45/1

Curzon Ashton

John Flanagan, manager of ‘The Nash’, performs footballing miracles to keep his side competitive in National League North, and a 14th place finish in 2016/17 came off the back of some notable victories over high-ranking sides. Can he do the same again? Retaining top scorer Niall Cummins gives them every chance, but it will be a tough challenge to improve on last season.

Title odds: 60/1

Leamington

The Brakes went one better than the previous season when winning the promotion play-off final, but now the hard work begins for manager Paul Holleran. He’s supplemented his ranks with former Brackley man Connor Gudger, as well as former Worcester City pair Colby Bishop and Junior English, but consolidation at this level looks a realistic ambition for the Warwickshire side.

Title odds 60/1

Gainsborough Trinity

Under manager Dave Frecklington the Holy Blues dragged themselves clear of the relegation zone, and hopes are high that given a summer to recruit his own side he can prevent Trinity being in the same position again. They’ve retained forward Nathan Jarman, but lost Jordan Thewlis to Harrogate, the lure of going full-time too much to compete with. Forward Alex Simmons joins from National League champions Lincoln City and Shane Clarke has made the journey across Lincolnshire from Boston United.

Title odds: 60/1

Where do you think your team will finish? Let us know in the comments below!