‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ Overused, perhaps? Put this term into Blue Square Premier context, and you end up with, ‘It’s forty-six marathons, not one.’ Forget slick, passing football. Forget under-soil heating. Cold Tuesday’s at Barrow and Eastbourne, sub-thousand crowds, tea in mugs, and banter beyond all belief. This is where real football transpires.
Don’t be surprised if a club goes into liquidation this season. The recession, coupled with the demise of non-league broadcaster Setanta, has seen some clubs’ budget cut by almost 30% this year. Salisbury City are up for sale for £1, whilst Ebbsfleet Uniteds’ weekly playing budget is a modest £6000. Add to that the turmoil at Cambridge and Grays, and it could be a grim old season.
However, promotion is what all of the teams are quietly hoping for. Some expectant, some dreaming. Anyone who ruled out Luton would have to be classed as a fool. Only relegated due to their enormous points deduction, the Hatters’ have kept together most of their squad. The signings of experienced ‘keeper Mark Tyler and the influential Andy Burgess clearly signal their intent, and with over 6,000 faithful fans behind them at Kenilworth Road, I doubt they will lose too many. And what about Oxford? When you combine managerial quality with sound financial infrastructure you are always in with a shout, and Chris Wilder has got all of the resources he needs to finally end the U’s nightmare. Goal-machine James Constable will win games single-handedly, and with the brute force of captain Mark Creighton, Oxford are a force not to be taken lightly. Throw in the likes of Stevenage, York, Wrexham, Mansfield and Cambridge, and on paper this is the strongest that the top tier of non-league has ever been.
It is usually hard to pick clubs that will be relegated, but to most pundits this year it is a simple task. Chester City’s well documented woes seem certain to force the club to a downwards spiral. Starting 25 points behind everyone else, it will take top five form to see the club escape relegation, compiled with their lack of match practice due to affiliation issues. Throw Forest Green, Hayes and Yeading, and Gateshead into the hat as well, mainly because of one issue. Forest Green’s top scorer is banned for five months due to illegal betting. Hayes and Yeading still have a Blue Square South standard squad. Gateshead play in a 25,000 seater stadium that they can barely afford to run. Other teams may be dragged into a battle, but the chances are they will survive. Barrow have excellent support and money from last year’s FA Cup heroics, whilst Salisbury and Ebbsfleet have been able to maintain most of their players.
Dark Horses? AFC Wimbledon and Crawley. The Dons’ have an excellent fanbase and one of the best non-league strikers in Jon Main, whilst Crawley are financially sound and always there or thereabouts. Simples!
In theory, quality should even itself out. But it never does in football does it? Here is my predicted end of season table: