The fifth tier of English football may be renowned as a league where hoofball is the order of the day, but despite this there’s plenty of attractive football on offer and many players who could happily make the step up to league football. Indeed, the likes of Geoff Horsfield (Halifax), Jimmy Bullard (Gravesend and Northfleet) and Stan Collymore (Stafford) started out in non-league, while had Cardiff won the FA Cup then it would have been a remarkable rise for winger Paul Parry who was playing in the Conference with Hereford before being snapped up by the Bluebirds for Championship football, and winning a full Welsh cap soon after.
Other notables making several steps up include Wolves wunderkid Michael Kightly was picked up after his form for Grays Athletic in 2006, while Jamie Mackie moved from Exeter City to Plymouth Argyle for a six figure sum in January. And to show the Conference really does have several gems, the bulk of Peterborough’s goals that fired them to promotion this season came from a trio of players signed from non-league: Aaron McLean (Grays), Craig Mackail-Smith (Dagenham & Redbridge), and George Boyd (Stevenage).
This season has been no exception, with several players lighting up the Blue Square Premier and more than capable of playing at a higher level. Indeed, several on this list have already secured promotion while it won’t be a surprise if others head upwards over the summer. These, then, are Soccerlens’ Conference players of the season.
1. Stacy Long (Ebbsfleet United)
Any team craves an attacking box-to-box committed midfielder who won’t shy out of a tackle, no matter what level they play at, and in Stacy Long Ebbsfleet have probably one of the best in the league. Long started his career with Charlton, although never made an appearance, before spending a season at Notts County before dropping down to the Conference in 2006. This season he’s been ever-present in the Fleet midfield, largely due to his ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Indeed, Long also has another key quality t his game: he most definitely knows where the goal is and was Ebbsfleet’s top scorer with 17 goals. It’s not an exaggeration to say Fleet’s push for a play-off place and their FA Trophy success owed a lot to Long’s performances.
2. Nikki Bull (Aldershot Town)
Aldershot’s team could have filled this list, but a key part of any championship-winning team is a commanding keeper who can pull off an exceptional save when required, and installs confidence in their back four. Nikki Bull has all these qualities in abundance and won both the supporters’ and players’ player of the season awards as the Shots marched to League 2 – no mean feat considering the qualities and performances of his team mates. Bull was out of contract this summer and has just left the club after failing to agree a new contract but it’ll be a huge surprise if he doesn’t get snapped up by another league club.
3. Matt Taylor (Exeter City)
This towering defender bares more than a passing resemblance to Manchester United centre-half Nemanja Vidic and has a similar style of play – cool on the ball, strong in the air, and not afraid to put his body in front of balls that other players would shy away from, his committment and vital goals from set pieces led him to be named the supporters’ player of the year. What’s even more remarkable was just two seasons previously Taylor was playing in goal with Burscough, and even kept goal for them in their FA Trophy victory in 2003. He moved to Team Bath in 2006, where he converted to a centre-half and he’ll form the backbone of Exeter’s defence as they prepare for life in League Two.
4. Stuart Fleetwood (Forest Green Rovers)
Any striker who manages over thirty goals in all competitions is clearly a bit special, but to hit that number before January takes quite an achievement. Forest Green boss Jim Harvey clearly saw something special in the former Cardiff and Hereford striker who’d not quite made the grade at either club, but even he couldn’t have predicted the explosive start the Welshman made to the season. Fleetwood turned down a move to Crewe in January and although goals were harder to come by the second half of the season, he still has all the attributes you want from a striker – pace, strength and clinical finishing. If Fleetwood is still with Forest Green next season Rovers fans will consider it to be a minor miracle.
5. Chris Hargreaves (Torquay United)
The only player on the list who’s unlikely to be playing in the football league next season, this 36-year-old veteran may be in the twilight of his career but this hasn’t stopped him pulling the strings in Torquay’s midfield this season. Put simply, he’s the metronome that the side tick around and one of Paul Buckle’s priorities over the summer will to be identify a long-term successor to Hargreaves. While the hastly-assembled Gulls squad was adjusting to life in the Conference, it was Hargreaves’ experience and cool head that saw them challenge for the title and reach the FA Trophy final. If he were ten years younger, on this season’s performances, he’d command a sizable fee.
6. Steve Morison (Stevenage Borough)
That Stevenage were able to keep in touch with the playoffs for so long was largely thanks to two players – goalkeeper Alan Julian (now at Gillingham) and goal machine Morison. Released by Northampton Town, Morison dropped down the leagues to play for Bishop’s Stortford, where his scoring record earned him a move to Broadhall Way. He’s now scored 45 goals in two seasons for Boro, including the winner in last year’s FA Trophy final, and has been coveted by several league teams. Morison has proved now less lethal this season scoring 22 goals in the league and, with several league clubs rumoured to be chasing him, is unlikely to be in Graham Westley’s squad next season.
7. Nathaniel Knight-Percival (Histon)
At 21, there’s no question Knight-Percival has a very bright future ahead of him. Histon have exceeded all expectations in the Conference this season and this homegrown talent has played a large part in their top-half finish, that saw the Stutes briefly flirt with a playoff place. The winger has pace and a fearlessness that has seen him clock up 48 appearances this season and chip in with 9 goals, and it’s no surprise many at the club are tipping the youngster for success at a much higher level and while Histon will be wanting to retain his services for the foreseeable future, it can only be a matter of time before the football league comes calling.
8. Rob Edwards (Exeter City)
This much-travelled Welsh international may be 34 but he’s been the ever-present rock around which Exeter’s promotion has been built. Primarily signed as a centre-half last season, this season he’s also been the club’s outstanding left-back and central midfielder, and in the latter position has stood out in the ‘Makelele’ role, allowing his team mates to push forward. He single-handedly kickstarted Exeter’s revival against Torquay in the playoff semi-final with a mazy dribble for Ryan Harley’s goal and it was fitting he was the scorer of the goal that took Exeter back to the league.
9. Jon Ashton (Grays Athletic)
Grays may have had an indifferent season but Ashton has been a steadying bright spot in their campaign, winning both supporters’ and players’ of the season awards. The former Rushden centre-half is a class above your usual Conference defender and has classy distribution as well as great leadership and organisational skills. Committed and strong in the air, it would be a big blow for the Essex club if he departed over the summer.
10. Kirk Hudson (Aldershot Town)
The tricky striker-cum-winger still has a lot to learn but as Aldershot closed in on the Conference title, Hudson stepped up to the plate, chipping in with several vital goals in early 2008, which saw him named as February’s player of the month. Fast and deceptively strong, Hudson is a real handful for defenders and even though he could score more, he knows how to pick a pass or create that extra bit of space for his team mates. In a sign of how highly Aldershot manager Gary Waddock rates the attacker, Hudson’s been signed up until the end of the 2010 season.
And two to watch next season…
Danny Stevens (Torquay United)
Diminutive doesn’t even begin to describe this 21-year-old winger, who started life as a Spurs trainee before finding his way to the English Riveria via one appearance for Luton. Pacy, tigerish in the tackle and a never say die attitude, Stevens may not have been a regular starter for the Gulls this season, but made one hell of an impact whenever he found himself on the pitch, most notably bagging a brace in Torquay’s 4-1 win over Yeovil in the FA Cup. With Paul Buckle having to cut his cloth as Torquay prepare for another season in the Conference, expect Stevens to become a fixture in the starting 11.
John Akinde (Ebbsfleet United)
Still not out of his teens, this Fleet youth product has been drawing admiring glances from several league teams and it’s not hard to see why. Strong and pacy, he’s notched up ten goals this season and given many Conference defenders sleepless nights, not least Torquay’s Chris Todd. In the FA Trophy final, the youngster was chasing a lost cause yet still managed to nick the ball off Todd and square the perfect ball for Chris McPhee’s winner The moment summed up what Akinde is all about and why he’s so highly rated.