All this week Soccerlens will be preparing for the big kick-off on August 8th with a full preview of the English leagues from Championship downwards. We start off with the Blue Square Premier, better known as the Conference. Can Luton Town bounce back? Will AFC Wimbledon take a third successive promotion? And who the hell are Hayes & Yeading? Read on…
Bluffer’s guide to the league
The Blue Square Premier is the top flight for non-league football and is the last step in the English football pyramid before it breaks down into regional levels. Originally formed in 1979 as the Alliance Premier, it changes its name periodically to reflect the sponsors, which is why nostalgists refer to it as the Vauxhall Conference (sponsors between 1986 – 98).
Promotion to the Football League was introduced in 1987 when the now-defunct Scarborough went up as Lincoln City fell out of the league. Two up, two down to the League was introduced in 2003 when Exeter City became the first team to get relegated without finishing bottom. Doncaster Rovers took their place, via the playoffs, and have done rather well since then.
If the Conference were a footballer it would be…
Emile Heskey. Sure, it may not be much to look at and is often unfairly maligned, but there’s no doubting that on it’s day, it’s far preferable to more expensive options. Sufferers frequent bouts of bizarre injuries (financial for the league, bodily for Mr Em).
Last season in a Tweet
Burton take title despite throwing away huge lead. Torquay win playoffs, Weymouth crash and a load of clubs get docked points when the Conference lose some paperwork.
Most bookies have Luton Town down as favourites and who are we to argue. The Hatters had a year to prepare for relegation after being hit with a punitive 30 point penalty last season for assorted financial misdemeanours and have kept together the bulk of what was essentially a mid-table League 2 side. They have an excellent manager in Mick Harford and some of his players are too good for non-league. They remain the team to beat.
If any team will push Luton all the way, then it’s likely to be Oxford United. The U’s have had a couple of miserable seasons in the Conference since failing to bounce back at the first time of asking. But Chris Wilder is an experienced manager and but for a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player, Oxford would have been in the playoffs last season. The Yellows have put together a strong squad and have one of the most deadly strikers in the league in James Constable.
Stevenage Borough have made choking an art form in recent years but still remain one of the strongest teams in the Conference. Graham Westley, back for a second spell in thehotseat, has won over doubters and has added sensibly to his squad in the close season. Top striker Steve Morison will be missed but Boro have the firepower to replace him.
After two consecutive defeats in the playoff final, Cambridge United will be hoping to make it third time lucky this season. Despite the now annual manager change, United are still a force to be reckoned with and have made a very shrewd appointment in Martin Ling. The ex-Leyton Orient manager won’t have had much time to get to know his troops, but can work on a budget and should guide the U’s to another playoff spot.
There’s always one team that flies under the radar in the Conference, and Mansfield could be that team. After an anonymous first season in non-league, the Stags have a bit of momentum behind them and a bright young boss in David Holdsworth. Add strikers Daryl Clare and Rob Duffy to the mix and you have a side that could be the surprise package of the season.
York City have completely overhauled a side that came close to relegation last season. Time will tell if the new look Minstermen will crash and burn or push for the playoffs, but they’ve made some eye-catching and expensive signings, albeit ones with a lot to prove at this level.
Ian Bogie has achieved miracles in leading Gateshead to back-to-back promotions but the Conference National may be a step too far for the Heed. Many of the players are untested at this level, and theTynesiders don’t have the budget to compete with bigger sides. Bogie will ensure his players give it their all but this may not be enough.
Forest Green were, until a few days ago, proof that a well-run small team could prosper in the Conference. But it now looks like manager Jim Harvey is departing the club with laywers in tow, after an alledged breach of contract in a dispute that’s likely to get messy. In the meantime, the village team have barely strengthened and have lost top scorer Andy Mangan for five months after he was involved in a betting scandal. Hardly ideal preparations for the season.
Internet-owned club Ebbsfleet United have seen their fan ownership experiment slowly unravel over the past 12 months. While a loyal MyFC hardcore remain, Fleet have had to cut their cloth and now have the smallest budget in the division. Star players have departed, the squad is desperately threadbare and the Kent club will rely on a lot of untested youngsters. Liam Daish is a good manager but no miracle worker and it could be a long, hard season for the supporters, both on and offline.
Chester City are currently leading the way in the basket case stakes and may not even make it to the start of the season after the FA refused them a licence to play, meaning the Seals had to cancel their pre -season friendlies. Will start the season with a ten point penalty for entering administration and have been frantically signing players after a transfer embargo was lifted. If the club manages to start, let alone survive the season, it will be an achievement.
Although there are only four relegation places, other candidates for the drop include Grays, who have struggled badly in recent season, Salisbury, who are in serious financial problems, and newcomers Hayes and Yeading who will have to make a big step up in terms of quality. But as long as they pick up the important points, these three should just about be safe. Just.
Joker in the pack
All eyes will be on AFC Wimbledon as the fan-run resurrection of the old Dons takes its place in the Conference for the first team. Terry Brown’s team are likely to be stronger than other promoted teams but the playoffs may be a step too far for them. The new Crazy Gang will undoubtedly take a few high-profile scalps though.
Solid gold gaffer
Eastbourne Borough’s Garry Wilson recently completed a decade in charge of the Sports. Tipped for the drop last season, he led the south coast club to an impressive 13th place and will be looking to build on that position. All while juggling with a day job as an electrical manager.
Three to watch
Michael Gash was Ebbsfleet United’s star player last season with 13 goals, but Fleet fans voted to sell the striker after York City offered a mouthwatering £55k. Gash is still untested in a team pushing for promotion and will have a lot riding on his shoulders.
Last season veteran forward Gareth Taylor was start the season at Championship new boys Doncaster. This year, he’ll be spearheading Wrexham’s attack and they look to return to the league. He may be 36-years-old but the former Welsh international still has a lot to offer at this level.
The wonderfully named Nathan Bowden-Haase arrives at Histon from Hemel Hempstead FC and has been tasked of filling the shoes of Pat Ada and Mat Mitchell-King, who’ve both left for Crewe. Histon have a habit of unearthing gems and the 25-year-old will be at the heart of the Stutes defence this season.
That’s it for this preview. Check back tomorrow for your League Two preview, where new boys Burton will get to mix it with the likes of Bradford, Northampton and Sven’s new projectNotts County.