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Blue Square Premier Preview with Andrew Raeburn

Andrew Raeburn is a freelance journalist and broadcaster that specializes in English football. He is considered to be an expert on non-league football after serving as the press officer for Eastbourne Borough FC for several seasons. Raeburn can be found on Twitter @andrew_raeburn or you can visit his website at www.andrewraeburn.co.uk.

1. How do you expect the clubs to finish at the end of the season?

Champions

Luton Town – After twice missing out in the playoffs, the division’s biggest club, in terms of support at least, should finally return to the League at the third attempt. Gary Brabin has added proven Conference pedigree in the shape of striker Aaron O’Connor and full-back Curtis Osano (both from defunct Rushden), midfielder James Dance (Crawley) and centre-back Will Antwi (Dagenham).

Playoffs

Lincoln City – relegated from League Two last season, boss Steve Tilson has completely reshaped the squad and supporters will be expecting a promotion challenge

Fleetwood Town – they may not quite be the north-of-England’s Crawley, but they have money to spend and are likely to replicate their playoff appearance of last season

Newport County – my choice for surprise package – the ambitious Welsh club have gone full-time, are tough to beat and have made some shrewd signings, including Crawley’s title-winning striker Craig McAllister

York City – consistently inconsistent since dropping out of the Football League in 2004, York reached the playoff final in 2010 and should be good enough to go close again this time round

Positions 6-20

All eyes will be on new Stockport manager Dietmar Hamann to see if the former Liverpool and Germany midfielder can return the Manchester-based club to the Football League after dropping out of it last year. The opening day draw at unfancied Forest Green Rovers suggests otherwise. Wrexham have been given permission to start the season after a summer of financial woes and a protracted buyout and predicting their final position is difficult, given they may suffer a player exodus if the wage bill needs to be cut. Of the newly promoted sides, I can see Alfreton performing the best, with Telford, Braintree and Ebbsfleet all ensuring their safety. Positions 6-20 should end up looking like this: 6. Darlington, 7. Mansfield Town, 8. Kettering Town, 9. Grimsby Town, 10. Wrexham, 11. Alfreton Town, 12. Kidderminster Harriers, 13. Gateshead, 14. Stockport County, 15. Cambridge United, 16. Bath City, 17. AFC Telford United, 18. Braintree Town, 19. Ebbsfleet United, 20. Tamworth

Relegated

Barrow – The 2010 FA Trophy winners can compete well on their day but may find the league just too strong on this occasion

Forest Green Rovers – Perennial strugglers who always seem to avoid the trap door may fall through it this time round)

Southport – reprieved only by Rushden’s financial implosion, the Sandgrounders are likely to struggle again

Hayes & Yeading United – Garry Haylock, the manager who earned them promotion and has twice kept them in the division, has gone, money is tight and their sub-400 crowds may further diminish due to the enforced groundshare with Woking, some 40 miles away

2. Who is the favorite for Player of the Year?

Prolific strikers will dominate the list of contenders as usual, although last season’s top three marksman (Crawley’s Matt Tubbs, AFC Wimbledon’s Danny Kedwell and Grimsby’s Alan Connell, now at Swindon) have all moved into the Football League. Fleetwood’s Brazilian-born forward Magno Silva Vieira and ex-Crawley man Craig McAllister (now at Newport) should again be among the goals. If Luton are as successful as anticipated, striker Matthew Barnes-Homer and midfield general Keith Keane are likely to top the “player of the season” nominations.

3. Who is the favorite for Manager of the Year?

With Luton expected to challenge for the title, Gary Brabin won’t be considered a miracle worker if it happens. However Anthony Hudson – who left Tottenham’s coaching staff last season to take charge of Newport County – will be hailed as such if he can take the Exiles back into the Football League for the first time since their previous incarnation were relegated in 1988.

4. Who is the favorite for Newcomer of the Year?

Sean Marks at Braintree was reportedly being tracked by numerous Football League clubs after topping the Blue Square Bet South scoring charts with 24 goals – if he stays, adapts well to the step up and bangs in the goals again he could prove the Irons’ savior. While not quite a newcomer, this could be the season for Luton’s Amari Morgan-Smith to make a name for himself. The pacy 22-year-old forward joined the Hatters in September 2010 from Ilkeston Town and netted seven goals in 20 appearances. He was also selected for the England C squad (made up of the best players from outside the Football League) and could now make a real impact in the Blue Square Bet Premier.

5. What player has the best chance of making an impact in the Football League or beyond?

Sorry to bang on about Luton again (I’m not a supporter!), but they have made one of the best signings of the summer in Kenyan defender Curtis Osano. The 24-year-old full-back is strong in the tackle, more than comfortable on the ball and puts in consistent displays. He has yet to play in the Football League, after spells in the Conference with Aldershot and Woking, but was given a trial by Championship newcomers Brighton & Hove Albion after Rushden were wound up. He wasn’t offered a deal, but it shows the bigger clubs are keeping an eye on him.

6. What challenges still face non-league football on an everyday basis?

Purely and simply – money. Rushden & Diamonds folded in the summer under the weight of reported debts of £750,000 (US $1.2 million) and Wrexham narrowly avoided expulsion this week after they gave guarantees to the Conference that they’d be able to fulfill their fixtures after a turbulent summer. A couple of takeover bids collapsed and the club had to cancel two preseason friendlies when players refused to take to the field having not been paid. However, the Welsh side’s supporters trust are now closer to assuming control and the club’s stadium and training facilities have been sold as part of that deal (although they will still play their home games at the Racecourse Ground). The money issue also filters down through the non-league system and several smaller clubs have folded in recent seasons, although supporters often relaunch them under different names. Barely a week goes past without at least one club appearing on the government tax office’s “winding up” court orders list – and although this is usually an attempt to force a club to address the issues of tax debt, and rarely ends up with clubs being wound-up at the behest of the tax authorities, it is an indication of the sickness blighting the English game, from top to bottom.

7. What is the quality of play like in the Blue Square? Is it improving or is it on the decline?

It depends on your definition of quality. The lower leagues are stereotyped as being full of neanderthal-types who play the ball long and kick anything that moves, and there is an element of that in most clubs’ defenses and, in some cases, forward lines. But, unlike 10 to 15 years ago, the league is now made up almost entirely of professional teams and it is the semi-pro clubs, who train just twice a week, that often make up the bottom four. This can lead to some exciting matches between well-known ex-Football League names , but can also make some matches one-sided (Luton beat Hayes & Yeading 8-0 a couple of seasons ago). Overall I’d say the quality of the top sides can match anything League Two has to offer, as evidenced by how well recently promoted sides have fared For example, Stevenage, Blue Square Bet Premier champions just two seasons ago, are now in League One after back-to-back promotions.