Andrew Raeburn is a freelance sports journalist and broadcaster who specializes in English football, particularly the non-league game. He’s commentated on matches from leagues as diverse as China, Chile, and Israel and writes for a number of websites, as well as editing the Sussex Soccer site. Raeburn can be found on Twitter @andrew_raeburn or you can visit www.andrewraeburn.co.uk.
1. How do you expect the Blue Square Premier clubs to finish at the end of the season?
There are probably more ex-Football League clubs in non-league’s top flight this season than ever before – and bar a few who are still firefighting financially, they all expect to get back up into the League as instantly as possible. The trouble is only two can – and most of the promoted sides in recent years have actually been Football League virgins (Crawley, Fleetwood, Stevenage, Burton) rather than relegated sides bouncing back. This time though, with no non-leaguers throwing cash around, the odds are in favour of the ex-League clubs who can rake it in through higher attendances. Wrexham and Luton remain the biggest clubs in the division and both will want to exorcise recent pain. Wrexham were incredibly unfortunate to amass 98 points and still not go up, finishing second behind the dominant Fleetwood losing in the playoffs to Luton. The Hatters themselves then went on to lose their second successive Wembley final, but boss Paul Buckle, appointed towards the end of last season, is a canny operator at this level having taken Torquay up previously. If they can avoid silly dropped points against lowly opposition raising their games, both teams should be in title contention. I expect Mansfield to also be up there and this could be the season Grimsby and Stockport finally adapt to life in non-league after their recent relegations. Gateshead and Forest Green Rovers both have some financial muscle to flex but this may be a season too soon for the latter of the two to challenge, while last season’s Football League dropouts Hereford and Macclesfield have had to regroup and aren’t likely to mount a sustained promotion bid. The champions of Blue Square Bet South and North, Woking and Hyde, should do well, but playoff winners Dartford and Nuneaton may be in a relegation scrap, alongside the likes of Telford, Alfreton and Braintree. My predictions – Champions: Wrexham. Playoff positions: Luton, Mansfield, Grimsby, Stockport. Pos 6-13: Kidderminster, Macclesfield, Gateshead, Newport, Forest Green, Cambridge, Lincoln, Ebbsfleet. Pos 14-20: Woking, Hereford, Southport, Dartford, Barrow, Hyde, Tamworth. Relegated: Nuneaton, Telford, Alfreton, Braintree.
2. Who is the favorite for Player of the Year in the Blue Square Premier?
As usual, the leading marksmen will grab most of the attention. Wrexham have signed the 35-year-old Brett Ormerod, who was playing in the Premier League with Blackpool just two seasons ago, and should grab a few goals if he stays fit. Jake Speight, who netted 21 times for Wrexham last term, has now signed for Mansfield to play closer to his home, so expect him to be among the top scorers. Luton’s new strike partnership of Jon Shaw and Scott Rendell, plus Macclesfield’s Matthew Barnes-Homer and Forest Green’s Magno Silva Vieira, who all have track records in this division, are also likely contenders for the golden boot. Outside of the strikers, Ronnie Henry – who led Stevenage out of the Conference and to back-to-back promotions – is looking to do it all over again with Luton and will be among the best centre-backs in the division.
3. Who is the favorite for Manager of the Year in the Blue Square Premier?
Andy Morrell, player-boss of Wrexham, and Luton’s Buckle are both under pressure to deliver promotion – but if Mansfield achieve it, Paul Cox will thoroughly deserve the honor. Kidderminster’s Steve Burr consistently overachieves given his budget.
4. Who is the favorite for Newcomer of the Year in the Blue Square Premier?
The newly-promoted sides tend to take the more established clubs by surprise – perhaps down to the occasional complacency of the full-timers when pitched against enthusiastic part-timers. This gives scope for some of the part-time clubs’ less-heralded stars to make a name for themselves. Dartford’s captain Elliot Bradbrook, one of the top performers in the Blue Square Bet South, is one to watch, while Braintree have picked up 20-year-old Josh Dawkin, following his release from Norwich. The winger is not completely new to the division, having played 17 games in loan spells with Kettering and Cambridge, but with a permanent home he could now display his potential under the tutelage of former West Ham midfielder Alan Devonshire.
5. What non-league player has the best chance of making an impact in the Football League or beyond?
Luton Town’s young defender Alex Lacey impressed during a loan spell in Blue Square Bet South with Eastbourne Borough last season and has attracted Football League interest. A strong presence in the air, Lacey reads the game extremely well for someone of his age – and I expect him to eventually flourish in the Football League in the same ex-Lewes and Tonbridge defender Leon Legge has at Brentford.
6. What is the quality of play like in non-league football? Is it improving or on the decline?
As clubs further up the pyramid import players from abroad and/or cut playing staff numbers due to financial pressures, good players often find themselves dropping down the divisions, through necessity more than anything else. Just as with every level, there are good games and bad games, but the stereotype of neanderthals playing the long ball game doesn’t quite ring true. There will be some very good footballing sides in the Blue Square Bet Premier this year – Luton, Macclesfield and Kidderminster will all try and play it on the ground – and others will be out to stop them through any means. As you go further down the pyramid, the quality varies considerably.
7. What challenges face non-league football on a daily basis?
As usual, it’s money. The challenges of keeping pace with those splashing the cash mean that many are living beyond their means – the number of Conference and other non-league clubs who have been the subject of winding-up threats from the UK tax office seems to grow each season. Some don’t survive – even when the money needed to save them represents a week’s wage for a top Premier League player. And therein lies the problem – the trickle-down effect of the money engorging the top division. When clubs like Portsmouth – FA Cup finalists twice in the last five years – and Rangers – teeter on the brink of liquidation, it lays bare the the mismanagement of some football clubs. Many do prosper, even on borrowed money, but if the situation isn’t managed right, the whole thing ends in tears.
8. What do you think of AFC Rushden & Diamonds’ prospects moving forward?
It was sad to see Rushden fold last summer – for the fans’ sake, more than anything. Eight years previous, they’d been a club on the up – in League One after back-to-back promotions and with plenty of cash to burn. But that pot of money dwindled quickly, the club regularly posting a loss until eventually they needed to raise £750,000 in two weeks. The inevitable followed. All ‘phoenix’ clubs are tinged with an element of sadness, that it should come down to the fans to reform a club which couldn’t see the woods for the trees, but at least they should learn the lessons from history. Last season, AFCR&D were entered only into a youth league, while the foundations were laid for a return to senior football. They have lost their Nene Park home to Kettering but supporters will be relieved when their inaugural match takes place on Saturday (August 18th). Eight years ago, Rushden & Diamonds were hosting the likes of QPR and Blackpool – this weekend’s opener is against Thrapston Town in United Counties League Division One. A lesson learned?