Well, here we go once again. We are now just days away from the start of the Isthmian League season, so here’s my preview of the Premier Division.
This season, the Ryman Isthmian League Premier Division will feature twenty four clubs, two more than in previous seasons. We welcome six clubs into the fold: AFC Hornchurch, Billericay Town, Dulwich Hamlet, Thamesmead Town, Maidstone United and Grays Athletic, and say goodbye to promoted clubs Whitehawk and Concord Rangers, aswell as relegated pair Hastings United and Thurrock FC (we don’t need a recap of that whole saga!).
This could prove to be one of the most keenly fought divisions in the whole of the non-league pyramid, with several clubs all starting out with grand ideas of promotion. My own club, Hampton & Richmond Borough, will be one such outfit. Under the young and hungry duo of Paul Barry and Darren Powell, fans will be treated to an attacking philosophy, and the squad assembled looks very strong in all areas of the pitch. Last season’s twenty four goal top scorer Charlie Moone is back after a short spell with Boreham Wood. Also, last season’s key players – the likes of Rodney Chiweshe in goal, defenders Billy Jeffreys and Alan Bray, and midfielders James Simmonds, Tom Hickey and Joe Turner – have signed on again for the coming campaign. Couple that with the signings of strikers Joel Ledgister and Jordan Rocastle, midfielders Tommy Brewer and Karle Carder, and Stuart Lake and Marcus Rose in defence, and the squad looks stronger than it has done for some time. Messrs Barry and Powell are targeting at least a playoff slot, and I believe, without a hint of bias, that that is an achievable aim.
Last season’s defeated playoff finalists, Lowestoft Town, will be hoping to avoid the end of season extension this year. The Trawlerboys have lost in the final of the playoffs for the last three seasons. They finished second in 2012-13 and will be looking to go one place better this year, and my colleague in the Hampton press office, Rob Overfield, fancies them to top the pile, as do bet365, who have them installed as 7/1 favourites. Unfortunately, I don’t think they will, and I feel that they may have to endure the playoffs once more.
The other two teams who made the playoffs last season, but lost in the semi finals, Wealdstone and East Thurrock United, will be strong again this year, however Wealdstone will be without legendary striker Richard Jolly. The thirty year old retired this summer, after bagging nearly two hundred goals for Stones. Manager Gordon Bartlett has retained the services of former Football League striker Scott McGleish, and he could be vital in their push for a top five or better finish. Personally, I think Stones fans will be celebrating the title this season, but not those who call The Vale their home.
No, my tip for title glory come from Kent. Maidstone United are on a phenomenal upward trajectory right now, having just celebrated their first season in their wonderful new Gallagher Stadium by winning the Division One South playoff final against Faversham Town. They finished second behind Dulwich Hamlet, but I think this year they might just surprise one or two people. Plus, they have the advantage of a 3G pitch, which will result in less postponements should we endure another harsh winter, and that lack of fixture congestion could have a huge bearing on the division this season. Currently, online betting company bet365 have them listed as 8/1 second favourites, while Dulwich Hamlet are way back at 19/1.
In terms of the playoffs, there are probably at least ten clubs to pick from. Hampton, Lowestoft, Billericay, AFC Hornchurch, Wealdstone, Bury Town, Margate, and Kingstonian can all harbour justified ambitions of playoff glory, but there can be only four. Here’s where I stick my neck on the line! I’m going for Hampton, Lowestoft, Wealdstone and Margate, with Hampton beating Margate in the final. (Hey, it’s my site and I’ll be as blindly optimistic as I like!)
At the other end of the table, it’s tough to pick, as there are a few teams that might struggle. The usual suspects, the likes of Harrow Borough, Lewes, Wingate & Finchley, Cray Wanderers and Enfield Town, will likely be joined in the fight for survival by the reprieved Carshalton Athletic, along with Grays Athletic and Thamesmead Town. There is usually a club that are not tipped to struggle that finds themselves in the mire at the business end of the season, but I don’t want to unnecessarily anger one set of fans so I won’t try and pick a relegation dark horse!
So, here are my predictions for the 2013-14 Isthmian League Premier Division:
Champions: Maidstone United
Playoff Winners: Hampton & Richmond Borough
Playoffs: Margate, Lowestoft, Wealdstone
Relegated: Thamesmead Town, Wingate & Finchley, Grays Athletic
Surprise Package: Hendon
I’d love to know your thoughts, and your own predictions. Leave a comment, or get in touch via twitter or email: firstname.lastname@example.org