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Welling Hold On For Imp-ortant Point at Lincoln

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Tipped for Glory 2014-15: Conference Premier

The new season is almost here! It’s been a summer of football, with the World Cup in Brazil filling the void until the real business of the nonleague season begins again. Most teams are now at least two weeks and one game into their preseason programme, and attention begins to focus on the second weekend in August, and that first league game.

Managers (hopefully) have assembled the bulk of their squads by now, with just one or two additions to be made, probably based on performances in friendlies. Chairmen are hoping that their managers have used their given budgets wisely, building a group of players that can meet – and even exceed – the clubs’ ambitions and aims for the coming campaign.

As for us fans, well this is the time of the year we get to dream. Dream about promotion, a cup run, or even surviving relegation if deep down we know that’s the end of the table we are most likely to find ourselves for the duration of the season. Whatever hopes and dreams we have, inevitably some will be met, some will be exceeded, and some will fall short.

Which brings me to my predictions for the season ahead. Those of you who listen to the Non League Podcast (episode 41 specifically) will be aware who I’ve tipped for glory. However, I thought I would put them in writing.

The Conference Premier is arguably the hardest division to get out of at any level of the game, and is a fascinating ecosystem. Clubs on their way up through the leagues come face to face with teams going very much in the opposite direction. It is always nigh on impossible to predict who will win the title, and with it the solitary automatic promotion place to the Football League. It is even harder to try and say who will finish in the playoffs or get relegated. So much can – and invariably does – happen on and off the pitch over the course of the season, that it ends up making a mockery of most “experts” predictions! Mine will probably be no different!

Wrexham_FCMy choice for the winners of nonleague’s top flight are Wrexham. Like last season’s champions Luton Town, they have been in the division for a few years now, having fallen through the League Two trapdoor in 2008. Manager Kevin Wilkin succeeded Andy Morrell in March, and has set about assembling a squad he thinks will take the club up. They have strengthened their attack ahead of the new season, bringing in Louis Moult from Nuneaton Town and Connor Jennings from Scunthorpe United. Both are excellent strikers at this level, and if they can form a good partnership straight away, it could spell trouble for the rest of the division. Add ths to an already decent squad, and for me it’s the Welsh club who will be celebrating next April.

Can Connor Jennings score the goals to take Wrexham up?

Can Connor Jennings score the goals to take Wrexham up?

However, there will be plenty of competition for The Dragons. Barnet, Forest Green Rovers, Lincoln City, Grimsby Town, Braintree Town and Kidderminster Harriers among others will all have their own promotion ambitions (although internal wrangling sat Kiddie could destabilise the club). And then there are the two clubs relegated from League Two. Bristol Rovers and Torquay United have come down purely because of their results on the pitch, rather than points deductions and financial difficulties. However, it has been nearly a quarter of a century since a side won promotion the season after relegation from the Football League (thanks to @essexfootie for the research help). Darlington achieved the feat in 1990, two years after Lincoln City were the first club to do it (the season after being the first club to be relegated from the Football League. So the task is an historically difficult one for The Gas and The Seagulls.

So, as usual the Conference Premier looks like it will be a very strong division, and a very tough one to win. I’ve picked Wrexham as my winners, but have also named another eight who will be looking to prove me wrong. And there will always be a team who surprise everyone (like FC Halifax last season).

Am I way off? Who do you predict will take the title? And who do you think will struggle this season? Get in touch and let me know. You can tweet me (@undertheleague), or email (undertheleague@gmail.com) and Facebook (facebook.com/undertheleague). Or you can leave a comment on this article.

Gray To Become A Gooner?

We have seen plenty of nonleague hotshots make the step into the Football League, and even the Premier League, in recent years. Jermaine Beckford, Jamie Vardy, Kwesi Appiah, Joe Lolley and Dwight Gayle are just a few of the semi-professional stars to go full time as they chase their footballing dreams.

Andre Gray celebrates a hattrick

Andre Gray celebrates a hattrick

However, according to Football Direct News, Luton Town hitman Andre Gray could be the next, as Premier League big guns Arsenal are apparently weighing up a move for the 22 goal Conference Premier leading scorer. England C international Gray, 22, has been a revelation at Kenilworth Road since joining from Hinckley United – and he wasn’t too bad there either! After hitting 39 goals in 90 appearances for Hinckley, Luton paid just £30,000 to secure his services, and it looks like money well spent. The striker has had a similar scoring record in nonleague’s top flight, hitting 49 in 96 appearances for The Hatters.

Gray’s contract expires in summer 2015, so if Luton are to make any profit, they will need to sell him this summer unless they can persuade him to sign a new deal. Unlikely if the rumoured Arsenal interest in him proves to be for real.

Now, it goes without saying that this would be a huge move for Gray, and a huge step up in terms of quality. It’s unlikely that he would be anywhere near the first team squad, instead he would probably be loaned to League One or Championship clubs during his first year or two as an Arsenal man. And even that would be a massive leap compared to the Conference. But these opportunities don’t come around often, and you have to back yourself and take that leap if you want to be successful.

Gray has risen to the level needed to be successful so far in his career, from Hinckley to Luton and England C, and I am sure he will be successful as he moves into the Football, or Premier, League this summer, either promoted with his current club, or at a new one. He has all the attributes to do it, including the confidence in his own ability. As one commentator famously said:

Remember the name.

Stoppage Time Drama At Deva

FC Halifax made the trip across the Pennines to take on Chester FC in a battle of relatively new clubs. Both have had their trials and tribulations in recent times, with both clubs now in a new guise after their previous entities went belly up. Happily, though, both The Blues and The Shaymen have enjoyed upward trajectories since reforming, but right now the club from West Yorkshire are enjoying better fortunes than their Cheshire hosts. Prior to kick off, Neil Aspin’s men were two points outside the playoffs, whilst Steve Burr’s side occupied the final relegation place, albeit only on goal difference.  Going into the match, Chester had won just twice at Deva Stadium, while Halifax have won just once on their travels.

The first half began with Halifax goalkeeper Matt Glennon producing a fine save to deny a combination of John Rooney and ex-Shayman Gareth Seddon, tipping away their hooked effort. Glennon was in action again, getting down bravely to claim a fierce free kick as Ross Killock tried to connect with the ball. The wind was making life difficult for both teams, but Halifax left back Marc Roberts showed signs that his long throw might be a useful weapon in the conditions. His first throw of the game landed on the head of Simon Ainge, but the defender’s header went straight to Chester ‘keeper Aaron Chapman.

Josh Wilson was harshly red carded

Josh Wilson was harshly red carded

The Shaymen were seemingly not at the races for much of the first half, but they did create a great chance when Josh Wilson played an inviting ball across the penalty area. The ball took an horrific bobble, however, and Ryan Crowther could only touch the ball wide. Wilson was ridiculously red carded five minutes before half time for what the referee can only have adjudged to have been a stamping motion, although it was barely even a bookable offence.

The final notable action of the half came at the Halifax end, as Craig Mahon whipped a ball into the box. Matt Glennon did well to keep his eyes on the ball as nobody got a touch, allowing him to parry the ball away. It was scrambled away, only to be returned onto the head of Matty Taylor. His effort came back off the frame of the goal, but it wouldn’t have counted anyway as he was – wrongly – flagged offside. Half time: Chester FC 0 FC Halifax Town 0

The home side started the second half on the attack once more, with John Rooney dragging a shot wide after a lovely piece of control plucked a high ball out of the air. Rooney was involved ten minutes into the half, as he played a part in the opening goal. He passed the ball out to Lewis Turner on the right, and his superb cross was turned in by Craig Mahon. It was no more than Chester deserved, and Mahon showed great movement to get into a scoring position.

Halifax did improve, and a wind assisted freekick from Ryan Crowther forced Chapman into a smart save. Chapman then had to claw the resulting corner away from under his crossbar. Minutes later, Crowther outmuscled Turner and cut inside, but his shot was wayward. Steve Burr was then forced to replace Chapman, as the keeper injured his hand when trying to claim a high ball. Usual number one John Danby came on in his place.

Chester's match winner Jamie Menagh

Chester’s match winner Jamie Menagh

Just as it looked like the home side were going to get all three points, we moved into five minutes stoppage time. Marc Roberts made a throw count, as his delivery caused panic. The ball was cleared, but it hit Jamie Menagh and fell kindly for James Bolton. He thumped a volley into the corner of the net, seemingly rescuing a slightly undeserved point for Neil Aspin. However, just sixty seven seconds later, Menagh became the hero. John Rooney tried a through ball which rebounded off Bolton. As the ball rolled into the six yard box, defender and keeper left it to each other, and Menagh stole in and clipped the ball home to restore the advantage, and ultimately claim the win.

Halifax’s woeful away form continues, whilst Burr registers his third win from six games in charge of Chester FC. The win lifts his team up two places to nineteenth in the Conference Premier table, while Halifax could drop to tenth over the weekend.

Burr Leaves Kiddie

Kidderminster Harriers have announced that Steve Burr has left the club with immediate effect. In a statement on the club’s website, the board thank Burr “unreservedly” for his efforts whilst in charge, but will be making no further comment on the matter. Read the rest of this entry

Hockaday Pays Price For Poor Form

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Notts County v Forest Green Rovers - Meadow LaneDavid Hockaday left Conference Premier club Forest Green Rovers this week by mutual consent after four years in charge. The club has gone through an awful run of form recently, losing their last four league games, and seven of their last eight. Not great for a side many – including me – had tipped to win the league this time around.

That preseason expectation was justified on the first day of the Conference Premier season, as Rovers thumped Hyde 8-0. However, things have not gone well since. Only four more wins have followed in the subsequent fifteen games, and with the club languishing in sixteenth place and only four points above the relegation zone, the decision has been made for the club and Hockaday to part ways and move on.

This was Hockaday’s first management position, so in reality he has probably done well to hold on to it for four years. Rovers haven’t always been title favourites during his spell at The New Lawn. In fact, they finished in the relegation places in his first season in charge, but were saved by a double demotion for Salisbury City. The following season saw Rovers survive on goal difference, despite a final day defeat at Tamworth. Two tenth placed finishes followed, and backed by Dale Vince’s green energy millions, they were installed as favourites this season. With that kind of pressure, it was always going to be a tough job for any manager.

So what next for Rovers? As mentioned earlier, the club are just four points above the relegation places, and are massively underachieving. Their squad is incredible for this level, boasting the likes of Andy Mangan, Matt Barnes-Homer, Magno Vieira and England C international midfielder James Norwood. They should be a lot further up the table than they are.

This brings us to the next manager. There are some very good managers being linked with the vacancy. According to oddschecker, John Coleman is the favourite, with Terry Brown, Micky Mellon and Martin Allen among the chasing pack. Fans would probably be happy with any of those four, but there are a couple of interesting names further down the list. Gary Seward, Hockaday’s assistant and current caretaker manager is among the pack sitting at 33-1, where you can also find Jim Harvey, Rob Scott and Sammy McIlroy. The most intriguing for me is Nigel Clough. The former Burton Albion and Derby County boss is out at 40-1, but it could be just the sort of challenge he is looking for.

John Coleman could be the man to deliver success

John Coleman could be the man to deliver success

Personally, I would err on the new manager being John Coleman. He has enjoyed a sixteen year management career at just three clubs – Ashton United, Accrington Stanley and Rochdale. He spent nearly thirteen years at Stanley and is their longest serving manager ever. He is also the an who restored their Football League status for the first time in forty four years, winning three titles on the way from Northern Premier League to League Two. He might not be the immediate first choice of some Rovers fans, who might be after a “sexier” name, but I feel he would do an excellent job at The New Lawn, and could well be the first man to lead them into the Football League.

Aldershot Town: The Return To Non League

Shots fan Carson Flack makes his UTL debut with a look ahead to the coming season for Andy Scott’s team. Read the rest of this entry

John Askey Appointed New Silkmen Boss

The wait is over. Sixty two days after sacking Steve King the Macclesfield Town board have finally confirmed his replacement, with the announcement that club legends John Askey and Efe Sodje will take over the roles of manager and assistant manager respectively. It truly is a managerial “dream team” presuming your slumber is met with visions of a rather underwhelming job appointment.

Askey's previous spell in charge wasn't the best

Askey’s previous spell in charge wasn’t the best

In fairness it could have been worse. At the start of last month the media was convinced that Robbie Fowler would be the next boss at the Moss Rose – a gamble that seemed positively demented given that the last risk taken on putting someone unsuited in charge had failed and a calm hand to steady the ship seemed like the smart option. Fowler would have been anything but given his lack of experience and lack of knowledge of the English lower leagues. Indeed it was hard to see the interest in the former Liverpool striker as anything other than a way of drumming up some publicity and getting the Macclesfield Town name in the papers rather than being what was best for a club desperate to avoid a fate similar to neighbours Stockport (and we all know what a sterling success their appointment of a former Liverpool superstar was).

That’s not to say Askey is an entirely popular choice with all supporters or that the Macc board haven’t done damage in the way they have handled this scenario. It is clear from the amount of time it took to announce the appointment that John and Efe were not the first choice, especially so given the earlier flirting Jon Harris publicly did with Fowler.

Askey’s previous experience at the helm hardly does him many favours too – his original time in charge in 2003 saw him removed a little over five months later and with the Silkmen facing a relegation battle that subsequent boss Brian Horton managed to steer them clear of. His more recent spell as caretaker boss following the sacking of King saw him earn three points from a possible fifteen whilst conceding fourteen goals along the way. The sort of stats that hardly fill you with confidence.

In his favour he truly is a legend at Macclesfield due to a playing career than spanned three decades and saw him make almost seven hundred appearances. That alone will buy him time and hopefully keep even the most disgruntled fans from voicing their displeasure too loudly in what is likely to be a difficult season for the Cheshire side.

Also he knows the club inside out and his experience with the first team last season and subsequent relationship with them will be of benefit too. Despite the loss of certain players (the excellent midfield duo Wedgebury and Murtagh have departed for Football League clubs whilst striker Fairhurst has joined Lincoln) he still has the crux of a decent team here which, if he can keep it together and add a few faces along the way, should be able to hold their own in the Conference next season.

Efe Sodje in his trademark bandana while on duty for Nigeria

Efe Sodje in his trademark bandana while on duty for Nigeria

As for Efe Sodje, the cynical might think his inclusion is just a sweetener because the announcement of Askey alone wouldn’t have been exciting enough for fans who have waited impatiently for months for managerial news. That would be to do him a disservice. Sodje has been involved in the coaching side of the game since 2008 when he took on a player-coach role at Bury and his vast experience (including a World Cup appearance, lest we forget), combined with an affinity for a club who took him to their hearts following his role in their first experiences of the Football League back in 1997, could see him play an important role in how the Silkmen go forward from here.

What is clear is that stability is key to the future of Macclesfield Town football club and John Askey seems the man best suited to that task. No other manager would be tolerated by the supporters in delivering a mid-table position but, considering the tough job in escaping the division and the loss of parachute payments this year, that very well may be the best they can expect. I just hope they can accept that because otherwise another boss forced out could lead to the Conference North, the club going part time, and even possible extinction.

Waiting For God.

At the end of the 1940’s the acclaimed novelist/poet Samuel Beckett wrote what many people believe to be his finest work – Waiting For God – a play centered around a couple of Macclesfield Town FC supporters who pass their time on an internet message-board patiently awaiting the news that former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler has, as widely tipped, been named the clubs new manager. It was once famously voted “the most significant English language play about a mid tier Conference side from the North West of England of the 20th century.”

The plot revolves around the two aforementioned fans of the Silkmen who, with nothing better to do with their lives, choose to while away the hours online (especially impressive given that at the time it was written the internet as widely now known was roughly fifty years from coming to fruition) pontificating on the scouse striker’s possible merits, whether given his millions made in property he was considering buying the club outright, and jokily mulling over which of Fowler’s former Liverpool team mates would be suited to roles within the backroom staff (in an example of Beckett’s famous gallows humour the job of ‘tactical intelligence’ was given to Jason “I’m not that hungry” McAteer).

A lot has been made of the absurdist nature of the play – much of which stems from the idea of a football club with nobody at the helm continuing its business of retaining players and selling others on to rivals whilst potentially placing its hopes of promotion and long term survival in the lap of a man whose only previous experience of management was at Muangthong United in Thailand. Indeed throughout there is the suggestion that perhaps Fowler is more reputation than actual substance – his rejection of a penalty he had falsely won, his ‘Spice Boy’ image complete with cream F.A. cup final suit, drug taking goal celebration, and online beefing with ex-pros all stand out clearer in the mind than anything he has actually achieved in the game beyond a fast hattrick against a pre-Arsene Arsenal. This idea is neatly summed up during the first act when one of the two supporters asks what exactly ‘God’ will do for them when he is appointed. “Oh… nothing very definite.” is the rather desperate reply.

Then there are the existential elements to consider. How does a supporter of a club like Macclesfield continue to function whilst in possession of the knowledge they will likely never achieve anything of real note? A common recent criticism of the monied clubs is they lack ‘history’ which seems to mean that within the Premier League era they had previously failed to win a major trophy. Where does this leave a club like Macclesfield with not even a hint of a major trophy in their past and no realistic chance of attaining one anytime soon? Do they have no history? No future? Are they merely a ghost fart of a club lingering only ever in the now?

Perhaps the managerial merry-go-round is one of the places they find help in dealing with this crisis of existence. The discussions and arguments created by a managerial vacuum are a way of convincing themselves that there is a point – that the next person to take possession of the job could just be the one who completely turns it around regardless of what obstacles he would face in the process. The ‘what-if’ is a far preferable scenario to be faced with than the ‘what-now’ that follows when whoever takes the hot seat inevitably fails to live up to the task.

The two characters spend the majority of the play pondering over the possible scenarios that might play out when God arrives because the reality – that the club, having already failed in an expensive gamble on a dodgy manager unproven at that level, are now planning to gamble on a well known former player unproven at that level – is too much to bare.

At the end of the play someone purporting to be Macclesfield Town chief executive/laughing stock Jon Harris arrives to post an announcement that no decision is due upon the naming of a new manager due to indecision over the transfer budget or some such nonsense but that there would definitely be exciting news the next day. In response the two disappointed fans angrily announce their decision to stop supporting the club in favour of a more worthwhile pursuit.

Everyone in the audience watching, however, knows that the two fans will remain. Refreshing over and over the news page of the clubs official website. Still yet waiting for news. Still yet waiting for God.

Ups & Downs In Non League, Part 1: The Conference

In this, the first of a series, I provide a comprehensive roundup of the ups and downs in non league, starting with the Football Conference. Read the rest of this entry