Football Conference 2013-14 season preview
With the new season kicking off this weekend, the Conference's top flight has a new name and is set to be an even tougher prospect for clubs aiming to climb out of the fifth tier of English football.
There was a great deal of uncertainty towards the end of last season as the league was without a major sponsor and had no television broadcast contract signed.
Conference chairmen up and down the land were looking at the prospect of less money in their budgets for 2013-14. But with a new BT TV deal and a fresh title sponsor in Skrill, it is certainly looking a great deal rosier and finally clubs can concentrate on matters on the pitch.
Here's my take on who will be in the running in non-league's top three divisions this season:
Since their relegation in 2009, Luton Town have been favourites every year to secure the title and return to the Football League. Four managers and four seasons later they remain in non-league's top flight, finishing further away than ever before in the last campaign in seventh place. So why are they favourites again? Well whisper it quietly, but this really should be their year. In John Still they have a manager well versed in promotion, and bringing in Hakan Hayrettin as coach will give an edge to a squad gelling nicely in pre-season. The Hatters, who beat an Aston Villa side containing several first-team players and thrashed Arsenal's Under-21 team 7-0 in pre-season, also have a first-choice back four who, like their manager, all possess Conference title medals.
Kidderminster,Grimsby and Wrexham all outperformed the Kenilworth Road club in 2012-13 and remain in the division having been three of the four that failed to win promotion via the play-offs. Kidderminster, who began last season without a win in their opening 10 games and started with five consecutive defeats, surely can't make another poor start to a campaign. Their manager, Steve Burr (England C assistant boss), has an eye for spotting talent and turning things around, shown last term as the runners-up missed out on first place by just two points.
But if you think two heads are better than one then maybe Grimsby will take your fancy. Management duo Paul Hurst and Rob Scott will look to take the Mariners up this season after an improved effort in fourth last time. Could the missing ingredient be Liam Hearn? The talented striker is back in contention after a horror injury limited him to just seven appearances in the past 12 months.
If the division was decided on money alone you'd have to think Forest Green Rovers were, like some punters thought last season, a good bet to win the title. A wounded animal from their 10th place last season, I can't see them taking the title outright, but they should be challenging.
Of the new teams, Chester FC, the Conference North champions, should survive comfortably and consolidate their position for boss Neil Young, who has won three consecutive titles. Next year I expect a real push from them and I'd expect them to finish just ahead of FC Halifax Town, who came up through the play-offs.
Welling United enter from the South as champions and they are joined by Salisbury City. Both have been at this level before, but for Salisbury it's a chance to put aside their demotion for financial problems in 2010. The Whites' manager Mikey Harris is hoping that he will still be described as the youngest boss in the top five divisions at the end of the season, having successfully secured safety.
Aldershot begin the season on -10 points but manager Andy Scott is ready to wrestle for his life in the top division, which will require the club to stabilise financially early on. Safety has to be their only target.
It will be a tough season ahead for Tamworth too. They'll look to former Walsall man and current player-coach Darren Byfield for inspiration. Elsewhere, Dartford are looking to avoid the second-season curse of any southern play-off winner and Macclesfield Town may also be closer to the bottom than the top as their financial situation becomes clear.
Surely Stockport County are the biggest club ever to play in the Conference North? The season kicks off just 1,405 days since they were 13th in League One. It's a real fall from grace that boss Ian Bogie is tasked with reversing as soon as possible.
AFC Telford United and Altrincham will challenge the Hatters all the way and I'm glad to hear Gloucester City are juggling the thoughts of a new stadium with an assault on promotion. Let's hope they at least win the first of those battles.
For an outside tip, watch out for Colwyn Bay, who, in signing former Stoke City, Norwich and Leicester striker Ade Akinbiyi as Frank Sinclair's player-coach, are flexing their muscles (or the manager's extensive contact book).
It's a curse to back your own team, so no mention of Chelmsford City for the title for me.
Ebbsfleet United under Steve Brown have a huge amount of expectation, but as well as a cash investment they have a likeable and knowledgeable coach who has assembled a decent squad ability-wise.
Meanwhile, over at Eastleigh, Richard Hill is building an empire. He insists on very little cash but securing the services of Stuart Fleetwood is a masterstroke and must have required some jangling of the change jar at the Silverlake.
Newcomers Whitehawk dropped plans to become Brighton City, for now, but come with the kind of backing that could see them challenging from the off.