Soccer AM/MW - the home of lively and humorous discussion from the Football and Non Leagues

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Conference Premier 2010/11: Preview

The build-up to the 2010/11 season is well underway as Nobes looks ahead to the new season in Conference Premier.

Managers in the Championship might disagree with their counterparts in the Conference Premier. Both, in interviews throughout the season, regularly claim to be working in "the hardest division to get out of."

With one fewer promotion place, it's arguably those in the Non League that probably have the stronger case. The battle to reach the Football League - and a battle it is - is a gruelling one.

One which, at the end, guarantees just one team automatic promotion to League Two, with four teams left to fight it out in the end of season play-offs for the right to join them.

Before 2003, the task was even greater, with just one team every season making it into the exclusive 92 club. However, the introduction of the play-offs has served to create an even more competitive and exciting division.

It's also a Conference Premier which has an increasing look of being League Three in everything but name and official status. Over half of this season's membership have played in the Football League at some point or in some past incarnation.

Such a large number is testament to the fact that escaping from the division - particularly at the first time of asking - is far easier said than done.

Indeed, only four clubs have ever managed it - and only two, Shrewsbury and Carlisle, have achieved that feat since two-up two-down.

It's a timely warning to this year's relegated duo. Darlington are back at this level for the first time in 20 years, when Brian Little's side were able to bounce back to the Football League at the first time of asking.

The Quakers experienced huge financial difficulty during the summer of 2009 and came close to going to the wall. It left them ill-prepared for last season, and it was no surprise to see them toiling at the very foot of the division all term.

It's been a summer of upheaval for the North East club too. The sudden resignation of manager Simon Davey - who subsequently moved to Hereford - was followed by his replacement, assistant Ryan Kidd, also quitting.

Now with Mark Copper in charge, Darlo have a manager who has shown from his time at Kettering that he knows what is required to get a side challenging at the right end of the Conference.

If Darlington at least have experience on their side, this is a step into the unknown for Grimsby Town - also demoted from League Two last May.

Hands up if you're under pressure to succeed: Grimsby's Neil Woods

The Mariners suffered a disastrous campaign where, at one point, they went 25 games without winning. A remarkable late rally almost saved them, but the damage had already been done.

Few managers will be under greater pressure than Town boss Neil Woods, therefore. Grimsby will be expected to challenge at the top end right from the off. There will be excuses for any 'settling in' period on the Lincolnshire coast.

They would do well, however, to learn from the experiences of former Football League clubs also relegated to this level. Challenging at the first time of asking is by no means a formality.

The likes of York, Rushden & Diamonds,
Wrexham, Mansfield, Kidderminster and Cambridge all struggled to make any impact on the top five during their first season in the Conference.

However, they are all clubs who will expect to be doing exactly that this term. York will be looking to bounce back from Wembley heartache against Oxford in last term's play-off final.

Rushden were also knocked out of the end of season lottery by the Oxen, at the semi final stage, they will hope to have gained positively from an unexpectedly good campaign last time.

For Wrexham and Cambridge, disappointing mid-table finishes must be improved upon this season - especially for the longevity of respective bosses Dean Saunders and Martin Ling.

They both finished well off the play-off pace last season, and more will be expected of them this term.

Kidderminster, too, with boss Steve Burr now settled into life at Aggborough after joining them mid-way through 2009/10, will hope to challenge for the Football League spot they lost in 2005.

For Mansfield, they will hope to last the course of the season this time. A strong challenge in the first half of the campaign petered out towards the end. David Holdsworth's men must show greater staying power.

Fortunately, none of the above sides will have to deal with the expectation of being favourites. That particular tag is on the shoulders of Luton Town.

Defeated in the play-offs last term, the Hatters will be expected to go one better this time around. With the experienced Richard Money overseeing arguably the strongest squads in the division, they are heavily tipped to take the title.

You won't be able to escape Steve Evans and Crawley in this year's Conference

They may face a challenge for top spot from big-spending Crawley Town though. The Sussex outfit have launched a summer spending spree that has blown their opponents out of the water.

With the colourful Steve Evans in charge - a man who has won the Conference title before - it will be fascinating to see whether their huge financial outlay translates into a tilt for the title in 2010/11.

New to the division this season are four clubs. Joining from the Conference North are Southport and Fleetwood Town, and from the South come Newport County and Bath City.

It will be interesting to watch how County, who ran away with their division last term, make the transition to the Premier. Fleetwood, too, have spent big money in recent years to reach this point. Will their progress continue?

For Southport and Bath, the aim will firmly be in trying to retain their position amongst Non League's elite for another year.

It will be the same goal for some of the division's smaller clubs, the likes of Tamworth, Gateshead, Hayes & Yeading, Eastbourne, Barrow, and Forest Green - once again reprieved due to another team's resignation.

While watching their matches might be dull, it will nevertheless be intriguing to see how Histon - now under the controversial John Beck - do. The Cambridgeshire outfit have struggled financially, and came close to relegation last term.

Altrincham, after several relegation battles themselves, seem to have re-established themselves firmly in mid-table at this level. They will be hoping to continue that progress.

Kettering are another club who, after winning the Conference North in 2008, have shown they can compete with the big boys at this level. Rookie boss Lee Harper has a tricky job to keep them in the top half this term though.

Instead, the tag of dark horse will probably fall to AFC Wimbledon. With large support and under the shrewd guidance of Terry Brown, the Dons have the quality and momentum to challenge for the top five.

With the likes of Stevenage and Burton finally making the step-up to the Football League in recent years, Wimbledon would, again, be popular winners if they continue the trend of upsetting the title favourites.

While we can only speculate on who will emerge victorious come the end of the season, you can be sure they will make all aware of just how mammoth their task was.

No comments:

Post a Comment