GORDON BARTLETT believes the National League South title race will be its tightest for several years – and he should know, as he enters his 23rd season as manager of Wealdstone.
The 61-year-old – currently the longest serving manager in English senior football – has been given a new lease of life after leading the Stones on a run of just one defeat from their last 20 matches at the back end of last season.
That saw them claim a more than credible eighth place finish and now all eyes are on the Stones hitting the ground running and mounting a challenge in search of top-flight football after a 29-year absence.
With perennial big spenders Ebbsfleet United finally making the leap to the top-flight last term, a more level playing field has been created, thus blowing the title race wide open.
But it’s last season’s champions Maidenhead United who Bartlett is looking to emulate with the Magpies proving that anything is possible, regardless of budget.
“We’re all looking to Maidenhead,” Bartlett told The NLP. “They were the model of consistency last season and showed that by being strong, resolute and well organised you can get your just rewards.
“They also showed that money doesn’t guarantee you anything. It’s wide open this year, as open as it’s been for years. I was writing my programme notes the other day and I think I wrote down half the teams in this league as those with a chance of competing.
“Hemel, Chelmsford and Eastbourne have all bought well, Gloucester City will be an unknown quantity, and then there’s Dartford who can never be ruled out. Add to that the team who comes out of the woodwork from nowhere and it’s all up for grabs.”
Bartlett’s plan to step up the schedule has come at a cost at this summer with fans’ favourites Jonny Wright, Tom Hamblin and Wes Parker all leaving the club, unable to commit to the rigours of a more intensive training programme.
In their place, Bartlett has brought in centre-back Liam Harwood, ex-Stevenage left-back Jerome Okimo and Chelmsford defender Josh Hill.
And with former St Albans City manager Jimmy Gray on board as first-team coach, Bartlett believes the Stones still have what it takes to mount a serious title challenge.
“We want to be challenging this year,” Bartlett added. “The target is always to improve on the previous season and if we improve on last year’s eighth place this year then we’re in the play-offs.
“In order to do that, we need that little bit more, that little extra commitment. Jonny, Tom and Wes have good jobs, we all come to a point where it’s time to move on.
“For all of us, it’s the start of a new era.”