By Matt Badcock
IT COULD just be pre-season talk, but speak to the EVO-STIK South Premier managers and the consensus is this division is an open race.
While you might not need a crystal ball to work out the Billericay Cosmos have a great chance of winning a certain other Step 3 league, this division is a tougher call.
Most bosses start their list of potential contenders with Hereford, in their first season in Step 3 following back-to-back promotions since their rise from the rubble of Hereford United.
Revived two levels down at Step 5, Peter Beadle’s Bulls have coped with expectations for instant success and duly delivered.
Beadle rightly points out that this league is a different beast. They’ll be going up against clubs with large fan bases and more experienced players.
But they have plenty of quality of their own. Striker John Mills has scored goals for fun in his first two seasons for the club, finding the net 36 times in the South & West last season. If he can find the net on a regular basis – and the side keep up their attacking style that saw 108 league goals last term – then Hereford will surely be well in the mix.
With last season’s top two – Chippenham Town and Leamington – promoted to the National League South and North, respectively, Merthyr Town will be tipped by many following their third-place finish last season.
Not in the opinion of boss Gavin Williams who was playing down their chances earlier in the summer. In fairness, a number of players have departed, including top scorer Kayne McLaggon, who has joined Welsh side Barry Town. Young keeper Oliver Davies has joined…. Hereford. If he puts in the same performances as last season that had Newport County and Yeovil Town interested he should prove a shrewd signing for Beadle.
But Williams has snapped up former Forest Green and Luton Town striker Stuart Fleetwood. The experienced goal getter scored 17 league goals for Weymouth last season.
Hitchin Town toppled the Martyrs in the play-offs before losing out to Leamington in the final.
Boss Mark Burke is hoping his squad are another year wiser and they shouldn’t be ruled out. Slough Town, too. Joint-managers Neil Baker and Jon Underwood have a good squad with added experience since Alan Inns’ arrival.
Then there’s the teams who will expect to do better this time round. Kettering Town boss Marcus Law knows he has some of the deadliest weapons in the division.
Striker Aaron O’Connor has bags of experience and is a player no opposition will relish, as is Rene Howe. Then there’s the added sparkle of former England C winger Lindon Meikle, who was in the National League with Barrow last season. Weymouth, King’s Lynn and Terry Brown’s Basingtoke Town, plus Banbury and Biggleswade Town will all be targeting the higher reaches of the table.
But what about the other new boys? Southern Central champions Royston have made some seriously impressive signings this summer. Not least the latest new face of Adam Marriott.
The 26-year-old names Cambridge United and Stevenage among his former clubs and was part of the Lincoln City juggernaut last season.
They’ve also got Lee Chappell – an attacking player comfortable in midfield or left-back who brings National League South experience.
Farnborough, who followed Royston up through the play-offs, unveiled two eye-catching signings on Friday. Jamie Cureton returns to continue his?Peter Pan career, along with former England C midfielder Kieron?Forbes. And Tiverton Town, who won the South & West play-offs, have a wily old boss in Martyn Rogers.
Of course the South & West and Central monikers are no more. Instead it’s the EVO-STIK South West and South East.
Salisbury will be the team to beat in the West no doubt, although boss Steve Claridge needs to replace the departed goals of Justin Bennett, who has gone to Oxford City, and 49-goal star Tommy Wright, who has returned to parent club Sutton United.
Cinderford Town boss Paul Michael, whose side dropped out of the Premier last term, wants a title challenge in his first full season.
Most will expect AFC Rushden & Diamonds to be pushing following their switch across from the NPL in the Evo-Stik South East, but how about Moneyfields? The Wessex League champions have players who were part of Gosport Borough’s rapid rise up the Pyramid.