By Matt Badcock
In this most unusual of National League seasons – spiced up by the two additional play-off places – accurately predicting who will finish where has become close to impossible.
Bromley picked up three wins and two draws from their opening five games, which included a 6-1 pasting of Leyton Orient and a 2-0 win over another Non-League new kid, Hartlepool United.
A 5-1 drubbing by Dagenham & Redbridge in game six had the know-alls nodding, ‘Ah, told you it wouldn’t last’.
Macclesfield Town, whose recent financial problems have shown what an incredible job John Askey and the players are doing, as well as Sutton United – and to some extent Dover Athletic – have had to deal with similar.
But, approaching the final bend, Neil Smith’s Bromley are well and truly in the promotion race – as well as in the FA Trophy quarter-finals. While at times they’ve been free-scoring, they’ve also shown they can do the ugly side.
A 1-0 backs-to-the-wall job against ten-man Leyton Orient springs to mind. Attacker Louis Dennis says it’s those games that show their true character.
“We’ve got our games at home where we know the pitch is going to be nice,” he says. “That’s where we can maybe play our football – get it down and play.
“But you’ve got to go to Barrow away when it’s freezing cold, we won 3-0, and we hung onto a 1-0 lead at Leyton Orient. They’re the games that show the most, they show the character.
“From day one when we met up in pre-season we’ve gelled and that togetherness gets us through games.”
Dennis has been excellent for the Ravens in what is proving to be his best season in front of goal. The 25-year-old has scored 18 times in 30 starts and has 11 assists to his name.
It’s his fifth season with the Kent club, having joined them when they were in the Conference South, and came close to moving back into the Football League a couple of years ago only to be hit by injury.
Avoiding knocks at the wrong times, he says, has been a big part in his current form – he scored twice in the 7-1 Trophy replay win against Workington on Tuesday – as well as becoming more central to the action.
“There’s a few reasons – the run of games really helps,” he says. “But it’s credit to the team. We’ve got a great energy and when we’re going forward we feel like we’re going to score goals. We’re always happy to set each other up.
“I’ve also been moved into a more central role where I’ve always wanted to be given a chance to play. I feel a lot more involved in the build-up play and obviously you find yourself in shooting distance a lot more of the time. Whereas on the wing you’re obviously tracking back and crossing the ball a lot more.
“Being able to play in more than one position always helps. If there are injuries then you can fill in. It’s nice to try and master one role, but the No.10 position isn’t played byevery team so you have to be versatile.
“At Bromley we like to get the ball down, play through the thirds. Sometimes I get on the ball, sometimes I can get in behind our striker when he comes short – I’m really enjoying it in there.”
Dennis quickly points out that his No.10 role doesn’t excuse him from defensive duties.
“We wear GPS trackers so the stats show the distance covered,” he says. “Everyone would think a No.10 runs the least because it’s a ‘luxury role’ but I’m covering 12k with our centre midfielders every game.
“Pressing high, tracking the defensive midfielder – I love it because people say I’m a bit of a luxury player and the stats show I’m doing my 12k every game!”
He points out the technology is also an indicator of the progress Bromley have made over the years after making the transition from part-time football. The players have breakfast and lunch together every day and are pushing in the same direction.
Like most in the National League, Dennis would love to add to the handful of League appearances he made at Dagenham & Redbridge.
And he has plenty of friends that are showing him the possibilities if he keeps focused and putting in the graft.
He played with Newcastle United striker Dwight Gayle at Daggers and is close with Middlesbrough’s Britt Assombalonga, who had loan spells at Wealdstone and Braintree, as well as Blackpool’s former Bishop’s Stortford frontman Kyle Vassell.
“I’ve got good inspiration from some of my friends and I know what I need to be doing to get there,” he says.
“Ultimately you have to work hard. If it doesn’t happen straightaway, you can never give up.”
Like clockwork, as soon as a club announces it has financial problems the fan funding pages go up.
Because that’s the thing about football. An owner can neglect the big bills, knock local businesses for cash and then swan off into the sunset untouched.
It’s not quite so easy for supporters. The emotional attachment runs too deep and there’s a feeling that you can’t stand by and watch your loved one die.
As every season, we’re once again seeing clubs fall on hard times and, in the case of Hartlepool United, the big question marks over their future.
While each case is different, by its very nature Non-League football, for the majority of clubs, is hand to mouth.
The £48,000 Pools fans raised for their outstanding tax bill is fantastic. As was the money collected by Merthyr fans to keep their club going earlier this season, and the rallying that’s happening at Chester right now.
Macclesfield Town fans have been throwing money in the pot this season to help boss John Askey bring in some players to keep up their title bid. Then a few weeks later they have to put up with the news their players and staff received January’s wages late because there was a “technical issue” with the bank transfer from majority shareholder Amar AlKadhi.
For their office staff it’s not the first time this season, and Silkmen fans have been wondering why there doesn’t seem to be technical issues when the money, allegedly, goes the other way.
Social media rage that because Manchester United new boy Alexis Sanchez earns £500,000-a-week, just the latest example, he should help Non-League clubs struggling for pennies, clouds the issue.
The bloke with a nice motor on my road shouldn’t have to pay my council tax because I’ve had too many meals out. It’s down to clubs to live within their means – and not leave supporters digging into their pockets to clean up the mess.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday