By Matt Badcock
Brexit, Trump, the Royal Wedding, a drone shutting down flights to and from Gatwick Airport – 2018 has been a strange old year.
At least we have had football to keep us, generally, sane with all the usual thrills and spills.
As Big Ben has now cleared its throat to see in the New Year, let’s look back at the last 12 months and ahead to what 2019 may bring.
Best moments of 2018
As always there’s been many – from Macclesfield’s unexpected title win to Brackley Town’s FA Trophy triumph on another fantastic FA Non-League Finals Day.
But off the pitch it’s been heartening to see so many footballers willing to talk about mental health. In these pages we’ve heard the stories of Liam Hughes – now at Darlington – and Bath City keeper Ryan Clarke among others.
It’s inspiring to listen to how they have emerged from some tough times and how they want to help others. It’s good to talk.
Lowest moments of 2018
As always, seeing clubs fold. Thamesmead Town were the most recent at Steps 1 to 4 and we all know there will be more. The knock-on effect a club disappearing can have on people’s lives shouldn’t be underestimated and the game needs to look at what can be done to make things easier. Clubs also need to take responsibility to ensure they don’t tread the line too close. It’s all about balance.
Tear up your match report moment of 2018
A minute left in the FA Trophy final, I turned to big boss man Alex Narey to double check writing that it would be Bromley’s first ever time winning the competition was correct for the on-the-whistle report. At that moment Brackley Town equalised to force extra-time and I had to hit delete/start again button. Worth it for the drama.
Player of 2018
Macclesfield Town captain Danny Whitaker. Supreme in the centre of the park as the Silkmen won the National League title.
Golden Oldies of 2018
Bishop’s Stortford player-manager Jamie Cureton just keeps scoring – recently hitting a hat-trick to take his career tally to 350 goals at the age of 43.
He’s inspiring all those players seemingly defined by the number next to their names rather than their ability.
Jobi McAnuff is similar at Leyton Orient. He may be 37 years old, but every week the class that saw him play in the Premier League shines through.
Most accurate prediction of 2018
The Wrexham fan who started a thread on the Chesterfield fans forum titled ‘Welcome to Hell’. Despite their relegation from the Football League, there was some optimism at the Derbyshire club in the summer, especially after winning their first three games of the season. That quickly evaporated as they had to wait until December for the next three points. Following a Boxing Day hammering by Solihull Moors, manager Martin Allen departed.
The problems clearly run deeper than the manager at the Spireites and fans, who have been protesting against the ownership, will be clinging onto the hope of change in the year ahead.
But on the pitch they’ve clearly struggled to get to grips with the challenges of the National League and need to get the next appointment right. Otherwise, they may have only arrived at the gates of hell.
What’s got to change in 2019?
The FA know they’ve got an issue with how promotion is going to work into Step 2 from Step 3 and from 4 to 3 at the end of this season. Essentially the numbers don’t fit, so super play-offs will be played out.
At Step 3, two of the four play-off winners will go up – following cross-division finals – while at Step 4, two of the seven will miss out on a points-per-game basis.
The play-off system is inherently unfair. At all levels it’s about entertainment and keeping as much interest at the end of season for as many clubs as possible. That’s the point and they’ve become an accepted, and essential part of English football. But it’s going to be tough to take for many clubs this summer when they miss out.
The eighth division at Step 4 – due in 2020 – will remedy the bottleneck up to Step 3, but to unblock the path into the National League North or South, there needs an extra club to be relegated from each division.
You can understand if the National League would only be willing to accommodate that if they get their wish for three up/three down between the Football League.
The argument for that to happen has been rolling on for many years. Every year in these overview pieces we say it is an issue that has to be looked at. Well, here we are again. In 2019 an extra automatic promotion place into Step 2 needs to be at the top of the authorities’ agenda.
What won’t change in 2019?
Three up, three down.
Players to watch out for in 2019
Leyton Orient have some of the most exciting young talents in Non-League right now.
Macauley Bonne obviously heads the queue with his 18 goals but attacker Josh Koroma has been sensational and centre-back Marvin Ekpiteta is growing into one of the division’s best.
Kidderminster Harriers’ Ed Williams also appears to have a bright future and when Kane Smith returns from injury at Boreham Wood, he’ll prove his burgeoning talent as one of the best attacking full-backs in Non-League football.
Maidenhead United have an exciting prospect on their hands in Josh Kelly.
Managers to watch out for in 2019
Year of the double act? Don’t rule out Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley winning promotion from the National League North for a second successive season– and a sixth promotion in seven years for the duo. Having done the business at Ramsbottom United, succeeded in the Salford City pressure cooker, they have now got Chester in the promotion picture having steadied a rocking ship.
And how about Neil Baker and Jon Underwood at Slough Town. Another good FA Cup run following last year’s Southern League promotion win and the Rebels are now going well in the National League South. Whether they get promoted or not, the management pair should be getting linked to more jobs higher up the ladder than they do now.