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Adam Virgo: The National League is still all to play for!

By Adam Virgo

AFC Fylde

Decent reaction from their disappointing play-off defeat last season at Boreham Wood.

They’re not a one-man team but a lot goes through Danny Rowe and it’s vital they’ve kept him. He’s pivotal in the way manager Dave Challinor wants to play.

With the firepower they’ve got, they’re a team no one will want to face in the play-offs. A solid side who are very difficult to play against.

Aldershot

Tough summer losing key players – Jim Kellermann, Manny Oyeleke, Callum Reynolds, Will Evans, Cheye Alexander – and Gary Waddock has found it very difficult to replace them. Purely on that, it’s no surprise they are where they are.

The consecutive play-off finishes in the previous two seasons was a bit of a smokescreen.

I think they’ve always overachieved and they are conceding so many goals now which is a major concern. I have sympathy for Gary because I don’t think this squad reflects on what a good manager he is.

Barnet

Consistency has been an issue but the Bees, who saw Darren Currie take over from John Still recently, have had to contend with injuries. Defender Callum Reynolds was missing at the start and Andre Boucaud is a big loss in their midfield.

What you can say is with a fully-fit squad they will be there or thereabouts. They’ve got some excellent young players in their side – Jack Taylor, Wes Fonguck, Sim Akinola. I expect them to push on in the second half of the season.

Barrow

Ian Evatt has learnt the league very well – and quickly. At the start he tried to play a way that didn’t quite work for them but they’re on a very good run now.

Kemy Agustien coming in to their midfield has been a massive plus – he’s got quality in abundance as we saw a few weeks ago with the goal he scored against Salford.

One of a handful of sides looking for that seventh place. They probably need a few more goals but a top-ten finish would be an excellent season.

Boreham Wood

When you lose players like Bruno Andrade and Grant Smith, unless you are given half-a-million pounds to spend you’re not going to replace them.

Goals have been a problem for Luke Garrard’s side and they’ve had a lot of draws.

Defeat in the Championship play-off final or the National League play-off final are the two hardest to take in English football. They will never have a better chance than they did against Tranmere – playing against ten men for 89 minutes.

But Luke is doing a brilliant job with a side who play some good stuff.

Braintree

It was always going to be difficult for them. Hakan Hayrettin has tried to rally the squad with a lot of new players but it’s going to be a difficult. They’re part-time and, as I said recently, these days those clubs are going to get found out. It’s not their fault, but the league landscape has shifted.

Bromley

I put Neil Smith in the same bracket as Paul Doswell – both are underestimated as managers in this league.

Like Sutton, Bromley are building the foundations of a proper football club.

They’re on a very good run at the moment. Adam Mekki and Luke Coulson are honest players, I like Frankie Raymond and Frankie Sutherland in midfield, Jack Holland at the back, David Gregory in goal – all solid players. A club on the up.

Chesterfield

Having got rid of Martin Allen, the appointment of John Sheridan needs to pay off.

I can see why they brought Martin in– he’s got the t-shirt and knows what it takes to get promotion.

But relegation is always an issue and when they came down from League Two you just felt there were always issues behind the scenes.

The players have to take full responsibility and pull their fingers out. They need to get a couple of wins together because too many draws and, well, look at what happened to York City.

Dagenham & Redbridge

I honestly believe Peter Taylor is doing a magnificent job. I loved playing for him because he is a very good coach. His England U21 record proves he’s good working with young players.

From where they were earlier in the season – they were nailed on for relegation – to where they are now is fantastic. They’ve got some really good players and two or three more wins should see them safe.

Dover

You can’t keep bringing in new squads every season because after a while it will catch up with you.

Andy Hessenthaler knows the club well and they’ve seen an upturn in results recently.

They’re full-time now and there’s some money there to help but you can’t keep replacing the majority of the squad and expect to be as good as the previous year.

Eastleigh

They need their identity of not being a club that just throws money at players who go down for a jolly up. There are one or two high-earners still there since owner Stewart Donald upped sticks to Sunderland, but after this season I think that will all stop.

Boss Ben Strevens may be a rookie but he knows the club really well and they’ve got an outstanding striker in Paul McCallum, who is having a very good season.

Ironically, it’s probably a weaker squad than when they reached the play-offs in 2015, but the club seems in a better place now.

Ebbsfleet

It was harsh on Daryl McMahon to lose his job – you don’t expect to take a team in the play-off semi-finals and expect to not be at the club the next season.

Garry Hill was a surprise appointment, in my opinion, but he knows what this league is all about and it’s been a great turnaround to get them back in the play-off race. It’s a very small squad, but it’s a very competitive one who can match anyone on their day.

Gateshead

The loss of Steve Watson could be huge because he was doing a superb job. He learned his trade with John Askey at Macclesfield and, along with Solihull, the Heed have probably been the surprise package of the top half.

They don’t have the biggest of budgets. They’ve got good options in the final third, which is a big plus, and if they can make the correct appointment they will be there or thereabouts.

If you’d have asked me at the start of the season, I’d have said no. Fair play to them.

Harrogate

They would take where they are now at the start of the season. Grant Holt tipped them right at the beginning to be in the play-offs and I think they will be.

Jack Muldoon was a clever signing and I like Dom Knowles and Aaron Williams, so they’ve got goals and they play decent football. But the small size of the squad worries me slightly.

Halifax

Matty Kosylo is their best player by a million miles. If you stop him, to a certain extent, you stop Halifax.

I know Jamie Fullarton from our Bristol Rovers days. They had a really good start but you wonder where the goals are going to come from. Jamie’s side will always work hard and they are solid defensively. But they’ve had a lot of draws and if they continue they will be looking over their shoulders.

Hartlepool

A big win against Gateshead on New Year’s Day and they need to find some results now.

I do feel they will be a side in the National League for a while now and Richard Money will be looking to build for next year and say, ‘What do we need to get out of this league?’

They’ve had a lot to deal with over the last 18 months with finances and a takeover but hopefully they can be more competitive after a couple of seasons at this level.

Havant & Waterlooville

If you offered Lee Bradbury fifth from bottom at the start of the season he’d have snapped your hand off.

They’ve got one of the leakiest defences in the division – you can’t keep conceding two and expect to score three. Like Braintree, they are part-time and it’s very difficult. Staying up would be a remarkable achievement.

Leyton Orient

My tip to win the league and despite their defeat to Salford at the weekend I stand by it.

They are in pole position. I think they will finish top purely on the basis their defensive record seeing them over the line.

Josh Coulson has been outstanding, an experienced keeper in Dean Brill and Jobi McAnuff brings that knowledge.

Provided no one comes in with a silly bid for top scorer Macauley Bonne, I expect them to get back into the Football League.

Maidenhead

If three of the four relegated sides are part-time it won’t be a surprise. It won’t be the manager’s or the players’ fault, it’s just changing times of the National League. I do fear for them a lot because defensively they are as poor a side as I’ve seen this season. I know

Havant concede a lot, but Maidenhead have conceded some really basic goals – which is very unlike Alan Devonshire teams.

Maidstone

When you’re looking for another manager it’s not going to help.

I always thought Maidstone were quite a settled football club. Jay Saunders did a great job but it just didn’t work out for Harry Wheeler.

Blair Turgott has scored but apart from that they don’t have enough goals in the side. Three managers in a season, for me, spells relegation.

Salford

I can’t remember more national interest in a team in this division. It’s a huge pressure. They don’t want to stay in this league for long.

In terms of results in December, it’s probably the first time the football cub has struggled since the ‘Class of 92’ took over. Your main concern is their away form over the season, however Saturday’s win could well signal a change in fortunes.

Conceding three at Barrow, five at Wrexham, two at Chesterfield, who can’t win for toffee – that away form could end up costing them.

Unless they sign some players now, I don’t think defensively they are going to win the league. Having said that, they definitely finish top three.

Solihull

Brilliant. They showed a lot of character away at Blackpool in the FA Cup and their home record is fantastic.

Nathan Blissett is a good bit of business to offer Danny Wright support. I like Adi Yussuf and Jermaine Hylton up front, Darren Carter and Kyle Storer – then they’ve got two powerful centre halves in Liam Daly and Alex Gudger.

Tim Flowers is manager of the season so far. I would not want to face them in the play-offs.

Sutton

They are building a very successful football club. They didn’t waste the money from their FA Cup run two seasons ago and they have a squad of good National League players.

Every side could do with a Jamie Collins and I like Craig Eastmond. Harry Beautyman is finding form, Wayne Brown and Brett Williams are good additions. They are a good, honest side. If I had to pick someone currently outside the play-offs to make the jump it would be Paul Doswell’s side.

Wrexham

Last year it was like they broke the world record for 1-0 wins, so it’s nothing new they don’t score enough goals.

If they had a Macauley Bonne, Danny Rowe or even a Rory Gaffney, they’d win the league. They’ve arguably got the best centre-half partnership in the league in Shaun Pearson and Manny Smith. James Jennings and Mark Carrington also form a solid back four. Where Salford concede too many, I don’t see Wrexham scoring enough to win the league.

Ben Tollitt coming in on loan from Tranmere Rovers gives them a chance but if they find a striker I’d put them above Salford. Hard to look past them in the play-offs if the season ended now but their recent form is a worry.

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