By Alex Narey, editor
It’s at this stage of the season when league tables, especially at the top end, become somewhat more streamlined.
The early-season congestion, along with the early stages of the various cup competitions, often sees a cluster of sides challenging at the league’s summit but as February clicks into gear the top three will begin to break away and before you know it, three will become two. There can’t be many title races that are genuine three-horse races these days.
But in the National League, it’s looking increasingly like the expected two-horse battle between Leyton Orient and Salford City will have company for some time. After yesterday’s fixtures, the top nine were separated by just nine points.
From the Premier League down to the four divisions at Step 3 (SPL Premier Central and South, Bostik and Evo-Stik Premier), The National League remains – points wise and on paper – the most competitive in the land.
My attention was drawn to this two weeks ago, after Salford City had hit the headlines again with David Beckham adding his millions to the ownership mix at Moor Lane. It was the same old argument: the Ammies had created an unfair playing environment by pricing out other clubs. They were ruining Non-League. Nobody could compete with them, so everyone else should pack up and go home. The league, it seemed, was a foregone conclusion.
Well, trying telling that to Braintree Town, who kept Graham Alexander’s men at arm’s length yesterday before knocking them through the ring ropes in the 94th minute. Meanwhile, sides like Sutton continue to punch above what many perceive to be their fighting weight, and Solihull Moors have defied the critics all season who claimed they would be front-runners to go down.
People will counter the Salford debate by suggesting the club has done some bad business with signings; they should be running away with the division, people will say, while others will argue that Leyton Orient continue to throw away their advantage to leave the door ajar for the rest.
That’s easy to say, but we should be focusing on the magnificent jobs that are being done elsewhere by managers like Tim Flowers at Solihull, who has crafted a wonderfully spirited squad at Damson Park that fights for everything including the leftovers. Yesterday’s win on the road at Ebbsfleet pushed Moors up to second [Now they’re top after last night’s 3-0 win at Aldershot! – Ed]. This time last year they were in the bottom four. I guess people are still waiting for that bubble to burst.
Sutton and Paul Doswell just keep ticking along; underestimated wherever they go, that seems to be the way the southwest London outfit like it.
AFC Fylde, with Danny Rowe in their ranks – have shown they have the class to stay in the fight, while Eastleigh have found their legs under Ben Strevens and Gateshead, remarkably, continue to chip away towards the top despite their well-documented off-field problems.
Believe me, this isn’t a column in support of Salford City, but one to celebrate the incredible work that is making the National League the most competitive league in the country.
With managers rolling their sleeves up to get the best out of the genuine playing quality they have, there is much to be proud of.
*This article was originally featured in the Non-League Paper*
And so the hard work has started, this week I have dusted down the lyrca and hit the road as my training got going ahead of the ‘Football to Amsterdam’ bike ride in June.
Starting out from London’s Lee Valley Velo Park on June 7, our ride will be spread over two days with the small matter of 145 miles to negotiate between the cities.
For those based in the north, there is a second route that gets you pedalling from Barnsley’s Oakwell Stadium. Both routes will take an overnight ferry from Harwich and Hull respectively before hitting the Dutch roads the following day.
The annual Football to Amsterdam ride has become part of the footballing calendar and each year a plethora of clubs and players, both current and former, get behind the project to support the charity.
The statistics are quite galling! In the UK, One man dies every 45 minutes from prostate cancer but there are continuous efforts to help eradicate that number, and The NLP is proud to be associated with PCUK as we aim to keep up the awareness with the recent addition of the ‘Man of Men’ logo on our front page.
Look out for my online training blog in the following weeks as I aim to shed a few more of those Christmas pounds as D-day in June looms ever nearer.
For more details on the charity and how you can help, visit https://prostatecanceruk.org/, and if you fancy joining us on the ride, you can get a £50 discount by using code NLP19. The paper is keen to pull in the numbers to make up our team, so you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
It promises to be a great event where you will be riding in the slipstream of many footballing greats. It’s the perfect excuse to get back on the back as we bid to relegate Prostate Cancer.
Having a chat with a colleague in the office the other day, we were talking about the best players we have witnessed scrapping it out in Non-League football.
I didn’t get the chance to see Jamie Vardy lace his boots up in the lower leagues, but even if I had, he would be doing well to displace my all-time favourite: Morecambe’s man-mountain defender, Jim Bentley.
Watching Bentley in action offered a stark reminder why I was never destined to play football to any kind of standard. The thought of going toe to toe with him in the teeming rain on a freezing January afternoon would literally send a shiver down my spine.
There were others who stood out. Notably Ray Warburton – another crunching centre-half at Aldershot Town – was the consummate professional. Three players rolled into one, Warburton could read a game like he had written it himself, and was the perfect mentor for many younger players around him as the Shots made back-to-back play-off appearances in the 2003/04 and 2004/5 seasons.
But Bentley was my ultimate leader, the key cog in Morecambe’s push to get back into the Football League. He had the better of so many opposing strikers before a game had even started.
For clubs with promotion aspirations – like those mentioned above – having a player of Bentley’s calibre is an absolute must, and often at this level, a player that money just can’t buy.
By and large, one of this paper’s unique-selling points is the access we have with managers and their playing squads.
Sadly, one particular manager of late appears to have closed the book on us despite our best efforts to get in touch for a chat.
He was quick to get in touch with us last season though when he was out of work, quite often feeding us lines of information (which we never printed, of course) about the club which he had recently parted company with. Give it time…