By Alex Narey
ONE thing you cannot deny about English football, even in this modern-age of luminous boots and play-acting, is that it is competitive.
We often deride the Premier League for its show-pony nature, but what it lacks in quality to Europe’s other elite leagues (and it really does, I’m afraid), it more than makes up for with its energy and whole-hearted displays.
But to find the most competitive league in the country, you will have to walk down five flights of stairs to the murky underworld that is National League North. Those football fans with no knowledge or no appreciation of lower league football will no doubt pour scorn on such a statement, but Step 2’s northern branch is the bull ring of Non-League. No matter how big your squad is and how much cash you are prepared to burn, no division is tougher to get out of.
Without wanting to do the league a disservice, its competitiveness overrides its quality – although there is still plenty of the latter. Players know above anything else that it’s a roll-your-sleeves-up job and if you aren’t prepared to dig deep then you simply will not survive.
Just look at last season; AFC Fylde won it and they won it well. But in the chasing pack you had the muscle of FC Halifax, the doggedness of Chorley, the flair of Kidderminster and the craft of Darlington. There was also Stockport, drawing regular crowds of 5000-plus, and of course Salford, arguably Non-League’s most aspirational club who the previous season had been thrown into the footballing spotlight via the publicity of the ‘Class of 92’ ownership.
People have their own view on Salford, but I often think it is a misguided one that is built on a touch of jealousy. With Gary Neville & Co. fronting up, along with the 50 per cent share of businessman Peter Ling, there is plenty of football nous and financial backing there. But the club, despite featuring in what I thought was a slightly ill-judged fly-on-the-wall documentary series that has charted their rise over the last two seasons, do things the right way when it comes to dealing with matters on and around the pitch.
Joint managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley are the absolute heartbeat of what they do. Brought in two seasons ago, their no-nonsense delivery appeared at first to be in stark contrast to the man they replaced, Phil Power. But for all the shouting and menace, there is more to the partnership than changing-room bluster. They are honest, hard-working guys who have fought their way up the Non-League Pyramid, with a remit built on how to get clubs promoted on modest budgets.
Next season will see the pair given the reins as full-time bosses for the first time. The job was probably near enough 24-7 before, but now it really will become all-consuming. Installed as pre-season favourites (7-2 as things stand), Johnson and Morley will know they have to deliver. It will be tough, as highlighted by Altrincham legend Stuart Coburn in an insightful interview with The NLP last week.
But Johnson and Morley won’t be ruffled by big predictions and bold statements. While they may come across as different characters from the Cowley brothers – who have enjoyed such success at Concord Rangers, Braintree and Lincoln – their deep knowledge of the Non-League landscape will be the determining factor in their success this season at Step 2.
I have a feeling there will be plenty of shouting come the middle of May. In a good way, too…