National League South: Who'll win it? Who'll prosper? Who'll struggle?
A new season in National League South is upon us – and all the old familiar names are on Eastbourne Borough’s fixture list. Let’s take a check through the race-card.
THE BIG FIVE
Three of them are clustered South of the Thames. One is over in Kent, and the fifth is along the South Coast. But what they have in common is ambition to climb to the National League – and the cash to help them up.
Early last season, Dorking Wanderers were widely tipped. Owner-manager Marc White assembled a side with formidable experience – although Dorking’s very first match saw them pitched out of the FA Cup by Eastbourne Borough. But the club from the Surrey Hills will again set the pace. Dartford will press Wanderers hard and could well pip them for the title. Steve King had inherited an ageing, listless squad but has now completely overhauled it – including ever-youthful striker Jake Robinson, who always scores against Borough…
Darts’ neighbours Ebbsfleet are full-time, with some players reputedly on £1500 a week – but if German manager Dennis Kurtrieb proves not to have spent wisely, he might be on a return flight back to Berlin. Maidstone United’s supporters generally think their club too big for National South, and the owners are investing in a promotion push. And Havant’s affable boss and benefactor, Paul Doswell, has refreshed his squad after staying too loyal last season to his old guard.
THE CHASING PACK
After their admirable third-place campaign, hopes will be high at Priory Lane, but Danny Bloor will need to manage expectations. His own squad is vibrant, exciting and talented, and they will score goals for fun – but a whole clutch of clubs around them under-achieved last season, and have strengthened. Oxford City have style, organisation and an intelligent manager. Dulwich Hamlet, with huge support and media attention, have Peter Crouch on board and new faces on the pitch.
The Three Cities all have high hopes. Bath play expansive football and use the loan market cannily, Chelmsford have under-achieved in recent years, and they suffer under their fans’ expectations at the Gulag. And St Albans assembled a formidable, physical squad last year which will go again under Ian Allinson. Billericay Town have now stabilised after a few chaotic seasons, and will threaten.
Slough Town are stable and well organised, although the Pandemic was tough on some of their personnel. Hampton and Richmond punch slightly above their weight but will not struggle. Hemel Hempstead are still searching for consistency of both management and playing squad.
COMPLETING THE FIELD
Beware: not a single National South club is a push-over. But some will have no ambition higher than staying in the division. Hungerford surprised a few people and have goal-scorers, while neighbours Chippenham are hard to beat at home. Concord Rangers rarely play the beautiful game but always do just enough while Essex neighbours Braintree Town might be out of their depth.
And two of the Sports’ nearer neighbours, Tonbridge Angels and Welling United, will simply be happy if they scramble clear of the relegation quicksand.
Runners-up: Dorking Wanderers
Borough’s realistic target: 5th to 7th, and a slot in the Play-Offs.