The Conference South 2013/14 season gets underway on Saturday 17th August with promoted Ryman side's Concord Rangers and Whitehawk starting with home games against Basingstoke Town and Maidenhead United. The Beachboys then have an away game against Chelmsford City and The Hawks travel to Bromley in midweek.
The best odds available for Whitehawk at present are 22/1 (they were 28/1 at the beginning of the week so money is being placed on them) and Concord Rangers are top priced at 80/1.
Darren Freeman has strengthened his already impressive squad at The Enclosed Ground with the signing of ex Brighton and HA forward Jake Robinson. The 26 year old was at Northampton Town and Luton Town (on loan) last season and The Hawk's website states he received offers from club's higher up the pyramid so it's a really decent signing for the south-coast club. Other signings have been Tom Cadmore a central defender from Hayes and Yeading who has been capped by England C. He won the Conference South play-off final with H&Y in 08/09 so has plenty of experience in this division. Richard Rose, another defender, who was with Dartford last season and has over 200+ league appearances to his name with Gillingham, Hereford United and Dagenham &Redbridge. 20 year old midfielder Alex Parsons (formerly of AFC Bournemouth) has also signed up for the season. Could the 28/1 odds be value with Whitehawk's recent promotion history?
Concord Rangers manager Danny Cowley will probably be the first to admit he doesn't expect to win the league title or compete near to the play-offs but it's the cold end's opinion they will cause a few upsets along the way against the top teams with their performances in the Ryman Premier League last season in mind. They have lost Ben Greenhalgh (who joined in March 2013) to Scottish Premier Division side Iverness Caledonian Thistle and Matt Fry who has moved up to the Conference Premier with Dartford. Greenhalgh was the winner of Sky One's 'Football's Next Star' which did earn him a two year contract with Inter Milan. Joining The Beachboys are Paul Goodacre (defender was with Dartford in 2012), Gary Ogilvie (defender who has been at Concord before but recently been in the USA), goalkeeper Jamie Butler who impressed with the Metropolitan Police last season and Bradley Hamilton (defender/midfielder) from Colchester United.
Both promoted teams will be aware that AFC Hornchurch and Billericay Town suffered relegation at the first attempt last season. I'm sure that in Whitehawk's case with the quality of players they are recruiting this will certainly not be the case and that Concord will have enough about them to finish above the bottom four.
Early favourites for the title are Eastleigh (best priced at 10/3) followed closely by Ebbsfleet United (7/2), Sutton United (8/1) and Dover Athletic (9/1). They are followed by Chelmsford City at 14/1.
Eastleigh finished 4th and were edged out by Dover Athletic (3rd) in the play-off semi-final who then lost to Salisbury City in the final. Chelmsford City (5th) lost to Salisbury City in the other semi-final whilst Sutton United just missed out in 6th place. Ebbsfleet United were relegated from the Conference National division in 23rd place. So who are the best value and who is going to win the league?
EASTLEIGH - 10/3 FAVOURITES
Striker's Sam Wilson and Ben Strevens have been signed up for the coming season. Wilson returns after a season with Poole Town and Gosport Borough. Strevens is highly experienced having won the Conference National tile twice while playing with Barnet and Dagenham & Redbridge. He has also played for Crawley Town, Brentford, Wycombe Wanderers and Gillingham.
They also have the central defensive partnership of Dean Beckwith (signed from Luton Town in January 2013 who won the Conference National play-off final in 2006 with Hereford United and has played in the Football League with The Bulls and Northampton Town) and Chris Todd (also signed in January 2013 from Forest Green Rovers. He has experience with Swansea City, Exeter City and Torquay United where he won the Conference play-off final in 2009).
Another signing is Striker Yemi Odubade from Gateshead (spent part of last season on loan at Forest Green Rovers) who also has Conference National title winning experience with Stevenage.
Their midfield also has an impressive look to it. Damian Scannell (football league experience with Southend United and Dag & Red), Glen Southam (won Conference National with Daggers in 2007), Jai Reason (Conference South winner with Braintree Town in 2011) and Jamie Collins (another summer signing from FGR. He also has Conference South winning experience with Newport County in 2010).
Manager Richard Hill has been with the club since September 2012 and has a wealth of coaching experience as assistant to John Gregory and Brian Little at a host of football league clubs.
Without doubt The Spitfires will be right up towards the top of the division come the business end of the season. They will need to improve their form away from home as they only won 6 times in 21 games last season in contrast to their home from of winning 16 in 21.
EBBSFLEET UNITED - 7/2
After a few seasons of financial uncertainty the club were taken over by a group of Kuwaiti investors (KEH Sports Ltd) in May 2013. Club legend Liam Daish left after eight years in charge and has been replaced by ex Charlton Athletic player Steve Brown who has recently been Assistant Manager at Dover Athletic and spent time as a youth team/reserve team coach at West Ham United and Brighton & HA. He will be assisted by another Charlton Athletic legend in Steve Gritt who has been with their Academy and Development teams recently.
Brown and Gritt have been very busy building a new squad. They have signed striker Michael Thalassitis on loan from Stevenage who scored seven times for Boreham Wood in nineteen games last season along with midfielder Stacy Long (returning to Stonebridge Road from League Two side AFC Wimbledon), defender Osei Sankofa from Hayes and Yeading United and left back Aiden Palmer from Chelmsford City (ex of Leyton Orient).
Brown has also signed a number of players from his old club Dover Athletic. Midfielder Daryl McMahon has joined (for a fee of £13,000) along with midfielder Dean Rance and defender Shane Huke and the strike partnership of Ben May and Billy Bricknell.
It's exciting times for The Fleet as the club have also embarked on a £100,000 stadium refurbishment at Stonebridge Road.
SUTTON UNITED - 8/1
Since promotion back to the Conference South in 2011 United have finished in fourth place (lost to Welling United in the play-off semi-final) and then just missed out on the play-offs last season finished in sixth place. Manager Paul Doswell will be aiming higher for the 2013/14 season.
The goals and experience of centre forward Jamie Slabber (23 in 39 games for Chelmsford City last season) will be a really good addition to Doswell's squad. The ex Grays Athletic and Eastleigh man has joined for the new season. Jamie Taylor (top scorer for Conference Premier Lincoln City last season) has also joined and he too will improve United's goals for tally.
The squad at Gander Green Lane looks good and settled so with the additions made I think they will be right up challenging for the title. The 8/1 odds offered look really decent value and in my opinion a better bet than the 10/3 and 7/2 offered for Eastleigh and Ebbsfleet United.
DOVER ATHLETIC - 9/1
2013/14 will be manager Chris Kinnear's first full season with Athletic since he moved from Margate in early 2013. He was previously in charge at the club before between 1985 to 1995. He took them to the play-off final last season and has of course lost many players to Ebbsfleet United so he too has been busy rebuilding a squad capable of making a challenge at the top of the table.
Striker Nathan Elder has moved in the opposite direction from Stonebridge Road to The Crabble. He scored 15 goals in the Conference Premier last season. Another striker Michael Bakare has also joined after spells with Southport and Macclesfield Town. Midfielder Liam Bellamy is also another player to move from Ebbsfleet to Dover. He is known as a box-to-box player and played 39 times for The Fleet last season.
Kinnear will no doubt make more signings towards the start of the season.
CHELMSFORD CITY - 14/1
It's a new era for The Clarets this season with the appointment of Dean Holdsworth as manager. He failed to make an impact at League Two Aldershot Town where he was sacked in February 2013 after a run of taking just seven points from seven games. However, he won the Conference South with Newport County in 2010 with an amazing points total of 103 which was a massive 28 ahead of their nearest rivals Dover Athletic. He also took Redbridge to the Ryman Division One (North) play-off final in 2008 where The Motormen lost on penalties to Canvey Island.
Under former manager Glenn Pennyfather they were the nearly men of the Conference South. Since promotion in 2008 their record is -
2008/09 - Lost in Play-Off semi-final to Hampton and Richmond Borough after finishing 5th
2009/10 - Lost in Play-Off semi-final to Bath City after finishing 3rd.
2010/11 - Lost in Play-Off semi-final to Ebbsfleet United after finishing 4th.
2011/12 - Finished in sixth position missing play-offs by four points.
2012/13 - Lost in Play-Off semi-final to Eastleigh after finishing 5th.
Holdsworth has signed 23 year old winger Sam Long from Dover Athletic (who was on a dual registration with Ryman Premier Cray Wanderers) along with the well travelled striker Kieron St Aimee who was with AFC Telford United, Whitehawk and AFC Hornchurch last season.
Other new signings are Christian Webb (midfielder with lots of experience at Chester, Clyde, Barrow, Wrexham and AFC Telford United), Danny Webb (striker from Dover Athletic),Tom Davis (who is somewhat of a lucky charm in the Conference South having won promotion with St Albans City, Lewes, AFC Wimbledon and Woking) and Nicky Nicolau (midfielder who played a large number of games in the Conference National with Lincoln City last season).
After the opening few games of the season I expect The Clarets to be much skinnier odds than the 14/1 currently offered so they too could be a good value bet.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Havant and Waterlooville are best priced at 25/1 followed by Basingstoke Town, Bath City, Eastbourne Borough, Weston-Super-Mare and Dorchester Town generally best priced at 33/1. Boreham Wood, Bishops Stortford, Bromley, Tonbridge Angels all come in at 40/1 with Farnborough and Hayes & Yeading at 60/1. Maidenhead United and Staines Town join Concord Rangers at 80/1 with Gosport Borough top priced at 100/1.