The re-branded National League season kicks off on Saturday 8th August. Here we look at the top five teams in the betting for the title and their relative chances of success.
Tranmere Rovers are early favourites with many bookmakers at an available 5/1 and 11/2. Despite suffering two relegations in as many seasons Rover's fans have stayed loyal to their club purchasing 2,329 season tickets on their club's early bird offer which is 300 up on this time last season. Newly appointed boss Gary Brabin has a host of experience in managing and coaching at this level of football having previously held jobs at Southport, Luton Town and Cambridge United. He was with Southport last season up until January when he left to join Everton as part of the under 21 coaching staff. He has made a host of new signings to build a new side the new season.
Goalkeeper Scott Davies has joined from League One side Fleetwood Town where he made 150 apperances between 2010 to 2015, He has also spent time on loan at Morecambe and Accrington Stanley. Midfielder Jay Harris (born in Liverpool) joins after a five year spell with Wrexham - He has also played for Chester City, Accrington Stanley and started his career with Everton. Liam Hogan (defender) also makes the journey from Fleetwood Town having spent time on loan with Macclesfield Town last season - He has also made over 100 appearances for Halifax Town. Central Midfielder Lois Maynard (who stands at 6ft 3inches) has joined from FC Halifax Town where he played 85 times from 2013 to 2015. England C International James Norwood was released by Forest Green Rovers at the end of the last campaign where he scored 48 goals in 163 appearances. Martin Riley (another defender) has also joined from Mansfield Town along with striker Andy Mangan who played 30 times for Shrewsbury Town last season. He has played for a number of Conference clubs including Forest Green Rovers, Accrington Stanley and Wrexham.
The statistics (see below) say that teams who are demoted from the football league very rarely win the Conference title the next season. I think Rover's fans will be aware of how strong the league is and will be happy if they get into the play-offs after two disapointing seasons.
The Mariners are very close second favourites rated at between 11/2 to 6/1. Since relegation from the football league in 2010 they have finished in 11th, 11th, 4th, 4th and 3rd positions. When finishing 4th they lost in the play-off semi-final and last season they went the closet they have ever been losing in the play-off final on penalty kicks to Bristol Rovers. Paul Hurst, who has been sole manager of the club since September 2013, begins his third full season in charge of the club with a number of new signings. Striker Padraig Amond joins from football league side Morecambe having scored 19 times in 82 appearances from 2013 to 2015. Nathan Arnold, a striker, has joined on permanent terms having spent last season on loan from Cambridge United. Omar Bogle (29 goals for Solihull Moors last season) joins for an undisclosed fee. 23 year old defender/midfielder Danny East has moved from Portsmouth having spent some of last season on loan at Aldershot Town. Josh Gowling (defender) joins from Kidderminster Harrier having spent a short term on loan at the club towards the end of last season. Winger Marcus Marshall joins from Lincoln City - He played for The Mariners on loan during 2012 and 2013. Striker/Midfielder Andy Monkhouse could one of the signings of the summer having helped Bristol Rovers to promotion last season the 34 year old brings with him over 400 football league appearances with Rotherham United, Swindon Town and Hartlepool United. 25 year old centre-back Richard Tait has moved from Cambridge United where he made 36 appearances in the football league last season. He has also played for Tamworth, Nottingham Forest and Curzon Ashton
With Grimsby going so close over the past three seasons and the addition of some quality players could this season be their season?
Third favourites are The Spitfires who are rated at 7/1,15/2 or 8/1 with most firms. In their debut season in the conference last season they finished in fourth place losing in the play-off semi-finals to Grimsby Town. They too have strengthened their squad with striker Ross Lafayette joining from Luton Town. He scored 35 goals in 79 appearances for Welling United between 2012 to 2014 which earned him a move to Kenilworth Road. It didn't really work out for him under John Still with loan spells back at Welling United and Woking last season. I expect to see Lafayette score many goals for Eastleigh this season. Former Welsh under 21 international defender spent time on loan at the club last season and now joins on a permeant deal from AFC Bournemouth. Josh Payne joins after being a firm fixture in Woking's midfield over the past two seasons. The club's most impressive signing is Adam Drury who Luton Town paid Crawley Town a £100,000 fee in 2014. The winger/midfielder played 35 times for The Hatters last season but moves to Eastleigh following the cancellation of his contract with the League Two side. At 31 years of age he brings with him a wealth of experience having represented Stevenage Borough, Lewes, Gravesend & Northfleet and Sittingbourne along with 62 apperances for Ipswich Town between 2011 and 2013. They had paid Luton Town £150,000 for his services.
The Spitfires will definitely be there or thereabouts in the race for the title and play-off places. It's been a rapid rise up the pyramid for Eastleigh as in 2002/03 they were members of the Wessex League. Could they make it into the football league in a little over a decade?
FOREST GREEN ROVERS
Rated at either 7/1, 8/1 or even 9/1 with various bookmakers. Rovers have been members of the league since 1998 and finished for the first time in a play-off position last season. Current manager Ady Pennock joined in November 2013 and has led the club to 10th and 5th placed finishes. New signings over the summer have been 22 year old winger Keanu Marsh-Brown from Conference Champion's Barnet, 26 year old forward Delano Sam-Yorke who joins after spending last season on loan with Lincoln City from Cambridge United. He made his name with Basingstoke Town and Woking from 2008 to 2013. 31 year old Darren Jones who re-joins the club after a spell between 2006 to 2009 when he made over 100 appearances. He joins from Newport County and has a wealth of experience with Hereford United, Aldershot Town, Shrewsbury Town and AFC Wimbledon. Another player making the move from County to The New Lawn is Aaron O'Connor who has lots of experience as well with Luton Town, Rushden and Diamonds, Mansfield Town, Grays Athletic and Gresley Rovers amongst other clubs.
Forest Green have an experienced team and like Eastleigh will be there or thereabouts in the play-off/title race.
Rated at 9/1 and 10/1 with most firms it'll be a new look Cheltenham Town team under the management of Gary Johnson in their first season back in non-league football since 1998/99. There has been a raft of new signings - Jack Barthram has joined from Swindon Town and is 21 year old defender who started his career at Tottenham Hotspur moving on to Swindon in 2013 where he made only 16 appearances. Defender Aaron Downes joins from Torquay United where he played over 100 times between 2012 to 2015. He has also played for Chesterfield and Frickley Athletic as well as being capped by Australia at under 20 and under 23 level. 22 year old goalkeeper Calum Kitscha has been snapped up from Conference South side Hayes and Yeading United. Born in Edmonton, North London he started his career with Histon. 19 year old full back George McLennan has signed from Reading - He is a Scottish u19 international. Amari Morgan-Smith is is only 26 year old but the striker/winger is already well travelled having represented Oldham Athletic, Kidderminster Harriers, Macclesfield Town, Luton Town, Ilkeston Town and Stockport County as well as Crewe Alexandra and Wolverhampton Wanderers at youth level. Midfielder Jack Munns joins from Charlton Athletic where he didn't make a first team appearance - He has also represented Tottenham Hotspur at youth level. Midfielder Harry Pell, 23 years old and standing at 6ft 4inches, joins from league rival's Eastleigh. He made over 50 football league appearances for AFC Wimbledon between 2013 and 2015 and has also played for Bristol Rovers, Hereford United and Charlton Athletic. Dillon Phillips, a young goalkeeper, joins on a 6 month loan from Charlton Athletic - He played on loan for Welling United in the Conference last season. Midfielder Kyle Storer has joined from Wrexham and brings with him a wealth of Conference experience having played for Nuneaton and Tamworth as well. 20 year old midfielder Billy Waters has joined from Crewe Alexandra where he played 25 times between 2013 and 2015. 30 year old forward Danny Wright is another player with loads of Conference experience having played for Kidderminster Harriers, Gateshead, Forest Green Rovers, Wrexham, Cambridge United and Histon.
Will all the new signings work and will the team gell together? The Cold End
believes Johnson, with his years of experience in football in the lower
leagues, will produce a young team that will give it a go.
There are many other teams in with a chance this season such as Woking rated at between 12/1 and 16/1, Barrow between 14/1 and 20/1 and Gateshead between 16/1 and 25/1. Many clubs have made new signings in an attempt to build a squad capable of getting into the play-offs.
If you fancy an outside bet you can have a bet on Welling United and Boreham Wood who are as high as 200/1 with some bookmakers.
SOME RANDOM FACTS AND FIGURES
Since yearly promotion/relegation between the conference and football league only five clubs have bounced back in their first season with only two of those winning the title in the late 80s when arguably the division wasn't as strong as it is now which is backed up by the fact the average finishing position of the relegated clubs in the last 10 season is between 9th and 10th compared to the period between 1987 to 2005 being 6th to 7th.
FIVE TEAMS THAT GAINED PROMOTION AT FIRST ATTEMPT
Lincoln City (1st - 87/88)
Darlington (1st - 89/90)
Shrewsbury (3rd - 03/04 play off winners)
Carlisle United (3rd - 04/05 play off winners)
Bristol Rovers (2nd - 14/15 play off winners)
Grimsby Town had the best away record last season losing just three of their twenty-three games played. They lost seven at home so if they can improve on this they have a very good chance of going close to the title.
Only promoted side's Bristol Rovers and Barnet had a better home record than Macclesfield Town who only lost two of their twenty-tree games played.
featuring the top five teams in the betting
Saturday 8th August
Altrincham v FOREST GREEN ROVERS
Kidderminster Harriers v GRIMSBY TOWN
Lincoln City v CHELTENHAM TOWN
Southport v EASTLEIGH
TRANMERE ROVERS v Woking
Tuesday 11th August
CHELTENHAM TOWN v Aldershot Town
EASTLEIGH v Boreham Wood
FOREST GREEN ROVERS v Welling United
Gateshead v TRANMERE ROVERS
GRIMSBY TOWN v Barrow
Saturday 15th August
Braintree Town v TRANMERE ROVERS
CHELTENHAM TOWN v Southport
EASTLEIGH v Lincoln City
FOREST GREEN ROVERS v Barrow
GRIMSBY TOWN v Bromley
Two fixtures on the second Saturday of the season demonstrates how unique the English football pyramid is as back in 1999/2000 Braintree Town and Bromley were playing Leyton Pennant, Chertsey Town and Thame United amongst other teams. Their opponents were playing Manchester City, Norwich City, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion in Division One of the football league!