Steve Harris – @steveharris84
The 2020-21 National League season promises to be a campaign like no other.
Although the return of live football for fans of its member clubs will bring relief for many, live streaming will be the sole way to see their teams in action– until March 2021 at the earliest.
A rise in Coronavirus infections across the country has led to the UK government making a U-turn on their original decision to allow fans to return to watch live sport on October 1. Therefore the season will kick off for National League sides behind closed doors.
Unfortunately the National League will be a team short after Macclesfield Town, relegated from the Football League last season, were expelled from the league shortly after they were wound up in the High Court. In these circumstances survival – both on and off the pitch – looks likely to be the name of the game for many. It is with this in mind that the UK government has agreed an emergency grant with the National League to cover the losses incurred by club due to the ban on fans.
In spite of this, the National League remains the hardest league to win promotion from, with only two promotion spots available. Which is why, in these especially challenging times, having a manager who has previously won two promotions from this league in his career should be a major advantage.
Torquay United manager Gary Johnson led Yeovil Town and Cheltenham Town to the National League title in 2002-03 and 2015-16 respectively, and he will be looking to add a third promotion with the Gulls to that list. If Johnson is able to complete a hat-trick of promotions from the top tier of the non-league game, it will put him level with John Still, who holds the division’s record for promotions won after completing the feat with Maidstone United, Dagenham and Redbridge and Luton Town.
Johnson has strengthened his squad over the summer by making seven new signings. The septet include Gary Warren and Connor Lemonheigh-Evans who both return to United on a permanent basis following their respective loan spells with the club from Exeter City and Bristol City last season. Dean Moxey and Danny Wright add a wealth of experience and knowhow to Johnson’s side, having both previously won promotion from the National League before in their careers; Wright will also be looking to form a prolific strike partnership with fellow newcomers Andrew Nelson and Josh Umerah, as United look to replace the 21 goals scored by the Mansfield Town bound Jamie Reid. Former Motherwell, Gateshead and Hartlepool United defender Fraser Kerr completes the seven.
United’s first opponents of 2020-21 will be the highly fancied Stockport County who, like the Gulls, are aiming for a second promotion in three years after winning National League North in the 2018-19 campaign (United, of course won National League South in the same season). Manager Jim Gannon has made two marquee signings in the form of John Rooney and Connor Jennings who have both won promotion from the National League with Barrow and Tranmere Rovers respectively in recent years.
The Gulls’ next two fixtures will see them travel to Eastleigh and Bromley. Both the Spitfires and the Ravens have firmly established themselves in the National League since winning promotion from National League South in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Notable names to keep an eye for in the Eastleigh side include Alex Wynter, brother of United right-back Ben Wynter, and Danny Hollands, now 34, who played a key role in the Gulls’ ‘great escape’ of 2005-06 under Ian Atkins. Bromley manager Neil Smith added a number of experienced faces to the Ravens squad in the summer, including former Ipswich, Millwall and Bolton midfielder Liam Trotter and Byron Webster, who helped Yeovil to win promotion to the Championship under Gary Johnson in the 2012-13 campaign.
Yeovil Town, Notts County, FC Halifax Town and Boreham Wood all reached the play-offs last season and are being widely tipped to make big impacts on the division again.
Despite seeing winger Myles Hippolyte move to League Two to sign for Scunthorpe United, the Glovers have retained the core of last season’s squad – most notably their prolific strike partnership of Courtney Duffus and Rhys Murphy. Manager Darren Sarll has also utilised the loan market to bring in former Gulls’ right-back Daniel Leadbitter on loan from Newport County and Ryan Burke from Birmingham City.
After losing the National League play-off final to Harrogate Town last season, the Magpies have also managed to keep hold of a number of key personnel such as skipper Alex Lacey and midfielder Michael Doyle. Magpies manager Neal Ardley has made a number of interesting signings over the summer which include Portuguese midfielder Ruben da Rocha Rodrigues, Belgian forward Elisha Sam and midfielder Jake Reeves, who played under Ardley at AFC Wimbledon. It is hoped that their arrivals will help to compensate for the departure of Kristian Dennis to St Mirren.
FC Halifax emerged as the surprise package of the 2019-20 National League campaign and they look well-equipped to challenge for a top seven finish again. Josh Staunton, Charlie Cooper and Tobi Sho-Silva all left the Shay after rejecting new deals with the club, but the signing of Jake Hyde from Woking could prove to be a particularly shrewd one.
Since they won promotion to the National League in 2015, Boreham Wood have consistently produced competitive sides under the management of Luke Garrard. Former United striker Tyrone Marsh left Meadow Park to join Stevenage, but Garrard has moved to replace Marsh with another one-time Torquay United striker in the form of ex-Gulls loanee Shaquile Coulthirst, who appeared for United on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in the 2013-14 season, following his departure from Barnet.
Paul McCallum, another former United loanee from the 2013-14 campaign, will also be looking to the find the back of the net on a regular basis for his new club Dagenham & Redbridge. The Daggers were the second lowest scorers in the 2019-20 National League season with 40 goals, but McCallum’s capture should help to change all that.
Two former Gulls have been reunited at Maidenhead United after Nathan Blissett and Dan Sparkes both signed for the Magpies. It will be the second time that Sparkes has played under Maidenhead boss Alan Devonshire, having previously served under the former West Ham United midfielder at Braintree Town.
A number of eyebrows were raised when it was recently announced that Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds declared his intention to invest in Wrexham. The Red Dragons boss Dean Keates has kept himself busy after making 11 new signings, which include former Macclesfield defenders Fiacre Kelleher and Theo Vassell and ex-Forest Green and Sutton winger Anthony Jeffrey. Experienced centre back Shaun Pearson and former Gulls midfielder Luke Young also look set to play starring roles for North Wales outfit again.
The other big talking point emerging from the National League was Aldershot Town’s capture of former Leeds United, Aston Villa and Scotland striker Ross McCormack. Over the course of his career, McCormack has had fees of over £25million spent on him and scored 116 goals in eight seasons at Championship level. In addition to this, he also had a spell on loan with Central Coast Mariners in Australia where he appeared alongside Usain Bolt. His arrival overshadowed the Shots’ other signings, who include former United defender Jamie Sendles-White, former Nottingham Forest midfielder Toby Edser and right-back Killian Colombie, a former Paris St Germain youth team player.
Chesterfield will be starting a new era after the club’s Community Trust completed a takeover from former chairman Dave Allen in the summer. Manager John Pemberton will be looking to bring some much needed stability to the Spireites in his first full season in charge.
Dave Challinor will also be embarking on his first full campaign as Hartlepool United manager, as the Pools try to build on a 12th place finish. Pools also won four of their last six home games before the suspension of the 2019-20 season, so don’t be surprised if many teams find Victoria Park a tough place to visit.
Despite the departure of manager Tim Flowers shortly before the National League’s suspension, Solihull Moors are still hoping for a solid campaign. Now managed by former West Bromwich Albion caretaker boss Jimmy Shan, the Moors added Morecambe defender Jordan Cranston to a squad that still includes several seasoned performers at National League level including Jamey Osborne, Kyle Storer and Callum Howe.
Sutton manager Matt Gray steered the U’s to a mid-table finish in his first campaign in charge after he succeeded Paul Doswell in the summer of 2019. The early signs are that Gray could emulate that feat after retaining a number of key players from last season, most notably leading scorer Harry Beautyman.
Peter Beadle replaced Darren Currie as Barnet in the summer, but he has a rebuilding job on his hands after losing Shaquile Coulthirst to Boreham Wood and Simeon Akinola to Southend United. However, Beadle has secured the signatures of Alexander McQueen and Jerome Binnom-Williams, who both have plenty of National League experience between them.
Dover Athletic boss Andy Hessenthaler also has a major task on his hands after seeing his entire squad placed on the transfer list in early August, which resulted in a number of departures from the Crabble. Nevertheless, Hessenthaler has utilised his contacts to assemble a side that he hopes will turn out to be a competitive one.
Woking manager Alan Dowson, however, has retained the vast majority of his side from the 2019-20 campaign, but he will be hoping that Dave Tarpey can fill the void left by the departure of Jake Hyde to FC Halifax.
Out of the four clubs who won promotion from National Leagues North and South, Altrincham, Wealdstone and Weymouth will all be marking their returns to the top tier of non-league football, while Kings Lynn will be experiencing National League life for the first time.
Norfolk-based Kings Lynn won the National League North title after the outcome of the league was decided by the points per game method (PPG). They are managed by former Norwich City defender Ian Culverhouse and predictably their squad features a number of players with Canaries’ connections – including former Gulls’ striker Ryan Jarvis.
Altrincham secured a return to the National League for the first time since 2016 with a play-off final win over Boston United. Their standout signing of the summer has been the former Crewe Alexandra starlet Max Clayton, who has represented England at various age groups at youth level. He has since seen his career stall following injury hit spells with Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool. However, if the Robins can keep him fully fit then he could prove to be one of the signings of the season.
Weymouth will begin the campaign under new management after the former AFC Bournemouth and Doncaster Rovers midfielder Brian Stock replaced the Southend United bound Mark Molesley. The Terras have strengthened their squad with the additions of former Truro City midfielder Cody Cooke and former United defender Myles Anderson and young winger Sam Pearson has also arrived on loan from Bristol City.
United’s successors as National League South champions Wealdstone last played in the National League in 1988 and will be looking to ensure that their stay in the division doesn’t prove to be a brief one. The Stones squad contains a name who Gulls’ fans will recognise in the form of Michee Efete who spent almost the entirety of the 2017-18 season on loan at United from Norwich City.