Steve Harris – @steveharris84
Steve previews the new NL season
Here we go again. Just 67 days after their agonising National League play-off final defeat to Hartlepool United on penalties, Torquay United kick off their 2021-22 league campaign against Altrincham.
It will be a new look Gulls’ side that take to the field at Plainmoor following the departures of Lucas Covolan (Port Vale), Kyle Cameron and Aaron Nemane (both Notts County) and Ben Whitfield (Stockport County). United boss Gary Johnson has rebuilt his squad over the summer after making ten new signings.
The Gulls’ initial seven new signings were revealed in a transfer ‘Manic Monday’ – and included goalkeepers Mark Halstead (Morecambe) and Marcin Brozozowski (QPR), centre back Ali Omar (Barnsley), left-back Dan Martin (Cardiff City), central midfielder Tom Lapslie (Colchester United), winger Keelan O’Connell (AFC Bournemouth) and striker Klaidi Lolos (Plymouth Argyle). They were later joined by trialists Chiori Johnson, Dan Holman and Gabby Rogers. Holman played a key role in helping Johnson win promotion from the National League title with Cheltenham Town in the 2015-16 season, scoring 16 times in 18 appearances in the second half of the campaign. If he can get close to that return for the Gulls then he could prove to be the signing of the season.
If United do manage to go one better by winning promotion through the play-offs in the 2021-22 campaign they will be emulating Exeter City in 2008, Grimsby Town in 2016, Forest Green Rovers in 2017 and Tranmere Rovers who all bounced back to win promotion after losing the previous year’s Play-off final.
Whilst the Gulls have quietly gone about their summer business, the transfer headlines in the National League have undoubtedly belonged to the likes of Stockport County and Wrexham.
In addition to their capture of Ben Whitfield, the Hatters also have signed Scott Quigley, a National League title winner with Barrow in the 2019-20 campaign, to join the squad that already includes the likes of Paddy Madden and John Rooney.
However, the move that arguably created the most seismic shocks in the lower leagues was Wrexham’s signing of Paul Mullin from Cambridge United. Not only had Mullin spearheaded Cambridge’s promotion from League Two, he was also voted the division’s Player of the Year. Nevertheless, he has joined the Red Dragons who are heavily financed by Hollywood duo Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds. Mullin’s signing wasn’t the only notable arrival at the Racecourse Ground. Phil Parkinson, whose managerial CV includes guiding Colchester United and Bolton Wanderers into the Championship and leading Bradford City to the 2013 League Cup final, has been installed as Wrexham boss – but he has never managed in the National League before. The Red Dragons have made a whole of host of new signings, including Aaron Hayden who drops down a division from League Two side Carlisle United to join Wrexham.
The arrival of James Rowe as manager from Gloucester City has transformed the fortunes of Chesterfield. The Spireites enjoyed their best National League campaign since they were relegated from League Two at the end of the 2017-18 season to date – with a sixth place finish – and have made a marquee signing of their own by securing the signature of Kabby Tshimanga from Boreham Wood. In recent years, Tshimanga has been strongly linked with a move to the Football League, so his capture represents a massive coup for Chesterfield, who have also added goalkeeper Scott Loach from Barnet and Jeff King from FC Halifax Town to their squad.
The Spireites were eliminated from the Play-offs by Notts County, who in turn were knocked by the Gulls, and the Magpies will once again be aiming high in what will be manager Ian Burchnall’s first full campaign in charge. Kyle Cameron and Aaron Nemane will be also be joined by former Gulls’ loanee Frank Vincent, following his release from Bournemouth, and the return from injury of Cal Roberts will no doubt feel like having a new signing on board.
Southend United and Grimsby Town were both relegated into the National League from League Two and it will be interesting to see how they both perform.
The Shrimpers will be managed by former Hull City manager Phil Brown in what will be their first season as a National League club. Brown has looked to add as much experience to his side as possible. Former Gulls loanee Rhys Murphy has arrived from Yeovil Town and Josh Coulson, who has won promotion from the National League twice before with Cambridge United and Leyton Orient. Both are seasoned performers in the fifth tier.
Grimsby will be marking a return to the National League five years after winning promotion in the 2015-16 season through the play-offs. The man responsible for guiding the Mariners back into the Football League on that occasion was current boss Paul Hurst, who returned for his second spell in charge at Blundell Park in the 2020-21 campaign following spells with Shrewsbury Town, Ipswich Town and Scunthorpe United. Hurst moved quickly to make Shaun Pearson, who was a key member of Grimsby’s play-off winning side his first signing, and he has since been joined by former United loanee Michee Efete and ex-Yeovil, Exeter and Plymouth forward Joel Grant.
A number of eyebrows were raised when Bromley replaced the long serving Neil Smith with former Arsenal goalkeeper coach Andy Woodman, but a strong finish to the 2020-21 campaign saw the Ravens secure the league’s sixth and final play-off spot. Woodman has drafted in experienced centre back Joe Partington in from Eastleigh and they’ve also retained the services of last season’s National League leading scorer Michael Cheek.
Another side who enjoyed a strong finish to the 2020-21 season were Dagenham & Redbridge, who narrowly missed out on the play-offs. Daggers manager Daryl McMahon, who made one appearance for the Gulls during a loan spell from West Ham United in the 2003-04 season under Leroy Rosenior, has established himself as one of the best young managers outside the Football League. The Irishman has managed to keep hold of Angelo Balanta and Paul McCallum and has added Josh Walker from Barnet – so the Daggers could yet prove to be a match for anyone on their day.
As well as being one of the National League’s youngest managers, Boreham Wood boss Luke Garrard is also the longest serving, having been in charge at Meadow Park since 2015. A lot of the Wood’s fortunes could depend on how Garrard manages to replace the departed Tshimanga. Garrard has drafted in former Gulls loanees Josh Rees and Scott Boden, who both have plenty of National League experience which could stand them in good stead.
Solihull Moors pulled off something of a coup to secure the services of Neal Ardley as manager following his dismissal by Notts County. After finishing as runners-up to Leyton Orient in the 2018-19 season they certainly seem to be aiming high again. The Moors have retained the services of Adam Rooney and a push for the play-offs may not be beyond their reach.
Since they won promotion into the National League in 2014, Eastleigh have always proved to be a competitive outfit – reaching the play-offs on numerous occasions. In Ben House and Tyrone Barnett, Spitfires manager Ben Strevens could potentially have one of the most dangerous strike partnerships in the league on his hands. The Hampshire side have also retained the services of former United loanee Danny Hollands who, at the age of 36, recently agreed a new deal to stay at the Silverlake Stadium.
FC Halifax Town narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season despite losing a number of key players before the start of the campaign and Shaymen boss Pete Wild has another rebuilding job on his hands. Jack Earing, Jeff King and Jake Hyde have left the Shay for Walsall, Chesterfield and Wrexham respectively and they will be looking to defy expectations once again.
Yeovil Town’s 2020-21 campaign was overshadowed by the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of central defender Lee Collins. The Glovers have also lost a number of experienced campaigners, including Carl Dickinson, Charlie Lee and Jimmy Smith, as well as Rhys Murphy who joined Southend. Nevertheless, manager Darren Sarll has brought in goalkeeper Grant Smith and experienced centre back Mark Little, and Sarll will also be hoping that Adi Yussuff can find the back of the net on a regular basis.
Two promotions in three seasons under manager Phil Parkinson saw Altrincham return to the National League for the first time since 2016 last season, as they finished in a respectable 17th place. Parkinson may not have the level of budget as his namesake at Wrexham, but he does have the experience of Ben Pringle, a one-time Torquay United loanee, to call upon as well as former Crewe Alexandra striker Ajay Leitch-Smith who also played under Gary Johnson at Yeovil.
Another manager looking who has needed to rebuild his squad is Maidenhead United’s Alan Devonshire. Danilo Orsi and Josh Coley have secured moves to the Football League with Harrogate Town and Exeter City respectively, but Devonshire has brought in Kane Ferdinand and will have the fit again Shaun Donnellan to call upon for the season start.
Aldershot Town manager Danny Searle has provided plenty of stability to the Shots since he took charge in 2019. However, they possibly lack the necessary firepower to compete at the top end of the table, but with summer signings Giles Phillips and Kevin Lokko as a centre back pairing the Shots should prove to be a tough team to beat.
Woking will be making the move from being part-time to full-time and manager Alan Dowson has made a number of potentially shrewd signings in the form of winger Jordan Maguire-Drew and striker Innih Effiong. The Cards shouldn’t have any relegation worries, but a promotion/play-off challenge might be too much to ask.
The null and voiding of the National Leagues North and South meant that there was no relegation from the National League, which in turn meant that King’s Lynn Town and Barnet received a reprieve from being relegated.
King’s Lynn have made the transition from part-time and full-time, so it will be interesting to see how they adapt to their change in status. Barnet finished last season strongly with a draw against the Gulls at Plainmoor and a win over champions Sutton on the final day, and have appointed former Leeds and Liverpool winger Harry Kewell as head coach. Former Billericay and Wealdstone boss Dean Brennan will be working alongside Kewell as head of football and his knowledge of the league could prove crucial to the Bees’ chances.
Brennan’s former club Wealdstone have signed two internationals in the form of Rhys Browne (Antigua and Barbuda) and Alex Dyer (Montserrat) as well as two ex-Gulls in Matt Buse and Josh Umerah, as the Stones look to build on their first season following promotion from National League South.
Another team who will be embarking on a second season in the National League after winning promotion from National League South is Weymouth. In his first season as a manager former Bournemouth and Doncaster midfielder Brian Stock led the Terras to safety and the goals of the returning Brandon Goodship look set to play a key role in helping them retain their National League status in 2021-22.
After withdrawing from the division and having their playing record expunged, Dover Athletic will be back competing in the National League this season with a 12-point deduction. Andy Hessenthaler has rebuilt his squad with a number of new signings, who include the returning Ricky Miller and centre back Daniel Collinge. However, due to their point’s deduction, Dover will need to achieve over 60 points to stand a realistic chance of avoiding relegation.
Top 7 predictions:
Dagenham & Redbridge