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Big kick-off: BetVictor Northern Premier preview

By James Gordon

The wait is over - the new look BetVictor Northern Premier kicks-off this weekend.

It promises to be one of the most competitive seasons yet, with at least half of the teams in the league carrying a realistic hope of challenging for promotion.

At the top of that list, and the pre-season favourites, are South Shields, who missed out on the league title late on to eventual winners Farsley, and then went down in the play-off final to Warrington Town.

The summer has seen them adopt a hybrid model in the north east, enabling them to attract a clutch of exciting, young full-time players as they look to continue their progression up the leagues and achieve their goal of the Football League.

They face a tricky opening day, as they travel to newly-promoted Radcliffe, themselves an ambitious club and one that has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and are managed by former Premier League players Jon Macken and Frank Sinclair.

Warrington, heartbreakingly denied promotion by an extra time defeat in the fabled “super play-off” final against King’s Lynn in May, host another newly-promoted club Morpeth Town, who will find the going a little tougher than last season when they won the East Division at a canter.

They will take plenty of inspiration though from their former Northern League counterparts, like South Shields, that have progressed well, and also the relative success promoted sides have enjoyed in recent years, including Basford and Scarborough, who despite ending their campaigns with disappointment, established themselves well in the Premier Division last season.

Under new manager John Deacey, Scarborough crucially managed to retain the league’s joint-golden boot winner in James Walshaw, and their home start against Buxton will be a useful yard stick to measure against.

Buxton finished in the play-offs last season, reaping the benefits of their new artificial pitch, supplied by league partner GreenFields, and saw results improve both on and off the pitch. They too will be pleased to have kept hold of some key players, notably team of the year right back Brad Roscoe, England C international Alex Brown and prolific goalscorer Liam Hardy.

One team perhaps less fortunate in the player retention stakes are Nantwich Town, whose exciting young squad has been hit in the summer with players departing for pastures new in the leagues above.

The Dabbers were almost a quiet success story of last season, sitting in the play-offs for almost the entire season, and even leading the way at one point, before falling away in the final quarter of the campaign.

They have managed to keep hold of Sean Cooke and the league’s young player of the year Joe Malkin, for now at least, and both will be crucial to any success they might have.

Their start is a good yard stick too, as they welcome Gainsborough Trinity to the Weaver Stadium. The Lincolnshire side will start this campaign with optimism following the impact that former captain Liam King had as interim manager at the back end of last season, which resulted in him landing the job on a permanent basis.

The Holy Blues have made no secret of their desire to return to the National League, and in Ashley Worsfold have one of the most potent strikers in the division.

It was something of a rollercoaster year for Matlock Town last season, starting miserably and parting company with their manager early doors, before Dave Frecklington came in, steadied the ship and at one point, had them dreaming of an unlikely play-off spot.

That didn’t come to fruition and in the end, Frecklington departed after the penultimate game of the season.

His replacement is Steve Kittrick, a man who had a rollercoaster year of his own having enjoyed a fine start with Scarborough, putting them top of the league by the start of winter, only for that to fall apart over a dismal festive period, with the Seadogs falling away alarmingly and that dip proved too much for Kittrick to keep his job there.

He’s not going to die wondering this year, and the Gladiators have been the busiest in the transfer market as Kittrick builds his own squad for a tilt at promotion.

They open up against Bamber Bridge, who put together a late run at the back end of the season to ensure survival. A key man in that run was long-serving Alastair Waddecar, and he finished joint top scorer.

Another club with a new manager is Basford United, led now by former Nottingham Forest defender Steve Chettle. He was a big appointment by the club’s ambitious chairman Chris Munroe, and their continuing development off the field demands on field success.

Basford had an excellent first half to last season but ran out of steam, and they will be keen to learn from that experience.

Their opening fixture takes them to Hyde United, a solid mid-table team from last year that will be looking to cause a surprise and sneak a play-off spot with the attention elsewhere.

They’ve had a structure change off the field, David McGurk now taking on the manager’s role with Darren Kelly moving upstairs to a new Sporting Director role.

Moving on to the returnees to the division, and the 2017/18 play-off winners Ashton United start with a home game against newly-promoted Atherton Collieries, last season’s West Division champions.

The Robins came straight back down from National League North, but know their way around this division and will be there or thereabouts come the business end.

As for Colls, three promotions in five years tells its own story about a club on the up. With each promotion comes new challenges and more pressure, but manager Michael Clegg is well aware of that. Their season may well depend on if their key players from last season, including player of the year Ben Hardcastle, can make the step up.

The second club coming down from National League North is FC United, back in the NPL for the first time in five years. Their manager, Neil Reynolds, was in this league at Bamber Bridge this time last year, and will no doubt be keen to make an impression in his first full season in the job.

They travel to Grantham Town to open up to face a Gingerbreads side that’s had a bit of a re-build since the start of spring.

Manager Paul Rawden, their third of last campaign after the departures of Ian Culverhouse and Richard Thomas, just about managed to stave off the threat of relegation and they will be hoping this season goes more like two seasons ago, when they went all the way to the play-off final, before losing to Ashton.

Under Alex Meechan and Andy Fearn, Stafford turned a corner post-Christmas and managed a relatively comfortable finish. The pair will now look ahead to this season hoping to see that sort of form across the entire campaign.

Their first game takes them to the Giant Axe to face Lancaster City, who recovered soundly from an awful start following the appointment of Mark Fell. They will be looking to see what a good start to the season might do this time around.

Two sides who survived by the skin of their teeth on the last day of the season meet in the Midlands, as Mickleover Sports host Stalybridge Celtic.

Celtic boss Simon Haworth has been busy in the summer to ensure a repeat, or worse, isn’t ahead, while Mickleover will be wanting a positive campaign as they prepare for the installation of an artificial pitch next April.

Rounding off the opening day are Whitby Town and Witton Albion, who meet at the Turnbull Ground.

Whitby managed to stave off interest in manager Chris Hardy, handing him an extension towards the end of last season. He hasn’t been too happy with a few of their pre-season performances, but all that will go out of the window if they can secure three points on opening day.

Witton were built on a watertight defence and though that wasn’t quite enough to propel them to the play-offs, boss Carl Macauley will be banking on that again to provide the foundation to what they do this campaign.

BetVictor Northern Premier fixtures, Saturday August 17:

Ashton United v Atherton Collieries
Grantham Town v FC United
Hyde United v Basford United
Lancaster City v Stafford Rangers
Matlock Town v Bamber Bridge
Mickleover Sports v Stalybridge Celtic
Nantwich Town v Gainsborough Trinity
Radcliffe v South Shields
Scarborough Athletic v Buxton
Warrington Town v Morpeth Town
Whitby Town v Witton Albion

Where next?

Big kick-off: BetVictor Northern Premier N/West preview It’s all change in the BetVictor Northern Premier N/West division, with no fewer than 10 clubs that weren’t in the division last year.
Colls out to cause upsets in the Premier Atherton Collieries are preparing for their first season in the BetVictor Northern Premier having enjoyed three promotions in the last five seasons.

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