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Vanarama National League: This is the year Forest Green justify their huge investment

04 Aug | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Vanarama National League: This is the year Forest Green justify their huge investment

Our Non-League expert Alan Alger looks ahead to the upcoming National League season and gives his predictions on how the table will look come May

Another season and yet another name change for the league that, in most circles, will always be known as the Conference.

The identity crisis in Non-League’s top-flight means that this is the fourth consecutive season where the title of the division has been changed. This time, thankfully for the people that run the league, the change has been necessary due to a rebrand and not – as has happened the last two pre-seasons – due to a departing sponsor.

The Vanarama National League is the official name of the 2015/16 version and it’s one that will have the welcome addition of a BT Sport highlights programme as well as their deal for around 20 live matches.

Barnet took a weak renewal of the division last season and were followed into League 2 by Bristol Rovers. The play-off winners under Darrell Clarke were arguably the best team in the division based on their displays after New Year, although that doesn’t take away from the incredible job that Martin Allen did with his Barnet squad.

The level of quality within the section has certainly declined in the last few seasons, illustrated by the ease at which Rovers made a quick return where other relegated teams from League 2 have had to wait much longer. Or, in some cases, are still waiting.

Long gone are the days when a team like Wrexham can produce a 98 point season and still have the door to promotion shut in their face. The champions lost 10 matches last season, something that wouldn’t have gone unpunished in the seasons at the beginning of the decade.

Around 90 points now seems the kind of season that will result in promotion, or at least running the leaders very close. But who can do that this coming campaign?

It all kicks off on Saturday and below I’ve aimed to run down the division from top to bottom with my predictions* on where each team will finish.

*The usual ‘transfer window not yet closed’ caveat applies.

CHAMPIONS – Forest Green Rovers (7/1)

I think this is the year that Rovers finally justify the huge investment from owner Dale Vince. Ady Pennock came fifth in his first full season in charge last year, which could be considered as underachieving in terms of the resource at his disposal. That said, he has made some shrewd additions to a squad that already looked capable and minimal improvement should see them end their run as the longest standing team in the division.

2nd – Tranmere Rovers (11/2)

Gary Brabin takes charge of the Wirral outfit and has seen a number of good players with Conference pedigree join his ranks. Brabin will certainly ensure that his experience of the division lessens the culture shock for any of his squad who are experiencing the Non-League divisions for the first time. The league isn’t strong enough to trap the relegated sides anymore and they should make a firm bid for promotion.

3rd – Eastleigh (13/2)

Making steady progress under Richard Hill and their fourth place finish in their first season at this level was very encouraging back in April. Their defeat over two legs to Grimsby Town suggested additions to the squad were needed and they’ve been made in the right places, with the promise of more to come.

4th – Grimsby Town (5/1f)

I backed them last season to find the four extra wins to make the difference between play-offs and champions and once again they failed to deliver. Their form when at home against the mid-table sides was seriously bad and they have the worst record when odds-on over the last few seasons in the division.

That’s been blamed on a cautious style of play – something they need to abandon (especially when favourites at home) if they are going to get out of the division. The Mariners also need to buck the trend of ‘play-off final losers’ most of which have performed terribly in the season directly after losing that all-important Wembley clash. In fact the average finish in the following season for the team defeated in that game is 9th. It’s an important stat that points to the psychology of a team that have played 49 games to just miss out, more so when their defeat came via a penalty shoot-out.

You can’t argue with their pre-season form or the mood around the club fostered by the excellent #OperationPromotion fund raiser. But everything I know about the division tells me they are likely to have to settle for the play-offs again at best.

5th– Wrexham (12/1)

Kevin Wilkin failed to complete the huge overhaul needed within the Wrexham ranks to enable them to challenge for promotion in the same way that they did a few seasons ago. It’s going to be a tough task and even an experienced Conference campaigner like Gary Mills might need a whole season to make his mark on the team.

For that reason the Racecourse faithful might have to be patient. With a play-off berth touch and go all season.

6th – Chester (33/1)

Steve Burr made the most of Chester’s reprieve from relegation to steer them to mid-table last season and they can improve again to land a top-half finish. They have the kind of squad where one or two key injuries could be a real blow, but if he keeps the majority of his chosen first XI fit then there won’t be many teams finishing ahead of the Blues.

7th – Cheltenham Town (11/1)

The division has changed a lot since Cheltenham and their manager Gary Johnson were last here. The Robins look like they will struggle to cope with their relegation and the best they can hope for is a season of consolidation just above mid-table.

8th – Barrow (16/1)

Took the North title last season and have the structure behind them to make an impact right away back at this level. They might just fall short of the play-offs but they are a good long term bet to be promotion contenders over the next few seasons.

9th – Woking (16/1)

Pound for pound Garry Hill is one of the best managers in the division and always gets the most from his squad – coupled with shrewd loan signings. Performed remarkably well last season but may struggle to repeat that this time round. Still look set for a top-half finish though.

10th – Bromley (66/1)

The South champions from last season have made some excellent acquisitions and Mark Goldberg has the kind of squad that should safely extend their stay at this level for at least another season. Previous South champions have mostly achieved finishes around the top-half and the Kent side should be no exception.

11th – Boreham Wood (80/1)

Play-off winners from the South division are often written off in their first season at this level, but very few have poor seasons. Ian Allinson’s squad has been boosted by some decent arrivals and they should be comfortably out of any kind of survival scrap.

12th – Macclesfield Town (33/1)

Surprised everyone last season as they made a mockery of stories suggesting they were on the brink of financial disaster and a threadbare squad. John Askey performed miracles and was one of the bosses of the season as they just missed out on the play-offs. This coming season looks tougher for them though and a mid-table finish beckons.

13th – Kidderminster Harriers (50/1)

Blighted by off-field problems leading to the sale of key players, 2014/15 was a complete write-off for the Aggborough outfit. If they can steady the ship with a mid-table finish it will be decent progress, but the days of promotion challenges look behind them, for now.

14th – Halifax Town (28/1)

Efficient at home and usually organised and tough to beat wherever they turn up. The Shaymen are an impressive reflection of the work manager Neil Aspin puts in at the club. The concern is not having a stand-out player to make things tick creatively in midfield and a handful of strikers where none of them look like taking the season by the scruff of the neck. For that reason they could struggle in front of goal, but should make up for it at the other end and secure enough points to be just below mid-table.

15th – Lincoln City (28/1)

Consistently inconsistent and once again looks like they will underperform their status as one of the bigger teams in the division. Look set for ‘same again’ in 15th spot.

16th – Braintree Town (66/1)

Consistently punched above their weight under Alan Devonshire, it will be very interesting to see how new boss Danny Cowley performs in this much bigger role after leaving minnows Concord Rangers. He did a fantastic job there and looks as though he has built a strong team. A visit to Cressing Road should still feature way down the desired list of away games for title contenders.

17th – Dover Athletic (66/1)

South play-off winners have an appaling ‘second season’ record in the division, with the vast majority finishing in the bottom four. Dover may well end up being an exception to that stat as they showed they can really mix it last season on their way to an incredible 8th place finish under Chris Kinnear. I feel this season will be far tougher, but they should escape the drop again.

18th – Torquay United (40/1)

Troubles off the pitch haven’t helped at Plainmoor and former Conference title winning boss Paul Cox steps in without the kind of resource he had available at Mansfield. It could be a very tough season for all concerned with the Gulls.

19th – Aldershot Town (50/1)

Finished in 18th spot last season and haven’t made the necessary improvements to trouble the mid-table places yet. Should still live to fight another day though.

20th – Gateshead (20/1)

Reports that budgets have been slashed and have made the unusual appointment of 61-year-old Malcolm Crosby. That’s a combination that could end in a season of struggle for the Heed. News that key player James Marwood could be out for the start of the season does not bode well either.

21st – Altrincham (80/1)

Did well to finish 17th last season, but fear that they might take a step backwards. The goals of Damian Reeves always give them a fighting chance and his new deal is a glimmer of hope in average pre-season activity within the transfer market. Heading back to the North division.

22nd – Guiseley (150/1)

Finally got the promotion spot they have been battling for after seasons of disappointment, but their stay in the top division could be a short one.

23rd – Southport (125/1)

Escaped the drop by six points last season, but I have the feeling that the middle and lower section of the division has improved beyond the reaches of the Sandgrounders. For that reason they could be ending their stay…

24th – Welling United (150/1)

It could be a tough season for the smallest club in the division. Likeable young boss Loui Fazakerley has a big job on his hands and it might just be beyond him to keep the Wings in the division.

Vanarama National League opening day fixtures

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