Date: 4th August 2014 at 6:00pm
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So the dust has settled on the 2013-14 Skrill Conference Premier and we are all set for the 2014-15 Vanarama Conference. We have a new sponsor and a new name, new home and away strips, new clubs and new grounds to visit. Giants Luton Town have gone, accompanied by the not-so-giant Cambridge United; in their places we have the familiar face of Torquay United and the once mighty Bristol Rovers. One might suggest that the two promoted clubs have been replaced by two clubs of a similar stature; hopefully attendances over the whole piece will not be affected too much. And at the bottom we have lost minnows Hyde and the troublesome Tamworth to relegation, whilst perennial overspenders Hereford United and Salisbury City looked in Mother Hubbard’s wallet and found no money there. Promoted under their own efforts come ambitious Dover Athletic, yo-yo clubs FC Telford United and Altrincham, and big-spending Eastleigh to make up what looks to be a powerful league for this coming season.

Following the problems encountered by Salisbury and Hereford, it was suggested by those in the know that clubs in the Conference might err on the side of caution and not spend too much on their squads this summer. Think again, those in the know. Clubs have gone crazy with a huge number of transfers moving in and out of the majority, which all leads to an interesting season ahead. So who are the favourites for the champonship and that coveted automatic place in the Football League? Who will be promoted? Are the play-offs wide open? Who will struggle against relegation? And which clubs will be the ones to fall foul of the financial requirement to play by the rules? For there will be at least one because there always is.

A good number of players have relocated following the Salisbury and Hereford fire sales, whilst the number of Mansfield Town players dropping down to the Conference is astounding.

Lets take a look things club by club. I have used championship odds given by Ladbrokes for the purpose of this analysis, but the majority of bookies are taking a broadly similar view.

AFC Telford: Manager: Liam Watson

Promoted from the Conference North as convincing champions following relegation from the Conference Premier the season before, Telford should have enough momentum to avoid an immediate return to the North Division. Despite losing long-term favourites Matty McGinn and Ryan Young to work commitments, manager Liam Watson has vast experience of the Conference and should ensure safety this time around.

Odds: 50/1.

Out: Matty McGinn, Ryan Young, Dan Preston, Martyn Jackson, Alan Moogan.

In: Steve Akrigg (Southport), Josh Hancock (Witton), Rod McDonald (Hereford), Sam Smith (Hereford), Jordan Deacey (Bradford Park Avenue), Jonathan Hedge (Grimsby), Kristian Platt (Stalybridge), Godfrey Poku (Mansfield).

Aldershot Town: Manager: Andy Scott

Having announced their release from administration two years ahead of schedule, Aldershot should be able to avoid a repeat of last season’s relegation battle, although they have lost some key players in Craig Stanley, Bradley Bubb and Martin Rowlands. The challenge will be to blend the new arrivals quickly, whilst Sam Hatton could prove the most influential of their summer signings. Their quoted odds of 25/1 look very flattering, though.

Odds: 25/1

Out: Craig Stanley, Martin Rowlands, Bradley Bubb, Luke Williams, Bobby Webbe, Matt Paterson, Adam Mekki.

In: Glenn Wilson (Salisbury), Dan Fitchett (Salisbury), Damon Lathrope (Torquay), Sam Hatton (Grimsby), Phil Smith (Portsmouth), Naby Diallo (Weston-super-Mare), Joseph N’Guessan (season loan – Stevenage).

Alfreton Town: Manager: Nicky Law

Manager Law commands great respect in the game for what he continues to achieve at Alfreton, which is borne out by the quality of player he attracts to this tiny club. Many supporters like to forecast the demise of Alreton Town at the start of each new season, but on this evidence they may be wrong again. The loss of John Akinde and Josh Law may mean a play off spot is beyond them. Whether or not their financial position enables them to retain so many new faces, time will tell: owner Wayne Bradley has put the club up for sale.

Odds: 40/1

Out: John Akinde, Connor Franklin, Josh Law, John Worsnop.

In: Anthony Howell (Mansfield), Nathan Hicks (Leamington ), Duane Courtney (Tamworth), Jon Stewart (Worksop), Jake Sheridan (Lincoln), Luke Graham (Hereford), Jordan Keane (Stoke), Chris Smith (FC Halifax), Dan Gray (Lincoln), Lee Stevenson (Mansfield), Lathaniel Rowe-Turner (Luton), Dan Bradley (Barnet).

Altrincham: Manager: Lee Sinnott

Main summer business saw Rochdale captain Peter Cavanagh sign up, but it could be a very long season ahead for them. Promoted via the play offs from Skrill North, they will have one of the weakest squads in the division. Their decision to remain part-time will also hamper them. Surely survival is their sole aim.

Odds: 80/1

Out: James Walshaw, Carl Rodgers, Matt Doughty.

In: Ryan Crowther (FC Halifax), Sean Williams (Colwyn Bay), Peter Cavanagh (Rochdale), Dave Parton (Newcastle Town), Steven Gillespie (Bristol Rovers).

Barnet: Manager: Martin Allen

Having announced in May that star players Keanu Marsh-Brown and Jake Hyde were to be sold for financial reasons, Barnet must be an unknown quantity this season, although they have an excellent manager in the experienced Martin Allen. Their forward line has been boosted by the signings of John Akinde and the much-travelled Charlie MacDonald, and Marsh-Brown is yet to depart. Expected to be closer to the top than the bottom and could be a good outside bet.

Odds: 18/1

Out: Nick Jupp, Freddie Warren, Ahmed Abdulla, Harry Crawford, James Harper, Jon Nurse, Mark Byrne, Jake Hyde.

In: Sam Muggleton (Gillingham), John Akinde (Alfreton), Bondz N’Gala (Portsmouth), Charlie MacDonald (Oldham), Sam Togwell (Chesterfield).

Braintree Town: Manager: Alan Devonshire

Braintree are now seasoned campaigners at Conference level with a settled squad under an experienced manager. Despite poor support, they regularly punch above their weight and only just fell short of the play offs last season in the final two weeks. A promotion push will be beyond them this time around following the loss of star players Dean Wells and Dan Holman. Expect a mid-table finish at best.

Odds: 40/1

Out: Dean Wells, Dan Holman.

In: Dan Walker (Hereford), Charlie Strutton (AFC Wimbledon), Mitch Brundle (Bristol City), Carl Pentney (Chelmsford City).

Bristol Rovers: Manager: Darrell Clarke

The bookmakers’ favourites for the championship, but many fans of fellow Conference clubs believe they cannot win the title at the first attempt. How well organised will they be? What about the culture shock? Rovers appear to be aware of the problems ahead and have ex-Salisbury boss Darrell Clarke to lead them, but they have lost some big names over the summer. Will their replacements be up to the job? I say no……the bookies faith in them is misplaced. Could languish as low as mid-table.

Odds: 6/1

Out: David Clarkson, Fabian Broghammer, Seanan Clucas, Steven Gillespie, Jim Paterson, Eliot Richards, Danny Woodards, Jordan Goddard, Conor Gough, Mitch Harding, Pat Keary, Josh Southway, Matt Harrold, John-Joe O’Toole, Alefe Santos, Michael Smith, Jake Green.

In: Lee Mansell (Torquay), Jamie White (Salisbury), Matty Taylor (Forest Green), Jake Gosling (Exeter), Stuart Sinclair (Salisbury), Andy Monkhouse (Hartlepool), Dan Leadbitter (Hereford).

Chester: Manager: Steve Burr

We all know what a good job Steve Burr did at Kidderminster, but can he repeat the trick at Chester with lower funding? Reprieved from relegation through the demise of Hereford, Burr and assistant Jon McCarthy have had less time than most to build a squad, having planned originally for life in Conference North. In addition to switching to full-time football, the Blues also have a nice new training ground at their disposal. And there won’t be many non-league clubs who have signed two former internationals this summer: ex-Scotland striker Chris Iwelumo and ex-Wales defender Gareth Roberts should ensure that another relegation battle is unlikely for the men from the Deva.

Odds: 40/1

Out: All left the club except for Craig Mahon, Michael Kay, John Rooney, Danny Harrison, Tom Peers and John Danby.

In: Sean McConville (Stalybridge), Kingsley James (Hereford), Wayne Riley (Hednesford), Matty Brown (Chesterfield), Peter Winn (Macclesfield), John Disney (Hednesford), Chris Iwelumo (St Johnstone), Gareth Roberts (Notts County), Danny Taylor (Colwyn Bay), Kieran Charnock (Stockport), John Worsnop (Alfreton).

Dartford: Manager: Tony Burman

Experienced manager Burman has a huge task on his hands this winter if he is to keep Dartford in the Conference for another year. Reprieved from relegation following the demise of Salisbury, Dartford are a true rarity – a small Conference club that runs a tight ship and refuses to overspend. Therefore expect them to be relegated, as the bookies suggest they will be. The loss of goalkeeper Alan Julian may prove a fatal blow for them, although they have signed former Welsh international Jason Brown in his place.

Odds: 125/1

Out: Alan Julian, Jason Prior, Ben Swallow, Tyrone Sterling.

In: Jason Brown (Sutton United), Rory McAuley (Cambridge United), Luke Daley (Braintree), Harry Crawford (Barnet).

Dover Athletic: Manager: Chris Kinnear

Promoted via the play offs, Dover will be starting their first season in non-league’s top flight for 12 years. A brief glance at their squad does not inspire confidence and they will do well to stay up this year. The signing of Stefan Payne from AFC Hornchurch may throw them a lifeline, as he scored an impressive 31 goals in 46 appearances last season. They also have Christian Nanetti, who played alongside our own Sahr Kabba at Havant last season.

Odds: 80/1

Out: Terrell Forbes, James Rogers, Ashley Carew, Elliott Charles, Lloyd Harrington.

In: Stefan Payne (AFC Hornchurch), Christian Nanetti (Havant & Waterlooville), Tyrone Sterling (Dartford), Jake Reid (Bromley), Sean Francis (Bishops Stortford).

Eastleigh: Manager: Richard Hill

And so we welcome another big-spending minnow to the Conference. Chairman Stewart Donald last week stated his intention to continue to invest heavily in his football club, so don’t expect them to leave the Conference any time soon except in an upwards direction. Interest is certainly building in the club which now has over 600 season ticket holders. Manager Hill has assembled arguably the best forward line ever seen outside of the Football League, with James Constable and Jack Midson joining the established trio of Ben Strevens, Yemi Odubade and Stuart Fleetwood. With plans to build a 2,300 seater stand later this year, they are a force to be reckoned with. Watch this space.

Odds: 10/1

Out: Chris Dillon.

In: James Constable (Oxford United), Jack Midson (AFC Wimbledon), Paul Reid (Unattached, latterly Northampton), Craig Stanley (Aldershot).

FC Halifax: Manager: Neil Aspin

Having finished in an excellent 5th position last season, the big question is whether or not Halifax can replace star man Lee Gregory, who has stepped up to League football with Millwall. Manager Neil Aspin has bought well in Scott Boden and Ross Dyer, but Gregory’s 31 goals will take some replacing. The nucleus of the squad has been retained but the bookies odds look very generous.

Odds: 16/1

Out: Lee Gregory, Chris Smith, Danny Lowe, Ryan Toulson, Ryan Crowther, John McReady.

In: Richard Peniket (Tamworth), Ross Dyer (Mansfield), Kevin Roberts (Cambridge United), Scott Boden (Macclesfield), James Bolton (Macclesfield), Jamie Jackson (Bradford Park Avenue).

Forest Green Rovers: Manager: Adrian Pennock

When you consider that FGR have releasedthe equivalent of a pretty good Conference side this summer, the number of new signings seems moderate in comparison. However, we all know that money is no guarantee of success. Does the inexperienced Adrian Pennock have what it takes to mould this collection of overpaid players into a promotion-winning team? Will they respond to playing in front of 800 fans every home game? The bookmakers seem to believe so, but I am not so sure. Some of those signings are decidedly uninspiring. Are they really much better than the 11 who have departed?

Odds: 7/1

Out: Yan Klukowski, Jamie Turley, Jared Hodgkiss, Ed Asafu-Adjaye, Stephen Brogan, Reece Styche, Paul Green, Saul Williams, Adam McHugh, Jason Walker, Andy Mangan.

In: David Pipe (Newport), Kurtis Guthrie (Welling), Sam Wedgbury (Stevenage), James Jennings (Mansfield), Steve Arnold (Stevenage), Clovis Kamdjo (Salisbury), Elliott Frear (Salisbury), Rob Sinclair (Salisbury), Jon Parkin (Fleetwood).

Gateshead: Manager: Gary Mills

Manager Mills achieved something very impressive last season in taking unfashionable but ambitious Gateshead from the depths of the league table to a play off spot, and this season should be no different. Striker James Marwood has departed for St Mirren but the captures of former player Jon Shaw, Lewis Guy and Alex Rodman are excellent. Mills has been here before and looks to have a formidable squad at his disposal. Should be looking for a play off spot as a minimum.

Odds: 10/1

Out: James Marwood, Carl Magnay, Colin Larkin, Jack Lester, Liam Hatch, Ryan Noble, Josh Walker, Luke O’Brien, Jordan Holt, Adam Boyes, Joe Tait, Richard Brodie.

In: Jon Shaw (Luton), Andrai Jones (Barnsley), Michael Rankine (Hereford), Tom Allan (York), JJ O’Donnell (Luton), Lewis Guy (Carlisle), Alex Rodman (Grimsby), Ryan Wilson (Stockport).

Grimsby Town: Manager: Paul Hurst

Most people expect Grimsby to be there or thereabouts each season, and I suppose this season will be no different. But they have lost some good players from the influential Scott Kerr to the capable Alex Rodman, who rejected a new deal. And I always liked the combative Sam Hatton. Eventually the Grimsby promotion machine has to suffer a blow-out – could it be this season? Could the disappointment of yet another play off failure hang over to the new season? And how much longer will Mr Fenty continue to throw good money after bad?

Odds: 8/1

Out: Alex Rodman, Andy Cook, Clayton McDonald, Scott Kerr, Sam Hatton, Joe Colbeck, Dayle Southwell, Jamal Fyfield, Jonathan Hedge.

In: Scott Brown (Southport), Jack Mackreth (Macclesfield), Aristote Nsiala (Southport), Carl Magnay (Gateshead), Nathan Arnold (Cambridge United), Jon-Paul Pittman (Wycombe), Craig Clay (York).

Kidderminster Harriers: Manager: Gary Whild

Are there problems at Kidderminster Harriers? Three players who were offered new deals – Vaughan, Morgan-Smith and Demetriou – rejected them to sign for other clubs. Manager Gary Whild is essentially untested at Conference level despite a good run at the end of last season. Their squad looks weaker than last year but we may have a better view of that after 9 August.

Odds: 12/1

Out: Ryan Rowe, Santiago Aloi, Adrian Cieslewicz, Lee Vaughan, Mickey Demetriou, Amari Morgan-Smith.

In: Reece Styche (Forest Green), Craig Reid (Stevenage), Jasbir Singh (Solihull), Ahmed Obeng (Rushall), Jared Hodgkiss (Forest Green), Reece Hales (Birmingham), Jake Green (Bristol Rovers).

Lincoln City: Manager: Gary Simpson

City will be looking to build on last season’s more promising campaign in an effort to establish themselves as serious promotion contenders. Despite apparent constraints with the budget, they have done some good business this summer with Bencherif and Ledsham the pick of the bunch. Are the incoming players better than those who have gone? Many fans believe they are. So the question is: Can Lincoln City make the play offs?

Odds: 20/1.

Out: Nick Wright, Danny Rowe, Bohan Dixon, Adi Yussuf, Dan Gray, Jake Sheridan, Luke Foster, Kris Bright.

In: Jake Caprice (Dagenham & Redbridge), Hamza Bencherif (JS Kabylie), Tony Diagne (Morecambe), Jordan Burrow (Stevenage), Karl Ledsham (Southport), Sahr Kabba (Havant & Waterlooville),Nick Townsend (season loan – Birmingham), Marcus Marshall (season loan – Morecambe).

Macclesfield Town: Manager: John Askey

Owner Amar Alkadhi has cleared Macclesfield’s debts over the summer and they start with a clean balance sheet, although budget cuts may still produce another difficult season for the Silkmen. The loss of influential players Andrew, Mackreth and Boden will not be easy to overcome and relegation may be on the cards come April.

Odds: 66/1

Out: Danny Andrew, Jack Mackreth, Scott Boden, James Bolton, Scott Kay, Joe Connor.

In: Waide Fairhurst (Whitehawk), Adriano Moke (Stockport), David Gonzalez (Caudal).

Nuneaton Town: Manager: Brian Reid

The loss of manager Kevin Wilkin to Wrexham earlier this year was a major blow to Nuneaton. Spent most of last season challenging for promotion, although fell away badly following Wilkin’s departure. Star striker Louis Moult and Wes York have followed Wilkin to Wrexham. New manager Brian Reid, who led Ayr United to promotion in 2008 and 2011, has made a number of signings during the summer but their problem may be where the goals are going to come from. The signing of Ben Hutchinson this week probably does nothing to alleviate that problem. Could slip to relegation.

Odds: 66/1

Out: Jon Adams, Wes York, Greg Pearson, Phil Trainer, Emmitt Delfouneso, Louis Moult.

In: Ben Hutchinson (Mansfield), Reice Charles-Cook (season loan – Coventry), Ben Starosta (Global FC), Connor Franklin (Alfreton), Jack Dyer (Burton), Jorrin John (Thailand), Ryan Quinn (Coventry), Anton Brown (Harrogate), James Wren (Tamworth), Magno Vieira (loan – Forest Green)

Southport: Manager: Martin Foyle

Southport struggled last season as managerial instability led to some inconsistent performances. Alan Wright and John Coleman both departed quickly, replaced by current boss Martin Foyle. Foyle’s record as a manager does not exactly stand up too well, and they have lost some key players in the close season. Foyle has made a clutch of signings but the Sandgrounders’ squad looks thin. Set to struggle again.

Odds: 80/1

Out: All left the club apart from Danny Hurst, David Fitzpatrick, Chris Lynch, Danny Hattersley, Charlie Joyce and Luke George.

In: Luke Foster (Lincoln), Danny Lloyd-Weston (Hereford), Stephen Brogan (Forest Green), Richard Brodie (Gateshead), Scott Kay (Macclesfield), Dominic Collins (Hereford), Micah Evans (Burnley), John Marsden (Unattached), Joe Connor (Macclesfield).

Torquay United: Manager: Chris Hargreaves

And so to the other relegated club, Torquay United. They have been here before in recent times, which may stand them in good stead for the season ahead. They have a side with a great deal of League experience which should see them challenging at the top end. The board has kept faith with manager Hargreaves and have backed the club’s bid for a swift return with the required finance. Have a different air about them to Bristol Rovers.

Odds: 14/1

Out: Shaun Cooper, Joss Labadie, Kevin Nicholson, Neal Osborn, Danny Stevens, Lloyd Macklin, Lee Mansell, Damon Lathrope.

In: Jordan Seabright (Dagenham & Redbridge), Louis Briscoe (Mansfield), Luke Young (Plymouth), Ryan Bowman (York), Angus MacDonald (Reading), Toby Ajala (Welling), Courtney Richards (Brighton), Duane O’Achie (Southend).

Welling United: Manager: Jamie Day

Welling did well to finish 16th last season after being favourites for the drop. The Wings have kept the majority of last season’s side but the loss of Ross Lafayette to Luton will present problems in front of goal. A long fight for survival lies ahead.

Odds: 80/1

Out: Ross Lafayette, Kurtis Guthrie, Lee Clarke, Jack Obersteller.

In: Zac Fagan (Arsenal), Ben Jefford (Port Vale), Rod Young (Norwich), Callum McNaughton (Bishops Stortford), Chris Bush (Hereford), Charlie Gorman (Eastbourne).

Woking: Manager: Garry Hill

Woking have turned in some impressive performances since their return to the top flight, finishing 12th and 9th in the Conference table. The best player in the Conference, 36-year old Kevin Betsy, has recently signed a new deal, although he will miss the first 3 months of the season with a knee injury. Experienced manager Hill has retained his key players; the dangerous Scott Rendell will score plenty of goals and the signing of Plymouth keeper Jake Cole will make them harder to beat. Could be a good bet for the play offs this time around provided they get Betsy fit.

Odds: 18/1

Out: Niall Wright, George Frith, Brett Johnson, Anthony McNamee.

In: Kieran Murtagh (Mansfield), James Clarke (Salisbury), Theo Lewis (Salisbury), Joey Jones (Yeovil), Jake Cole (Plymouth).

Wrexham: Manager: Kevin Wilkin

Another club to have great expectations heaped upon them every August, Wrexham will have been bitterly disappointed to have finished last season just 8 points clear of a relegation spot. The appointment in March of Nuneaton boss Kevin Wilkin was a definite statement of intent from the club board, as Wilkin was widely linked with some relatively high profile jobs in the Football League. He has already returned to his old club to sign Wes York and striker Louis Moult, and a much better season is expected this time.

Odds: 12/1

Out: Johnny Hunt, Anthony Stephens, Jay Colbeck, Rob Ogleby, David Artell, Joe Anyinsah, Stephen Wright, Kyle Parle, Joslain Mayebi.

In: Wes York (Nuneaton), Louis Moult (Nuneaton), Blaine Hudson (Cambridge United), Connor Jennings (Scunthorpe).

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