Get ready for another bonkers season in the National League – this one's set to be Hollywood once more.
With dreams of the Football League, these 24 clubs are set to begin battle on August 6 – but who's set to take the spoils of the title and who are nervously looking over their shoulder?
Allow us to pick the bones out of the fifth tier…
Mark Molesley has been one of the league’s most active managers this summer, landing the trio of Ollie Harfield, Tyler Cordner and former Northern Ireland international Josh McQuoid from his old club, Weymouth. Whether they and other arrivals are enough to help the Shots move away from the table’s lower reaches remains to be seen.
A historic season lies in wait for one of non-league’s most famous names, as Alty go full-time for the first time. The extremely talented Phil Parkinson (no, the other one) has honoured the occasion by making some shrewd moves in the transfer market, with Jordan Hulme returning and Jake Cooper joining permanently. Professional status should benefit Parkinson’s squad – although that hasn’t always proven to be the case in non-league’s top tier.
The Bees have struggled badly over the past two seasons and hope for a better year under Dubliner Dean Brennan. The former Wealdstone boss has snapped up Northampton striker Nicke Kabamba and Eastleigh wideman Harry Pritchard to offer supporters some hope, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Barnet – reprieved from relegation in 2020-21 – are living on borrowed time.
Last season was all about a heroic FA Cup run that finally ended at Goodison Park in the Fifth Round Proper. That impacted the Wood’s botched push for promotion and perhaps even played a part in Luke Garrard’s squad refresh, which has seen Gus Mafuta and James Comley among the names released. Considering Garrard’s recruitment record ahead of replacing them, you can’t rule out his side being serious contenders for a play-off spot.
Missing out on the play-offs last season was a blow, albeit tempered by a momentous FA Trophy triumph, but Andy Woodman will be confident that he can continue to establish the Ravens as a real top-seven contender. The well-travelled Adam Marriott has put pen to paper from Barnet, and Callum Reynolds from Dagenham & Redbridge. Nine have left Hayes Lane this summer, and the success of further additions will decide the seriousness of their challenge.
The Spireites can hardly be accused of limiting the scope of their ambitions: Paul Cook joined his former club in non-league last February having begun the season with the aim of taking Ipswich into the Championship. He has been busy since Chesterfield’s subsequent play-off woe, adding Plymouth midfielder George Cooper and a hat-trick of full-backs in Branden Horton from Doncaster, Ryheem Sheckleford from Maidenhead and Bailey Clements from Ipswich, where he made his league debut during Cook’s brief spell. King’s Lynn forward Michael Gyasi could be the shrewdest recruit to Cook’s promotion hunt.
DAGENHAM & REDBRIDGE
Daryl McMahon’s Daggers narrowly missed out on a 2021-22 play-off spot, with a point separating them from Chesterfield in seventh. Brandon Comley and Will Wright have left for Football League sides Walsall and Gillingham, but the incoming Nik Tavares – once a Croatia youth international – is one to watch.
A 12th promotion in 22 years was suitably dramatic: after conceding in the 92nd minute of their play-off final, Dorking found a 99th-minute equaliser and then won in extra time. Marc White – founder, chairman, manager, ex-player – has signed Adam Mekki from beaten finalists Ebbsfleet, and former Premier League academy graduates Jack Jebb and Ryan Seager.
The Spitfires have turned Christian Maghoma’s loan permanent but lost a number of players, including Sam Smart and Cav Miley. Serious business needs to be done if Lee Bradbury’s side are to avoid looking over their shoulders for much of the campaign.
The Heed secured promotion with an impressive title win, but enthusiasm has been dampened by the exits of key goalscoring pair Cedwyn Scott and Macaulay Langstaff to Notts County. Replacements come in former Newcastle forward Tom Allan and the exciting Lewis Knight, but just staying in the division would be a success for the North East club this season.
FC HALIFAX TOWN
After finishing fourth, the Shaymen lost highly-rated manager Pete Wild to Barrow in League Two. Chris Millington, charged with building on Wild’s impressive work, has signed Gateshead midfielder Jack Hunter and Eastleigh’s Smart for his own play-off bid.
The Magpies were comfortably safe from relegation danger last term, finishing four places and 17 points clear of it. Clubs around the semi-pro outfit have strengthened, however, and the teams coming up from step two also look well equipped – although the return of club favourite Adrian Clifton from Boreham Wood has offered some optimism, at least.
The National League South champions hope that the momentum of their title triumph serves them well. Spanish forward Joan Luque coming back from injury is a boost, as is their capped Lebanon loanee Hady Ghandour joining permanently from Charlton; both will be key in a challenging return to this level.
The departure of top scorer Kyle Wootton has been offset by the arrivals of Gateshead’s Langstaff and Scott, plus Kidderminster duo Geraldo Bajrami and Sam Austin. Despite Ian Burchnall leaving to manage Forest Green and Callum Roberts attracting Football League interest, positive activity under Luke Williams should help the Magpies to challenge.
After his latest Shezzarection attempt failed, former Republic of Ireland international John Sheridan – in his fourth spell as manager – must ignore persistent off-field issues with Oldham, difficult as that is. He’s opting for experience, signing defender Liam Hogan and 38-year-old striker Chris Porter, who played for the Latics in League One 17 years ago. It’s essential that Sheridan ensures the fans’ understandable ire towards owner Abdallah Lemsagam doesn’t impact on his team’s performance; a tough year awaits.
The experienced Keith Hill is tasked with helping Scunny to cope with the rigours of their new life in the fifth tier, after 72 years as a Football League club. The Iron released a host of players following a dismal showing in League Two, allowing Hill to put his stamp on the squad, but on the back of just four victories in 2021-22, all of the momentum is against them.
Neal Ardley’s focus has been on retaining the services of 6ft 9in forward Kyle Hudlin, the subject of interest from Football League and even Premier League clubs. The biggest test for Ardley, however, will be helping his players to refocus after June’s disappointment in the play-off final against Grimsby – and making sure they’re ready to go one better this time around.
An unspectacular mid-table finish did give Southend a platform to build on ahead of their second season in non-league. Dan Mooney is an impressive signing from Alty as Shrimpers hero and head coach Kevin Maher, who made 450 appearances for Southend as a player, continues to get things together at a club hampered by off-pitch issues in recent years.
The Gulls failed to recover from their 2021 Play-off Final shootout heartache, labouring to an 11th-place finish last season. Six players were released as wily Gary Johnson turned ruthless; what will sting, though, is seeing Football League clubs poach Armani Little (who moved to Forest Green), Joe Lewis and Connor Lemonheigh-Evans (both Stockport). The gaps in the squad need filling if Torquay are to force themselves back into the play-off reckoning; loaning midfielder Kieron Evans from Cardiff is a start.
Tipped to struggle last season, the Stones ended the campaign in 16th place, safe by some considerable distance. What comes next is often the difficult part, as Dartford and others can attest. New arrivals have been minimal at the time of writing and, unless they strengthen, it’s very possible that while they may have proven their doubters wrong last term, Wealdstone could vindicate the same sceptics in 2022-23.
Another side that ended last season just below the top half, Woking have overhauled their squad with some eye-catching additions. Stevenage duo James Daly and Scott Cuthbert will add quality, and Reece Grego-Cox returns with a point to prove, but it’s the signing of Newport striker Padraig Amond that has really captured the imagination. Will he have the service to propel them much higher, though?
Outsiders will view Wrexham as favourites, and with good reason: the support of Rob McElhenny and Ryan Reynolds has boosted crowds, interest and hope. They won matches 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 and even 6-5 (from 5-2 down) last term, but it caught up with them in the play-offs as Grimsby won a topsy-turvy tie 5-4 in extra time – especially painful for Wrexham as it came a week after defeat in the FA Trophy final. Yet it’d be foolish to ignore a squad packed with Football League quality and potentially more to follow, not to mention Ben Tozer, the set-piece cheat code.
A mid-table finish offered relatively little in the way of inspiration, and a low-key start to this summer for new manager Chris Hargreaves suggests not much will change in terms of personnel. Selling Huish Park to the council and then leasing it back has given the Glovers some financial breathing room, however.
The play-off winners have been boosted by the news that Mitch Hancox, Maz Kouhyar and Lenell ‘his name is a shop’ John-Lewis have all signed on for more. Alex Hurst and Scott Boden will improve the front line, too, as the Minstermen lean on John Askey’s nous in the dugout in order to re-adapt to life at this level.
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