1. Who should finish top in the Conference? Conference North? Conference South?
Well Halifax have, at time of writing, won five out of five in the Conference Premier, but most of their victories have come against sides I expect to finish in the lower half of the table. They did make the play-offs last season but I don’t see them being consistently strong enough for a title challenge. Forest Green Rovers have started strongly, as they have tended to do in recent years, and got draws out of both Aldershot and Bristol Rovers, but again they may have to settle for a play-off challenge. Big-spending newboys Eastleigh have benefited from a promotion bounce but they might struggle when injuries hit. Barnet, Grimsby and Gateshead are the three to watch for me. The latter two made the play-offs last year while Barnet have scored 14 goals in their first five games and I just feel their attack will be too strong for the majority of teams. Lincoln would be a good outside bet – Gary Simpson has got them well organised and they have a collection of experienced Conference players. They’re also the only side to beat Barnet so far this season.
In Conference North, North Ferriby – pipped to the title by three points last season – are leading the pack early on and will surely be contenders again, particularly if they can replicate their home of last time around. Guiseley and Boston, who finished in the top six last year, will be strong again, but I will tip Barrow to make a return to the top flight of non-League.
Conference South is open as, due to geography, no teams have come down from the Conference Premier. Eastbourne Borough were top after five games – their first XI looks strong but again how they cope with injuries will dictate their promotion chances. Bromley looked a good bet for the title last season until a nightmare March cost them but they will be up there again, particularly after adding Moses Ademola from Dover. Boreham Wood have started well while big-spending Whitehawk have climbed the table after losing their first two games. Ebbsfleet remain the favorites for me though.
2. What teams could struggle in the Conference? Conference North? Conference South?
In the Conference Premier there’s a huge difference between the haves and the have-nots. As such, Alfreton (who have lost five out of five), Nuneaton, Welling, Dartford, Altrincham and Dover may be scrapping all season.
The two feeder divisions are more equitable and picking the ones to struggle is tougher. Hyde, who earned national recognition last season by winning just one of their 46 Conference Premier matches last season, have lost their first five in Conference North so already look favorites for a second relegation.
In Conference South, Bath have begun badly, while I fear for Bishop’s Stortford and Chelmsford – although due to running a team short (after Salisbury’s expulsion) there will only be two relegation places from the South.
3. What are you expecting from Hayes & Yeading United, Eastbourne Borough, and Ebbsfleet United this season?
Hayes and Yeading are perhaps fortunate to still be in Conference South after they were reprieved from relegation by financial issues elsewhere, but they should be stronger for the experience. Phil Babb is in his second season in charge now and will have learned a lot, particularly in terms of turnover of players. They won their first two matches but have lost two on the bounce at time of writing – I expect them to survive but probably not finish in the top half.
As mentioned above, Eastbourne Borough will be among the play-off candidates – they have a strong defense, in particular, and have goals in their locker with Gavin McCallum, Richard Pacquette and Elliott Charles an experienced front three. But it’s about whether the midfield can both protect the back line and provide ammunition, and how they can cope with an injury or two.
Ebbsfleet should be title favorites, in spite of their inauspicious start.
4. Who is the best player in non-league football? Are they likely to make a splash elsewhere?
It’s obviously very difficult to pick out the very best – there are plenty of Football League-standard players in the Conference Premier and some diamonds in the rough in the feeder divisions below. The top two scorers in the top flight last season, Luton’s Andre Gray and Halifax’s Lee Gregory, who got 60 goals between them, were both snapped up by Championship clubs (Brentford and Millwall respectively), a step up of three divisions. Connor Jennings, who netted 15 times for Grimsby while on loan from Scunthorpe, remains in the division after a summer move to Wrexham and the 23-year-old has been tipped to score goals higher up. Grimsby have a homegrown 18-year-old left-footer who is highly-rated – Caine Winfarrah made his debut last season and is being introduced slowly into the first-team set-up, with six substitute appearances so far.
5. What non-league manager should be given an opportunity to coach at a higher level?
Funnily enough, last season I’d have put forward Dave Hockaday at Forest Green Rovers, a quietly determined man with a sound football knowledge – but I wouldn’t have expected him to land the job at Leeds, nor get sacked after six games. It’s tricky to pick out the best managers in non-League as finances often dictate what a coach can do – often those who deserve opportunities higher up are the ones who are keeping a club competitive on a shoestring.
Alan Devonshire, the former West Ham midfielder, did terrifically well to get unfancied Braintree to sixth in the Conference Premier last season while ex-Wimbledon striker Marcus Gayle is doing a good job with Staines in Conference South.
6. Who are your top 4 in the EPL? Who do you think is in danger of being relegated to the Championship?
I can’t look beyond Chelsea and Manchester City for the top two – probably in that order – with the other two Champions League places being fought for by five teams, Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham. All have weak points which could hold them back – Arsenal lack a proven goalscorer to cover for the injured Olivier Giroud, Liverpool won’t score as many without Luis Suarez and their defense remains a concern, Manchester United need to strengthen at the back and in midfield while Everton and Spurs may see their current Europa League campaigns impact on their future Champions League hopes.
As for relegation, Burnley will need to find a goalscorer if they are to survive, while West Brom and Crystal Palace are my other tips for the drop. Leicester may do just enough to stay up, QPR will be alright when their new signings gel and Harry Redknapp gets their 3-5-2 system to work, while Sunderland and Aston Villa look stronger than in recent years.
7. Who are the favorites to gain promotion to the EPL?
Nottingham Forest have started well under club legend Stuart Pearce while Neil Adams is starting to make a positive impact at Norwich. But I think Derby, with ex-England boss Steve McClaren in charge, will win the league with Cardiff a close second. Watford, Blackburn and Brighton will also be there or thereabouts, alongside Forest and Norwich.
Andrew Raeburn is a freelance football reporter who covers Chelsea, QPR, Brentford, Fulham and non-League football for the West London Sport website and writes regular blogs on Aston Villa for Metro.co.uk. He is also a commentator for UEFA on Champions League and Europa League games. Follow him on Twitter (@andrew_raeburn).