SCOTT ROBSON is your man. There’s more to football in the North East than NUFC, y’knaa. And no, not that shower a few miles down the A19…
The season is back. Blind optimism, blind panic, high and low expectations and hearses on pitches. Football below the Football League is amazing and here is the preview for 2023-2024. Also inside the preview are some probably very wrong predictions which might have some people laughing hysterically in May. On we go…
With giants Wrexham and Notts County gone, the NL has a more of a normal look about it this year (though remaining big club Chesterfield continue to buy, including Will Grigg, whose career seems to be less on fire, more extinguished) and both GATESHEAD and HARTLEPOOL have as good a chance as anyone else in a tight, unforgiving mess of a league.
Gateshead were excellent after Christmas with a set of results up there with anyone but the top two, and the hope is that with a bit of momentum behind them, they can get to the playoffs. They have lost Owen Bailey to Doncaster and on the eve of the season, Adam Campbell to Crawley for a five figure fee, but they signed several of the influential loan players from last season permanently meaning the Tynesiders have arguably the best squad for years. Aiden Rutledge who scored 60 plus goals for Birtley last year and the year before for Leam Lane was an eyecatching signing. It will be interesting how he steps up. I’m going to say Gateshead will finish just below the play-offs, around 10th.
Hartlepool vowed never to be in this position again after a dramatic play off win in 2021, but here we are once more and yet again they are picking up the pieces after a demoralising relegation. The club is up for sale, they released 17 players and expectations are not great with a support who don’t particularly like owner Raj Singh. All the ingredients are there for a repeat of ex-Football League strugglers like Oldham, Southend or even worse, Scunthorpe. However, Pools are built of stern stuff. They became very hard to beat last year but left themselves with too much to do. Manager John Askey remains and he knows this league having won it twice with Macclesfield. The likes of Dan Dodds, Josh Umerah and Emmanuel Dieseruvre will stand out in this league and they have enough to get into the play offs. For all concerned at Victoria Park they need a good start though or for Singh, it could get messy.
BERWICK RANGERS are expected to push hard this year, but in true Berwick style, they lost the opening two games 1-0: at Cumbernauld in a really deflating performance, and then at home to Bo’ness. They finally got some points on the board with a draw on 29 July. Outside of the Rangers, Celtic and Hearts U-23 teams, the league is very tight with some teams spending big. Berwick can’t do that, but have signed up the likes of league top scorer Liam Buchanan and Lewis Barr up again and after winning a lot of games so far in 2023, they look like they can get into the promotion mix. The club looks stable for the first time since relegation but the age old problem of inconsistency has to go and they have to make Northumberland a fortress if they want to aim for the SFL again.
National League North
This looks sensational for North East football supporters with BLYTH, DARLINGTON, SOUTH SHIELDS and SPENNYMOOR all fighting in a league which, last year, made the one above it look like a picnic (on the last day, ten clubs could have got in the playoffs).
Let’s start with SOUTH SHIELDS and I think everyone is genuinely excited or at least interested to see how Shields will do this year. Normally this would be a season of consolidation, but Shields haven’t done consolidation since Geoff Thompson took over and the expectation from a big fanbase will be to go up again. A big managerial change saw Kevin Phillips go soon after promotion and fellow ex-Mackems, Julio Arca and Tommy Miller, take over. When Phillips left, talk was of spending being scaled back but Shields have continued to sign, including Luke James whose experience will be vital. It could go either way but I get the feeling they seem off the leash after the near misses of the years before. Expect the play-offs and a cup run.
SPENNYMOOR were average last year but still almost got their now-customary play-off place and after a pre-season of tinkering and reshaping they will look to get at least that this year. Jamie Chandler has been appointed manager with club legend Jason Ainsley resuming youth duties. Moors have brought in some good looking signings including the strong looking midfielder Sam Fielding which is just what they need. A lot of pressure is still left on club record scorer Glen Taylor up front. If he fires again, Moors could push for the top spot.
DARLINGTON are still picking themselves after a disastrous second half of last season which saw them drop from top to out of the playoffs. Yet again, the fans have been jaw-droppingly generous, raising over £160,000 to boost the playing budget and Alun Armstrong again is left with the job of taking that backing and running with it. Despite being one of the biggest clubs, they still are not in the top budget places and though Toby Lees is a good signing, Jack Lambert has left, and Darlo still look short in support for Jacob Hazel up front. Sorting out the home form is vital. Play-offs at best for me.
BLYTH SPARTANS face one of the biggest tests of survival yet, but don’t they always? Graham Fenton managed the impossible last year but with the league arguably tougher and Blyth’s squad weaker, the fans at Croft Park are restless and a 4-0 friendly defeat to neighbours Blyth Town didn’t exactly go down well. That’s like NUFC losing to Benfield. Cedric Main left for York and with four trialists in the last friendly it’s hard to see how they will look against Gloucester in the first game. I hate to say it but it could be a long season. Blyth will travel 8,048 miles this year. It really could feel like 80,000, if they lose as I much as I fear they might.
Northern Premier League – Premier Division
After South Shields finally exited last year, the league looks as competitive as ever. Big guns Macclesfield and FC United look the ones to beat but for MORPETH TOWN and MARSKE UNITED the initial targets have to be staying away from where they were last year – fighting relegation. Marske’s great escape was firmly down to the returning Carl Jarrett but they couldn’t agree a deal for Jarrett to stay and so then appointed ex Hartlepool boss and legendary player Graham Lee as manager. His Boro Under 23 connections have already borne fruit and United can look up the table rather than down. That would be a great achievement for a club punching well above their weight. Morpeth were lucky to stay up last year and the big question is whether, after a decade of success, last year was just a blip. They have persuaded top scorer Andrew Johnson to stay but things just don’t seem right in Northumberland and it could be a struggle. Morpeth though can’t be ruled out, they still have a decent squad if they fire.
Northern Premier League – East
Joining this level for the first time in 50 years are ASHINGTON and the sleeping giant is starting to wake up. The colliers will bring the attendances but the spiralling costs of promotion and a much changed squad mean it’s going to be tough. Staying up has to be the first, firm priority. HEBBURN and STOCKTON are looking at the other end and, after both falling in the playoffs last year (beaten by the same side) they are both among the favourites to push for one better this time.
Stockton have re-signed Jamie Owens which could be a masterstroke, while Hebburn have signed Dean Briggs who if on his game is a great signing. Olly Martin remains the key for Hebburn though and his goals could get the title for the South Tynesiders.
NEWTON AYCLIFFE come up as Northern League champions and like last year when they only dropped two points at home, Moor Lane is again vital to progression. Aycliffe were brilliant last year, but have lost a few and a mid table season is a good way to start.
DUNSTON changed manager after missing out on the playoffs last year but Jon McDonald is a perfect fit, having been a long time assistant . They look as strong as they have been since being promoted with Sado Djalo, Luke Carr and Dale Pearson some front three.
CONSETT have a new look squad but hopes are high in County Durham. Will Shaw has scored a lot in pre-season. Add the new players to the likes of Arjun Purewal and there’s no reason why they can’t push for the playoffs..
Northern League Division One
Several clubs have made some eye-catching signings and with big guns NORTH SHIELDS and SHILDON returning, it is as strong a Division One as we’ve seen in years. Shields have changed manager with Daniel Iredale coming in and after losing a lot of players, it’s a bedding-in again season after forced relegation for ground grading. Shildon almost pulled off a great escape but as it is, they are back again and with a squad remaining intact they could be the ones to beat. They had two managers in a week last year so quieter will help.
WHITLEY BAY and BISHOP AUCKLAND were unlucky not to go up last year and both have stronger squads with Bishops my favourites to win the league. Bay have to stop freak heavy results (to which they are prone), for a push at the top.
Eye-catching signings, big crowds and clubs with right attitudes put HEATON STAN and REDCAR in the mix. Sean Reid and Craig Scott arrive at Stan from higher leagues and Isaac Walker returns to Teesside which is a big boost for Redcar.
WHICKHAM are dark horses while BENFIELD will be led by Paul Brayson who is now player manager. He turns 46 in September. WEST ALLOTMENT were very good last year and will again cause teams a lot of bother with a ‘couldn’t care less what people think of us’ attitude. Promoted BIRTLEY could shock teams, they put seven past Ashington in pre season and with fellow promoted side BORO RANGERS, they have absolutely no worries about survival.
You do worry about RCA, PENRITH and TOW LAW though.
Northern League Division Two
BEDLINGTON TERRIERS look equipped to back up last year’s surprise push for promotion, while relegated THORNABY had a great end to last year despite going down and suffering an arson attack in the summer. BLYTH TOWN signed Dan Wilson from North Shields and could fly, while HORDEN lost out on the last day last year.
The team that will, however, cause the most stir, have the biggest crowds and surely promotion will be NEWCASTLE BLUE STAR. A team that looks like it’s been ready for a much higher level for years has added to a squad packed with Vase winners by adding the likes of Michael Richardson, Ben Harmison and Paul Robinson for rumoured eye watering wages. Blue Star will be everyone’s team to beat so will not find it easy, but it’s hard to look beyond the Scotswood club.
After Blue Star’s promotion, the Northern Alliance looks back to an even keel again and though BURRADON and NEW FORDLEY look strong, ALNWICK TOWN could push if they get going quickly.
Final word goes to DURHAM CITY, now of the Wearside League, who won their first game in over a year and kept their first clean sheet for 1565 days in pre season. They will look for a new start and better times ahead. They are still around.
I will keep you up to date throughout the season. With NUFC only having one Saturday 3pm kick off before October, this is the season to go non-league. You can do both. You won’t regret it.