How Did It End? — National League 21/22
Oh, how good it is to see the fifth tier back and, if not kicking, certainly spinning on the spot entertainingly.
The ‘non-league’ levels are getting back into the swing of things and this premiere event showcased all the shine the divisions had to offer, as well as the dire straits that some sections can very easily find themselves in.
Back in the day, I predicted how the 21/22 National League table would look come the end of the season, and this is what I ended up with:-
2. Grimsby Town
4. Notts County
5. Stockport County
7. Maidenhead United
8. Dagenham & Redbridge
9. Torquay United
10. Southend United
11. Boreham Wood
12. Solihull Moors
14. Aldershot Town
15. Yeovil Town
17. Halifax Town
20. Dover Athletic
22. King’s Lynn Town
But this is how it actually ended up:-
1. Stockport County
3. Solihull Moors
4. Halifax Town
5. Notts County
8. Dagenham & Redbridge
9. Boreham Wood
12. Yeovil Town
13. Southend United
17. Maidenhead United
20. Aldershot Town
21. King’s Lynn Town
23. Dover Athletic
On my first attempt at predicting this wondrous set of teams I posted a score of -130, with a ceiling of -250, so I was on the wrong side of halfway. If you don’t know, scores are worked out by position differential — for example, if I had Weymouth finishing 12th and they actually finished 20th, that would be -8 off my score.
The aim is to get as close to 0 as possible.
So how in the orange hell did I do?
Predicted: 14th / Actual: 20th
Well, the signings didn’t take and frustration mounted quite severely. An early managerial change I guess got the job done, as Molesley came in with the side in the relegation zone and they finished outside of it, but it was a hop, a skip, and a stutter to survival, even if they finished with a nine-point gap. They shipped a lot and scored a few, meaning leads weren’t maintained and deficits weren’t rallied against — were it not for a diminutive defiant spell towards season’s end, their comparatively cushty finish could have easily been staring down that gulf.
They’ll count themselves lucky as they’re forced into a rebuild, but this’ll be their most important summer in a while.
Predicted: 19th / Actual: 14th
The four most recent sides to ascend to the National League had the benefit of a bye of sorts. A voided season in which none of them particularly excelled gave them the experience to build off at level five. Altrincham were one of the sides to thrive from that. They still shipped a fair few, but they matched it step-for-step (near enough) up the other end and offered a gnat-like presence against sides, who were many-a-time unable to just swat them away.
The experience they recruited paid off and if they continue along the same route, this consolidation can extend far into the future.
Predicted: 18th / Actual: 18th
Kewell might not have been given enough time. With the job Brennan went on to do, it’s easy to think that Kewell could have produced that too. Nonetheless, the chance was taken away from him and the biggest achievement attributed to Brennan is that he got the right players playing. Richards-Everton, Mason-Clark, and Marriott all played important roles as a topsy-turvy season went on in which The Bees picked their battles. It was as if they chose to lose 6–0 one week, just so they could come out the next and win 3–0. It’s a risky deal with the devil, but if it promises survival, that might be what Barnet need to get through a patch that is rough for most of the game right now.
Predicted: 11th / Actual: 9th
I called periods of fatigue due to their squad size, and extra games in the cup didna help. The players were out of puff and their way was largely figured out as they struggled to make an impact in a few of the games they played post-Bournemouth. Though we have seen it before from very capable sides, so maybe it’s just the universe’s way of balancing things out — you can have a cup run, but league form must suffer. I think that’s in The Bible somewhere.
There’s no doubting they work well as a unit, and those part of the small unit are quality, but they might need to add a few capable squad players if they’re to make a less-faulty push.
Predicted: 6th / Actual: 10th
A side packed with veteran experience that also might have suffered due to a cup run. With the FA Trophy at the weekend, mid-week games were the order of the day quite a bit from Bromley. That being said, I think they’ll reckon they underperformed. With the amount of proven talent they have, and the depth with which they have it, they should always be in amongst it, but they fell away and couldn’t recoup with their games in hand. They didn’t finish the season particularly weakly, but seeing games out became an issue.
Predicted: 1st / Actual: 7th
This is the one prediction I remember; the champions. And I was confident throughout most of the season that it was going to be seen through.
Come the end of the season, the manager who was scheduled to lead them to the promised land is gone under a cloud, but not a cloud so grey that it stops him getting a job elsewhere, and they hang onto a playoff spot by a single point as they finish twenty points behind the eventual champions.
Granted, they lost their top gun, but something in the culture of that club changed — they could nae see out a result. Games they would have won in the first half of the year were being stacked. Their mentality was shot. The mark James Rowe left on this club should have been golden, but these months later, it ain’t shiny.
DAG & RED
Predicted: 8th / Actual: 8th
You can say it all comes down to being unlucky on the final day, but a side with the power of Dag & Red and a manager that fits shouldn’t be losing some of the games they did. 3–0 vs. Wrexham should be a common result, not a surprise.
They’ll be disappointed with some of their defensive performances, but come next season, they could bully their way to the front of the queue.
Predicted: 20th / Actual: 23rd
Alright, I had the fairytale on, but even a few games in, it wasn’t looking good. The disorganisation was obvious with adaptation required quicker than a hiccup, and the heart wasn’t there until it was too late. Watching them in their final ten or fifteen games compared to their first few was like watching a different team — they started to believe when there was nothing left to believe in.
The future might appear glisky to this side, but if they peer through the rain, there is brightness, they’ve just gotta keep hold of that.
Predicted: 13th / Actual: 19th
This seemed like a frustrating season to be associated with The Spitfires. They would provide hope with their goals, but snatch that same hope away by conceding more than they could put away. Momentum could never be capitalised on and a stop-start season can be so much worse than a complete dud of one as they keep you on tenterhooks throughout.
Now the squad has been downsized (with a few big names of the season hanging on), Eastleigh can be crafted in the image of the comparatively new boss and go again.
Predicted: 17th / Actual: 4th
I figured they’d struggle thanks to the slew of departures that prefixed the season, but just about every signing that came in, be it in summer or winter, made a massive positive impact on the side, namely Matty Warburton and Billy Waters. Those two scored goals enough for the side, and while they were doing their job, it was at the back that the squad truly earned their finish — 35 conceded in 44 games. The likes of Maher and Debrah cut imposing and composed figures in a block that just wouldn’t budge. Well worth their money, and Pete Wild has done an immense job of crafting this outfit.
Predicted: 2nd / Actual: 6th
It seemed to take The Mariners a hot second to get to grips with the league, but after that… They still weren’t sure about it.
They’d run, and then stumble. Best team in the league, then how do you play football. They’d manage to teach a lesson to Notts County and Chesterfield, but then they’d be dumbfounded by Weymouth and Aldershot. They had the EFL quality to deal with EFL quality, but that National League know-how is a different beast, and that’s what they were lacking this time out. They couldn’t apply knowledge because they had minimal knowledge of it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them caught out in the playoffs in the same way…
Predicted: 22nd / Actual: 21st
Aldershot can really count themselves lucky they weren’t relegated because over longer stretches, King’s Lynn were probably the better side. The Shots simply had more power and more experience, but The Linnets displayed tremendous application and desire, as well as tactical diversity. They really made a fan out of me come the last ten games or so in how they approached each opponent differently, but ultimately, those changes in set-up seemed to cost them elsewhere on the pitch. They utilised the loan market well (at least in recruitment if not in who they sent out) and showed off plenty of gems that could go onto sparkle with another spell in this division next season (Linton, McGavin), or with their parent clubs up the pyramid. There’s a tight squad left in Norfolk, and though they might need a season to regroup, Widdrington should be able to bring ’em back again.
Predicted: 7th / Actual: 17th
They are starting to become to the National League what Reading are to the WSL, Preston are to the Championship, and Stanley are to League One. They appear to be capable of extremes, but at the end of the day, the middle of the pack is going to be the safest bet for them because you cannot predict these sides. If you do, you get lucky. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why they finish where they do — in this instance, they have a reliable goal and a solid shape, but they finish well off the pace and never get a consistent run going despite victories over big sides.
Next season, I’m just gonna predict all these teams last and they can have whatever is left over.
Predicted: 4th / Actual: 5th
Players really seemed to step up in the first full season under the new boss. It took them a sec, but once they got used to stuff and back into the swing of things, folk seemed to settle in to what was, ultimately, a well-oiled machine. Though they still looked capable of being their own worst enemy in some areas of the pitch, their frontline seems to have been galvanised by the departure of Enzio Boldewijn as they’ve all attempted to stand up to replace him. They’ve got a number of players who can score goals and though they’ve conceded the most of the top seven, they’ll be hoping to have put you away before that matters.
Predicted: 12th / Actual: 3rd
Another example of me not counting on an experienced manager having a swift process. I thought it’d take a season or so to come good for Ardley after the side had made a sustained push for promotion unsuccessfully. I probably predicted them to finish 12th because they initially released their best player over that spell, goalkeeper Ryan Boot. But though they swiftly reversed that decision, I was obviously too hurt to reverse mine.
Additions were minimal, yet wildly effective, and the reliance upon experienced players saw them nick third spot on the final day. They’re a deadly unit right now, but that killer instinct needs to bear its teeth across the park if they’re to come good in the playoffs.
Predicted: 10th / Actual: 13th
I’m pretty sure every player I predicted to have a good season at this level left immediately after I published my predictions. I would have then predicted them to finish lower, and it seemed to be going that way as they even slipped into the relegation zone at one point.
But then in stepped Kevin Maher and they nearly pulled off a Chesterfield under him; he dragged ’em all the way up to the point where they were in the playoff conversation, though they did drop off again to finish in what was still a mighty respectable position.
Players seemed to rediscover their confidence, which was sorely needed after the few seasons The Shrimpers had gone through. Tie that in with some quietly shrewd recruiting, and there’s now a side waiting to be moulded into real contenders next season.
Predicted: 5th / Actual: 1st
Maybe the best new manager bounce I’ve ever seen. I didn’t see it coming, that Challinor would drop a level to take over a side doing… Okay. They were underwhelming because big things were expected, but they weren’t delivering. Simon Rusk left with The Hatters in 10th place and a record of five wins, two draws, and five defeats. Over the next thirty-two games (under DC), they would have the same number of draws and losses, and win twenty-five games. That’s a win-rate of over 78%.
The investment in the side was wise as they bought in all-stars of the fifth-tier, as well as the third and fourth tiers, and combined it with the existing squad of burgeoning young talent and veteran stalwarts.
It seems to be a well-run outfit that isn’t looking higher than they can afford too, and that viewfinder could land on successive promotions.
Predicted: 9th / Actual: 11th
Beaten play-off finalists in a sensational manner last season, Torquay struggled to pick up where they left off this time round. By the time they got into the swing of things, the leading pack were just a few too many points ahead and that resonated throughout the team. Instead of the pressure being off because they were unlikely to catch up, it amped up because the chase was always on; the candle still flickered no matter how dimly. Gary Johnson said himself that they probably needed a season and they’ve spent it wisely, identifying new danger men in a new squad for a new push in a new season. They’ll need to keep hold of them in the interim, but even if they don’t, there’ll be a determination coming from the English Riviera that’ll be palpable next time out.
Predicted: 21st / Actual: 16th
Like Alty, they were the most well-poised of the recently promoted sides to make that leap to survival and consolidation. When they came up they were renowned for their goalscoring, and while they required that this season, their biggest improvement was at the other end.
In the 20/21 season, they were one goal shy of conceding 100 across 42 games. This season, across 44, they conceded 65. They only scored two more in that time (one for each game, I guess). That’s massive. It was an obvious problem to fix and they went to work — it might not be rocket science, but it obviously ain’t as simple as it sounds and the likes of Cook and Okimo as the wall in front of Wickens worked wonders at a vital time for Wealdstone.
Predicted: 23rd / Actual: 22nd
What The Stones had, The Terras did not. They never had goals to build off, and in the restructuring of their defence, nothing really stuck. Even the addition of the brilliant Ross Fitzsimons did not yield results.
The side, particularly at the back, was anonymous, and any highlights did come up top, and that’s only because it was a surprise that they would score.
Not even a new manager bounce, only six wins all season, and eighty-eight goals shipped — it just wasn’t on the cards this time round.
Predicted: 16th / Actual: 15th
Speaking of Cards though… I reckon The Cardinals find themselves quite well placed to kick on from here. They’ve been finding themselves a bit since their re-ascension and they’ve settled back in nicely, accruing players that have a bit of something about them before taking the big step of sacking the trusted manager and nicking a name that really wanted to be there in Darren Sarll.
There’s a bit of jankiness to work out of the side, but there are already big positive changes under Sarll and the step looks to be a big, brave one (in the context of football).
Predicted: 3rd / Actual: 2nd
I never saw ’em going up as champions, but they gave it a good crack. The form in the latter half of the season was scary, they just cut through teams, scored four goals, and then coasted the rest of the game. But their recruitment wasn’t as sweet as Stockport’s, and in the run-in, despite their defeats of The Hatters, I knew that would tell. Wrexham got plenty of EFL-proven talent, but this ain’t the EFL, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion that could cost ’em in the playoffs.
Predicted: 15th / Actual: 12th
I’d struggle to state what Yeovil did this season. They finished slap-bang in the middle, pretty much scored and conceded as many games as they played and finished with a record that was as close to even as you could get. It felt like circles all season. That might have been why Darren left.
Three times they won three on the bounce. But then there were also three occasions where they went five without winning. For every step forward, there was a step back, or at least a step sideways. Now they sit managerless and directionless, like a compass on a magnet, needing someone to come in, pick them up, and tell ’em where to go, potentially with a few minor adjustments.
Similar issues plagued me in my WSL prediction; if I had swapped Halifax and Maidenhead, I’d be singing. Well, not singing, but at least croaking. As it stands, I’m simply hacking.
I think it looks worse than it is. Not the National League, you understand, my predictions. I end on a few low depletions, so it goes out on a high, but there’s a lot of four, fives, and sixes in amongst it.
But you know what? I’ll get over it. And I will get over it because of this football division. I don’t watch throughout the season dwelling on my predictions, it’s a bit of fun at the start to get me all hyped, and then again at the end so the wait for the next incarnation isn’t as long.
Now, if BT Sport could sort out it’s schedule, I wouldn’t have such an issue trying to record the highlights. Hopefully you’ll have that done by next season, because it’s gonna be a whole shindig all over again.
We know Stockport will be leaving us to head north, and Dover, King’s Lynn, and Weymouth are journeying south, and there’s yet another to ascend of course. They will be replaced by Scunthorpe and Oldham from upstairs, and, so far, Gateshead and Maidstone from downstairs. One of York/Boston and one of Dorking/Ebbsfleet will fill out the ranks as the league returns to a full compliment of 24.
I cannae wait.
Who’s gonna break through the pack? Which historic club’s gonna have a bit of a meltdown? How will the promoted teams fare? What’s gonna happen in the National Leagues North and South?
All I want for Christmas is more coverage of the National League North and South. But I’ll need it before Christmas so it’s here in time for the new season. Does one give summer holiday presents?
If you need a hand with coverage, you know where I am. I’m so cheap. Because you get what you pay for.
But let’s finish up here first. With the playoffs to look forward to (and non-league finals day, obvs), I can finalise my score and carve it into the electronic earth, and that final score is…
Hey, that’s alright. I’m actually quite overjoyed with that. Quite.
Considering last year my score was well into triple-digits, double-digits is worth celebrating. For me. But if you would like to as well, I would never stop you.
MY BIGGEST WINNERS: Dag & Red, Barnet — 0, Wrexham, Woking, Weymouth, Notts County, King’s Lynn — -1
MY BIGGEST LOSERS: Halifax — -13, Maidenhead — -10, Solihull — -9
I’ll be seeing you and the 24 stars of the show next season, hopefully. And if we’re lucky, when we dip into our summer stockings, there might even be another 48 lovelies to get our hearts a’racing.
Keep it streets ahead,