2016-17? The non-league script will be familiar

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SO we’re off! The non-league season has started and we can expect the usual catalogue of thrills, spills and mishaps. This year, it seems to be earlier than usual – it is literally only a month since we saw Portugal win Euro 2016 and the kids have only just broken up for their summer break. What can we expect over the next eight or nine months? A game of snakes and ladders, that’s for sure.

For a start, the dugouts of non-league football will have their usual quota of new managers. Football fans moan that managers don’t last long in the senior game, but in non-league it is scarcely different. Take the Southern League Premier as an example: of the 24 clubs, around 25% started 2015-16 with new managers, while another 25% have bosses with just two years under their belt.

Managers and coaches go into any new campaign saying that pre-season was different this time, “we adopted a fresh approach”, which basically means they introduced some variety to running round the pitch or running up hills. Ice plunge baths, yoga or ballet anyone? Then there’s the pre-season programme, a mixture of matches against lesser opposition played in traditional cricket weather, a cash-accruing game against your local Football League club perhaps and maybe a minor cup game to really test the lads.

By the time the league programme comes around, you’ve played more than half a dozen pre-season games comprising multiple substitutions, stop-start drink-breaks and confusing shirt numbering, the fans are getting restless and everyone should be ready for the real thing. New kits, new sponsors and probably, a host of new faces, that mixture of new signings, academy hopefuls and triallists, along with the odd returning favourite.

There will be some players missing, either on holiday, stag-weekending or touting their services elsewhere. That promising starlet you had lining up last season, a youngster that Football League scouts have been looking at for months, may have moved on, or less appealingly, may be on trial at a League One or Two club, who will hope to snatch him for peanuts, an enticing sell-on and perhaps a pre-season game against a squad of improvers in 2017.

But the manager will be upbeat as the season gets underway: “We’ve got great team spirit,” he will say, adding that “we’d like to think we can challenge for the play-offs.” Rarely will any manager admit to being a potential title contender, although some of the fans will be hoping for just that. Neither will a manager confess to having a poor pre-season – until results demonstrate that the team was actually under-prepared for the new campaign! There will be plenty of talk about good (and bad) “game management”, a phrase that’s crept in over the past couple of years. I always thought that “managing a game” was precisely what football managers did!

The importance of a good start (a shift up the ladder) is probably overstated as you have to play everyone twice, but there’s little doubt that the psychological impact of three straight defeats in August can certainly set you back. Even more so, an early FA Cup exit, which  is the equivalent of Aintree’s Beecher’s Brook for the managers. Go out of that early, missing out on the cash reward and morale-boost that a cup run can bring, and you’re under pressure. Often it may be the start of a budget reassessment, especially for those clubs that have foolishly banked on a cup run as part of their financial planning. Defeat to that step four or five side is most definitely a large, slippery snake.

By the time October-November comes around, the first managerial casualties are being announced and inevitably, player turnover starts to happen. Those summer signings are either working out or they are turning out for another local club.

Then there’s Christmas, when most clubs really know exactly what type of season they have to sort out in the new year. More managerial changes are likely as the festivities end. And it is the turn of the year that the fans’ loyalty is really tested, those bone-numbing midweek games under floodlights with a smaller crowd as the more senior supporters decide that a night in front of SKY or BT is more attractive than a freezing 90 minutes in the main stand, even if the Bovril is great!

Then you’re in the home strait, the business end of the season, to use another well-worn cliché. And then we start all over again. Never mind snakes and ladders, most managers could do with a “get out of jail free” card in the form of a prolific goalscorer that provides the goals that mean you climb a ladder and avoid a snake. It’s only game, as they say!

This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday, August 7 2016

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