All 24 sides in the National League have played 11 of their 46 games and I can’t remember ever seeing a table like it after so many matches. Aldershot and Dover currently top the table with 20 points, but should either team lose their next 3 games they could be over taken by the team who currently sit in 20th position, AFC Fylde. Fylde, along with Barrow and Ebbsfleet, have 12 points so if any of them won their next 3 games and the top two get no more than a point in their next 3 then amazingly they would be above or on the same points as the current top two. Given the way the league is this season if the above scenario happened it would not surprise me.
So what does the tightness of the league tell us? Well it is certainly competitive and it there is no doubt going to be plenty of excitement over the next few months, but I also think it tells us how low on quality the league is this season. Alan Alger who was PR man at Blue Square and Skrill when they sponsored the league has been saying the quality of the league has been decreasing over the last couple of seasons and although the fans of clubs at the top like to disagree, I certainly agree with him. I think the last really good team in the league was Bristol Rovers and they didn’t even win the league in the one season they spent in the division. I backed Barnet that year so don’t get me wrong I was delighted they topped the table, but Rovers were the much better side come the end of the season and were a bit unlucky not to win the title. The fact they are now in League 1 and Barnet still in League 2 backs that up for me. For me a lot of Barnet’s success was down to Martin Allen being their manger and I think that has been the case for the two subsequent winners as well.
If any Cheltenham fans read this I am not saying this because I am a Gloucester fan, but you were a bang average side when you won the title. Gary Johnson was the best manager though and he got them to be solid and just do the simple things and whereas better sides lacked consistency he made sure they were very hard to beat. I can think of at least 3 teams who if Johnson was in charge of that season I think would have won the league. The fact Cheltenham nearly went down last season and are looking set for a relegation battle again this term, supports that fact.
I think it was a similar situation last season. I am a huge fan of the Cowley brothers and again I think there are at least 3 clubs who would have topped the table had they been in charge. Now Lincoln had an incredible season, but I’m not sure they had the best players and they were bang average for most of the last 10 or so games of the season. I think it was the confidence that Danny had given the players that saw them over the line in the end, that and the fact Tranmere kept dropping silly points. Now Lincoln are doing fairly well so far in League 2 this season, but again that doesn’t surprise me because they have kept Danny as boss and I think he makes a massive difference. Forest Green though who won the play-off final having finished 3rd are a different story. Despite Dale Vince’s millions they are having a desperate season so far and it hardly speaks volumes for how strong the National League is at the moment.
Alger Tweeted a great stat on Saturday saying that this is the first time no club has won more than 6 of their first 11 games. At this stage of the season it is staggering that no club has won more than 6 games. Aldershot who are top again had a spell prior to their last two wins where they won just once in six games and that came against Solihull. Sutton sit in 4th just one point of the top yet they have lost more games than they have won in the last 6. It is clear that pretty much anyone in the league can get a result against anyone and that means one of two things. Either you are dealing with loads of excellent sides or, what I believe to be the case, you are dealing with loads of pretty average sides and games are being won and lost on pretty small margins in general.
At the start of the season I thought past Tranmere that it looked a wide open league. I still believe Tranmere have the best squad in the division, but for whatever reason it isn’t clicking at the moment. They are a side who should be full of goals, yet they have scored just 8 times. The defeat to Dover on BT Sport reminded me of the defeat to Sutton last season when Gary Brabin was in charge which is worrying for Micky Mellon given Brabin lost his job. What is astonishing though given how lacklustre they have been is the fact they are just 7 points off the top. We are talking about a team who have won just 3 of their first 11 games here as well. Usually that would mean the bookies would have pushed them out to double figures by now, but 13/2 is the biggest price about them at the moment. I still believe if there is one club that could go on a long run it is them and I think the bookies are right to still be cautious about pricing them up. I think once it clicks they will be up their challenging in no time.
I do think Dagenham are the right favourites as they have probably looked the best side so far this season, but you could hardly say there was any value in their price given how close the league is at the moment. I spoke about managers and I would argue the best 3 managers in the division are currently in the top 3 places in the league. Gary Waddock’s Aldershot side that won the Conference in 07/08 was the best team in the 10 years I have been betting in Non-League in my my view. As mentioned above they had a blip, but are coming out the other side and have suffered with injures. I have no idea why Sutton are the same price as them. They may have been top, but it really will be a bad year if they top the table.
I tipped Dover to go down, but I should have known better with Chris Kinnear as boss and fair play to him for getting a new young side to be doing so well, although again I think they are a side benefiting from the weakness of the division where good managers become key. Alan Devonshire another very good manager who should have been given a chance by a Football League side by now is proving yet again what he can do at Maidenhead as they sit in 6th place with 18 points, even without Dave Tarpey!
I have to admit that the league looks almost impossible to call the winner at this stage given the closeness of the league and how fluctuating teams form has been in the early stages of the season. However there is one team who stand out as being too big a price at this stage especially given they were fairly close to the top of the market before the season started. Hartlepool were awful in the first 6 games of the season. They were on BT Sport in their 3rd game and they were shockingly bad in that 2-1 defeat to Maidenhead. My worry before the season was Craig Harrison’s lack of experience in Non-League football and I certainly think that was a big part of their downfall to start with. I think some clubs may have sacked and if they hadn’t of won at Guiseley I think he might well have gone. They are now unbeaten in 5 which includes being the first team to beat Dagenham, a very creditable draw at Wrexham, outplaying an otherwise in form Maidstone and winning at Leyton Orient on BT Sport on Saturday. Granted Orient have defensive issues at the moment, but they punished them for it and then defended superbly once they got the lead to see the game out. They are as short as 16/1 with Betfred and I would say that was a reasonable price about them at this stage. How on earth Bet365 can make them 40/1 shots I don’t know and I would certainly be happy to take them in a match bet with Sutton, who for some reason are as short as 5/1! I think they are well worth a small e/w investment to add to the ante-post portfolio.
Speaking of BT Sport I obviously think it is great they cover the league and I will always watch the games if I can. However watching them also shows the quality of the division has got worse since they took over the contract. Last season the only game that really stuck out that was a decent quality game was Dagenham v Tranmere which strangely ended 0-0. Yes you had exciting games like the Forest Green v Lincoln one, but it is important not to confuse exciting with quality. This season has seen some pretty average, at best, games so far.
I am really looking forward to seeing how the season plays out because like I said at the beginning it will be exciting and competitive. However I just can’t agree with anyone who says it is a top quality league this year as for me the facts suggest very much the opposite and it is something that started happening over the last few seasons.