The fifth tier of English football also started on Saturday, with sides knowing that a championship run will secure Football League status and a crack at the big time.
Here we take a look at a few of the favourites for the title and top five play-off places.
The Conference should be a fairly close affair, with five sides sitting within the 9/2 and 10/1 range, in the betting market to win outright. Here are those sides…
The first of our joint favourites are Forest Green Rovers, 9/2 with Skybet. The longest serving side in the Premier, have slowly become a major force in the division, thanks in turn to the investment of Dale Vince over the last few years. Last season’s mid table finish was quite the disappointment which ended with a run of five straight defeats. However, they have been busy in the transfer window with six new signings, including Matthew Barnes-Homer who hit 18 league goals last season and Danny Wright who hit 15. The added firepower will certainly be welcomed, while another couple of signings will bolster a defence that had the fifth best record in the division last time out.
Luton Town are the other joint favourites, with the 9/2 available at Ladbrokes. The “Hatters” enter their fifth season in the Conference, and have it all to do once again, after so many near misses. Last season was the first time they missed out on the play-offs, so this summer has seen some frantic action in the transfer window, as a total seventeen players have come in or out of the club with arguably the biggest loss being, Stuart Fleetwood. Incoming players include, Luke Guttridge from Northampton Town, Anthony Charles from PLymouth Argyle and Mark Cullen from Hull City. With a sizeable squad that has depth and quality, you have to think that finally, Luton fans will see their side return to League Two next season.
Kidderminster Harriers are 7/1 with Coral. Harriers were so unfortunate last season, finishing second to Mansfield Town by just two points, and then losing 2-5 on aggregate to Wrexham in the play-off semis, despite beating them in a league game a month before. The Aggborough side have lost the services of Keith Briggs, Danny Pilkington and Jamie Vincent, while bringing in Lee Fowler from Doncaster Rovers, Jamie Tolley from Mansfield Town and signing Michael Gash on a permanent deal from Cambridge United, after his twenty goal season. The signings have improved an already excellent squad, and I feel that the 7/1 on offer, shows great value, to the point that I’m on them for the title.
Grimsby Town are 9/1 with Bet365 to take the crown and could well be worth an each-way punt. The Mariners finished fourth last season, some twelve points adrift of the champions, before being knocked out of the play-offs by the eventual winners Newport County. The Cleethorpes based side have bolstered their squad with some eight additions, with Chris Doig, Paul Bignot and Paddy McLaughlin being the highlights. The good news for the club, is that they’ve managed to keep the majority of squad intact, with defender Ian Miller the only real loss. it remains to be seen if Millers loss will affect the best defence in the division last year, if not, then I definitely feel they will be in and around the play-off places at least.
Wrexham are 10/1 to work the miracle of a title win, with BetVictor. The Welsh side reached the play-off final, but lost to Newport County 0-2 at Wembley in May. Since then its been very quiet at the Racecourse, with defensive mainstay, Chris Westwood leaving for pastures new. The only other business so far in the window, has seen Danny Wright who scored fifteen in the league last season, go to Forest Green, while Andy Bishop has returned to the club on a permanent deal, after a loan spell from Bury. With the loss of Wright up front, its down to the veteran goal poachers of Brett Ormerod (36) and Andy Morrell (38) to chip in on the goals front. I feel Wrexham will fall short this season, but their 10/11 price for a top 5 play-off place, shows that it will likely be close.
Top 5 Finish
With the sides above coming in at 10/11 or shorter in the market, here are three other sides, who have a viable chance of finishing in the play-off places.
Cambridge United are Evens with BetVictor to reach the play-offs this time around. A disappointing fourteenth place was all they could muster last time out, and with alarm bells ringing, the management decided to make a raft of changes to the squad, which has seen twelve players in, and ten out, in the transfer window equivalent of musical chairs. Ultimately, its going to be a simple matter of how quickly the squad gels, if this happens, they’ll have a great chance and one that is arguably better than the shorter priced Wrexham side, if not, then expect a mediocre season, once more.
Chester FC are 2/1 with BetFred, after winning the Conference North at a canter last season. After reforming from the ashes of Chester City in 2010, Chester FC have risen to where they arguably belong, thanks to three straight divisional titles, culminating in winning the Conference North on one hundred and seven points (107), just three defeats and scoring over a hundred goals. The Summer has seen the inevitable clear-out, which is on par with the scale of ins and outs at Cambridge, as thirteen come in, while nine have been moved on.
Notable incoming players include, Craig Lindfield, Danny Harrison and the Turner borthers (Nathan and Lewis), who rejoin on loan. As with Cambridge, the issue will be with the squad getting acquainted with each, and becoming a team. Lindfield’s signing gives them an added goal threat but they will certainly find themselves tested defensively, a lot more than last season. A strong chance of a play-off place, due to signings alone, but can they get off to a fast start?
Barnet return to the Conference after eight years in the Football League, but won’t find a return so easy. They are 3/1 with BetVictor to reach the play-offs. After several great escapes, they finally succumbed to the drop on the last day of the season, by virtue of goal difference. Edgar Davids has a tough ask on hands to bounce back, with some key players moving on, including Ricky Holmes and Clovis Kamdjo leaving. Apart from a single signing from Welling United, no other business has been done, but in managing to keep the likes of Curtis Weston, Anthony Edgar and Keanu Marsh-Brown, there is a chance for them. Defensively they are suspect, which contributed to their downfall in League Two, so unless some defenders come in, I think the 3/1 for a play-off place, looks a little short.