The final whistle blew, players in green began to bound with joy towards their tracksuited manager and coaches on the sidelines. The people behind the hoardings, dressed for winter, cheered and triumphantly thrust their fists into the air. Had I witnessed just another classic non-league encounter or entered groundhopping utopia?
I’d dropped a pin into the Non-League Paper’s fixture page, as I had done countless times, driven to a neighbouring London Borough, discovered a great new club and seen a six-goal thriller. The euphoria was soon punctured, however, by a sense of regret. I probably wouldn’t see this club and this ground again for a while.
Groundhopping presents me with this dilemma. I’m always discovering, but rarely following. What would become of this club after their stirring comeback? Would they go on to challenge for promotion or would it turn out to be a flash in the pan, a golden, unrepeatable half of football? I want to discover new clubs and grounds, but I also want to be part of the journeys undertaken by my favourite teams.
My 5 non-league teams for the new season
The obvious solution to my problem would be to pick some teams to follow throughout the season. A selection of clubs I could watch home and away, experiencing their ups and downs as well as their trips to rivals old and new. But how would I pick the clubs to follow? Over my first season of groundhopping, I’d visited plenty with intriguing narratives and welcoming atmospheres.
My first port of call was just down the road. My local non-league club had just avoided relegation from step five, tapped into a new fan base and changed its name to Walthamstow FC. The name change reflects the new interest in the club locally. A step matched by their ‘groundsharers’ and Essex Senior League rivals, Wadham Lodge, who have now aligned themselves with a neighbouring locale and renamed themselves Leyton Athletic.
Step five seemed like an ideal cut-off point. Five teams (one each from steps 1-5) felt like the right amount to get me through the season. Next was another local club, Haringey Borough. My local Isthmian League club had also just been promoted and were the team I saw most last season. They are now in the Isthmian Premier Division, so covered step three.
Haringey’s promotion left a hole at step four in the Isthmian North division, one of my favourites from last season. Step forward Grays Athletic. Not only are they current tenants of Aveley's excellent Parkside, but they also ticked a couple of significant boxes. They’re a fan-owned club and they’re based in Thurrock, one of two non-league hotbeds outside of London I was particularly keen to cover across my five clubs.
Finally, I had two National League spaces to fill at steps one and two. Step two was pretty obvious. Dulwich Hamlet were about to enter their first season outside of the Isthmian League, so the local team from my South London days were in. Last but certainly not least were Ebbsfleet at step one. The team I was once a part-owner of also covered the other side of the Dartford Crossing. Remember, the other non-London non-league hot spot I mentioned?
Prospects for the new season
Don't let their shiny new website fool you. Ebbsfleet have spent the summer sticking with last season's tried and tested formula. The squad that got the club to the promotion play-offs has been retained. The Fleet have also added a couple of players with Football League experience in Jack King from Stevenage and former Norwich player Ebou Adams. They've gone through pre-season unbeaten and put in some solid performances against Football League clubs.
Dulwich Hamlet will take their first steps in the National League without star player Reise Alassani. The striker was picked up by Coventry City and is expected to feature regularly in League One next season. The rest of the squad is relatively unchanged with a couple of additions with National League experience. Dulwich have had a busy pre-season with games against a variety of opposition, including wins against Haringey Borough and Walthamstow.
Boro have lost a couple of important players in Anthony Mcdonald and Ralston Gabriel, the latter moving to St Albans. The club goes about its recruitment business fairly quietly, but rumour has it several additions have been made. Ghana international Derek Asamoah was also still present when I saw them take on Dulwich. The Bostik Premier Division looks fairly open this season, and Haringey look good to be towards the top end.
Grays have had a mixed pre-season. I've seen them lose 4-0 twice, but they've also beaten local rivals, Tilbury, and Bromley. Striker Kieran Bishop has moved on to Bostik North newcomers Coggeshall Town, but they Grays squad still boasts plenty of talent. There also appears to have been progress in their attempts to move back home to Grays. Heybridge, Canvey, and Coggeshall might be favourites for promotion, but the Blues will hope to be hot on their heels.
Walthamstow, out of all five clubs, have had the biggest transition over the summer. They've changed their name and brought in several new additions to freshen up the squad. The most eye-catching of these is the acquisition of Essex Senior League goal machine James Peagram, who has helped Barking and Basildon to promotion in recent seasons. Things are looking a lot more rosy for a club that was starting a crowdfunding campaign to stay alive just under a year ago.
National League winners: Salford City
Ebbsfleet's position: Top 7 (play-offs)
National League South winners: Dartford
Dulwich Hamlet's position: 10th
Bostik Premier Division winners: AFC Hornchurch
Haringey Borough's position: Top 6 (play-offs)
Bostik North Division winners: Heybridge Swifts
Grays Athletic's position: 8th
Essex Senior League winners: Redbridge
Walthamstow's position: 2nd (promotion)