Back at the beginning of August, in our National League preview, we posed the question as to whether Leyton Orient – the bottom side in the Football League last season – could bounce back at the first attempt, outlining the challenges they faced given the lack of success of previous league sides who had found themselves in similar circumstances. The answer to the question posed, around a third of the way through the season, would seem to be no.
Last Tuesday week a 2-0 defeat at home to Gateshead was their fifth consecutive loss at their Brisbane Road ground, part of an awful run of form in general that has seen them without a win in ten National League matches. They picked up just their third point in that run last Saturday when a late goal from centre-half Mark Ellis earned them a well-earned point at third-placed Wrexham but it extended a winless run that goes back to the beginning of September. Unsurprisingly, it has seen pressure grow on manager Steve Davis with the early season optimism – following Nigel Travis’ takeover of the club and a promising start to the season when they won five of their first eight games in the fifth tier – now a distant memory. Despite a good turnover in playing staff that saw 13 new faces arrive over the summer the losing mentality that engulfed the club over their last couple of years in the Football League seems to have been hard to shake.
At the end of the Gateshead game there were chants for Davis to go from the home fans and looking around online at Orient message boards opinions are mixed with some feeling he should go and go now, others preferring to give him a bit longer – seeing fixtures against fellow strugglers Chester and Torquay United at the end of November as key games – and with some seeing things in a more positive light in that other than the defeat to Gateshead and those against Halifax Town and AFC Fylde, the performances have been largely good. Defeats to Hartlepool United, Macclesfield Town and Tranmere Rovers being considered tight affairs that could have gone either way – all three defeats were by just a single goal – and the points earned at Aldershot Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and then on Saturday at Wrexham being good results. Unsurprisingly Davis came out fighting after the Gateshead reverse and in true manager under fire style insisted he was still the man for the job. The spirited performance in North Wales does perhaps show he still has the players with him, as some had doubted. Davis will have a break from the pressure of the league this weekend as the O’s take on League One Gillingham in the FA Cup, but there are sure to be more calls for his head if result don’t pick up when they return to league action at Ebbsfleet United on the 11th.
For Orient’s fellow relegated side, Hartlepool, it has been a slightly easier ride so far. In a reverse situation to the London side Pools started slowly this season picking up just two points from their first five games. They didn’t win their first game until they picked up all three points in an away win at Guiseley at the end of August and have barely looked back since, losing only once in their last twelve fixtures, albeit five of those being draws. With such a run, you would expect the north-east side to be well up the table but such is the closeness seen in this league this season Hartlepool are only 12th, yet just three points behind third-placed Wrexham.
For the Welsh side, it has been a better season than some of their fans had been expecting. Boss Dean Keates has turned them into a solid if unspectacular side. Prior to their last two matches – the 2-2 draw with Orient and a 2-0 defeat at AFC Fylde – Wrexham had conceded just eight goals in their sixteen matches, keeping nine clean sheets in those games, but at the same time had only scored 14. It’s a formula that has worked, given their lofty position but they will be kicking themselves after only picking up one point from those two games but even three more points wouldn’t have seen them top.
The Whites of Dover Looking Over the Rest
That honour was recently held by another former Football League side with John Askey’s Macclesfield having been on a good run of late. Defeat at home to Eastleigh, their third reverse at their Moss Rose ground this season, followed a similar one-goal defeat at Dagenham & Redbridge in midweek which ended a run of five successive wins. In fact, prior to their trip to East London, they had won nine of their previous eleven matches. Such is the tightness of this division though it wasn’t enough to pull away from the pack, especially with current leaders, Dover Athletic in arguably better form.
The Kent side have been consistent all season, only losing three times all season – including away to Macclesfield – each only by the one goal, with just one reverse in their last 13 outings. It has been steady progress for the side from the town more famous for its ferry port, after finishing fifth, eighth and then sixth last season in the three years since returning to the National League via the Conference South play-offs in 2014. This Dover club – the sixth incarnation of the original Dover F.C. formed in 1894 – came into being just 34 years ago in 1983 after the previous club, that had been around since the late 1940s, became the latest to fold. They took over the old club’s place in the Southern League and won its Premier League just seven years later but were denied promotion to the then Conference due to a ground grading issue. They weren’t to be stopped three years later when they won the Southern League again.
A nine-year stay in the Conference ended in 2002, a season which saw them briefly managed by former Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall. By 2005 they had slipped down to the Isthmian League Division One and were in real danger of following their predecessors at the Crabble Athletic Ground as they found themselves in deep financial trouble. They were ultimately saved by a consortium headed up by former director Jim Parmenter, the local businessman remaining as chairman to date. Under his guidance, they find themselves on a firm financial footing with the chairman bullish in the assertion that they are ready, for the Football League. It’s a claim that stands up at the moment as they look down on the rest of the non-league game, for now. They can put their feet up for a week though having exited the F.A. Cup at the fourth qualifying round stage at the hands of Bromley.
Play-off hangover on the Wirral
Leyton Orient aren’t the only former league club to be suffering in the National League this season, with the biggest surprise perhaps being Tranmere Rovers. The Merseyside club finished second in last season’s National League table, a spot only good enough for a place in the play-offs, but failed to transport their league form into the play-off final at Wembley as Forest Green Rovers took the remaining place in the Football League. Given their strong performance last season, Tranmere were very much seen as favourites this time around but it hasn’t quite worked out that way so far for Micky Mellon’s men. At the time of writing, they sit 14th, admittedly only nine points behind Dover. Goal scoring has been Rovers’ issue; prior to last weekend’s game at home to Halifax, the Wirral side had only scored 13 goals in their 17 matches, including nine games where they failed to score at all. Only a strong defence that had conceded just the same 13 in that time has seen them stay relatively in touch with the rest of the pack. They rather turned both those stats on their head last weekend though, running out 4-2 winners against the Yorkshire side, with their fans no doubt hoping it proves to be a turning point as they look to end their three-year exile from the Football League.
Torquay United have been out the league a year longer than Tranmere but as things stand they could very well be taking another step down rather than up come the season’s end. The Devon club sits second bottom of the National League as things stand, only goal difference separating them and the side below them, Solihull Moors. They made a shocking start to the season, picking up just one point from the first 21 on offer, and didn’t see their first league victory until the 3rd October. By that time boss, Kevin Nicholson had been replaced by former Sunderland midfielder and, most recently, Bath City boss Gary Owers. His appointment has seen an uplift in results and saw him declare that his side were ‘not rubbish anymore’ after their recent win at Ebbsfleet. Some may argue with that given they still lie six points adrift of safety as they too go into a weekend off having lost to Aldershot Town in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup.
Coasters Learning the Hard Way
Much was expected of the heavily financed AFC Fylde in the National League this after their recent rise through the divisions. Funded by wealthy local entrepreneur David Haythornthwaite the club, formerly known as Kirkham & Wesham, were in the West Lancashire League as recently as 2007, level 11 of the English football league system (the Premier League being level one of course). It was about that time that a 15-year plan was put forward to be in the Football League by 2022, the sleeves of their shirts carry that number as a reminder and an incentive. As part of that plan, they were due to reach the National League by 2017, so it’s all going to plan so far. Their fans may have been hoping for a better first season at this level though given the club currently sits in just 16th spot, exactly six points off the play-offs and the relegation zone. With such a tight league as there is this season and the fact that a play-off place can be obtained by a side as low as seventh in a new convoluted play-off system that has been brought in across all levels of the National League, Fylde’s dreams of reaching the Football League could come true earlier. Back-to-back victories that have seen them win their last two games by a combined score of 6-0 would suggest an upturn in form and shows they have no problem scoring – only Dagenham & Redbridge and Aldershot have scored more this season. Defence has been their problem most of the season – surprising considering their boss is ex-Bury and Tranmere defender Dave Challinor – with 25 shipped, against 28 scored. The last two results suggest that may have improved but given those games were against a shot-shy Wrexham and bottom of the table Solihull, sterner tests may be ahead for their defence. Challinor – who this week celebrated six years in charge of the club – has openly admitted recently that this season is a big learning experience for everyone at the club and whilst he has seen improvements recognises there is still a long way to go.
As you can see there are plenty stories in the National League this season, whether ex-league club or not, and with such a tight competition there are sure to be many more twists and turns – and leaders, no doubt – as the season progresses.