Glenn Moore looks at the contenders for promotion to the Vanarama National League.
While the attention on the elite end of the non-League pyramid tends to focus on those teams seeking to enter the Football League, the scramble to get into the Vanarama National League system is no less intense. But now, as the weeks tick by, the smoke surrounding the battle to get into the two-tier, three-division set-up is clearing with two contrasting clubs favourites to step up.
Kettering Town are older than any club in the Premier League, and all but a handful in the Football League, yet currently play in the seventh tier. Also at step 3 in the non-League pyramid are Dorking Wanderers, only 20 years old but already seeking their 11th promotion. Both are poised to be among the six clubs going up to the Vanarama National League’s regional divisions, but who joins them is far from evident.
Three clubs are promoted into each of Vanarama National League North and Vanarama National League South. In the past that meant the champion and promotion play-off winner from each of the Northern Premier League, Southern League, and Isthmian League (a competition based around London and the south-east). The six would be allocated to the North or South divisions according to geography.
However this year, as part of an ongoing re-organisation of the pyramid, there are four divisions, the Southern League top flight having split into the Premier Central and Premier South respectively. So the four title-winners will go up, along with two further teams emerging from a series of play-offs.
Barring a late collapse, coming up from Southern League Premier Central will be a grand old non-League name – Kettering Town, formed in 1872. If an automatic promotion-and-relegation system had been in place before 1987, then surely they would have reached the Football League much earlier. The Poppies came agonisingly close in the following period, finishing runners-up three times in 12 years. Since then they have had mixed fortunes, achieving prominence during Paul Gascoigne’s ill-fated managerial stint and for an FA Cup run that ended at Craven Cottage, but also losing their much-loved Rockingham Road ground and going into administration. Now, playing at nearby Burton Latimer, they are thriving and sit 11 points clear with eight matches left.
If Kettering are non-League aristocracy, then Dorking Wanderers are street urchins. They were only formed in 1999 and began life in the Crawley and District league playing at Big Field Brockham, which is literally a big field. An astonishing ten promotions later they are 13 points clear in the Isthmian League Premier Division. Wanderers play at Meadowbank, formerly home to the now defunct Dorking FC. Previously the oldest club in Surrey, Dorking disbanded and effectively subsumed into Wanderers in 2017 bequeathing them the ground, which now sports an artificial pitch and doubles up as the Surrey FA HQ.
The other promotion races are much tighter. There is a three-way tussle in the Northern Premier League between Farsley Celtic, Warrington Town and 2017 FA Vase winners South Shields. Only Farsley have played in the National League divisions, managing four years before being expelled in 2010 after suffering financial problems.
The Southern League’s Premier South Division features four contenders for the automatic spot: Taunton, Weymouth and Salisbury, all of whom are well-supported with big ambitions, and Surrey-based Metropolitan Police, who traditionally find spectators harder to attract.
For more on the Vanarama National League, visit: http://www.thenationalleague.org.uk/
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