Isthmian League Premier Division Season Preview 2021/2022
By Louis Massingham Rowell
By the time the Isthmian League title is lifted on the 23rd April 2022 it will have been three years since it was last lifted aloft in celebration. The previous winners were Dorking Wanderers who stormed to the championship, winning it by twenty-two points. The fact that they are now knocking on the door of the National League shows how long it has been since a team has won the Isthmian Premier Division. This season will arguably be the most open it has been for a number of years partly due to the fact that the twenty-two teams competing are the same teams that started the 2019-20 season. There are no teams wondering whether they can make the step up from a lower division or teams wondering how they’ll adapt to a lower division. These twenty-two teams have had about forty games to get used to it. Now it’s about who rises to the top and claims promotion to the National League South.
It is hard to look beyond Worthing as one of, if not, the favourites for the title going into the new season. The club sat top of the table when the 19-20 season was curtailed and when the 20-21 season inevitably came to an end, The Mackerelmen had lost just six of their forty-two games over the last two seasons with a total of 2.19 points-per-game. It is a club that seems to be growing off the pitch as well with average attendances getting close to the 1,000 mark before the COVID pandemic and restrictions came in. With goalscoring midfielder Ricky Aguiar still at the club along with striker Ollie Pearce, a large majority of the squad that sat top of the league in 19-20 are still at the club so know what it takes to get to that position. The question is whether they can replicate it once again to finally achieve what would be a deserved promotion.
For a lot of teams, the 2020-21 season was the most forgettable in memory with a number of clubs playing no more than single figures of games. For one side, however, it was the most unforgettable season with a footballing fairy-tale being written. AFC Hornchurch won the FA Trophy at Wembley in front of their fans on a day they will never forget. The side from Essex knocked out a number of sides from higher divisions including the likes of Maidstone, King’s Lynn, Notts County before beating National League North side Hereford 3-1 at Wembley in May. The question is whether Mark Stimson can get his side to replicate this form in the league with Stimson arguing that they are the side that everyone wants to beat this season with the club in third place when the 19-20 season was curtailed. With experienced striker Chris Dickson signed on for another year having been the club’s top scorer in 19-20 with twenty-four goals alongside goal-scorer in the final and last season’s top scorer in the FA Trophy with seven goals, Liam Nash, staying with the Urchins there is a belief that Hornchurch’s fairy-tale story hasn’t finished just yet.
One club that are a bit of an unknown this season are Cray Wanderers. Having been promoted to the Isthmian League in the 2018-19 season as Champions of the Isthmian South East Division, they have not yet completed a full season at step three of non-league. Looking at how they performed in the two curtailed seasons you’d be forgiven for thinking that they would be challenging Worthing as one of the favourites for the league having achieved 1.98 points-per-game over the two seasons. However, with the manager and key players leaving for an Isthmian League rival, the club has decided to appoint the untested Danny Kedwell as their new manager. The ex-Wimbledon, Ebbsfleet and Havant & Waterlooville striker takes on his first managerial role but with numerous promotions and seasons in non-league football it would be too early to write Kedwell’s potential as a manager. The Wands will be hoping that they will be able to kick off a season at their new Flamingo Park ground as a National League South club. Moving across London to another title challenger in Carshalton Athletic who have looked a strong outfit since their promotion to the Isthmian League in 2017-18. Having finished second to Dorking Wanderers in their first season they managed to achieve an average of 1.86 points-per-game during the 19-20 and 20-21 seasons making it easy to say that Carshalton are a threat to any other potential title challengers. Under the management of former player Peter Adeniyi there has been an emphasis on developing young players with their top scorer for the 2019-20 now at EFL newcomers Sutton United after a season in League One with Northampton. Adeniyi has overseen two campaigns as manager and took his side to the FA Cup 1st Round in 2019-20 before losing 4-1 at home to Boston United. The robins will be hoping that Isthmian League fans’ predictions for Carshalton to achieve a play-off finish will come true by the end of April 2022.
Horsham FC, alongside Cray, are another side who are yet to complete a full season at step 3. Having been promoted to the Isthmian League in the 2018-19 season the club are looking to build upon their good season they had before null and void in March 2020. The club moved into their new ground in July 2019 and are yet to complete a full season playing their either. Having been in play-off contention during the 2019-20 season, with an average of 1.65 points-per-game over the two seasons there is reason to believe that Horsham can be a dark horse for two successive promotions. Their manager is attempting to play down expectations, however, stating that their aim is to “try and have a top-half finish” with the potential to “be in and around those play-offs” come the end of the season. With a settled home after groundshares since 2008 at Worthing, Horsham YMCA and the headquarters of the Sussex FA, the Hornets can potentially start looking up towards the upper levels of non-league with a new base to build upon.
A club that is currently having to groundshare in the Isthmian League is Kingstonian, ground sharing with fellow Isthmian Premier club Corinthian Casuals. Having left their former ground Kingsmeadow at the end of the 2016-17 season they are yet to have a concrete path as to where their ‘new home’ may be. Their manager, Hayden Bird, is in his third season with the club but has not completed a full one due to the pandemic. Having reached the FA Cup 2nd round in the 2019-20 season the club will be hoping to transfer their success in the cup to the league this season. The club have added a number of attacking players including the likes of Daniel Ajakaiye, Jason Banton, Nyren Clunis and Rhys Murrell-Williamson. The club will be hoping these players can provide the cutting edge for the K’s. Having only lost six games out of the thirty-two league games, you’d have thought they’d have a higher PPG over the two seasons having only reached 1.55 points per game. However, fourteen of these thirty-two games were draws so it doesn’t take a genius to realise that adding some potent and clinical finishers could see Kingstonian increase their points-per-game total for the upcoming season.
A club looking to return to the National League South is Bishop Stortford. The Hertfordshire side are looking to return to step two after a four-year absence. Expectations around the club are growing with a number of supporters suggesting it’s the best Stortford side put together for a number of years. They will have to improve on the 1.11 points-per-game record over the two curtailed seasons. Jake Cass has returned to the club having scored seven goals in nine games for the Blues at the beginning of the 2018-19 season before moving on to Braintree Town in the National League. Midfielder Jonny Giles has signed having played in the EFL with Oxford and stated that the club has got “players that will want to compete and will want to go and try and win this league”. There is a determination around this club and a competitive squad could easily lead to them become challengers for the title in the upcoming season.
Arguably the most well-known club in the Isthmian League are looking to make a big impact on the division this season. Known for their equality FC programme, with the men’s team being paid the same as the women’s team, Lewes FC men’s side are looking to emulate the success of the women’s team and rise through the leagues. After a very successful spell at Cray Wanderers, taking them to second place in 2019-20, Tony Russell is approaching his first season as Lewes manager and is putting together a squad ready to challenge for the title. Prolific striker Joe Taylor has followed Russell from the capital to the Sussex club having scored 26 league goals with Cray and been voted the Isthmian Premier Player of the Year in the null and voided 2019-20 season. The club state that the current ambition is for the men’s team to be playing at Step 2 with the belief that Russell can get them there. Russell has bought into the values of the club stating that his “aim is to bring success to the club, continue the excellent work the club has achieved with their youth players, ensuring that we play with the same integrity and values that the club has established off the pitch”. The club has a drive but will need to put the disappointment of the Covid seasons behind them having only achieved an average of 0.93 points-per-game.
It’s fair to say that this Isthmian League Premier season is shaping up to be a very open and entertaining one. With no new sides looking to bed themselves in or relegated sides looking to change a losing mentality it is a known – unknown in the sense that all the sides know who they are coming up against. Two places in the National League South are up for grabs, and it is going to be a fight to the finish to claim them.
Bognor Regis Town v Bishop's Stortford Bowers & Pitsea v Leatherhead Brightlingsea Regent v Merstham Carshalton Athletic v Enfield Town Cheshunt v East Thurrock United Cray Wanderers v Lewes Folkestone Invicta v Worthing Horsham v Hornchurch Kingstonian v Haringey Borough Potters Bar Town v Corinthian Casuals Wingate & Finchley v Margate