Northern Premier League Premier Division Season Preview 2021/2022
By Mathew Rhodes
Well, where do you begin?
After what feels like a lifetime ago, the NPL Premier Division is finally back. How we have all missed it! This division has to go down as one of the most competitive and feisty leagues in the whole of the English football pyramid. After two seasons in a row condemned to the bin, it will be fascinating to see what the outcome will be after (fingers crossed!) a fully completed league campaign.
There’s a host of very intriguing elements to the 2021/22 NPL Premier Division league campaign.
As per usual, this is going to be a very difficult division to escape from as there is only one automatic promotion spot to reach the National League North. One of the biggest questions will be if South Shields can deliver on their extremely high expectations. The north-east outfit can consider themselves to be extremely unfortunate to not be competing in the National League North already. The Mariners were comfortably clear at the top of the NPL Premier Division in the 2019/20 campaign when the world came to a grinding halt. In a huge blow, the NPL Premier Division were one of the few divisions in England to not conclude their 2019/20 campaign by awarding final league placings on a points per game basis. Instead, the campaign was officially null and voided despite the fact that the majority of teams had already played just over two-thirds of their league fixtures for the season. It was a controversial decision (and one that I massively disagreed with) and there was a strong feeling that the Mariners had been very hard done by when they were clearly the best team in the league and fully deserved the automatic promotion spot. However, South Shields have now licked their wounds, moved on and have done everything possible to give themselves the best chance of finally winning the league title this time around. South Shields are now a full-time professional football club since the early demise of the Covid-hit 2020/21 campaign. Full-time professional clubs are very much a rarity at this level of the sport, so it just goes to show how serious the Mariners are in making up for lost time and getting to where they want to be.
It was interesting to see that South Shields had a rather indifferent start by their standards to the 2020/21 campaign. Of course, we’ll never know whether the Mariners would have found their feet and quickly surged up the table but there is a good case to suggest that South Shields struggled without being able to have a full fan base behind them. The Mariners have an outstanding fan base for this level of the game and it was pretty clear that they missed their support in the ill-fated 2020/21 mini-season. Of course, (fingers crossed once again) lack of support in stadiums should not be an issue for this season. With full support behind them once again and an extremely impressive and professional set-up behind them, South Shields have to be considered title favourites and the team to beat.
Who could spoil South Shields’s party though? There’s plenty of contenders. FC United of Manchester certainly have to be considered as outside title contenders. The famous non-league side also have a very impressive set-up for this level and, of course, have an outstanding level of support for Step 3 of non-league football. What will definitely help the Manchester side, is the fact that manager Neil Reynolds now leads the side in a full-time role with no other distractions. That can only be seen as a huge plus for FC United of Manchester’s chances of promotion for this coming season.
There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a hugely competitive scrap at the top end of the table. As has been the case for a little while now, second through to fifth position in the division is a play-off spot. Teams like Basford United and Warrington Town will surely be contenders for these spots if top spot proves to be too elusive. Steve Chettle and Paul Carden are both highly respected and well-liked at Basford and Warrington respectively and both clubs are hugely ambitious at this level of the sport.
Speaking of highly ambitious, it will be very interesting to see how Derbyshire outfit Buxton get on this season? The Bucks appeared to go all in ahead of last season making a whole host of very impressive signings that raised a lot of eyebrows. Of course, those ambitions were scuppered very early on due to the ongoing situation with the pandemic. Some of those new signings have already moved on after barely playing any games for the side and it will be intriguing to see if Buxton can regain their momentum and interest they raised at this time last year.
The NPL Premier Division is an extremely well-supported league for this level of the game. As well as the aforementioned South Shields and FC United of Manchester, Scarborough Athletic also have an excellent fan base and can easily attract crowds of four figures for league games. With the support that’s behind the Seadogs, you certainly can’t rule out their chances of a big push for a top five spot.
Mickleover will be a very interesting team to keep an eye out for. John McGrath’s team surprised everyone last season when they occupied the top spot in the league at the time when the season had no choice but to be cancelled. The Derbyshire team were certainly not considered to be promotion contenders at all last year. Could they surprise people once again this time around and have the chance to prove people wrong over a whole season?
In terms of dark horses, North Derbyshire’s Matlock Town could surprise many. Paul Phillips has experience of finishing in the top five of this division before and has assembled a Gladiators squad which has a very high work ethic drilled into them. Matlock have also made some very interesting signings over the summer; Jesurun Uchegbulam has looked an absolute revelation in pre-season following his switch from Mossley while Alex Wiles has impressed hugely in pre-season since his move from Gainsborough Trinity.
What of the wrong end of the table? It’s fair to say that Stafford Rangers and Grantham Town are pretty fortunate to still be competing in this division. Both teams have looked very poor and low on confidence in the Covid-hit seasons but have been able to escape relegation. The task of avoiding relegation this time around has been made even more difficult with the fact that four teams will now be automatically relegated from this division at the end of this campaign.
Grantham Town’s approach to this coming season generated quite a few headlines with who they appointed as their manager. Former Sheffield Wednesday and England international Carlton Palmer was appointed from out of nowhere. Could he be the man to rejuvenate the Lincolnshire outfit?
Thankfully, we’re all (finally, finally!) soon about to find out the answers to all these questions. The time for talking is drawing to a close and the NPL action is finally about to start.
Of course, after what we’ve all had to endure since March of 2020, what we all just need is an uninterrupted, completed season with no attendance restrictions. Wherever your club finishes this season, this will surely be the campaign to make you realise that you can never take this stuff for granted ever again.
As a bonus piece to this article, I interviewed four supporters of teams within this division to find out their opinions on the season ahead for their beloved non-league sides:
Marc Williams (Basford United) What key signings have you made over the summer? “We’ve made two key signings so far this summer: Oliver Clark come in from Step 4 outfit Carlton Town having impressed with his performances from them.” “Former Notts County goalkeeper Adam Collin joins from Kettering Town and has a breadth of professional experience, notably at Carlisle United and Rotherham United. His signing as a player joins up with a role as Head of Goalkeeping at the club, overseeing training for the goalkeepers at first team and academy level.” Thoughts on your manager? “Nottingham Forest legend Steve Chettle is just that and is the perfect fit for Basford United as their mentality, aims, ethos and objectives are in sync.” “’Chetts’ joined us a few years ago as first team manager from Ilkeston Town and is also Head of Football. The transformation under his management is wonderful to see. The last two seasons have seen us compete at the higher end of a strong league, finishing fifth and second in the last two curtailed seasons.” “Obviously carrying a wealth of experience from his professional days, he’s amazing to be around and you can see what he has to offer. The players buy in to what he wants to achieve. He sees a project at the club and wants National League football and beyond like the rest of us.” “He has a lot of time for sub-teams at the club, such as media, and is a big hit with the fans. I hope to see ‘Chetts’ at Greenwich Avenue for some time to come.” Which match are you most looking forward to? “I like the long away days, so Morpeth Town and South Shields will be ones to look forward to when they come around. Whitby Town and Scarborough Athletic are enjoyable away trips too. They’re all big teams, probably underperforming to their standard, so to be competing in the same division as them is excellent.” “However, I’m probably looking forward to FC United of Manchester away the most. With their history, ground and everything behind them, seeing a packed Broadhurst Stadium will be an amazing spectacle.” “Saying that, every game at this level is always good to watch. I’m a huge fan and advocate of non-league football so every game – home and away – is always fun to be around. Great people, good stadiums, excellent quality on display and all usually less than £10 to take in. You can’t beat it. I’m just happy to be in and around it as often as I am.” What are your expectations for the club this season? “Given that we finished second in the most recent, albeit curtailed season, I think we can challenge again.” “With ‘Chetts’ as manager, his ethos and the players around him, I don’t see why we can’t see ourselves at the top end of that table. We’re hard to beat and have exciting players going forward, teamed with experience all over the park.” “Whether it’s challenging the automatic promotion spots, or in and around the play-off positions, I think we’ll be up there come next April.” “We had good form after losing our opening game against Warrington Town last year and I don’t think we lost in the league again before it was cancelled. We were dumped out of the FA Cup away at lower-league Chasetown, but given the run we then went on, that might have been a blessing. We also looked good in the FA Trophy too.” Who do you think will be in contention for the title? “The usual suspects will be there and as mentioned, maybe us too. Scarborough Athletic, South Shields and maybe FC United of Manchester, although they had a slow start to last season. Mickleover look okay as well and you will always get the stubborn northern teams like Warrington Town and Lancaster City. They’re always hard to beat. Matlock Town looked good when we drew 2-2 at their place last season.” “It all depends on how they’ve taken the curtailment and delayed postponement on board and how they’ve recruited. Anyone can beat anyone in this league. That’s what makes it so fascinating.” Do you think after the 18 months we’ve all endured, this will be a very open season? “I think so. Every team have undergone trials and tribulations both on and off the pitch, so I think they’ll want to impress when they finally return to league action.” “Whether that means everyone goes gung-ho, or they recruit exciting players for his level of football, I don’t know; but I’m sure teas will want to do well and come out fighting, not just for themselves, but their fans too.” “It’s important to them as it is to the club, so they’ll want to put on a show and I’m sure it’ll be like that. Not only that, but teams like ourselves, Mickleover, Matlock Town; those that might not be considered title favourites, are always going to challenge, so it’ll be interesting to see how the so-called big guns come out to ensure they’re up there themselves. I’m really looking forward to it, as I’m sure every club in the Northern Premier League Premier Division is.”
Kian (FC United of Manchester) What key signings have you made over the summer? “To add to an already exciting set of players brought to the club by Neil Reynolds two years ago ahead of a promotion-pushing campaign brought to a close by the pandemic, the gaffer has further strengthened our squad with the additions of Ali Waddecar – a well-known goal scorer at this level, whom he worked with during his time managing Bamber Bridge. It’s clear to see that he was a fan favourite there, having spent more than a decade with the Preston-based club netting hundreds of goals, including 25 during the 2018/19 NPL Premier Division campaign. That is exactly what we need at Broadhurst Park, as following the departure of Tunde Owolabi last summer, it was evident during the (very short) 2020/21 season that we needed someone capable of getting you those twenty-plus goals a season we’ll need if we are to reach our ambitions.” “Much to the delight of the FC faithful, we haven’t stopped there. Two other strikers also have the aim of impressing in Moston next season, as Keaton Mulvey and Cedric Main have also caught Reynolds’s eyes. Mulvey is 19 and a former Rochdale academy prospect, and this will be Main’s first stint in England, having spent previous years of his career abroad.” “Full-back and former Everton youngster Danny Brady also joins the club, along with Joe White who has previously made a first team appearance for Bolton Wanderers in League One.” “I’d like to see us strengthen further though, particularly in midfield, and if we are to snap someone up in that area of the pitch they’ll have big boots to fill following the departure of young playmaker Luke Griffiths. Centre-back Chris Doyle also recently joined Southport, so we’ll need someone else there too. As they say, ‘attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”. Thoughts on your manager? “You don’t get a relationship between a manager and a fan base better than that of Neil Reynolds and FC United’s. When he took the job in October 2018 the club was in turmoil; bottom of the National League North, struggling to keep hold of players of more than a few weeks and in a terrible financial state. Although, ultimately, it was impossible for him to save us from relegation in that space of time, we could never (at the end of the 2018/19 season) have even imagined a return to form both on and off the pitch like the one we’ve had. Within weeks of our relegation, he brought in the players he wanted (difficult as it was considering our low budget) and took us all the way to second in the NPL Premier Division, looking as though we were heading for a play-off campaign where we’d undoubtedly have been the favourites – before the season was sadly brought to a premature end. Despite the heartbreak our fans felt knowing an exceptional season would mean nothing, there were signs that the football club we hadn’t seen for numerous seasons beforehand was back. Home crowds were touching 2,000, the atmosphere was incredible and there was a true feel-good factor around the club. Now, we’re aiming to pick up right where we left off and enjoy a brilliant season with the pandemic hopefully over and done with. So in short, Neil Reynolds is the catalyst for the change in fortunes at FC United and knows how much every single FC United of Manchester fan thinks of him. We’re all looking forward to many years with him at the helm in what we’re deeming to be a new era at Broadhurst Park.” Which matches are you most looking forward to? “Tough one that. The whole of August will be entertaining and not just because of the long-awaited return to league action. We begin our campaign with a short trip to Warrington Town, and a few weeks later face a journey to the team most people deem as the favourites for the title – South Shields. The opening month is then capped off with a bank holiday weekend of Hyde United away and Radcliffe at home. That’s a very tough start, as you can expect each and every one of the teams in question will be in the top half this season and potentially competing for promotion.” “It’s a real shame that the South Shields game happens to fall on a Tuesday night, as less people will be able to make it, so you can expect to see an attendance figure smaller than the 3,274 we witnessed on the 14th of March, 2020 – the day the two sides played out an eight goal thriller in what would go on to be the final game we played before the world went a bit weird. Either way, that will still be a huge game and our team will be up for it.” “There’s plenty of games to look forward to throughout the season; Nantwich Town at home could turn out to be a thriller in September, and then we’ll face eye-catching trips to Lancaster City and Witton Albion in October.” “The festive period never lets you down, and with Whitby Town and Buxton both visiting Broadhurst Park in December, it’ll be no different for us this year. We’ve also got Radcliffe away on New Year’s Day and if that’s anything like the last few times we’ve played them then both sets of fans are in for a treat.” “Scarborough Athletic away is always one to look out for. However, despite the fact we’ve technically been in this league for two years now, we haven’t actually got to make the trip to Scarborough yet, as the season has been halted before we got the opportunity to enjoy a day on the east coast. Hopefully, this doesn’t happen again and when February comes round we’ll be able to prepare for that game as we enter the business end of the season. The other three teams many FC United of Manchester fans haven’t been given the opportunity to visit yet due to the pandemic are Gainsborough Trinity, Matlock Town and Morpeth Town.” “Our season will finish following a tough final run-in, as we face South Shields at home, Ashton United away and Hyde United at home for our final three games. We don’t yet know how meaningful these games will turn out to be, but they could prove to be the difference in terms of where we finish. Overall, there’s a number of games I’m buzzing for.” What are your expectations for the club this season? “Promotion. It’s as simple as that. Now I know that sounds optimistic and the truth is, with how tight this league is, there’s every chance we’ll finish way below where we want to. We’ll be up there though, that’s for sure” “I’m not, by any means, saying that if we don’t get promoted we’ve failed, because all us fans ask for is our team to play for the badge and we know they will. The truth is, this team know they’re more than good enough to get promoted because they were ever so close to doing so in March of 2020.” “In the 2019/20 season, we were second in the league only behind runaway leaders South Shields. Whilst all second place gets you in this league is a play-off spot, I was confident we were going to storm the play-offs, arrogant as it sounds. I believe in our team. That’s why I’m still gutted, over a year later, about the FA’s decision to null and void that season. Whilst I love this league – the fun away trips and all the rest of it – it’s our dream to get back up to the National League North. And that’s what the gaffer himself has said he’s aiming for. I think after how miserable the last 18 months have been, we’re just desperate for the satisfaction of a successful, uninterrupted campaign.” “I suppose us FC United fans are always optimistic. We haven’t tasted glory since our NPL title win in 2015, and even when we were playing terribly at the end of our four year stint in the National League North, our fans didn’t boo once. And that’s what I love about our club. But now, we actually have a proper reason to be optimistic. Our new signings I’ve mentioned before will hopefully fit right in. We’ll be fighting all the way this season, I know it.” “The manager’s got a clear direction in terms of how he wants his team to play and it involves an incredible amount of dedication. It’s not just the attacking, expressive football we all love to watch; it’s the endless hard work we know he gets them to put in. He wants the team to die for the badge, which you don’t often get with non-league players. If all that motivates you is money, then the gaffer doesn’t want you here. To be honest, half of our team came from clubs in the league below, so it’s not individual brilliance that makes us a scary team, it’s the collective shape. But that’s not to say that we don’t have some ridiculously talented players in our squad. For example, I can see the likes of Regan Linney and Finlay Sinclair-Smith ending up in the professional game. And then you’ve got the more experienced players like Adam Dodd, who is one of the best full-backs we’ve seen at FC United, or club captain Mike Potts, who’s a natural-born leader and warrior.” “If it comes down to the play-offs, then they’ll be able to handle the pressure – they play in front of thousands every week.” “So to sum things up, I honestly don’t see a reason why this can’t be an incredible season. I may end up eating my words if things don’t go to plan but I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how we do. The sky’s the limit for FC United at the moment!” Who do you think will be in contention for the title? “I’ve already mentioned ourselves and South Shields, but you’ve also got the likes of Scarborough Athletic, Hyde United, Whitby Town, Warrington Town, Basford United, Radcliffe and a team who looked surprisingly solid during the short 2020/21 season – Mickleover. Any of those teams could be looking at National League North football this time next year. I also get the feeling that Ashton United, who are always a tough team to break down, will overachieve. Buxton may be out of the equation as they’ve lost their best players before they even got a chance to properly play them. Scarborough Athletic are improving their squad and are a force to be reckoned with. Warrington Town are one of those teams you know for sure will be up there – they have been for a while now.” The truth is, it’s hard to predict tables in non-league as it’s always very close and you get individual players who come from nowhere and begin ripping teams apart, so you’re always guaranteed to get one or two teams everyone’s tipping to be in a relegation battle who end up going for promotion and vice-versa.” “If I had to give you a top five then I’d go with South Shields to win it, FC United of Manchester in second, followed by Warrington Town, Ashton United and Scarborough Athletic. I don’t see any team getting anywhere above 80 to 85 points if I’m honest. It’s going to be a dogfight. I wish every club the best of luck and let’s hope for a first season back that’s filled with action.” Do you think after the 18 months we’ve all endured, this will be a very open season? “Yes, for sure. Teams have had more than enough time to get the squad they want together and because we’ve all spent so long away from the beautiful game, every team will be up for it. Attendances will increase as well. People have missed games so much that they’ll want to make up for it and also want to help support their local team financially after non-league has suffered so much throughout these tough times. In April, football fans faced a rude awakening as the attempts to start a European Super League made many realise that our game was being snatched from us and finally prompted them to go and support their local team to get away from it all. This is big for clubs like ourselves, as many more Manchester United fans have decided to hand back their season tickets at Old Trafford and come and join the fun at Broadhurst Park. We can’t say we didn’t warn them about the Glazers.” “As much as I’m hoping we perform this season and go up at the end of it all, the main thing I’m looking forward to is being back on the terrace, no matter what happens on the pitch. Going to FC United at the weekend is my coping mechanism and by far the thing I’ve missed the most during the pandemic. Here’s hoping nothing like this ever happens again and that non-league football is back for good because it really is the greatest thing on earth.”
Adam Campbell (South Shields) What key signings have you made over the summer? “Ntumba Massanka is a striker that comes with a good pedigree playing in the academy teams for Manchester United, Manchester City and Burnley. He’s played in the Football League and no lower than National League level previously, so he should easily replace Jason Gilchrist who has left us for York City. Conor Tee is an attacking midfielder that was signed after being released from Leicester City’s academy, so he comes with the technical ability but the question is, can he adapt to the physical nature of the NPL. South Shields have also signed a young, battling defensive midfielder who was released from Doncaster Rovers. He loves a tackle and pick out a pass. We have also lost a few of our veteran players because we’ve now become a full-time professional club. Players like Turnbull, Gillies, Baxter and Mason have left us due to that.” Thoughts on your manager? “The manager situation has changed fairly recently. Previously, we had Graham Fenton and Lee Picton as joint managers. Lee has now moved into a higher role within the club and Graham has now become the sole manager with veteran player Jon Shaw as his assistant. So it’s a different dynamic this time around. I am very confident that the players will have no problem adapting to this change.” Which matches are you most looking forward to? “When the fixtures come out, I usually look out for four teams: FC United of Manchester, Warrington Town, Scarborough Athletic and Morpeth Town. We’ve got an excellent record against FC United of Manchester but a poor record against Warrington Town to be honest. I love the away game that’s scheduled on the bank holiday weekend against Scarborough Athletic – a few beers in the sun! The games against Morpeth Town are good because that’s a local derby for us.” What are your expectations for the club this season? “After the last two seasons, turning full-time, the crowds we get and the direction the club is going in – we have got to be winning the league. That’s not being big headed but it’s the truth. Will be tough though.” Who do you think will be in contention for the title? “I think the usual sides will be up there. Warrington Town, FC United of Manchester, Nantwich Town, Basford United, Morpeth Town and Lancaster City. But on their day, anyone in this league could get in the play-offs I think.” Do you think after the 18 months we’ve all endured, this will be a very open season? “Yes, I think there will be a lot of shock results early doors. Players have probably moved all over, team budgets have been cut and momentum has been halted. I’m still convinced with the quality of players we’ve got and the support we get, any team that can finish above us will win the league.”
Jack Brocklehurst (Witton Albion) What key signings have you made over the summer? “So far, Witton have made absolutely no new signings for the season and have looked to retain their reliable key players such as Steve McNulty, Josh Wardle, Isaac Baldwin, Billy Smart, Danny McKenna, James Foley Nick Ryan and Will Jones. However, in that process we have unfortunately lost our two best players from the team with goalkeeper Chris Renshaw leaving for Curzon Ashton in the league above and Scott Bakkor returning to his old club Stalybridge Celtic after an impressive ten or so games with Witton Albion.” Thoughts on your manager? “Carl McCauley has done an incredible job at Witton after taking over in 2016 and is the best thing to happen to the club in recent history. He has galvanised the club quite frankly and without him we could be in the same position as Northwich Vics who are now two tiers below. His knowledge of players from the Liverpool area has been the vital knowledge for Witton’s success, plus he has great links with Crewe Alexandra which sees them loaning any young talents over with names such as Owen Dale, Luke Oxford and Regan Griffiths all now breaking into the first team at Crewe. So overall, I’d give Carl a fair nine out of ten for what he has achieved at Witton.” Which matches are you most looking forward to? “Personally, I’m looking forward to games against Buxton, Matlock Town and Stalybridge Celtic as they’re local games for me as I live in north-west Derbyshire. However, the majority of Witton fans have FC United of Manchester home and away as the big day due to the rivalry that both fan bases have created between them in the past ten years.” What are your expectations for the club this season? “Expectations for Witton this season will be quite simple really as we have not got the squad to push for the top end of the table. So we will look to have a steady mid-table finish. Games against Nantwich Town, Warrington Town and FC United of Manchester will be the most important games for fans. As for the cups, we will be aiming for around the third qualifying round for the FA Cup, to win the Mid-Cheshire Senior Cup and as for the FA Trophy, I would think the early rounds of the competition will be as far as we go.” Who do you think will be in contention for the title? “I won’t go off the small few games played at the start of last season and instead have the general say that South Shields and FC United of Manchester will be definitely in contention for the title. But joining them, I unfortunately believe that Buxton, Nantwich Town and Warrington Town will also be challenging for the title as it sounds as if they have still got the budget required to compete.” Do you think after the 18 months we’ve all endured, this will be a very open season? “I do believe the first ten or so games may cause upsets, however, after that I think quality will come through and we will begin to see who has an actual chance in winning the league and also who may be in danger of suffering the drop.”
Above: Map of all the Northern Premier League Premier Division clubs for the 2021/2022 season Below: A close up on the Greater Manchester and Cheshire area
1: Ashton United, 2: Atherton Collieries, 3: Bamber Bridge, 4: Basford United, 5: Buxton, 6: FC United of Manchester, 7: Gainsborough Trinity, 8: Grantham Town, 9: Hyde United, 10: Lancaster City, 11: Matlock Town, 12: Mickleover, 13: Morpeth Town, 14: Nantwich Town, 15: Radcliffe, 16: Scarborough Athletic, 17: South Shields, 18: Stafford Rangers, 19: Stalybridge Celtic, 20: Warrington Town, 21: Whitby Town, 22: Witton Albion
2021/2022 season opening day fixtures Saturday 14th August 2021:
Ashton United v Matlock Town Basford United v Scarborough Athletic Buxton v Bamber Bridge Gainsborough Trinity v Witton Albion Hyde United v Atherton Collieries Lancaster City v Whitby Town Nantwich Town v Stalybridge Celtic Radcliffe v Grantham Town South Shields v Mickleover Stafford Rangers v Morpeth Town Warrington Town v FC United Of Manchester