Mark Carruthers: Anticipation rising across National League and Northern Premier League clubs ahead of new season
Ebac Northern League clubs have provided an action-packed opening to the 2021/22 North East non-league season – and now the region’s higher-ranked sides will add further spice when their campaigns get underway this weekend.
There can be no doubt that Northern League clubs have provided value for money in abundance in front of increased attendances over the last fortnight.
Now, with their new campaign just days away, anticipation is rising at North East clubs across the National League and Northern Premier League as they look to play their part in what looks like the most intriguing non-league seasons the region has witnessed for many a year.
Our National League North quartet have genuine reason to look forward to the new season with high hopes, despite facing a number of clubs that have seemingly spent big during the close season.
Gateshead have enjoyed a productive summer in the transfer market as Mike Williamson and Ian Watson looked to address their shortfalls at the top end of the pitch with the additions of former Newcastle United forward Adam Campbell and Carlisle United striker Cedwyn Scott.
The recent signing of former Magpies under-23s captain Owen Bailey will only fuel the belief that Gateshead can be seen as realistic challengers for a return to non-league’s top tier.
Spennymoor Town will fall into that bracket too as Tommy Miller prepares for his first full season in the dugout at a transformed Brewery Field.
The home of the Moors has never looked better, and their on-field prospects remain as impressive as their hard work behind the scenes.
Miller has been prudent in the transfer market and the captures of Guiseley’s attacking full-back John Lufudu and Boston United’s talented midfielder Brad Abbott could be a masterstroke.
Darlington, by Alun Armstrong’s admission, remain a work-in-progress as the Quakers boss continues to try and add to his squad ahead of the big kick-off.
However, his most recent signing is unquestionably his most important and will come as a major boost for the club’s supporters.
Following spells with Dundee and Torquay United, former Sunderland striker Andrew Nelson has returned to Darlington after becoming a popular figure during an impressive loan spell at the club in 2018.
After two abysmal seasons, where relegation was only prevented by the curtailment of both campaigns, Blyth Spartans look rejuvenated after a hectic summer of transfer activity.
Former Croft Park favourites like Michael Liddle, Nathan Buddle, Dan Maguire and Nicky Deverdics have all returned and Michael Nelson has also added National League North experience with the additions of Toby Lees and Karl Byrne.
A positive pre-season has only added to the positivity around the club – but, without trying to dampen any expectations, a mid-table finish would be seen as a massive success after two difficult years.
South Shields are the early favourites to claim the Northern Premier League title and swell the North East’s National League North ranks next season.
The Mariners are preparing for a historic season after their transition from part-time to full-time professional club was officially completed earlier this summer.
Transfer business is ongoing, and Graham Fenton confirmed he still wants to add to his squad as recently as two weeks ago.
Connor Tee – once of Leicester City – and former Cardiff City defender Jack Bodenham are shrewd additions and Ntumba Massanka will hope to prove his worth after showing promising signs during pre-season.
Morpeth Town have gone for quality rather than quantity after former Newcastle United academy duo Ryan Donaldson and Callum Morris moved to Craik Park.
Donaldson arrives fresh from helping Hartlepool United return to the Football League and Morris has spent the last nine years of his career playing in the top two tiers in Scotland.
They only add to a Highwaymen squad laden with experience and a play-off challenge looks on the cards for Stephen Turnbull’s side.
The Northern Premier League East Division provides the North East with one of the most fascinating tales this season.
Of the region’s five step four clubs, Marske United look the best bet for success with the talented Dale Hopson and former Sunderland youngster Mackenzie Diciccio added to a squad that was already capable of mounting a title challenge before last season was curtailed.
Dunston UTS will hope to finally complete a season in step four after their two previous attempts were cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The additions of former South Shields trio Craig Baxter, Phil Turnbull and Lee Mason will do their hopes no harm – although a mixed bag of results in pre-season will be of slight course for concern.
Stockton Town’s quick-paced journey up the pyramid will meet a new high when the Anchors – who were a Wearside League club as recently as 2016 – walk out at Stocksbridge Park Steels this weekend.
Momentum is with them, and a squad packed with plenty of higher-level experience will fancy their chances of really making an impact this season.
If Stockton’s Northern League spell was fleeting, Shildon’s was more enduring after they brought down the curtain on almost 90 years in the league.
All focus is now on the Northern Premier League for Daniel Moore, and he has limited his transfer business to signing former Carlisle United player David Atkinson and Huddersfield Town youngster Will McCamley.
They will be a threat if forward trio Billy Greulich-Smith, Michael Sweet and Dean Thexton hit the ground running.
From almost going out of business just four years ago to an FA Vase triumph and promotion into the NPL represents some journey for Hebburn Town.
Their preparations for step four have been far from ideal after captain Louis Storey joined Gateshead and veteran striker Graeme Armstrong announced his retirement.
However, there is still plenty of reason for positivity and the addition of Consett’s pacey winger Ali Alshabeeb and defender Tom Devitt will go some way to filling their void.
The scene is set for eleven more clubs across the region, let the fun and games begin.
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