As the Isthmian League reaches its first hiatus of the season for the first FA Cup fixture, it’s time to file the first progress report of the season. And what better way to start than with the early breakaway top-5 clubs?
Lowestoft were the clear pre-season favourites with the bookies, and it wasn’t hard to see why: big home gates, play-off finalists last season, and their one problem area last term (scoring enough goals) seemingly solved with the signing of Kings Lynn’s very own Bobby Traynor, 161 goal Linnets striker Jack Defty. Five games in and there’s no reason to strip them of that favourites tag. Apart from a 2-1 reverse away to a good Margate side – more on them later – Town have been impressive, particularly going forward. Chris Henderson already has four goals, and perhaps more ominously for the rest of the division, looks to have already struck up a promising understanding with new strike partner Defty.
Verdict: Still the ones to beat
Hampton top the table after five games, thanks to their perfect defensive record; in fact, Arsenal are the only other team in the English league pyramid yet to concede a goal. The Beavers’ goal does seem to have led a charmed life thus far, with opposition fans bemoaning their poor luck and their even poorer finishing, but it’s a mightily impressive record, especially as Dean Inman – sensationally linked with a move to QPR last season – can’t even get into the side at the moment. They’ve only scored seven goals, however, and haven’t exactly looked like scoring a lot more, generally lining up in a narrow formation with both full-backs playing a largely defensive role.
Verdict: Solid so far – but what happens when the Beavers’ dam bursts?
Kingstonian sit third, and do so as the anti-Hampton, the Kevin Keegan to their George Graham: 14 goals scored and 7 conceded. An attacking midfield of Dean Lodge, Sam Clayton and Matt Pattison should mean the chances don’t dry up any time soon, but will Andre McCollin take enough of them? His red card aside, Andre has been magnificent so far in all but one area: one-on-one finishing. (If you could combine McCollin and a certain Mr. R. Traynor, you’d have a top-class football league player, by the way). Defensively, it’s difficult to know where K’s actually stand, as at least 3 of the 7 goals conceded have been due to suicidal defensive errors and gross lapses in concentration rather than poor defensive positioning. If the lads in red-and-white hoops can cut out the stupid mistakes at the back, they could be genuine contenders.
Verdict: Come On You K’s, keep it going
Margate are by far the best side K’s have faced so far this season, reflected in their unbeaten start. They’re also the only team to have beaten title favourites Lowestoft, which really marks them out as a team to watch. Hartsdown Park – with its sloping pitch and fierce winds – is never an easy place to go, but ‘Gate look to have an added resilience on the road this term which will make them difficult to beat.
Verdict: Play-off material
Bury Town have performed admirably since stepping up to the Ryman Premier, and now make their third attempt to exit the division to the promised land of the Conference South – although those of us who enjoy a boozy away day will be desperately hoping they fail (unless of course K’s accompany them up!) as it’s a fantastic little town. Gates have slid slightly since their promotion from Ryman One North, with only 312 at their first home game, which means they are not always able to compete on wages with Suffolk neighbours Lowestoft in the way they once were. However, Bury have made a seriously decent start, unbeaten in their first five, and look a sure-fire bet to reach the play-offs for a third consecutive year. Like K’s, they’ve had a relatively straightforward set of fixtures to start, so the match between the two in 8 days’ time could be a useful pointer as to whether either of the two sides can be genuine challengers for the title this time around.
Verdict: Top-5 again?
The Best of The Rest
Lewes were much fancied by some of their own fans before the start of the season – probably the type of Lewes fan who seems to think they’re a big club – but the smart money was never on the Sussex side to be up there this year. Their budget has been drastically reduced as part of preparation for a ‘break-even season’ next year, and as a result it would be a major surprise if they overcame this hurdle to mount a proper promotion bid. So far, there are no signs of the Rooks solving last term’s goalscoring problems, with only five strikes in 5 games.
Verdict: Midtable in the league table, top of the away day league table
Wealdstone continue to compete well at Ryman Premier level due to the loyalty of their long-suffering supporters, but were earmarked for greater things this time around after a Trophy run to the semi-finals allowed a significant boost to the playing budget. When you consider that the Stones finished last season in magnificent form, charging into the playoffs from a mid-table position at the turn of the year, it was no surprise that many fans took up the bookies’ offers of 12s and 10s, meaning Wealdstone started the season as 8/1 third favourites. They’ve made a solid, if unspectacular, start to the year, with only three goals conceded but only five goals scored. An insipid performance away to Lewes left supporters unimpressed, but they’ve ground out good results in all other four games, and it would be a very brave man who discounted them from the promotion picture this early in the season, especially with Richard Jolly in the ranks.
Verdict: If Richard Jolly stops firing blanks, they’ll be right up there
Canvey, Whitehawk and Bognor are also all on 8 points after five games, yet all have different ambitions this year: Bognor will be happy to consolidate after promotion, Canvey are making a tilt at the play-offs, and Whitehawk’s backers should expect a title challenge as a result of their vast playing budget. As much as it hurts to admit it, Whitehawk must have a genuine chance of being in the promotion picture at the end of the season: their one loss so far was to Lowestoft. The funding at Whitehawk looks like a rich man’s vanity project – what is the point of funding a non-community club without any fans? On the subject of annoying clubs without fans: mercifully, Met Police don’t look as strong this year.
Thurrock sit in the relegation zone after five games, which is a major surprise. Not because Thurrock are a big club at this level – I’m not sure they’re a big club at any level if truth be told – but because they’ve got a proper manager in the form of Mark Stimson at the helm. Stimson has won FA Trophies and Football League play-off finals, so it’s a shock to see his new charges struggling so badly. It’s not a shock to see Carshalton struggling, because they’ve not got a proper manager. In fact, they’ve not got a manager at all with Owner/General Secretary/President/Prime Minister/Chairman Dipre selecting the side. As long as he’s in charge of team affairs, they’ll be in trouble. But when will he realise he needs to appoint a genuine gaffer to pick and train the first XI? If a proper manager is in place there sooner rather than later, they could still be a threat given the quality of the squad at Colston Avenue.
Strangely, the league table could well have taken shape already: it would be no great shock if the current top 9 all finished in the top half, and no huge surprise were two of Leiston, Hendon, Harrow, Concord and East Thurrock to be relegated. We’ll know a lot more about Kingstonian’s chances after the next five games, which include away games at Bury, Lowestoft and Wealdstone. Ouch. Lowestoft are still the club to beat in the hunt for the title, but if Hampton are still top in five games’ time with an impressive defensive record, they’ll have to be considered genuine rivals to the Suffolk side. It’s all to play for.