Steven Finn’s explosive return to Test cricket at Edgbaston proved again how cyclical sport can be. Yes, it has taken Finn a long time to regain the form he initially showed as an England player, but he is the latest to prove that however low things may seem – and I include teams as well as individuals in this – eventually a natural level will be found.
In Finn’s case, he clearly has all the attributes to bowl quickly at international level, and at 25 you would hope he never again visits the dark days of the last two years.
As the Ashes series hares towards Trent Bridge, the much longer domestic football season prepares to blow off the cobwebs for another nine months of peaks and troughs for club officials, managers, players and supporters alike.
Natural levels are increasingly being found here too, but there are no guarantees, even for a club like Portsmouth with their loyal and extensive support. I’m sure their fans, at least for now as they watch their side in League 2, will cast an envious eye along the south coast to Premier League newcomers AFC Bournemouth, whose own story over a longer period is no less heart warming than that of Steven Finn.
Whatever happens to Eddie Howe’s team, their reward for reaching the top tier is financial security for the medium term – or at least it should be if the club is managed prudently. At the other end of the scale, teams in the newly named National League (formerly the Conference) are striving for Football League status, and the smaller but no less invaluable cushion that comes with it in terms of solidarity payments. More than half the division are former Football League clubs. No wonder it is such a tense scramble to get back there.
Last season Barnet went up as champions, with Bristol Rovers winning the play off final on penalties. Tranmere Rovers and Cheltenham came down – two teams for whom one bad season in League Two was immensely costly. Alfreton, Dartford, AFC Telford and Nuneaton lost their places after finishing in the bottom four, to be replaced by Barrow – another ex Football League club – Boreham Wood, Bromley and Guiseley. The mix is will be new to some but familiar to others.
Tranmere and Cheltenham both have Football League parachute payments for one season, with the club from the Wirral carrying the biggest expectation. Grimsby have been in the play offs for the last three seasons, and their fans have pledged over £100,000 to spend on the team through one of the increasingly popular “crowdfunder” appeals. Eastleigh and Forest Green lost in the play off semi finals last season and are extensively backed financially. That quintet should dominate the top five places.
If there is to be a threat, it might come from two teams with new managers. Wrexham have under achieved for a while, but Gary Mills won promotion with York and is highly regarded at this level, albeit his squad has had an extensive overhaul. Malcolm Crosby’s Gateshead – who also have new owners – have made some decent signings but were 13 points off fifth place last season, which is a big gap to make up.
Macclesfield and Woking were on the fringe of the leading group but might find others have improved more. Halifax ought to be in the top half, as should Lincoln, who have looked to Mansfield (champions in 2013) for several of their summer recruits.
In mid table, there are several teams who I don’t expect to challenge or for that matter be in any trouble. Dover would be delighted to replicate a season where they finished eighth – they are no longer a surprise package and so may not manage that – and Chester, who after being relegated and then re-instated in 2014 look to have found some stability, which cannot be said for Torquay.
They too have new owners and a new manager, but a budget cut by more than a third doesn’t suggest a promotion challenge. Barrow look the strongest of the promoted teams, and I would expect Aldershot to pick up after two years scrambling just above the relegation zone. Their time in the doldrums has run parallel to Steven Finn. Clinging to this group might be Altrincham, who are part time but who played some of the most attractive football I saw from any team last winter.
The back of the field, at this stage at least, looks likely to contain several teams used to looking over their shoulders. Two of them – Braintree and Welling – have new managers, and inexperienced ones at that when compared to some of those around them.
There have been budget cuts at Kidderminster, and I would suggest finishing outside the bottom four would represent success for Southport. How Bromley, Boreham Wood and Guiseley start will tell us a lot about their prospects, with Boreham Wood the most prominent in terms of their summer signings.
Geographically my closest club is Cheltenham, whose fans have to get used to playing outside the Football League for the first time in 16 years.
I watched quite a few games in the National League last season, and I saw a lot of functional hard working teams who rarely looked likely to score more than one goal in a game. Chances were made, but the finishing lacked the sharpness of higher levels, which is perhaps why Cheltenham manager Gary Johnson has tried to put together, almost from scratch, a squad who can better that ratio.
Their first month sees them play clubs who at one time or another have been in the Football League, beginning at Lincoln City. If Johnson is to get Cheltenham into the top five – and I would suggest that is the realistic target – then August is no time for getting caught on the blocks. Their start needs be as brisk as a Steven Finn yorker.
Photograph : Copyright http://www.zimbio.com