Midweek Preview

With the FA showing their usual disdain for football at our level by moving the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup forward again, we start the season in midweek – though not in July – to ensure Clubs involved in the FA Cup have a match under their belts before contemplating the long road to Wembley.

So, to Tuesday August 1st and the Premier Division with AFC Portchester and Alresford Town the first fixture on the list. Both Clubs will have title pretensions at this early stage, having finished eighth and sixth last season, and both have added wisely to their squads in the close season so an interesting clash in prospect. Andover Town, whose pitch looked immaculate in pre – season and a long way from the Portway playing surface of a decade ago, host near neighbours Bemerton Heath Harlequins with the two Clubs having finished two points apart last season. Andover Town will be looking to improve on what was a disappointing campaign for them whilst Bemerton, under new Manager Rae Hughes, will be something of an unknown quantity. Amesbury Town make the journey to Gang Warily mindful of a heavy defeat there last year but pre-season has gone well for the Wiltshire Club and they are far more settled both on and off the field. Blackfield & Langley meanwhile will have every intention of improving on fourth place and gaining the long sought promotion. Bournemouth and Brockenhurst, two long serving members of the League, meet at Victoria Park with the former looking for safer waters than they inhabited for a large part of last season and “The Badgers” aiming to improve on their tenth position. Cowes Sports, under new management and wishing to put last season’s fight against relegation behind them, face Sholing, many peoples’ tips for the title, at Westwood Park and could perhaps have wished for a slightly gentler opener. The “Boatmen” meanwhile have every stated intention of improving on last season’s third placing. Fareham Town against Horndean verges on a local derby and features two Clubs who finished last season very strongly. The home side climbed from bottom place in January to mid table respectability whilst Horndean took sixth place with a style of football that won many plaudits. Local bragging rights and more at stake. Hamble Club, who convincingly won Division One at the first attempt, open their Premier campaign with a visit from Newport (IOW). The home side have experience throughout their ranks that should enable them to cope with the higher standard whilst the Islanders, despite the ground problems hanging over them and the loss of some players, are always difficult to beat.

Hamworthy United were always clear of relegation worries last time round but still finished in the lower half and start the season with a visit from Lymington. The visitors are now largely free of the ground problems of last season and could surprise many this time round and improve on their ninth placing. The next game shows how the Pyramid works for the benefit of football at this level. Two seasons ago Petersfield Town were in the Southern League whilst Baffins Milton Rovers plied their trade in the Hampshire Premier League. Petersfield endured a very difficult 2016/17 and were relegated long before the season’s end whilst Baffins, like Hamble Club, gained promotion to the Premier Division at the first attempt. Both will have something to prove in their new surroundings. Champions Portland, having lost a number of players to a higher level and their manager to retirement, face Team Solent with whom they had more than one close encounter last season. The outcome of this probably depends on the player recruitment in the close season though the Students may have their perennial early season problems with availability. Finally, another game to rival the Petersfield/Baffins clash as Bashley go to Shaftesbury, possibly for the first time, though the Clubs did meet in the Forest in the League Cup last season. Two years ago this would have been Southern League versus the Dorset Premier – now it will provide Shaftesbury with an example of what they have ahead of them following their promotion at the first attempt.

A handful of games in Division One with Tuesday’s looking particularly appealing as Laverstock and Ford travel to Ringwood. The Clubs finished fifth and sixth last season after the Wiltshire Club had looked promotion contenders for most of the season and both will be seeking to make an early mark on proceedings. Fawley AFC open their campaign following relegation with a visit from Totton and Eling. The Waterside Club encountered and overcame problems that were not of their making last season and took their fight for survival to the final Saturday, so will be looking for a prompt return to the higher level. Their visitors, as this is written, are without a Manager and a mid-table place could well be in prospect again. Christchurch, probable favourites for promotion last season and perhaps again this time, start their campaign with a visit to Weymouth Reserves. The two Clubs produced a match that was a credit to all when they met at the Wessex Stadium last time and this could, and perhaps should, be the same. Lastly early season football as usual at Follands on Friday night. The home side struggled to adapt last season following relegation but will be wiser for the experience whilst Downton, who had an up and down campaign last time round, start this season under new management.

But whatever the results come the weekend, April is a long way away!