Optimism will dissipate, dreams will be made and hopes will be shattered. There will be rapturous scenes of ecstasy, distraught tears of sheer pain and slammed fists of frustration but, at the end of it, two teams will soar into the promised land of the Football League. As the Vanarama National League season edges tantalisingly towards us, it promises to be as pulsating as ever with several more ambitious clubs joining a division already as strong as it has ever been, guaranteeing nine months of unpredictable, unrivalled drama. Pre-season has whet the appetite but now it's time for the main, showpiece event, so take your seat for an exhibition of excitement-inducing talent and brilliant goals. It won't all be pretty, though.
Just a few months ago, Macclesfield Town defied all expectations to win the league title and were later joined by play-off winners Tranmere Rovers, taking the places of Chesterfield and Barnet, who gracelessly tumbled into non-league. However, acknowledging how fierce this division can be, both sides have recruited experienced managers in Martin Allen and John Still respectively as they look to make an immediate return to league football, but they know how hard it'll be and have made the necessary signings to do well at this level. Entering the league via the other door are Salford City, Harrogate Town, Havant & Waterlooville and Braintree Town, none of which are in the National League merely to make up the numbers.
Salford's summer exploits have been well documented owing to some frankly ridiculous signings including Danny Lloyd, Nathan Pond and Adam Rooney which have reinforced their ambitions to make it a fourth promotion in the five years that the Class of 92 have been in charge of the club. They become the latest in a series of well-backed teams to grace the division including AFC Fylde and Ebbsfleet United, who will both be looking to sustain another play-off challenge after falling at the first and second hurdles last time out. Harrogate already had a team capable of pushing for a top seven spot but have supplemented this with the impressive signing of Jack Muldoon from divisional rivals Fylde, just as Havant and Waterlooville have bolstered their squad with the addition of Alfie Pavey from Dartford, for whom he scored 22 goals last season. They, too, are potential dark horses.
The one promoted side who probably will struggle is Braintree Town, who defied all odds to reach this league following a two-year absence but did it while finishing sixth, 17 points behind champions Havant. They had to win three away games against higher opposition just to get here which is an incredible feat, but have since lost their captain Okoje to Bromley and haven't made many additions. Another side predicted to struggle is Gateshead, gripped by off-field issues which has seen the majority of their squad replaced by hungrier young players, but since then things have dramatically improved for the North-West outfit after their takeover was finally completed so they may have more funds at their disposal. The battle at the bottom will be just as absorbing as the one at the summit with several other outfits tipped for a season of struggle.
Dagenham's new manager, Peter Taylor, has openly said he would be happy with finishing 20th, yet his side are apparently looking to emulate Macclesfield and defy all the odds. Players such as Fejiri Okenabirhie, Michael Cheek, Andre Boucaud, Mark Cousins, Dan Sparkes and Charlee Adams left the club, the latter four all to John Still's new side Barnet. They've been replaced by an overhauled, organised team containing the likes of Lamar Reynolds, Ollie Harfield and Gavin Hoyte, while they also retained players such as Ben Nunn and Matt Robinson. While the squad is of a higher calibre than fans expected, Dagenham will most likely languish in the bottom half of the table alongside the likes of Eastleigh, Maidenhead, Solihull Moors and Barrow. Eastleigh should have a similar season to last having made few acquisitions while Alan Devonshire's Maidenhead will suffer having lost many of their best players from their last campaign including Pritchard. However, they are in safe hands, just like Solihull Moors are having recruited Tim Flowers as manager.
The loss of Yates to Macclesfield will be felt but Solihull have kept the core of the squad which survived comfortably in May, yet they'll find it harder this time out. Then you have Barrow, who have pinned their hopes on an inexperienced manager and a team of younger players mixed with a useful blend of experience. Despite losing players including Makoma and Diarra, Barrow have managed to assemble a team capable of pulling clear of the bottom four. Halifax have suffered a few disappointing pre-season and will hope that's not an omen for what's to come, but Jamie Fullarton - the man who steered them clear of the drop-zone last term - is more than capable of delivering a successful year. Then there's Maidstone, another team who hovered dangerously above 21st place as pressure mounted on Jay Saunders. After a quiet summer with little signings made, another difficult campaign could be in store for the Stones.
Beaten by ten-man Tranmere at Wembley in the play-off final, Boreham Wood looked to go one better and signed two good defenders in Manny Parry and Femi Ilesanmi, but were dealt heavy blows by the loss of duo Grant Smith and Bruno Andrade to League Two side Lincoln, which was then followed by Morgan Ferrier joining Walsall. In addition to this, star striker Ferrier was embroiled in a controversial saga relating to the behaviour of his new agent, meaning it was a turbulent summer for the Wood. Though Luke Garrard is an excellent manager, it will be hard for him to work his magic again this year and, as competing with the clubs around them becomes increasingly difficult, they'll probably be closer to mid-table than the playoffs. Another side to suffer play-off heartbreak was Sutton United but they've regrouped well under Paul Doswell, not only keeping Tommy Wright, but also adding good players such as Dan Wishart to their ranks. They'll be hoping to cause some more surprises yet again, though being part-time has it's challenges.
Aldershot Town are always a team that are there or thereabouts. They've lost defenders Alexander and Reynolds to Barnet, both important players, but have strengthened with incomings including Luke Howell and Luke Wanadio. Wanadio joins from Bromley who were amongst a cluster of sides to miss out on the play-offs last season. Their hopes of going one better seem bleak because of the departures of many big players; Louis Dennis and Brandon Hanlan amongst them. Another club who just missed out were Wrexham, who always seem to just miss out. Despite being well in contention of winning the league, they somehow contrived to miss out on the top seven altogether. Their main problems were in attack and this has possibly been solved by the signings of Mike Fondop and Jordan Maguire-Drew, the latter on loan. This, coupled with their very accomplished defence, leaves the Welsh side ready to go again.
Their opening day opponents are Dover Athletic, denied a play-off spot last year by goal difference alone. They've signed Inih Effiong but lost Mitch Pinnock, Ryan Bird, Manny Parry and Femi Ilesanmi so Kinnear has his work cut out. Finally, the last side are Leyton Orient who arrived in the league in turmoil. However, in Bonne they have a great striker and he has linked up well with many other players. The signing of Alabi seemed questionable, but he's a good hold-up player so can contribute to Orient's potential play-off push. With a full season, Edinburgh can get his London outfit to shine.
My predicted league table is below.
KEY DEPARTURES OF THE SUMMER:
I am Joel Page, an avid Dagger who travels across the country watching the club. Over the last few years, I've absorbed the turbulent rollercoaster ride that comes with supporting the Daggers and have seen us both at our highest and our lowest. From 'that' day at Wembley to watching us suffer a devastating drop into non-league, it's all a part of the journey.