Tranmere have been installed as favourites for promotion from the National League this season, but Tom Scargill assesses the chances of the bookies’ top eight contenders ahead of the new campaign.
Tranmere – 5/1
Tranmere’s squad has undergone radical re-constructive surgery since the end of last season, when they were relegated from League Two.
Along with Lois Maynard from Halifax, the impressive signings of Forest Green’s James Marwood, Fleetwood’s Liam Hogan and Shrewsbury’s Andy Mangan have unsurprisingly seen them installed as promotion favourites.
But such an overhaul was only necessary after most of last season’s squad was dismantled and sold to Football League clubs.
Manager Gary Brabin left a dream job as youth coach at Everton to take charge at Prenton Park, but will come under pressure if his side starts slowly. Rovers will be the team everyone wants to beat this season, and their supporters won’t want to hang around this level too long before a return to league football.
Grimsby – 6/1
Last season’s beaten play-off finalists have lost top-scorer Lenell John-Lewis but will be hoping highly-rated England C striker Omar Bogle can replace his goals.
He was the Conference North player of the year last season, topping the division’s scoring charts on 29 goals. The Mariners have recruited well with the likes of Kidderminster defender Josh Gowling and wingers Nathan Arnold and Marcus Marshall, and have retained the majority of last season’s squad. Grimsby had the second-best defensive record in the league last term and manager Rob Hurst enjoyed a superb campaign, only falling six points short of champions Barnet. Expect a strong season from his side.
Eastleigh – 7/1
Eastleigh’s new signings will be viewed enviously by their promotion rivals, with the likes of former Woking midfielder Josh Payne and ex-Welling striker Ross Lafayette likely to be automatic starters for most clubs at this level, while winger Lee Cook adds experience and know-how to the squad.
Richard Hill’s side reached the play-offs last season before losing home and away to Grimsby and were mightily-impressive in home and away wins over Halifax.
In striker James Constable, they have a proven goalscorer at Conference level and with players like Jai Reason and Jack Midson supporting him, it would be a big surprise of they’re not in the top-five again come May.
Forest Green – 9/1
Adrian Pennock’s side scraped into the play-offs last season, so only the play-offs will do again for one of the biggest spenders in the division.
The loss of James Marwood to Tranmere is a massive blow, but so are the departures of defender Chris Stokes and midfielder Anthony Barry to Coventry and Accrington respectively.
On the face of it, their signings of strikers Delano Sam-Yorke and Aaron O’Connor may not possess the fire-power they need.
Winger Elliott Frear will be key to their hopes, as will veteran striker Jon Parkin, who bagged 25 goals last term.
If they can get another season like that out of the 33-year-old, the top-five could well be on the cards.
Cheltenham – 9/1
Cheltenham have secured the services of some of non-league’s hottest properties in their attempt to bounce straight back from relegation.
Torquay defender Aaron Downes and midfielders Kyle Storer and Harry Pell from Wrexham and Eastleigh respectively are all good signings, while in boss Gary Johnson, they have an experienced manager with a proven track record of guiding teams to success.
But they have lost goalkeeper Trevor Carson, who was named as supporters’ player of the year last season and, like Brabin at Tranmere, Johnson will come under pressure if results don’t materialise early on.
Goals were Cheltenham’s big problem last season, with only two sides scoring fewer than them in League Two.
They’ll need new boys Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith to get firing if they’re to be among the promotion pack.
Wrexham – 12/1
After too many seasons of underachievement, this could finally be the year Wrexham stake their claim for a return to the Football League for the first time in eight years.
Manager Gary Mills has experience at this level, although he finished a disappointing 10th with Gateshead last season after reaching the play-offs the year before.
The loss of top-scorer Louis Moult to Motherwell will be hard to replace, with the striker one of 16 departures from the club this summer.
Along with Halifax winger Adam Smith, the signings of Lincoln’s Sean Newton and Accrington’s James Gray catch the eye.
Moult scored more than double the goals of anyone in their squad last season though, so how they replace his contribution will be crucial.
Woking - 12/1
It may surprise some to find Woking among the promotion favourites after losing midfielder Josh Payne and defender Joe McNerney this summer.
But as important as that duo were to their impressive seventh-place finish last term, it’s the form of striker Scott Rendell that will make all the difference for Garry Hill’s side.
The 28-year-old scored 24 league goals last season and is pivotal to their chance of a play-off spot, although nine goals in his last 12 games during the previous campaign wasn’t enough to break into that top-five.
Hill has made some decent signings with National League experience, but of all the promotion contenders, you get the feeling Woking will have to punch above their weight even more than they did last season to challenge the league’s big boys.
Barrow - 14/1
Last season’s National League North champions aren’t expected to be embroiled in a relegation scrap but to be involved in the battle at the top end of the table.
No other team won more and lost fewer games and conceded fewer goals in that division last season than Barrow.
Manager Darren Edmondson led them to promotion in his first full season in charge and has a growing reputation at lower league level.
Dallas businessman Paul Casson, who took over the club last May, has already targeted a promotion battle for his side, who include former Halifax duo David Mellor and Steve Williams in their squad.
Striker Andy Cook bagged 23 goals in the league last season; how well he adapts to the National League could go a long way to determine how his club performs.