WITH Hartlepool and Leyton Orient having come down from League Two last season, just look how competitive the National League is.
They joined clubs of the stature of Tranmere, Wrexham, Aldershot, Dagenham & Redbridge and Halifax, and although Torquay and Chester have had a poor start to the season, they too have Football League pedigree.
But it’s another former League club that leads the way after 15 games of the current campaign. Several of MACCLESFIELD TOWN’s key players were poached by League clubs in January yet manager John Askey still managed to keep his side in promotion contention, with their play-off challenge only fading in the last 5 games to finish 9th. The club also reached the FA Trophy final for the first time since 1996, losing 3-2 to York.
And despite seeing yet more departures in the summer, Askey has used the modest budget at his disposal to build another squad capable of competing for a return to the Football League.
As National League sides enter the FA Cup this weekend, Macc are a point clear at the top of the table after Mitch Hancox gave them a 1-0 home win over Ebbsfleet last Saturday.
Askey managed to lure Scott Wilson to the Moss Rose in the summer and it was a shrewd move as the former Eastleigh striker was this week named the National League’s Player of the Month for September. Wilson scored 4 in 5 games to take his tally for the season to 5.
He was no doubt encouraged by the fact Macc have provided the springboard for so many players to move onto better and bigger things. And most importantly, they don’t stand in their players’ way when opportunity knocks.
Now that philosophy has extended to their coaching staff. Askey brought in ex-Premier League defender Steve Watson in the summer of 2016 to replace Efe Sodje as his assistant manager. And this week he took the chance to return to his native North East to take charge of Macc’s league rivals Gateshead.
Askey said: “It’s a shame to be losing Steve but we all wish him well. It’s a great opportunity for him. I feel Gateshead are underachieving with the players they’ve got. He wanted to go into management and it’s as good a job as he could’ve got.
“It’s pleasing in some ways that we’ve done well and given somebody a chance to progress their career, so from the football club’s point of view it’s a good thing, although we would’ve like Steve to have stayed.
“With anybody who comes in we’re quite open and we allow people to show what they can do and it was the same with Steve. He came in and had to get used to us and our ways. He’s done that and hopefully he’s taken something with him whilst being with us.”
Chairman Steve Blower added: “Whilst we are disappointed to see Steve go, he has made no secret of his desire to be a manager so it should be viewed as a positive for the club in that our success has enabled him to achieve this.”
Blower also announced that majority shareholder Amar Alkadhi and three former directors had written off money owed to them by the club.
“Off the pitch, the ongoing efforts to improve the financial standing of the club have taken a further step forward this week,” Blower said. “The responsible management of the finances of the club remains key and gestures like this make a significant impact, so thank you.”
An FA Cup run would also boost the coffers and Macc have managed to reach at least the 2nd Round in 3 of the last 5 seasons, since dropping back into non-league in 2012.
If they’re to repeat the feat this term then they must avoid a potential banana skin in the 4th Qualifying Round as the Silkmen are away to Stourbridge, who are 2 divisions below them in the Evo-Stik Premier.
HYDE UNITED are another division below, sitting 7th in the Evo-Stik North, but they have the chance to reach the 1st Round for the first time since 1994/95.
The Tigers enjoyed a 23-match unbeaten run stretching back to the latter stages of last season but that was halted by an FA Trophy defeat at Cleethorpes last Saturday.
Hyde return to the east coast this Saturday to face league rivals Scarborough Athletic in the FA Cup while FC UNITED, who visit Telford, are the only other local side in the 4th Qualifying Round.