Teams of the Year (by Step)
Step 6 - Haughmond. Can we use the word meteoric? Haughmond achieved their fourth promotion in 10 seasons and will play in the Midland Football League Premier Division next season. They also defeated Smethwick by a goal to nil in the League Cup Final to complete the double. All of this on, reportedly, a budget of practically nothing. A tremendous achievement. Honourable mention must also go to Bromsgrove Sporting who, after just falling short last season, also achieved promotion to Step 5 and had a superb FA Vase run.
Step 5 - South Shields. What can you say about the season that The Mariners have had? Back to back promotions. Chased down and overtook their local rivals to win the league. Smashed the same local rivals 5-0 in the League Cup Final and then, to top it off, went to Wembley and beat Cleethorpes 4-0 in the FA Vase. Not to mention the 32 game winning streak. All backed by record-breaking crowds. If it was a Roy of the Rovers plot line you would think it was too far-fetched. Along with South Shields, mention also has to be made of Peterborough Sports, Alvechurch and beaten Vase finalists Cleethorpes. All three achieved promotion and had wonderful seasons.
Step 4 - Shaw Lane. The Ducks secured the NPL South title to make it five promotions in seven years and will play at Step 3 next season for the first time in their history. The title was even more poignant following the untimely death of Dan Wilkinson in September. Great credit to the staff and players for pulling together and winning the league in honour of their colleague. Honourable mention has to go to Hereford. A second straight title and promotion, wrapped up before the end of March, and no-one will bet against them next year.
Step 3 - Stourbridge. I feel like a junior team manager picking my own child as captain with this choice but, The Glassboys deserve the recognition for a superb season. A tremendous FA Cup run all the way to the Third Round, where they almost pulled off another shock. Making it into the NPL Premier play-offs, only to go down to Spennymoor in the final and significantly increased attendance at the War Memorial Ground. The club has put the town on the map in recent seasons, but especially this season. Pride of the Black Country. Mention has to be made of the Glassboys' conqueror in the play-off final, Spennymoor Town. The Moors capped a fine season to earn back to back promotions and earn their first taste of Step 2. Likewise Chippenham Town. A League record 103 points giving them the league title and promotion to the National League South.
Step 2 - AFC Fylde. The Coasters, after a second and third place finish, finally managed to stay clear of the play-offs and win the National League North. There was a slight stutter in March and April, with two defeats and two draws in five games, but Fylde saw it through, the 1-0 defeat of Halifax being a pivotal point, and gained a well-earned promotion with a record attendance thrown in along the way.
Best Peformance - Kidlington. I went to Yarnton Road in mid-January more to see Southern Central leaders Royston Town than the home side. Royston were on a run of thirteen consecutive league wins and Kidlington had lost their last three whilst shipping 16 goals. It was a nailed on away win in most people's books. The Greens had other ideas, despite going a goal behind after 30 minutes. They immediately hit back to draw level and then outplayed the leaders in the second half, taking the lead with just under 20 minutes to go and never really looking like letting the advantage slip. An absolutely superb result that may well have been a pivotal point in the season for Kidlington who, with another defeat, would have been dropping alarmingly towards the relegation zone.
Favourite new stadium - Cinder Lane, Fairford Town. This ground had been on my radar for some time and I finally managed to get there on a evening when the home side had the chance to land themselves the Hellenic Division One West title. The whole setup at Cinder Lane is wonderful. Plenty of parking in the field behind the ground, two very tidy covered seating areas, a very friendly and welcoming clubhouse and some superb non-league quirkiness. This last point is demonstrated well by the padded bench seats in the stand adjacent to the club house and the outdoor laundry area, complete with washing machines and tumble dryers. You could do your weekly wash whilst enjoying the game. The stadium has a great feel to it. One of those things that is hard to put your finger on. Of course, the evening was something of a celebration (the duly wrapped up the championship with a 5-0 win) but I got the feeling that Cinder Lane always felt that way. A club where football and supporters come first. If you haven't been, go and visit. I am sure you will not be disappointed.
Best Goal (that I have witnessed live) - Liam Marshall, Corby Town v Stourbridge. This was a very hard category to decide. There were a number of great goals to choose from, team efforts and individual strikes. Eventually I settled on a fine free-kick from the then Corby left-back which curled over the Stourbridge wall and in off the inside of the post. Marshall has since left The Steelmen and joined Stamford.
Best Support - South Shields. An average home crowd of over 1,200, massive away following and close to 15,000 at Wembley for the FA Vase Final. Incredible support for a Step 5 (soon to be Step 4) side. I also experienced their support first hand at Coleshill in the semi-final and found them to be vociferous in their support but, generally, a really great bunch. Knowledgeable about their football and passionate about their club and town.
High point - The Third Round of the FA Cup and a chance to watch my team, Stourbridge, making club history. Despite the ultimate defeat on the day, it was a truly memorable day out. Over 2,000 Glassboys and Glassgirls sang and urged on the team for the entire 90 minutes and they were so close to pulling off a shock. For much of the game Stourbridge were the better team. They certainly scared the life out of a pretty good Wycombe Wanderers side. Only a momentary lapse of concentration, maybe a lack of big game know-how, allowed The Chairboys to punish them. To be fair, the winning goal was a great cross and a bullet like header. Stourbridge, as a club, made a lot of friends that day. I know that many Wycombe fans look out for Stourbridge's results and there were plenty of good luck wishes during the NPL play-offs.
Low point - The lowest point came when Tommy Tonks' cross/shot came back off the underside of the Wycombe crossbar in the FA Cup Third Round tie. With the scores tied at 1-1 and Stourbridge having had the better of the game, one inch lower and we would have been talking about a famous Glassboys FA Cup win. Yes there was plenty of time left and we will never know for sure but at the time I felt certain that, if that had gone in, Wycombe would not have fought back. That's football I guess.
Cuppa - Hook Norton. Freshly made in a whopping great urn. Biscuits (if you wanted one) and all free. There was never going to be another winner this year.
Time to re-charge the batteries and prepare for the 2017-18 season.