Once again it's been Step 5 that has really caught my attention this year. The promotion battles in the Combined Counties, Hellenic, Midland and United Counties leagues were fascinating all season and, in most cases, ran up until the last few games. Not that there hasn't been excitement and tension elsewhere. The Southern League Central Division was one of the tightest promotion battles for years. The NPL Premier, with Blyth leading the way for so long only to be overhauled by Darlington. In Step 6, the intriguing battle between Nuneaton Griff, Bromsgrove Sporting and Coventry United was a joy, not to mention goalpost-gate and the relegation battle between Stafford and Pelsall. So, let's take a look at the awards for 2015/16:
First of all, my team of the year awards.
Step 6 - Peterborough Sports. 33 wins out of 36 league games and a 100% record until February. A 100% home league record for the season with just 8 goals conceded. They won the United Counties League Division One by 21 points, scoring 140 goals and conceding just 24. I had the pleasure of watching their Hinchingbrooke Cup win over local rivals Peterborough Northern Star. They certainly did not look like a Step 6 side and, in my opinion, could be among the front-runners in the Premier League next season.
Step 5 - Kidlington. This was the hardest level to decide upon with so many teams deserving of a mention. Hereford, Salisbury, Kempston and Hartley Wintney to name just a few. However, in the end I had to go for Kidlington. The Greens had a remarkable season with a long FA Vase run and culminating in promotion to Step 4 for the first time in their history. I was lucky enough to witness the pivotal game at Thatcham where a thoroughly professional performance gave them all 3 points.
Step 4 - Kings Langley. What a battle at the top of the Southern League Central Division with 3 teams still in with a shout of the title on the last day. In the end it was Kings Langley who triumphed, securing a third successive promotion and bringing Step 3 football to Gaywood Park for the first time ever. The club has taken some massive strides forward on and off the pitch over the last few years and thoroughly deserve a shot at The Southern Premier next season.
Step 3 - Darlington. A run of 14 wins in 15 games saw the Quakers catch and overhaul Blyth at the top of the NPL Premier. A thumping 7-1 win at Whitby saw them take the title with a game to spare.
Step 2 - North Ferriby United. The villagers steady climb up the leagues continued with a play-off victory over AFC Fylde. For a village with a population of less than 4,000, a place in the top flight of non-league football is a massive achievement.
Best Match - Godmanchester Rovers 3 Felixstowe & Walton United 2. This was my first venture into the Eastern Counties League and, after this game, I hope that it won't be my last. Two in-form teams, both near the top of the league and both going for a win. The game had everything, the away side took the lead, then fell behind only to draw level again and, finally, lose out to a late penalty. It was great advert for Step 5 football and a thoroughly enjoyable evening of football. (http://www.botp.co.uk/blog/april-14th-2016)
Best Performance - Morpeth Town. The Highwaymen win this award with a very late entry. Up until this point, I was all ready to give it to Stourbridge for their FA Cup victory over Kidderminster. However, Morpeth's performance against Hereford in the FA Vase Final was an absolute joy to behold. After going a goal down inside 2 minutes they showed immense character to fight back and eventually triumph by 4-1.
Favourite New Stadium - The Victoria Ground, Bromsgrove Sporting It's got everything you would want from a stadium. A big main stand with plenty of covered seating. A large covered terrace behind one goal and a quirky, uncovered terrace behind the other Quirky because it features the words Bromsgrove Sporting in 3 foot high lettering, giving it a very much Eastern European feel (maybe Barnt Green Spartak should do the same?)
Best Goal - Nathan Walker. Bromsgrove Sporting v Cadbury Athletic (http://www.botp.co.uk/blog/sporting-chance). An unstoppable drive from 25 yards out that whistled past the Cadbury keeper. Superb technique and power.
Best Supporters - Hereford. They came in their droves to Wembley and, to be fair, have been supporting the club in their thousands all season. They helped to create a superb atmosphere at Wembley and, despite defeat, applauded their team and Morpeth at the final whistle.
Friendliest Club - Fleet Town. Fleet have always impressed with their communication to other clubs, especially around any possible postponements. Having had to travel long distances themselves, they are acutely aware of the perils of a long journey followed by a late postponement. When I visited the club for the first time this season, I was also very impressed by the feel of the club. There was a warm welcome at the turnstile and the lady in the snack bar treated everyone as an old friend. The ground has a very welcoming atmosphere. A great club who like to do things the right way. (http://www.botp.co.uk/blog/no-bore-draw)
Highpoint - Non-League Finals Day. What a great day out for any football enthusiast. Two finals at a very reasonable price. Nothing more to say. Non-League Finals Day needs to be a permanent fixture on the calendar (preferably without an international scheduled for the same day).
Lowpoint - The impending demise of Northampton Spencer FC. Although I only visited Kingsthorpe Mill once, I was immediately very fond of the place and the club. This is the link to the last ever match write-up following their final day 4-0 defeat at Harborough Town. It makes for a very sad read. (http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/northamptonspencerunitedcountiesleague/teams/142183/match-centre/1-2075812)
Cuppa League - Coventry United. A proper cup of tea, with tea bag still in and all for a very fair price. Couldn't beat it this season. Of course, the evening that I was there was cold, wet and miserable which may have helped sway the decision.