CAN this be Ashton United's year? After springing a surprise last season by reaching the Evo-stik NPL premier division play-off final, the Robins know the pressure will be on this time round.
Co-managers Paul Phillips and Steve Halford are ready for the challenge. They believe they have assembled a squad that is stronger than last year's but also acknowledge they will be up against some very strong sides who are spending freely.
"We'll be setting out to win promotion," said Phillips. "If we don't do that it'll be a waste of time turning up every week.
"I'm not saying we'll win the championship - it's a very strong division - but we'll give it everything we've got.
"We've kept 90 per cent of last season's squad but I believe we've got a bit more depth this time. Having said that, some of the new lads have got to prove they can make the step up from the division below. They're very good players but they've got to show they can achieve."
The men in question are striker Richard Bennett, signed from Mossley, and midfielders Martin Hill (Maine Road) and Brad Robinson (Radcliffe Borough).
Over the last week, Hurst Cross has also welcomed goalkeeper Josh Cook (Burnley), midfielder Sam Fitzgerald (Salford City), striker Jacob Hazel (Chesterfield) and defender Connor Roberts-Nurse (Marine).
Yet, while eager for battle to commence, Phillips is unhappy with the start the league has given Ashton United, which means four matches in little more than a week.
"I'm all for getting games in but this is over the top after three months without playing. It would be hard for a professional club to deal with but a part-time set-up it's a nightmare," he commented.
JOHN FLANAGAN is looking to the lads who led the way to championship glory last season to make Curzon Ashton a force in the Evo-stik NPL premier division.
The Blues manager has retained the bulk of the squad that won promotion so convincingly and sees no reason why they shouldn't make an impression at the higher level.
"All through the summer I was conscious that I wanted to retain the majority of last season's players rather than rebuild. They did more than enough to warrant the opportunity to prove themselves at the next rung on the ladder," said Flanagan.
"Promoted clubs have tended to impress in the premier division in recent times. Skelmersdale came close to getting into Conference North last year, Trafford have more than held their own, and Witton did well at first.
"I see no reason why it should be any different for us. We might catch one or two on the hop because they don't know us. To use the old cliche we'll have to take it one game at a time and if we can get off to a good start it will build everybody's confidence.
"We have a very good group of lads here at Curzon Ashton. The key for us will be making sure we don't concede too many goals."
Flanagan's signings include goalkeeper Tom Morgan, from Farsley, attacking midfielder Martyn Jackson (Witton) and four players with experience at Hyde: midfielders Luke Mack, Alex Brown and Darren Thornton, and defender Andy Fitzgerald.
Matty Crothers and Romero Coley, whom the Blues boss describes as two very good young players, have been moved up from the reserves.
Luke Horrocks and Chris Young have both left while nothing has been heard of Chris McDonough.
Flanagan said: "I'm really looking forward to the challenge. After all the years of going to the same places where you get to know the same faces we're heading for new grounds and players that we don't know.
"It's going to be a big adventure and I see no reason why we shouldn't give a good account of ourselves."
A FEW years ago, inquiries about Droylsden's new-season prospects would have drawn an over-the-top response.
While other clubs would talk about tough challenges, hoping for the best and taking every game as it came, the Bloods manager promised titles, silverware and cup runs.
Dave Pace could never be accused of being a shrinking violet, but times have changed. After two years from hell that have seen Droylsden plunge from Vanarama North to the Evo-stik NPL first division north, no one has the stomach for bold statements any longer. In fact the most assistant boss Aeon Lattie would say was that he and Pace were looking forward to the new season.
"I'm making no predictions. Come back and speak to me after five or ten games and then we might have an idea of how we'll do," said Lattie.
"It'll take that long for things to settle down. Dave and I are keeping both feet firmly on the floor. We haven't played at this level for a long time so we don't really know what to expect. We've got to get the measure of the division and I don't think it would be wrong t say we're both a little bit nervous after what's happened in the past.
"We've had a good pre-season but that counts for nothing. We'll only get an idea of how good we are once we start playing competitive games."
One thing Bloods definitely can look forward to is a glut of new players. And, in contrast to last season, these are men the Butcher's Arms management team have actively sought out. By Lattie's own admission, last year, when the club was mired in tax difficulties, it was a case of bring your boots if you want a game.
Summer signings include Alastair Brown (Witton), Matty Burke (Vauxhall Motors), Danny Caldecott (New Mills), Ben Deegan (Nantwich), Sefton Gonzales (Kendal Town), Darren Green (Ramsbottom), Calvin Hare (New Mills), Luke Horrocks (Curzon Ashton), Ciaran Kilheeney (Warrington), Kevin Leadbetter (Northwich Vics), Fernando Moke (Frickley), Russ Saunders (Mossley) and Luke Sharry (Frickley).
Lattie said: "They're all very keen but we're not just looking for them to win, we want them to take on our philosophy. We want them to get the ball down and win by playing football. That's massively important to us. They have got to get results by playing a certain way and we're drumming that into them.
"It's been a long summer and I can't wait for the real season to start. Whatever happens I'm just glad we've got through the last couple of years. Now, I hope we can put some smiles back on faces and get some fans through the turnstiles."
WHEN Mossley take the field at Harrogate Railway on Saturday, expect to see a team that is fitter and better disciplined than last season.
Co-managers Peter Band and Lloyd Morrison have had the squad undergoing boxing training at the Betta Bodies gym in Denton and believe the extra speed and stamina they have picked up will mean fewer situations in which players might feel forced to foul.
This, allied to a productive pre-season programme in which the Lilywhites have scored in eight out of nine games and only lost to Altrincham and Halifax, has left Band confident that his side can better last season's finishing position of 15th. Brian Matthews has impressed him by scoring six goals.
He explained: "We've got to build on what we did last year. We've got to give 100 per cent in every game and if we do that I think we've got a strong enough squad to make it into the top ten even though we must be one of the bottom five or six payers in the division.
"We have a tough start to the season and face Salford in only our third match but I've got a lot more confidence than I had this time last year. We've strengthened well and the seven or eight players left from last season have learned a lot.
"But of course friendlies count for nothing once you kick off in the first match of a new campaign."
Band added that he and Morrison were 80 per cent sure of their starting line-up but that was all dependent on managing not to pick up any injuries in the remaining training sessions.
Jamie Blair and Tom Murray both suffered knocks in Saturday's 3-3 draw with Curzon Ashton, while defender George Settle sustained a knee injury while playing for Maine Road which could put him out for the season.
Band said: "Even though George was a prospect for the future - say next season or after Christmas, it's a big blow. He was very impressive in the friendly in which Lloyd and I first saw him and very little got past him."
Beyond the fitness aspect, Band and Morrison have spelled out to the squad that there has to be far fewer sendings-off and bookings in the new season. All the players are being made to sign a code of conduct and the club is prepared to fine those who fall foul of referees.
"There's no point in Mossley FC working hard to raise money if that money has to be handed over to the FA in fines. We've all got to learn and that includes me as I was sent to the stands last year," said Band.