The Uhlsport Hellenic League Division 1 East season kicks off on Saturday – and in celebration of it’s return we thought we’d pull out a few key morsels of information to wet the appetite.
From who’s going to win to where the surprises might come from it all kicks off on Saturday 12th August – and don’t miss out on predicting the division here.
Plenty of local interest – and hopefully a couple of proper promotion pushes
We might have lost Woodley United from the division but there’s still plenty of local interest with AFC Aldermaston, Wokingham & Emmbrook and Sandhurst Town to cover – while we’ll be keeping a beady eye on Virginia Water.
It’s almost impossible to pick out which of the side could come out on top but all three have made significant strides to improve over the summer.
As unknowns to us, Aldermaston performed well above where we thought they might be last season and we’ll not be betting against Kieran Jennings side this time round.
At Wokingham, they have Dan Bateman back in charge and have made some astute signings – particularly up front – while keeping much of last seasons squad together while Sandhurst have added strength in depth – we’d be surprised if all three along with Virginia Water weren’t in the top half of the table come the end of the season.
The sad demise of Finchampstead has benefited clubs
The sad ending of Finchampstead’s time as an Uhlsport Hellenic League club (the poor way the club was treated by the FA has been mulled over at length here) has had a positive impact for several local clubs who have snapped up members of the squad.
Sandhurst Town, Wokingham & Emmbrook and AFC Aldermaston have all signed members of a squad that finished fourth in the division last season and had originally looked set to move en mass to Henley Town.
Of those, Sandhurst have been the biggest recipients with four players including former Finch captain Adam Barnard heading to Bottom Meadow.
All three sides look stronger for their summer additions and should be there in the mix come the end of the season.
The new sides can pull a few surprises
It wouldn’t at all surprise us if new boys Virginia Water are right up in the action this coming season. The former Surrey Elite League side won their division last season and earned their promotion to step 6 – so there’s a winning momentum at the club which will play home games in the grand surroundings of Windsor’s Stag Meadow this season.
AFC Aldermaston proved last season clubs coming up from step 7 can more than match their new opponents and there is a great history – in the Hellenic at least – of newly promoted sides going on to the Premier Division.
Ascot United are the stand out example for us – taking two seasons to do it between 2007 and 2009 and Highmoor-IBIS went straight through in 2012 while AFC Hinksey and Marlow United both had similar feats but fell away shortly after.
As for Henley Town – it’s hard to know what to make of the side they’ll be able to field. The Red Kites fell away badly at the end of the season and at one point looked like they wouldn’t compete at all when former Finchampstead boss Jon Laugharne saw his new managerial role made untenable.
Of the other new sides – Thame Rangers won the Spartan South Midlands League Second Division at the first attempt while Wallingford Town are up from the North Berks Football League having finished third in their top division.
Just the one reserve side is a major step forward
First things first, there are no issues from us about clubs higher up in the pyramid having reserve sides in the step 6 Hellenic League divisions. In theory they should provide the clubs in that division with a higher calibre of opponent and therefore improve the all round standard of football.
We have to applaud the Hellenic League for getting these teams in at a time when clubs wishing to play at step 6 were in short supply – but thankfully, at least for the season ahead that no longer seems to be necessary with just Didcot Town Reserves plying their trade in the East Division.
Why is it a step forward though? Simply for the exact opposite of the reasons laid out above. Last season, for whatever well intentioned reasons – Wantage’s reserve side brought nothing to the division and finished up with a -139 goal difference. They didn’t fare much better the previous season and back in 2014/15 both Didcot and Burnham reserves had pretty rotten years.
All things being equal, we should see a competitive division with sides able to put out consistent first elevens – there are four reserve sides in the West division.
Promotion will remain a complete uncertainty until the very end
Because it’s perfectly plausible and reasonable to have a successful team at step 6 of the non-league pyramid without hard standing for supporters around the perimeter of the pitch, there’s always going to be an uncertainty about who is eligible for promotion to the Premier Division.
The best recent example is from 2012/13 when Bracknell Town managed to return to the Hellenic Premier after just one season in Division 1 East despite finishing fourth behind Rayners Lane, Headington Amateurs and Woodley Town (now United). The Robins benefited from the small issue that all three clubs above them were not eligible for promotion due to lack of required ground grade.
Add in the uncertainty about who’s coming down and the changes to step 3 and 4 at the end of the coming season (more about that here and how it will probably means two teams are promoted from the Hellenic Premier this time around) and we may as well stick a finger in the air and have a good old guess.
Who might win it?
Penn & Tylers Green for the third season in a row? It’s hard not to think they’ll do it again and our pal Laurence Reade wrote a decent piece recently on the developments at French School Meadow that might just see them able to finally make the step up.
Of the rest, Headington Amateur’s – almost in spite of their own ground battles and a few reported departures – are always a a good bet [except for the fact they are now in the West division as we’ve rightly been reminded] and Bicester Town should push while occasional FiB correspondent and former Finchampstead captain Adam Barnard is tipping Chalfont Wasps.
Whether any of our local sides can push and emulate Woodley, we certainly hope so but we’re not going to choose!
Why there’s almost always more teams in the West division
A little tid bit of useless but nonetheless interesting information we picked up over the summer around why the West Division almost always has more teams than the East.
A poster by the username of Arnold wrote on the Unofficial Hellenic League message board: “Think the west tends to get the extra team as in the past they have had more floodlit clubs and division one east clubs historically played in more outside cup competitions than those in division one west.”
Pretty straightforward. And if you’d either never noticed, or cared about that little anomaly, you clearly get out more than we do.
Main image: Action from Sandhurst Town against AFC Aldermaston in 2016/17 by Simon Bryce.
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