As the fifth tier of the English football pyramid continues to bridge the gap in quality to that of League Two, here is a selection of five players to watch. As promoted teams from the Blue Square Bet Premier Division continue to impress once they reach the football league, the rest of the division is also steadily improving. Many teams in the top half of this league would feel comfortable pitting their wits against many of the outfits in League Two, with clubs such as Luton, Grimsby, Wrexham, Mansfield, Lincoln and Stockport all capable of attracting bigger gates than plenty of teams in the Football League. So whilst the division as a whole improves, here are the five players to look out for next season:
Matty Blair (York City)
The York City winger is comfortable on either flank and is at his best when running with the ball at the full back. He does possess a trick and keeps full-backs guessing whether he’ll cut inside or hit the by-line to deliver a cross. He has that special commodity of pace, which combined with his undoubted ability, makes him destined for a career in the Football League sooner or later. York have had a good season and are on course to make the play-offs, where they will stand as good a chance as any of reaching Wembley and winning promotion. Blair has already reached double figures in goals for the season and will look to add to that to help his side to promotion. York will be pleased they signed him on a 2-year deal when he arrived from Kidderminster Harriers last summer as they may receive an enquiry or two for the talented winger.
Jack Mackreth (Barrow AFC)
Part-time Barrow’s 20 year old right winger has had a great first season in the Blue Square Premier. After being released from Tranmere Rovers having not made an appearance at the club, Barrow signed the scouse talent on a one-year deal last summer. Very slight in build, the young winger is lightning quick and terrorised several left backs in the division. He has been an important part of a Barrow team that had only lost at home twice up until the beginning of March – when they began a terrible run of results that has seen them slip into the bottom half of the table. Whilst only managing a handful of goals this season, his fearless approach to attacking the full-back and dribbling past players has certainly not gone unnoticed. There is sure to be a queue of clubs wanting to offer him terms as his contract expires in the summer.
Aswad Thomas (Braintree Town)
After joining Charlton Athletic as a trainee, Thomas had loan spells at Accrington Stanley, Barnet and Lewes before signing on a free transfer for Woking in 2009. He spent two seasons with Woking before signing for Braintree after they clinched promotion to the Blue Square Premier last summer. The 22 year old left back has shone in a Braintree side that has adapted well in their first season at this level. He’s a classy, pacey full-back who loves to get forward, as shown by his five goals this season. He’s certainly one to watch as full-backs in this mould are often in demand higher up the leagues, possibly even more so with left footed full backs who seem a slightly rarer breed. Braintree will do well to hold on to a player who is comfortable defending against tricky wingers and shows his pedigree in the elegance with which he controls the ball in possession.
James Norwood (Forest Green Rovers)
At only 21 years of age, Norwood has already proved to be one of the most dangerous wingers in the division. His senior career started at Eastbourne Borough, where he made just a handful of appearances before signing for Exeter City. He only made a handful of appearances in the Football League with Exeter and was loaned out to Sutton United, Forest Green Rovers and Eastbourne Borough during his two year spell with the Grecians. In the summer of 2011 he signed on a permanent deal for Forest Green Rovers and hasn’t looked back since. He has been a regular in the side all season when available, and has shown huge promise as a right footed attacker on the left of a three. His goal return isn’t great as he won’t get close to double figure for the season, but for a first full season of football it has been a big success for the former Brighton and Crystal Palace trainee. He is strong on the ball, skilful and can run with the ball under control at speed. There are sure to be bigger clubs impressed by Norwood, but he may opt to stay at Forest Green where financial security has been secured under new owners. Either way, he has a bright future in the game and is destined to play at a higher level.
Liam Hearn (Grimsby Town)
As the only centre-forward on this list, the 26 year old Hearn has been a huge success for Grimsby Town. At the time of writing only Football League-bound Jamie Vardy has scored more league goals than Hearn – a great achievement for a man playing his first season in full-time football. Hearn has worked hard to climb the footballing ladder, playing for Hucknall Town, Eastwood Town, Chasetown and Quorn before a fantastic spell at Alfreton Town forced bigger clubs to take notice of his talent. Grimsby paid a fee thought to be in the region of £30,000 for him last summer. As he began to adapt to his first season at this level, Hearn failed to score in his first ten games. His performances showed signs there were goals to come though, and after notching his first Grimsby goal against Wrexham at the end of September, he hasn’t looked back. He has hit 3 hat-tricks as well as smashing four past previous club Alfreton in October. His confidence has grown as the season has progressed and he helped Grimsby get over a terrible start to the season to force a late attempt to gate-crash the play-offs. With his first full season under his belt and the rate of improvement he has already shown, Hearn will be a key part of Grimsby’s next attempt at returning to the Football League.
Pictures courtesy of yorkcityfootballclub.co.uk, barrowafc.com, shropshirestar.com, forestgreenroversfc.com and chelseanoticiasbr.com.