Maidstone are favourites
Yet they made a mockery of the old assumption that sportsmanship awards only go to losers by topping the league’s Respect table with a single late-season yellow card denying them a remarkable clean sheet.
They reached the play-offs with 65 points in 2011, 23 points adrift of the fourth-placed team, and so their 21-point improvement last season would still have been enough only for fifth place a year earlier, when, admittedly, there were two fewer games. Ramsgate, who have settled into a mid-table existence of late, are their visitors on Saturday.
Dulwich, though, will not start the season as favourites. That status belongs to Maidstone United, who finished sixth last season. The difference? A luxurious new ground in their home town, the first time they have played there since 1988. Four-figure crowds look a certainty and the artificial pitch – perhaps the shape of things to come – will surely give them a substantial advantage over visiting clubs who are not used to it. First to test it, on Saturday, will be Walton & Hersham. They were the sixth-placed finishers in 2011 but never threatened to do better last time around.
Folkestone Invicta, who lost to Dulwich in the play-offs, start a new promotion challenge with a home game against Worthing. Both clubs will hope to be among the front runners as they were last season, though Worthing faded badly in the closing stages.
Two clubs new to this level of football start their season with home games. Herne Bay, who are expected to adapt well after winning the Kent League, have an attractive start against one of the league’s most famous clubs, Tooting & Mitcham United, who have a considerable rebuilding job on hand after conceding 116 Premier goals last season.
Less may be expected of Three Bridges, who finally captured the Sussex County League title after many years of frustration. Their first visitors are Sittingbourne, who never seemed in much danger of relegation last season but had only two points to spare at the end.
Behind them on goal difference were Burgess Hill Town, who escaped the drop by beating Dulwich on the final day of the season. Hoping for a less nerve-wracking time next April, they host potential surprise packets Chipstead on Saturday.
Whitstable Town are another side hoping to haul themselves away from the lower reaches of the table and they face an immediate test on Saturday when they travel to Leatherhead, easily the best of the four sides relegated from the Premier in April. The Tanners should be in or around the play-off places.
Best of the rest, at least on last season’s form, are Hythe Town who finished eighth and could well do better. They start with a long trip to Walton Casuals, league members since 2005 but yet to finish in the top half of the table.
Merstham showed some promise last season, though they finished well short of the play-offs. They open with a home game against the renamed Crawley Down Gatwick, a title that defies geography. The airport is north of Crawley while the village of Crawley Down is several miles to the south of the town. Be that as it may, the Anvils climbed well clear of the relegation zone after a shocking start to their Ryman career and will be looking to continue that progress.
Faversham Town are at home to Eastbourne Town. Both clubs were well into the bottom half of last season’s table and may find to hard to make significant improvements.
Horsham defied pre-season relegation predictions last season by winning two away games in the first week. Alas for the Hornets, they were to win only once more in the league and ended up 13 points adrift at the foot of the Premier table. So an instant return to the top division looks improbable, especially as there is no immediate sign of the new ground which could bring an end to their tenancy at Horsham YMCA. They open the season at Gorings Mead against Corinthian-Casuals, another side unlikely to be contenders at the top.
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