After the disappointment of 2014-15, the last three months has seen plenty of changes for Aldershot Town: new manager, new players, even a change of name for the stadium. The next nine months will prove whether the optimism of a good pre-season is well-founded, if the Shots will face their fourth consecutive relegation battle or, probably, somewhere in between. BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison previews the action.
Aldershot Town struggled throughout the Conference last season, with their 53 points giving them an 18th-place finish, eight points above the relegation zone. The run of nine league defeats in ten games between 29 November and 7 February saw some of the worst football seen at what-is-now (again) the EBB Stadium, with the penultimate of those losses seeing the departure of Andy Scott. Chris Barker took over as player-caretaker manager and led the side to safety with twenty points from his fifteen games in charge, but the overwhelming feeling was one of a campaign of massive under-achievement. Barry Smith took over two days after the end of the season with no illusions as to the size of his task.
The 41-year old from Paisley made 368 league appearances in eleven years with Dundee and led the Dees to promotion to the Scottish Premier League. He also helped unfashionable Alloa Athletic to last season’s Scottish Challenge Cup Final, beating Rangers in the semi-final. One of his main tasks in North-East Hampshire is to bring some positivity and flair to a playing style that has become increasingly dour over the last five years. This is especially true at home, where the Shots only managed 27 goals (only three teams scored fewer) and 29 points (fifth-worst in the division) last season. Twelve of last season’s 21 league defeats were by a solitary goal, which certainly highlights the need for some greater flair and firepower to go along with a solid defensive unit.
Football has been played in Gateshead since 1889, but the original Gateshead AFC was formed in 1930 when neighbours South Shields FC moved to Gateshead because of financial difficulties. Despite being members of the Football League until 1960, that club folded in 1973, with new club Gateshead United suffering the same fate four years later. The current club, Gateshead FC, took their place, and are starting their seventh campaign in the top-flight of non-league football after promotion from Conference North in 2009. Following a Play-Off final defeat to Cambridge United in May 2014, the Heed slumped to a 10th-place finish last season, winning just one of their last nine games.
Gateshead were outstanding against the division’s lesser lights in 2014-15, winning sixteen, drawing eight and losing just four times against the fourteen sides below them in the table. However, there was just one victory and ten defeats against the teams in the top nine. The north-east club had the eighth best away record in the division last year, losing just seven of their 23 fixtures away from the Gateshead International Stadium. However, they won just one of their last eight, a 1-0 win at AFC Telford United in March. Only five sides conceded fewer than their 28 goals away from home, whilst their 66 league goals was the eighth highest total in the Conference Premier.
After Gary Mills left for Wrexham over the summer, former Aldershot FC defender Malcolm Crosby (326 appearances between 1971 and 1981) took charge of the Heed. Crosby, who hasn’t managed since being sacked by Sunderland in February 1993, told the Gateshead Chronicle after his appointment: “I’m very happy to become the new manager of Gateshead. The club has been successful over the last couple of years, and has come a long way…The challenge ahead is a great one. It is a tough job, obviously, because there are a number of very competitive teams in the league. But, that’s the joy of football. I’m ambitious, and I believe I can bring success to this club.”
Barry Smith has certainly been very busy in his first summer in England, with eleven permanent signings being made, including of three of last season’s loanees. The defensive signings – Sean McGinty (Rochdale, thirteen appearances for the Shots whilst on loan last season, and the new team captain), Jack Saville (28 games for Conference champions Barnet) and Luke Oliver (Forest Green Rovers) – all have impressive resumes, whilst Omar Beckles, who split last season between Ryman League Premier side AFC Hornchurch and St Albans City of Conference South, has had an excellent pre-season. In central midfield, Jake Gallagher (Welling United) and Jim Stevenson (Luton Town) should be fixtures in the side this season, whilst Tom Richards (Fulham) and Rhys Browne (Charlton Athletic) will provide extra pace and width. Upfront, Matthew Barnes-Homer (100 goals in the last eight seasons, including nine in 2014-15 for Macclesfield Town), Dan Walker (Braintree Town) and Charlie Walker (Luton Town) will be expected to provide the goals to keep the Shots well clear of relegation.
Those eleven players are augmented by those returning from last season; goalkeepers Phil Smith and Dan Thomas, defenders Joe Oastler, Chris Barker and Cheye Alexander, plus midfielders Damon Lathrope and Sam Hatton (six goals in 2014-15). However, some key players have moved on from the EBB Stadium over the summer, including last season’s fifteen-goal top scorer Brett Williams, who signed for League Two side Stevenage, winger Jordan Roberts, who moved to Scottish Premiership side Inverness Caledonian Thistle, team captain Glenn Wilson, who joined Margate of Conference South, and right-back Jaydon Gibbs (currently unattached). Last season’s most creative players, Mark Molesley and Tristan Plummer, have moved west, to Weymouth and Weston-super-Mare respectively, whilst Matt Saunders, Josh Scott and Andre McCollin were also released.
The new Shots boss will be without two key defenders for his first game, with Joe Oastler and Sean McGinty both unavailable. Oastler has only played once since Valentine’s Day because of an ankle injury, whilst McGinty suffered a broken metatarsal in the pre-season win over Basingstoke Town.
For the second summer in a row, Gateshead have made a number of changes to their playing squad, with eleven players arriving and fourteen leaving the North-East club. Three of those departures moved into the Football League, including eleven-goal top scorer, and former Shot, Alex Rodman (Newport County), goalkeeper Adam Bartlett (Hartlepool United) and eighteen-year old striker Jake Orrell (Chesterfield). Their midfield has been depleted with long-serving Phil Turnbull returning to part-time football (Darlington 1883) to pursue a career in teaching and the retirement of former Welsh international John Oster. In the attacking third, another ex-Shot, striker Michael Rankine, moved to Altrincham, whilst Carl Finnigan joined Township Rollers in Botswana. However, several first-teamers have remained at the Gateshead International Stadium, including defenders Craig Baxter, Ben Clark and James Curtis; midfielders Rob Ramshaw (seven goals last season), Jamie Chandler (five goals) and Matty Pattison (five goals), plus striker Jon Shaw, who notched ten goals in 2014-15.
Malcolm Crosby has certainly strengthened his side’s attacking options, most notably with the arrival of Torquay United top scorer Ryan Bowman (nineteen goals last season). Fellow striker Danny Johnson has joined from Cardiff City, whilst James Marwood (Forest Green Rovers, fourteen goals for Gateshead in the 2013-14 play-off season) and Josh Gillies (Carlisle United, fifteen goals for the Heed in 2012-13) have both returned to the club. Another summer signing from Forest Green Rovers, Sam Russell, will be the new first-choice goalkeeper, whilst defenders Simon Ramsden, Nathan Buddle and Jordan Cranston have arrived from Motherwell, Carlisle United and Notts County respectively. The manager’s midfield reinforcements are Jimmy Phillips (Burton Albion), Patrick McLaughlin (Grimsby Town) and River Allen (Plymouth Argyle).
The Gateshead manager has a largely fully-fit squad to choose from, but he will be without Marwood who suffered a broken wrist in a preseason friendly last month.
Aldershot Town and Gateshead have played each other on four occasions, with the Shots yet to register a victory. The two games in North-East Hampshire have both finished 2-1 to the visitors. Last November, Rob Ramshaw’s second goal of the game – a stoppage time winner – gave the Heed all three points after Dan Holman had equalised for the Shots. On 25 March 2014 at the Electrical Services Stadium, the home team led at the break thanks to a Josh Scott goal, but Brett Williams’ 53rd-minute red card changed the game. Jack Lester and JJ O’Donnell scored afterwards to secure three points for the visitors. In last season’s trip to the North-East, an impressive away performance by Andy Scott’s side saw them lead through a Joe N’Guessan goal, but Danny Wright headed home an 88th-minute equaliser to ensure the spoils were shared.
There were also five meetings between the North-East club and Aldershot FC. All five games were won by the home side, which included an 8-1 win for the Shots in the old Division 4 in September 1958 (the club’s record Football League victory) and a 3-2 victory twelve months later. The Tynesiders won 1-0 and 4-1 in a pair of league fixtures in January 1959 and September 1959 respectively, while also defeating the Shots 3-1 in an FA Cup Third Round tie at their old Redheugh Park ground in January 1949.
Saturday afternoon’s referee is Adam Hopkins from Plymouth, who took charge of three Aldershot Town home games last season – the 1-0 win over Lincoln City last September, the 2-0 defeat to Eastleigh in November and the 1-1 draw with FC Halifax Town in March. Last season, he officiated in fourteen Conference fixtures, showing 43 yellow cards and one red card.
BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison and Rob Worrall of the Aldershot Town media team will be covering the game on Saturday afternoon. Tune in to 104.0 & 104.6 FM for team news just after 2.15pm, followed by pre-match interviews and full match commentary via the BBC Sport website from 2.50pm.
You can also contact us throughout the afternoon via Twitter. Tweet your predictions and thoughts on the game to @bbcsurreysport and @GavinDenison