Six years, nine months and 27 days since guiding Aldershot Town to a 4-1 home win over Morecambe, Gary Waddock will lead the Shots out once again this Saturday. The opening match of the season couldn’t be much tougher, with a 600-mile round trip to promotion contenders Barrow. BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison previews the action.
The announcement of Waddock’s reappointment on 5 May immediately reinvigorated an Aldershot Town fanbase that had witnessed another disappointing season. The 2015-16 campaign under Barry Smith saw 56 points and a 15th-place finish, both of which were improvements on the previous season’s 53 points and ending up 18th in the National League standings. However, on too many occasions, the football was poor, especially at the EBB Stadium, and the side was far too inconsistent in the defensive third. Despite keeping fourteen clean sheets in the league, the Shots also conceded three or more goals on ten occasions and only FC Halifax Town, Torquay United, Altrincham and Welling United (three of whom were relegated) conceded more than their 72 league goals.
23 goals and 25 points at home were a meagre return for the team’s efforts, but on their travels, Aldershot Town were a much more impressive side. Their nine away wins was their highest total since the 2007-08 promotion campaign under Waddock, with the Shots winning their last two away games of the season at FC Halifax Town (2-0) and Bromley (3-1). The latter was the final game under Smith’s stewardship and the players and fans certainly saw off the former Dundee and Alloa boss in fine style. The new manager will certainly be expected to bring some of his trademark flair and attacking play to the side, whilst also adding some nous to a club that dropped 22 points from winning positions in the 2015-16 season.
Barrow AFC were formed in 1901 and were founder members of Division 3 North twenty years later. Before being voted out of the league in 1972 (to be replaced by Hereford United), they did manage three seasons in the Football League’s third tier between 1967 and 1970. The Bluebirds were also part of the original line-up for the Alliance Premier League (now the National League) for the 1979-80 campaign. They’ve actually been promoted to this level on five occasions, the most recent of which came via winning the 2014-15 Conference North title. The two-time FA Trophy winners finished 11th in their first season back at this level, fifteen points from the play-off places.
The Bluebirds will be looking to start this season as they finished the last, winning seven and losing just one of their final fourteen league games. Most of that improvement can be laid at the door of former Conference-winning manager Paul Cox, who took over from Darron Edmondson last November. Under him, Barrow accrued 37 points in 23 games, compared to 28 in the first half of the campaign. Barrow finished with the National League’s eighth-best home record, going unbeaten in their last eight fixtures (four wins, four draws) at Holker Street. The team had the 10th-best goals for total last season, whilst only five sides in this division scored more than their 38 goals at home in 2015-16.
Cox, who led Mansfield Town to the Conference Premier title in 2012-13, has been impressed with his squad over the summer. He told the North-West Evening Mail last month: “There is a nice hunger about the group at the minute. There is a nice feel about them. I’ve challenged them as individuals and as a group to lay claim to a place and a lot of them have really come back at me in the right way… We always work on closing down. Most of our training sessions are based on closing down the opposition, when to squeeze, when not to squeeze, and to make sure that we’re a cohesive unit… Time will tell, with additional players added to the squad, how much improvement is needed before we reach our potential.”
Gary Waddock has rebuilt the Shots squad over the summer with only four players – midfielder Jake Gallagher, fourteen-goal top scorer Charlie Walker, right-back Cheye Alexander and centre-back Jack Saville – returning for the 2016-17 campaign. Two of the fourteen new arrivals, however, are familiar faces to Aldershot Town fans. Anthony Straker, who made 229 appearances for the club (tied for fifth-best in club history) between 2007 and 2012, signed from York City, whilst Scott Rendell, who’s still Aldershot Town’s youngest-ever goalscorer after coming through the club’s youth team, arrived from local rivals Woking. Goalkeeper Jake Cole also signed from the Surrey club and, at thirty years old, is the squad’s oldest player. In front of Cole, Will Evans (Eastleigh) and Club captain Callum Reynolds (Boreham Wood) will compete for the centre-back slots and Nick Arnold (two seasons at Whitehawk) adds depth at the full-back position. Liam Bellamy, who’s spent the last three years at Dover Athletic, Josh Wakefield from Bournemouth and former Wolverhampton Wanderers prospect Jim Kellermann add strength to the midfield ranks, whilst Iffy Allen could be a like-for-like replacement for Rhys Browne after impressing for Torquay United (three goals in thirteen games) in the latter part of last season. Striker Matt McClure has arrived from Dagenham & Redbridge, whilst Shamir Fenelon (Crawley Town) and Bernard Mensah (Watford) also add attacking options. Twenty-year-old Mark Smith arrived from Brentford on Tuesday to provide competition for Jake Cole.
Walker was the only injury casualty during preseason and looks set to be out indefinitely after damaging his ankle ligaments against MK Dons. A number of key players have moved on from the EBB Stadium with Supporter’s Player of the Season Omar Beckles and Rhys Browne ascending into the Football League with Accrington Stanley and Grimsby Town respectively. Damon Lathrope (Torquay United) and Joe Oastler (Gosport Borough) were invited back to pre-season training after suffering long-term injuries last season, but chose other options, whilst Phil Smith, Jim Stevenson (Dover Athletic), Sean McGinty (Torquay United), Chris Barker (player-coach at Hereford FC), Dan Walker (Hemel Hempstead Town), Sam Hatton (Welling United), Dan Thomas (Weymouth), Luke Oliver and Tom Richards (FC Kitzbühel) were all released.
Cox has looked to shape the Barrow squad into his image over the summer, with eleven new arrivals and thirteen departures since the end of last season. The biggest loss was certainly thirty-goal top scorer Andy Cook, who’s moved to Tranmere Rovers, whilst second top scorer Jason Walker (thirteen goals) was released and joined Chorley. Meanwhile midfielder Paddy Lacey moved to Accrington Stanley and captain Simon Grand signed for National League North side Salford City. Forward Ashley Grimes and full-back Neil Ashton have joined Southport, whilst Steve Williams (AFC Fylde), Dave Symington, Dan Pilkington (Stalybridge Celtic), Brad Carroll and Alex Newby (both Clitheroe Town), Mo Fofana and Danny Eccles (Bradford Park Avenue) have also moved on from Holker Street. Amongst the key players from last season who have remained are goalkeeper Joel Dixon, defender Danny Livesey, midfielders Andy Parry, Alex-Ray Harvey and Andy Haworth, plus young forward Jordan Williams.
The task of replacing Cook will fall to Ross Hannah, who notched 26 goals for Chester last season, whilst Byron Harrison (Chesterfield) and Richie Bennett (Northwich Victoria) are other attacking options snapped up by the Barrow manager. The defensive corps has certainly been solidified with Shaun Beeley (Morecambe), Nick Anderton (Preston North End, played eleven games on loan at the Shots last season), Euan Murray (Stenhousemuir) and Moussa Diarra (Hampton & Richmond). Paul Turnbull (Macclesfield Town) and Liam Hughes (Inverness Caledonian Thistle) look excellent midfield captures, whilst the former Alfreton Town winger Lindon Meikle adds depth to the squad. Former Wrexham and Southport goalkeeper Andy Coughlin arrived at Holker Street on Thursday to challenge Dixon.
Club captain Danny Livesey will definitely miss Saturday’s game with a knee injury, whilst Meikle has struggled with a calf problem during preseason, so may not be available to face the Shots.
The first two meetings between Aldershot Town and Barrow took place last season, with the away side coming out on top on both occasions. Last September at Holker Street, the Shots produced one of their best performances of the season. A Charlie Walker brace and a Cheye Alexander cracker secured a 3-1 victory in Cumbria, whilst Jason Walker’s penalty was a mere consolation. In April, Andy Cook scored the only goal of a game that the Bluebirds dominated and in which the hosts failed to manage a single shot on target.
The Bluebirds did face Aldershot FC on 23 occasions. The first, a 2nd-Round FA Cup tie in December 1934, resulted in a 2-0 win for the visitors at Holker Street, but the other 22 all took place in the Football League’s Fourth Division. Those games saw ten wins for the Shots, five for Barrow with seven draws. The Shots did manage a 8-2 victory at what is now the EBB Stadium in November 1963, but their results in Cumbria were less impressive. Of the eleven league meetings at Holker Street, six were draws, including the last four. Aldershot FC did manage two wins – 4-3 in January 1959 and 2-0 in April 1964 – whilst Barrow won on three other occasions. The last four fixtures all ended in ties, with a triumvirate of 1-1 results and a 2-2 scoreline in September 1965.
Saturday afternoon’s referee is Andrew Miller from County Durham, who’s in his first season on the National Referees list.
BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison, Rob Worrall of the Aldershot Town media team and the former Aldershot player and manager Ian McDonald will be covering the game on Saturday afternoon. Tune in to 104.0 & 104.6 FM or DAB from 2.10pm for team news and pre-match interviews, followed by full match commentary via the BBC Surrey website and BBC Sport app from 2.50pm.
You can also contact us throughout the afternoon via Twitter. Tweet your predictions and thoughts on the game to @gavindenison and @bbcsurreysport