WITH the new Southern League season set to kick-off this weekend, Rugby Town manager Dave Stringer believes the squad he has managed to assemble is the best in his time at the club, as Valley look to mount a successful Premier Division promotion challenge at the fifth attempt.
Stringer was originally a player at the club at the turn of the century, and he returned to Butlin Road in May 2010 – initially as assistant to Martin Sockett, before taking over the reins the following year.
Two sixth place finishes in 2010/11 and 2011/12 saw Town just miss out on a place in the Central Division play-offs, before they secured the runners-up spot in the two following seasons – cruelly missing out on promotion in the end of campaign knock-out format.
Stringer said: “This is definitely the strongest line-up I’ve had to work with so far. I believe that we’ve brought in a number of key players, and the return from injury of Craig Kelly pretty much counts as a new signing too.
“We’ve improved areas that we felt were lacking at some points last season and we’ve also maintained continuity by keeping together the core of a very successful side from the last couple of years.”
Town’s boss admitted last Saturday’s 5-2 reverse at AFC Rushden & Diamonds in the team’s final pre-season friendly was a disappointment, but overall he had been happy with how the warm-up campaign had gone.
He continued: “I think generally we have looked good in training and in the friendlies. Even on Saturday I thought we played well for large parts of the game, but just conceded some awful goals.
“Hopefully that was just a one-off, but we will be working hard in training this week to address the situation.”
Saturday’s hosts had raced to four goal half-time lead with ex-Rugby man Fazel Koriya among Rushden’s scorers, as Town put on a defensive horror show after having started the game brightly.
Richard Blythe pulled one back for Valley after the break – slotting home David Kolodynski’s lay-off, before Koriya re-established the four goal differential with a diving header.
Justin Marsden then finished off Nathan Fox’s whipped cross late on to round off the scoring.
First up for Town in their 2014/15 league campaign is a trip to Royston – one of the potential challengers at the top of the table.
The Hertfordshire club have now recorded successive seventh places in their first two years at this level of the non-league pyramid, although both times have often looked capable of finishing higher.
Last season’s game between the two sides at Garden Walk was a rare damp squib, with a solitary first half strike from the hosts settling proceedings.
Rugby avenged that defeat with an exhilarating display in a 6-1 victory at Butlin Road in February, and the 2012/13 match-ups were also eventful – and at times highly controversial – affairs, with Town securing a double win amidst a floodlight failure and replayed home game, and then a horrific injury (to Robbie Banks), the refusal of the Royston players to continue and a subsequent league inquiry in the reverse fixture.
On Tuesday evening Valley host Bedford in their first home game of the campaign, which should provide another stiff challenge for Stringer’s side after the Eagles were relegated from the Premier Division at the end of 2013/14.
Stringer is hoping that the club receive international clearance for recent signing Will Grocutt in time for the start of the season for real, with Lewis McBride, Jamie Towers and Alex Austin – who were all unavailable for the defeat last weekend – likely to be back in contention for places in the starting eleven.
Stringer expects the division to be another competitive one this time out, but prefers to focus on his own side rather than worry unduly about others.
He explained: “I’m sure the usual suspects will be up there challenging, and Kettering are understandably a lot of people’s favourites.
“There’s usually a surprise package or two, but I’m more concerned with what we do and I’m confident we can carry on with the excellent form we have shown over the last two seasons – but top it all by going one place better this time.”
# The club coach to Royston on Saturday will leave Butlin Road at 11.30 a.m. There are still currently places available on this, but for latest information contact Tony Mann on 07970 691366. Coach travel costs have been held at £12 per adult and £6 per child for the coming season.
# Tuesday evening’s home game against Bedford kicks-off at 7.45 p.m. Matchday admission charges also remain at last season’s prices of £8 for adults and £4 for concessions.