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Saturday, August 04, 2018

Preview: Hereford vs Blyth Spartans

It’s back! After an interminable wait for those of us who can’t get that worked up about a ‘glorious’ national team getting beaten twice by Belgium and once by Croatia in one short tournament, the proper stuff returns at 3pm this afternoon at the Stadio del Toro (er, Edgar Street).

Blyth Spartans are the visitors for HFC’s first match at yet another higher level in the ‘new’ club’s history, National League North.

One of the aspects of promotion most eagerly felt by supporters was the prospect of the return of some atmosphere at home matches due to the increase in away support. Well, given that Blyth is widely thought to be the most northerly permanently populated place on Earth this fixture probably won’t deliver on that front, with the away section of the Len Weston stand unlikely to approach an overspill situation.

However, the weather forecast suggests mass ranks of shirt sleeves in the Meadow End basking in warm August sunshine, so it’s undoubtedly the place to be even if you won’t have the opportunity to shout rude things at northerners.

Frankly, there’s no excuse not to get to the game and enjoy the start of this new chapter in the club’s journey back to that magical moment we’re all dreaming of: a meaningless mid-table League 2 0-0 draw away at Christie Park* in February in front of 1200 people in Arctic temperatures.

*It’s probably not called that anymore is it?

This latest promotion delivers perhaps the first true test for the playing squad and the club generally (Hereford are 16/1 to win the league), and this, coupled with the fact that there have been more squad ins and outs over the summer than has previously been the case adds to the intrigue, and, in some cases, concern.

Influential players from last season such as Pring, Oates, O’Shea, Mills and Haysham have gone for different reasons, and fans will be keen to assess how their replacements compare.

One player used relatively sparingly last season, Jamie Bird, has looked in pre-season like he may be capable of playing a much more influential role this term, both in general play and in terms of having the potential to contribute ten goals or more from midfield. Supporters will be hoping that Calvin Dinsley’s injury problems are behind him, and that he can form a strong rotating central midfield set-up with McGrath, Murphy and Richards.

We know what we’ll get from Keyon Reffell, whereas we don’t entirely know what we’ll get from JMW.

The arrival of Danny Greenslade, tracked for some time by manager Pete Beadle and widely considered to be one of the best left backs in the division, and highly thought of Keiran Thomas from Gloucester City, should mean that the loss of Pring, Bowen and Captain Oates isn’t felt too keenly on either side of defence.

Greener’s not getting any younger of course, but if he can stay fit and free of suspensions there’s no reason why he can’t be an invaluable part of the jigsaw for another season, and help new captain Jordan Liburd through the stickier situations that will inevitably crop up now against clubs with considerable financial backing. And if the new captain doesn’t continue his development and increasingly resemble a modern-day Tamika Mkandawire it’ll be a surprise.

Several others in terms of the new arrivals could, to be honest, be anything. Beadle’s ‘rough diamonds’ Sainty and White (there’s a joke there somewhere about Diamond White) have shown enough in pre-season to suggest that they may be more diamond than rough, but there’s plenty to prove.

The Beast’s injury absence merely adds to the feeling that the squad looks a little light up top, and while there’s no faulting Lance Smith’s endeavour, at this level he’ll be expected to convert some of the easier chances he missed last season.

As for the opposition, Blyth finished tenth last season and will be keen to push on into the play-offs this time. In that respect, it could be the perfect opener in terms of facing properly competitive opponents to measure the new squad against, and determining whether they have what it takes to challenge the likes of Stockport, Chester, Telford and neighbours Kidderminster at the top of the table.

All conjecture stops at 3pm today, and it’ll be fascinating to finally pick up some clues as to how this season will play out, the first in which HFC aren’t the promotion favourites, the biggest supported club, the best funded club, or the club everyone else wants to beat. You never know, it could work in our favour.