THE big kick-off is looming as Basingstoke Town’s players look forward to getting their Vanarama Conference South campaign under way on Saturday.
There have been plenty of positives for manager Jason Bristow to take from the month-long pre-season campaign, with his team playing some good football and some exciting players joining the squad.
However, the litmus test comes on Saturday, when Hemel Hempstead Town become the first team to visit the newly-named The Soccer AM Stadium for a competitive fixture (kick-off 3pm).
Town ended last season in 14th place, and while Bristow is expecting another tough season, he is confident that he has the players to mount a challenge for at least a top-10 finish this time around.
“I would like to think that if everybody stays healthy, we have a squad capable of being in and around the top 10 for the whole season,” he said. “If we can do that, then we can see where we go from there with regards the play-offs.
“If you look at some other sides in the league, there is big money being spent. It’s going to be tough, but it gets tougher every year.”
Bristow is looking forward to seeing former Town ace Wes Daly return to The Soccer AM Stadium on Saturday – but the Town manager is determined not to allow his former captain to leave with a smile on his face.
The midfield playmaker swapped Hampshire for Hertfordshire over the summer, joining newly-promoted Hemel Hempstead Town. They will provide Town’s opening day opposition in the Vanarama Conference South on Saturday, giving the game some extra spice.
Bristow said: “It will be nice to see Wes and will give people the chance to say thank-you and goodbye – but I hope he is not smiling at the end of the game.
“If Wes plays, then we know what he is capable of. If you give him time and space then he can unlock defences with his passing, so we will have to close him down quickly.
“Hemel Hempstead are a good side. They are big and physical, but can play a bit as well, so it will be a good test on the opening day.”
Bristow has given his squad a major overhaul during the close season, with 10 players who ended last season at Town not lining up at the start of the 2014-15 campaign.
Just five players have come in, though young Reading goalkeeper Stuart Moore is expected to join on a season-long loan before Saturday’s big kick-off.
As a result, Bristow goes into the season with a squad of just 18, including youngsters Kieran Maylen and Alex Charlick, who signed new deals with the club at the weekend.
There seems to be plenty of cover in attack, but Town do not look so well stocked in the centre of defence of midfield, and Bristow admits that he would have liked to make at least one more signing before the start of the season.
“The ideal scenario would have been to have another midfielder and we were talking to a couple who could have done a job at centre-back as well,” he said. “We are happy with what we have got and there is no rush to make a signing, but we will keep one eye on things elsewhere to see what happens.”
Goalkeeper Moore will miss the first three games due to a suspension picked up at the end of last season, but Bristow has struck a deal to get another young ’keeper from Reading on a short-term basis.
Elsewhere, central defender David Ray has returned to full training after a long lay-off with an ankle injury, though Saturday may come too soon for him. Bristow is hopeful that Robbie Rice (calf) and striker Lloyd Macklin (ankle) will be fit for the game.
Town’s first away game is next Tuesday, when they travel to Bath City, who are fancied to have a good season after finishing seventh last year.
“It’s going to be very tough at Bath,” Bristow added. “They will be there or thereabouts this season and it’s another tough game.
“We have some really tough games at the start of the season, facing three of the top six teams in the betting before the end of August.
“It is going to be a case of making sure we are hard to beat and do not concede silly goals. If we can do that, we will cause most teams problems.”
Visit basingstokegazette.co.uk/sport for live text commentary from both of Town’s games this week.