Last year the Ryman League became the Bostik League in a shift of commercial sponsorship that brought little change in playing arrangements  – or fortunes – for Hastings United. Next season the seventh and eighth tiers of English football will be staying with the sponsors of stickability. But there’s a structural re-build, as the feeder leagues (eighth tier) for the Bostik Premier (seventh tier) expand from two in number (North and South), each of 24 clubs, to three (North, South Central and South East), each of 20.

With me so far? It means that Hastings will start in August in the Bostik South East League with their playing schedule over the 2018/19 season reduced to 38 league games in place of the previous 46. In theory it should also mean a reduction in average travel distances and times to away games. Those unlovely journeys round the M25 to Chipstead, Molesey, Walton, Carshalton and Reigate (South Park) can be consigned to history    or at least until promotion to the Bostik Premier. However restricting league opposition to clubs based in Sussex and Kent turns out to have relatively little benefit to Hastings, given the difficulties of travel east and west. None of the four new arrivals in the league, Haywards Heath Town, Three Bridges, Whitstable Town and Sevenoaks Town, can be said to have grounds exactly close at hand. And ironically there will be no more meetings for the time being with previous nearest neighbours Lewes, who gained promotion in April.  Next season there won’t be a single league opponent less than an hour’s drive away    closest are Ashford or Hythe.

From a commercial perspective, United director Dave Nessling has already expressed his concern publicly that with four less home games than previously there will be a serious hit on the club’s matchday income  – up to £10,000 over the course of the season. He and his co-directors may well have to hope for extensive cup runs to boost coffers instead.

On the playing side there would seem to be a dilution of competitive capability among the depleted league ranks. Not only have four of last year’s top six in the South division been promoted but no team has been relegated into it from last year’s Premier to replace them: the new arrivals are all teams promoted from the ninth tier below. Nessling is unconvinced that all these will be fit to compete on even terms. “I fear they’re bringing too many clubs into the semi-pro game that can ill-afford to be there –  they get to that level and then find it a real struggle.” he has said.

That doesn’t mean that Hastings should regard promotion from this league as an easy target though. Cray Wanderers and Greenwich Borough, who lost in play-off semifinals in April after finishing third and fourth respectively, will fancy their chances, as will Hythe.  Ashford United, who have captured former Hastings captain and crowd favourite Ollie Rowe for next season’s campaign, also look intent on mounting a serious challenge. Moreover, from three leagues of equal status, it may be that only the champions of each, plus the survivor of a brutal inter-league play-off between multiple runners-up, will qualify to move up.

‘U’s manager Chris Agutter has been busy in recent weeks assembling a squad of players that have committed to the club for the season ahead. Of last season’s first team regulars, only Rowe has gone, with the future of enterprising wing-back Sam Beale still uncertain at the time of writing. We will review the strength of this squad in a future column.

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