Isthmian League predictions: Where will Worthing, Bognor, Horsham, Lewes and Hastings finish?

I should be an expert on the 2020-21 Isthmian premier division and be able to tell you who will be hot, who will not and who will finish where.

When fans return to Woodside Road, will they see a title-winning home team?
When fans return to Woodside Road, will they see a title-winning home team?

In fact I'm only a partial expert - because while I know plenty about the squads that Worthing, Bognor, Horsham and Lewes have assembled, I have never been one to worry too much about opposition teams, so I am not capable of assessing who might be Merstham's top scorer or who is Potters Bar's key centre-half.

I can, though, offer an opinion about the four Sussex teams in the division, because I have spent a fair amount of time since the start of lockdown, and over the long 'close season' that followed, talking to the managers of each one to garner their thoughts on last season, next season, players, football issues and life in general.

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Since lockdown began, my role as a Sussex Newspapers sports editor has widened to include responsibiliy for all eight of our main titles and the various editions we also publish. Previously my focus was chiefly on the Chichester, Bognor and Midhurst Observer series - so I already knew plenty about the strengths and weaknesses of the good old Rocks of Nyewood Lane.

Will Bognor skipper Harvey Whyte be celebrating promotion?

All four managers - Worthing's Adam Hinshelwood, Bognor's Jack Pearce, Horsham's Dom Di Paola and Lewes' Hugo Langton - have made themselves available for plenty of chats in the months between the 2019-20 and 20-21 seasons and I've enjoyed hearing of their progress and their opinions as we have slowly seen one truncated season fade into memory and another one, which will still be little like normal, edge nearer.

So how do I rate the chances of all four?

All eyes will be on Worthing this season after they were denied promotion to National South by the decision to null and void the 19-20 season at step three and below soon after it became apparent it would not be possible to complete the campaign.

Hinshelwood has done very well to keep almost all that squad of last season together, losing only Lloyd Dawes to Hastings and young prospects Fin Stevens and Carl Rushworth to higher levels. He has not added significantly to his numbers but has had well over 30 players wearing the red shirt in pre-season, now whittled down to a first-team squad, and there is no reason to think they won't do well again.

Horsham boss Dom Di Paola has bought well

But will their ongoing pitch problems affect them? If they're back at Woodside Road after losing only a couple of early home games, probably not, but these issues have a habit of dragging on and if they are forced to start with too many away games - or even to find an alternative venue for a clutch of home matches - it is bound to hit them to an extent.

All things considered I am going to predict Worthing will finish 2nd (if pushed, I will go for Kingstonian as champions) and that will secure the Mackerel Men a prime spot in the play-offs .... and in those play-offs I think they will play... Bognor.

I am going for the Rocks to finish fifth - a little higher than the spot they would probably have been in had last season reached its proper conclusion.

I was concerned at the strength of the Bognor squad at one stage after they lost top scorer Dan Smith to Eastleigh and Doug Tuck to Horsham and were slow to dip into the market - but they have added significant numbers, and a fair bit of quality, in the past week or two.

Hugo Langton - tipped for a top-half finish with Lewes

Suddenly they have a plethora of strikers and one, Pompey academy loanee Alfie Stanley, is particularly highly rated. If he can score with the sort of regularity with which Smith did last term, and be supported by the likes of Brad Lethbridge and Jason Parish, the Nye Camp faithful should be in for an entertaining season - while Joe Cook will surely add greater solidity at the back. For now, I'm not going to predict who will win a Rocks-Rebels play-off - I'll wait until we know it's going to happen!

Pushing Worthing and Bognor all season, I think, will be Horsham. Few if any clubs at this level can have had a better transfer-market summer than Di Paola and his staff. The mere fact they've signed a trio from Dorking Wanderers, who went so close to promotion from National South last season via the play-offs, tells you plenty about their ambitions and their ability to attract quality.

I just worry it has ended up being too much of a changed squad for the Hornets all in one go. After a great first season back at step three last year, when they spent much of the campaign in the top five, I wonder if the manager would have liked fewer 'outs' than the five they have lost - even if the eight or nine they have recruited give him a strong hand. I think Horsham will finish 6th.

Then we come to Lewes, where Hugo Langton is all set for his first full season at the helm after arriving during the second half of the 19-20 campaign.

The Rooks were too close to the relegation zone for comfort at times last season and have lost one or two they would probably not have wanted to. But they - like Worthing - are a club with a strong under-18 set-up and the young players Langton has promoted into the first team squad will serve him well.

The signing of midfielder Theo Widdrington, who lists Bristol Rovers among his former clubs, is an eye-catching one for Lewes and I can see them faring better than last season, while perhaps not being consistent enough for a play-off spot. I think Lewes will finish 10th.

Sussex has seven sides in the Isthmian south-east division - a couple of whom I now know well with my Sussex-wide head on. I'll say this now and it's not a world-turning-upside-down forecast - Hastings will win the south east division with two or three games to spare.

Chris Agutter has kept almost all of his successful 2019-20 squad (who led the division and were destined for the title when football was halted) together and you can't help but be impressed by the way Agutter and CEO Billy Wood have prepared the team and the club as a whole for another tilt at glory. They're attracting great numbers of fans too - support that will be the envy of plenty of clubs at a higher level.

Still in the south east division, I can see Whitehawk finishing third or fourth for a play-off spot, Chichester pushing for the same but just missing out, Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath finishing around midway or just above it, and Three Bridges and East Grinstead in the bottom half but safe from the drop.

So there you have it - admittedly from the person who has also predicted Leeds will finish eighth in the Premier League, Brighton ninth, West Brom will stay up and my team Pompey will end second in League One. And for good measure, I'm going for Cardiff, Oxford and Tranmere to win the Championship, L1 and L2.

What that paragraph tells you is I probably haven't any more clue about anything than your average fan or even armchair observer. So please don't put your mortgage on any of the above, unless you have a few other houses to spare.

I wish all our Sussex non-league teams the best of luck - including Eastbourne Borough, who I think could sneak into the National South play-offs - and look forward to being involved in the coverage of all of them in our papers and on our websites as the season unfolds.

If I have one overall hope, it's that the season is allowed to run its course and, before long, is one in which all these clubs are allowed to admit as many fans as want to attend.

If I never write the phrases 'null and void' and 'points per game' again, I will be happy.