Football: NON-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK: Consolidation the key for Forest Green's Conference debut

THIS TIME last year, Forest Green Rovers were preparing for their first season in the Dr Martens League Premier Division, after winning the Southern Division title the previous campaign. Few at the little Gloucestershire club dared to dream that they might win promotion once again. But they did just that, and tomorrow they make their debut in the Football Conference with a home fixture against Rushden & Diamonds.

"Last year our only aim was consolidation. We just wanted to find our feet in the [Dr Martens] Premier," Rovers' manager, Frank Gregan, said yesterday. "But we had an amazing start, and we realised that perhaps we were better than we thought we were."

In fact, Rovers were good enough to go on to win the title with a five- point advantage over their only serious rivals, Merthyr Tydfil, and thus maintain a rise that has taken them from the Stroud and District League to the top level of the semi-professional game. Now the country's best non-League clubs, like wealthy Rushden, must find their way to The Lawn, Rovers' compact ground perched on a hillside outside the small town of Nailsworth.

Rovers' only previous taste of national fame came in 1982, when they beat Rainworth Miners' Welfare at Wembley to win the FA Vase. The Conference, as their manager admits, is a big jump. "Our sole aim is staying up," Gregan said.

At odds of 50-1 (Rushden are the 5-2 favourites) for the title, Rovers are the joint favourites for relegation. "The bookmakers don't often get it wrong," Gregan added. "Unlike the other two promoted teams [Barrow and Kingstonian], we haven't spent much money on our squad."

Gregan, a former Army man who arrived at Rovers for his first managerial job in 1994, has brought in two former Cardiff City players, Nathan Wigg and Jimmy Rollo. Another summer signing, the former Bournemouth defender Ian Hedges, has damaged ankle ligaments and will be out for two months. Most of last season's squad remain, including Chris Honor, once of Bristol City and Airdrie.

Gregan knows his team face a tough start in the Conference. "Our first seven fixtures are horrendous," he said. (After Rushden, their next two home games are against Cheltenham and Stevenage and they also face early trips to Woking and Doncaster). "We're wondering where we're going to pick up any points. But you have to get on with it."

n After the collapse of talks with a potential replacement for its previous sponsors, Vauxhall, the "fifth division" will now be known as the Football Conference.

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