Wingate & Finchley can be a ‘surprise package’ as they target the play-offs

Wingate & Finchley captain Marc Weatherstone believes the Blues can be “a surprise package” and challenge for promotion this season as they target a play-off spot.

Having earned a reprieve from relegation in 2014, Wingate went on to earn more points than ever before in the Ryman League Premier Division last season.

Their final tally of 67 beat their previous best of 59 in 2012 – and, having challenged for a play-off spot, they were unfortunate to finish 12th in a congested table.

With the new campaign kicking off on Saturday, Weatherstone is now keen to continue that rapid progress and take the next step by securing a place in the top five.

“The goal is a place in the play-offs, 100 per cent,” the club captain told Ham&High Sport. “We’ve got that extra year of experience and we’ll try to progress and build on previous years.

“We’ve added a few players, we’ve got a bigger squad and a new gaffer [Simon Lane] this year. I think a play-off spot is realistic, absolutely.

“No team worries me this year. Last year Margate and Maidstone were paying out the money. We’ve got to deal with the teams who have been relegated from the Conference South – Farnborough and Staines Town – and Dulwich are always there, but there’s not one stand-out team that I worry about.

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“Last year I would have tipped Margate and Maidstone for the title because of the money, but this year I couldn’t say. We could be a surprise package.

“I think we were the favourites last year to get the chop, to get relegated, and we proved a lot of people wrong there. Hopefully we can surprise a few people again.”

Wingate have a new director of football, Lane replacing David Norman, and he has already had a positive impact.

“He has brought in a new formation and a plan B, which we didn’t have last year, so we’ve had a couple of formations we’ve been working on in pre-season – although I won’t tell you what they are,” said Weatherstone.

Weatherstone added: “He [Lane] has brought in a few good players and we’ve got a bigger squad so injuries shouldn’t affect us as much. We’ve got four or five strikers and seven or eight defenders – it’s competition for places and we’ve basically got to work harder.”

The Blues have lost one notable player in striker David Knight, who struck 33 goals in all competitions last season and was the league’s second top scorer. He has moved to Hornchurch, but Wingate have recruited Billy Healey from Hanwell Town and Lee Barney from Marlow.

Healey has been reunited with his former strike partner Rob Laney, having scored 55 goals in 53 games when they played together for Hanwell in 2013/14, and Barney struck 25 goals last term.

Barney, who scored twice in a 9-2 win over Hertford Town in Wingate’s first pre-season friendly, has since suffered a knee injury – but Weatherstone believes the new signings can ensure that Knight is quickly forgotten.

“David Knight got 30-plus goals last year but I feel with the quality we have, we’ve got three or four strikers who can hit 30 goals themselves so hopefully we won’t miss him too much,” said the captain.

“Laney would probably say he didn’t score as many goals as he wanted to last year, Lee looked good before he got injured and Billy and Laney have played together for a good few years so they know each other’s games.

“Billy can definitely score goals. I think this is the highest level he’s played at so hopefully he can fit in well and help Laney. I know he [Laney] has got a target of 25 goals this year for himself, so that would be nice if he got it.

“We’ve built on last year. We’ve kept the spine of the team and if you add the new additions then the target is even higher and hopefully the play-offs. Hopefully David Knight is the only departure and it won’t affect us too much.”

There were fears that Wingate would lose more players after their success last season – including 21-year-old prodigy Karl Oliyide. However, he has signed on for the upcoming campaign.

“Karl is a raw talent, he’s unbelievable,” said Weatherstone. “I felt we were quite lucky to keep him, I was worried he might be snapped up, but fortunately he’s signed and he gives us another dimension. He’s played up front for us and he can play in a central role or give us a bit of width.”

Wingate start their campaign with a home game against newly-promoted Brentwood Town on Saturday (kick-off 3pm) before travelling to Hampton & Richmond on Tuesday evening.