ALL eyes will be on South Holland rivals Spalding United and Holbeach United this Saturday as the UCL Premier Division returns with a bang.
Billed as two of the teams that should challenge for honours this year, both have been handed tasty home tests in the opening round of fixtures.
Title favourites Spalding play host to a talented Kempston Rovers side that did the double over them last season, while Holbeach welcome defending champions Long Buckby (both 3pm).
For the Tulips, the start of the league campaign offers Pat Rayment and his side the chance to right the wrongs of last weekend’s shock FA Cup loss to Blaby and Whetstone.
Despite the setback, big-spending Spalding will be the side everybody wants to beat this time around – but Rayment has called for patience as his side bid to shake off any early-season teething problems.
He said: “Make no mistake, I expect us to bounce back from last weekend with a bang. But I would ask people not to expect too much, too soon.
“This is a completely new squad and it’s a lot to expect them to hit the ground running. What I will say is that we’ve got a lot of players that have won titles before and we have the experience and know how to be major players in this league.
“We’ve shown against Boston United and King’s Lynn in pre-season that we’re capable. We also had a great training session on Tuesday and talked things over.
“I’m excited about Saturday and this is the perfect chance to bounce back.”
Rayment will have to do without the suspended Liam Bull, while Luke Kennedy faces a late fitness test.
But star striker Shane Tolley is expected to be handed a start in a 4-3-3 system, with Franny Green pushed forward into a more attacking role. Jacob Joyce, Tom James and Ash Stevens are all vying to complete the attacking trio.
Rayment is wary of Kempston’s threat though – and expects them to mount a challenge for a place in the top four this season.
That’s an aim shared by both the Tigers and champions Long Buckby, who square off at Carter’s Park in perhaps the game of the opening day.
Having failed to meet the criteria to be promoted as champions, The Bucks were hit by a mass exodus of players after respected boss Glen Botterill quit to join Northampton Sileby Rangers.
It’s easy to forget that Holbeach were ahead of the champions in the table at Christmas though – and John Chand’s side were the first to take points off them last season, drawing 3-3 in a New Year’s Eve thriller.
Chand said: “How we do this season all depends on how we start. I believe we’re capable of mounting a title challenge, but in reality five or six sides will feel the same.
“It’s very cliché, but it will come down to consistency. If we can start well, we certainly have a very strong squad and we’ve learned a lot from last season.
“Obviously, Long Buckby have lost a lot of players. They’re not the same team that won the league, but I know for a fact they’ve added quality.
“They’ll be a little bit of an unknown quantity, which is a strange thing to say about the champions.”
The Tigers welcome back influential duo Jonny Allen and Andrew Tidswell to the squad after both missed last weekend’s 2-0 FA Cup win at Arnold Town, but Mitch Griffiths and new signing Jack Smith are both banned.
Left-sider Craig Parker trained with Chand’s side on Tuesday after his departure from Boston Town, but Holbeach are not yet allowed to speak with him over a move.
However, Andy Toyne, Robbie Harris and Sam Mulready are all primed to make their home debuts.
Follow @LFPSport on Twitter for live updates from Carter’s Park.
• Tuesday: Boston Town v Spalding United; Sleaford Town v Holbeach United (7.45pm).