THERE has to be an element of enjoyment about the challenge ahead for Malvern Town according to co-manager Stephen Cleal. 

The Hillsiders are preparing for their first season back in the Southern League for the first time in 14 years, and began their preparations for the 2023/24 campaign with an impressive 2-0 win over higher-level Redditch United.

After gaining promotion via the play-offs last season, Malvern will play in the Southern League Division One South this term. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many outside of the club would assume Malvern's ambitions would be to avoid coming straight back down in their first year back at Step 4. 

Malvern Gazette: Malvern Town celebrate their promotion at the end of the 2022/23 seasonMalvern Town celebrate their promotion at the end of the 2022/23 season (Image: Cliff Williams)

But internally, Cleal insisted that they are going into the campaign with an open mind.

"We aren’t really setting ourselves any targets. Internally, if we do what we know we are capable of doing then I think we will be okay," said Cleal.

"Ultimately, we built a squad last season with Step 4 in mind. A lot of those players who played for us last year have experience of playing at Step 4 and can make the jump up again this season.

"But ultimately, it's about how we settle early on in the season. We don’t want to change too many things but we aren’t about to set ourselves any targets as such, we will take each game as it comes and give ourselves mini goals along the way which we will speak about internally. But externally, we just want to go out and enjoy it."

Malvern Gazette: Stephen Cleal is about to begin his second full season in co-charge of Malvern TownStephen Cleal is about to begin his second full season in co-charge of Malvern Town (Image: Cliff Williams)

Malvern's 2-0 win over Redditch kicked off the summer in perfect fashion, but tricky tests are still to come for Malvern in July. 

They play the likes of Step 3 Stourbridge and National League North sides Gloucester City and Hereford FC in the coming weeks.

But Cleal admitted pre-season is just as much about welcoming big crowds into the ground as it is preparing the team on the pitch.

"In pre-season, you have to get the balance right. You want to get some good friendlies which will help the football club financially as well as helping the team prepare," added Cleal.

"We will come up against better teams from a higher level so that’s always good to test yourselves.

"The season will have lots of different tests. Sometimes we will have to defend and play without the ball and sometimes we will have lots of it so we need to prepare for all of those instances."