MALVERN Town are closing in on their first game back in the Southern League for 14 years.

The Hillsiders' challenging pre-season programme has reached the final two matches after last weekend's 1-1 draw with Step 3 Stourbridge FC. Malvern go to Brimscombe & Thrupp this weekend before they welcome a Cheltenham Town XI to the HDAnywhere Community Stadium next Tuesday. 

Then comes the FA Cup extra-preliminary round clash with Rugby Town on August 5 and co-manager Stephen Cleal is wanting to see his side step up the intensity of performance in their final two friendlies. 

"Results don't really matter but with these last couple of pre-season games, we want to be treating them as actual competitive matches," he said after the 1-1 draw with Stourbridge on Saturday.

"I think the important thing from Saturday's game is that they (Stourbridge) had lots of the ball and that will be useful going forward into the season. There will be times this year when we will have less of the ball and we will look to stay in the game and pinch something late on. 

"They are a good side, they knew how to play us and they didn't give us a second on the ball and we made some mistakes that were punished, which was disappointing. 

"But it was a good performance against a top side. We should have asked more questions against 10 men but ultimately that is another scenario we will likely face at some point so it was good experience."

Malvern have used a full quota of players throughout the summer, as well as a number of trialist players, some of which have been signed on for the 2023/24 campaign. 

But one player who has not featured is star winger Ben Hayes, who scored 14 league goals in total in 22/23. He picked up an injury in the build-up to the play-off final at the end of last season and has been working hard to get back to full fitness.

Cleal suggested that Hayes is likely to miss the opening month of the campaign.

"Ben is still a couple of weeks away from kicking a ball," he added. "He has done a lot of straight-line running and is building fitness and strength up and he's not a million miles away.

"But if he is a couple of weeks away from kicking a ball then it's going to be at least a month away from playing first-team football."