IAN SHARPS believes Chester could prove ‘dark horses’ in the National League but expects bigger budgets to play a key role in the division this season.

The former Blues centre-back and assistant manager, who left Chester last November to take over as first-team coach at Walsall, is anticipating non-league’s top tier to be fiercely competitive this campaign and feels the likes of big-spending Tranmere, Eastleigh and Leyton Orient all have genuine chances of winning the title.

Sharps feels a top-half finish would represent ‘significant progress’ for Jon McCarthy’s side but has warned fans to be realistic in their expectations, given the constraints on the Blues’ budget, despite the £125,000 sale of Sam Hughes to Premier League side Leicester City in the summer.

“I think the aim should always be progress, and a top-half finish would definitely represent that for Chester,” he said.

“Jon’s still working on one of the lowest budgets in the league, people need to remember that. Of course there’s been a significant increase due to the money raised from Sam’s sale, who Jon was able to develop over the past year and we saw big improvements.

“Jon’s a good man, he works very hard and Chester are right to stick by him. It’ll prove the right decision in the long-term.

“But any progress is credible, budgets still play a huge role in the league. With that in mind you’d be looking at Tranmere, Eastleigh, Leyton Orient as being up there.

“Fylde are spending money, they could be up there. The other promoted clubs look to be spending too so don’t discount them.

“But there’s always one dark horse and why can’t that be Chester? A team who comes from nowhere to make the play-off places, especially now there’s six places there.

“Let’s just hope they can go to Solihull and get off to a good start with three points.”

Sharps revealed both he and McCarthy tried to bring 20-year-old striker Nyal Bell to Chester a year ago, and was hugely impressed by the youngster in the Blues’ 2-1 defeat against Walsall in pre-season.

"It's a good side Jon has put together this season, I think they’ve stepped up the quality on last season in certain areas,” he continued.

“They’ve got strong centre-backs, a good engine room and there’s plenty of goals there, I think that could be key.

“I know all about Ross Hannah and he’ll always find the net, but I was impressed by the other lads against us. Harry White looks like being a good addition.

“We tried to get Nyal to the club a year ago as myself and Jon both liked him. It was a really good finish against us at their place and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops this year.

“He’s got all the attributes, pace, power, he’s a tall lad and he’s quick. It’s just a case with Nyal if he commits to it but the early signs are good.”

Walsall, under the stewardship of Jon Whitney, finished 14th last season in League One and Sharps admits he’s really enjoyed the switch to the third tier.

“I love it at Walsall, it’s a great little club and we’ve made good strides,” he added.

“Much like Chester we’re punching above our weight in terms of our budget, we’re certainly not one of the big hitters.

“But we do well with the resources we have. We make sure we enjoy the victories and we stick together as a group when we lose. From a personal point of view it’s been a great education.”