The State Of Play – Easter Bank Holiday Special
Traditionally, the Easter weekend is the time of year that many of the final decisions of promotion and relegation are made. There are plenty of leagues that will go to the last day of the season, but with most teams playing two matches over the next three or four days we are due for a massive flurry of football, after which everything should look much clearer than it does right now. Looking over the league tables, what is noticeable is that very few leagues have what looks anything like a runaway winners. Championships might well be decided this weekend and others might go to the last day of the season, but very few are actually already wrapped up. For the purposes of keeping things relatively tidy, we’re going to be going as far down as the Step Two (the Blue Square North & South).
There are still seven matches to play in the Premier League, and eight for Manchester United. There are still opportunities for United to drop points (they still have a Manchester derby to play and a home match against Arsenal), but it still looks likely that they will win their second successive Premier League. Also, following their shell-shocking home defeat by Chelsea during the week, how will Liverpool react? They are at home against Blackburn tomorrow. West Bromwich Albion are adrift at the bottom of the table, but the key question here is whether Alan Shearer can save Newcastle United. Anybody in the bottom half of the Premier League could still, theoretically, be relegated.
Birmingham City beat Wolves on Monday night to throw an element of doubt into the league leaders promotion ambitions. On paper, though, Wolves have a comfortable run-in, with matches against Southampton, Derby, QPR, Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers to finish their season. The all-important match might turn out to be the match between Reading and Birmingham City on the last day of the season. Reading also have to play the form team of the division, Sheffield United (who have caught right up but may have left things a little too late), this weekend. Cardiff City also still have an outside chance of automatic promotion after their convincing midweek win against Derby County. At the bottom of the table, Charlton seem to be lost cause, but given this division’s tendency for anybody to be able to beat anybody else, it’s any two from seven to join them.
Leicester City are only a couple of wins from promotion, and could take a giant step towards it if they beat Leeds United on Monday, whilst second-placed Peterborough United play third placed Millwall on the same day. Three wins from their last five matches should be enough to see them up in the automatic places. The final play-off place seems to be between Scunthorpe United, Tranmere Rovers and Southend United. At the bottom of the table, Hereford United and Cheltenham Town are lost causes, though Brighton & Hove Albion gave themselves half a chance of staying up with a win at Hereford last week. Northampton Town have slipped into the relegation places though they have games in hand on the teams immediately above them.
The big match of the weekend is tomorrow at Griffin Park, where leaders Brentford play third placed Exeter City. A win for Brentford would leave them clear at the top and on a downhill path to promotion. There are only three points between second placed Wycombe Wanderers and Gillingham in sixth place. Exeter’s difficult weekend continues on Monday with a home match against Wycombe. If they win those two matches, the supporters owned club will have an excellent chance of securing a second successive promotion. Luton Town’s win last Sunday in the Football League Trophy might just give them the boost that they need. If they win all of their remaining matches, they’ll have half a chance of avoiding relegation. It’s between Chester, Bournemouth and Grimsby for the second relegation place, and Chester seem to be the one of those three in the worst state of freefall.
The intriguing question at the top of the BSP is whether Burton Albion will continue to lose their nerve. They have stuttered since the departure of Nigel Clough to Derby County, and lost at home to Torquay United on Monday night, allowing the Devon club to close the gap to eight points, with five matches to play. Torquay also have a game in hand. Burton play fourth placed Histon tomorrow, the village side from near Cambridge are likely to be joined in the play-offs by their local rivals Cambridge United and Kidderminster Harriers, though a handful of other clubs down to Crawley Town in ninth place still have a theoretical chance of making them if they can put together a late season run. Lewes are already relegated and troubled Northwich Victoria are practically down too, but the other two places are up for grabs. Four points separate Barrow in eighteenth place and Woking in twenty-second, and amongst the strugglers, former League club York City have also slipped into the relegation places. More on that next week.
At the top of the BSN, Tamworth are almost home and dry. They are four points clear of second placed Gateshead with a game in hand, so a couple more wins from their last five should see them home. The play-offs feature three names that will ring bells. Gateshead and AFC Telford United are both successors of clubs with illustrious histories (the original Gateshead were Football League members until 1960 whilst Telford United were twce FA Trophy winners during the 1980s). Alfreton Town look likely to be the other play-off team. Hucknall Town are almost relegated, but the other relegation places are up for grabs, with two of Burscough, Blyth Spartans and Hyde United looking likely to join them.
AFC Wimbledon stabilised with a 2-0 win against Team Bath last Saturday. Concerns over their recent form were eased slightly when second placed Hampton & Richmond blew their game in hand at Chelmsford on Monday night. This weekend will go a long way towards deciding things. Wimbledon are at home to struggling Basingstoke this afternoon (there will be a full report on that on here later) and then away to Bromley on Monday. The big match, however, comes next Saturday when Hampton & Richmond enterain Wimbledon. Eastleigh have the easiest run-in and will be hoping that they both slip up, whilst Chelmsford City (who have slumped dramatically since the new year) and Hayes & Yeading will make up the other play-off places. At the foot of the table, Fisher Athletic are relegated and will probably fold after their final match of the season against Braintree Town. Bognor Regis Town are also relegated, and the third relegation place is unlikely to be contested following the announcement made by Team Bath that they are to resign from the BSS at the end of the season.