Survival Of The Fittest
Most of the leagues in this country have finished now (apart from that certain English league that needs that extra week so that its poor, overworked angels can get a week or two’s break during the winter), and we’re already into play-off territory. Some leagues have already finished theirs, so I thought that maybe it was about time for a round-up of what has already finished and we’ve still got to look forward to before everything winds up for the summer.
The Football League – The Championship
Well, everything concluded yesterday in the Championship, and there are two very interesting looking play-off ties to look forward to. In the happy, smiley, family-orientated world of modern football, there aren’t really that many real grudge matches left, but arguably the nastiest of those is the Black Country derby between Wolves and West Bromwich Albion. Albion have the upper hand in recent matches between the two clubs (including a 3-0 win at Molineux in the FA Cup this season), but Wolves won the last league meeting between the two clubs, and have been in better form of late. Expect at least one of these matches to be played at 5.00 in the morning, so as to minimise crowd trouble. Meanwhile, Derby play Southampton – former League champions against former FA Cup winners (and, lest we forget, FA Cup finalists in this decade). Southampton have never appeared in the play-offs before and Derby have only managed it the once, in 2004. Derby’s recent slump in form might indicate a Southampton win, but Derby beat Birmingham on Sunday lunchtime and are plenty capable of winning this. The final is, of course, the last domestic match of the English season, at Wembley at the end of the month.
The Football League – League One
Blackpool stormed up the league table in the second half of the season, eventually overhauling the pre-season favourites, Nottingham Forest, and finishing as the division’s top scorers, no less. They play Oldham Athletic in the semi-finals, and will start of clear favourites to win. They haven’t seen such excitement at Bloomfield Road since the days of Mickey Walsh in the mid 1970s (caution: over-excited Barry Davies alert). In 1980, Nottingham Forest were set to win their second successive European Cup, whilst Yeovil Town had just finished in the bottom half of the Conference table. Forest have been in mixed form since Christmas, and the burden of expectation leads me to believe that this might just be Yeovil’s chance to upset them. I’d be surprised if Blackpool don’t win it overall, though.
The Football League – League Two
Well, we all know who to not support here, don’t we? A big, hearty “good luck” goes to Shrewsbury Town, who play Franchise over two legs starting next week. I may come back to the subject of, “how did Franchise gain 5,000 “supporters out of thin air?” at a later date. Meanwhile, perennial play-off losers Lincoln City play Bristol Rovers. Funny team, aren’t they, Bristol Rovers? You always kind of assume that they’re a bigger club than they actually are. They’ve stormed up the league table in the second half of the season, though, and this momentum might be enough to see them go up. One hopes so, anyway.
The Nationwide Conference (National)
They’ve already started in the Conference. Last night, Morecambe beat York City 2-1 to book their place in the final, but the big match comes at the Kassam Stadium tonight, where Oxford United look set to book a place in the final – they lead Exeter City 1-0 going into the home leg of their tie tonight. It has to be said that Exeter are no mugs, though. Nothing is decided yet, and the stakes are very high – a place back in the Football League.
The Nationwide Conference (South)
The Conference will see four new teams in it next season. In the south, the favourites, Salisbury City (as seen on “Match Of The Day” earlier this season, holding Nottingham Forest to a draw in the FA Cup) saw off Bishops Stortford, whilst Braintree Town, who were only promoted from the Ryman League at the end of last season, beat Havant & Waterlooville on penalties. The final is at Stevenage Borough’s Broadhall Way this Sunday.
The Nationwide Conference (North)
Those of you with long memories will remember Workington as Football League club (they were booted out in 1977). Well, they’ll have to wait at least a couple more years before reclaiming their place there, having lost to Hinckley United in the Nationwide North play-offs. You may remember that I questioned Kettering Town’s decision to sack their manager with just a couple of games of the season left to play. Well, I hate to be the one to say “I told you to say so”, but they lost their play-off semi-final against Farsley Celtic on penalties last weekend. Farsley (it’s in Yorkshire, in case you were wondering) play at this tidy little ground. Note the man/woman second from the left in the photograph.
As previously reported on here, AFC Wimbledon were beaten 1-0 by Bromley in their semi-final. Meanwhile, Billericay Town had beaten Chelmsford City on penalties in the other semi-final. Their luck, however ran out in the final. Bromley beat them 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw to secure their place in the Conference South. In Division One North, Harlow Town beat AFC Sudbury on penalties, and in Division One South, Hastings United*, stalwarts of the non-league game for many years, begun their long haul up towards the top end of the non-league game with a 2-0 win away to Tooting & Mitcham United. In the Southern League, Maidenhead United are promoted to the Conference South after beating Team Bath – whilst in the Midland and South-Western divisions respectively, Bromsgrove and the superbly named Swindon Supermarine went up. Finally (FINALLY!), AFC Telford United are back in the Conference South after beating Witton Albion in their play-off final.
*Edited to correct mistake caused by having looked at too many non-league websites in too short a period of time
I can’t help but think that this may be too much information.