Gasping As They Fall Across The Line
We’ll be doing the FA Cup semi-finals on here over the next couple of days, but I thought that it was about time for a quick round-up of how things are going in the myriad of non-league competitions. The early Easter has brought the end of the season about rather suddenly this year, and in most semi-professional leagues there are only a handful of matches left to play. Here’s a quick reminder of how the non-league system in England works. It’s called “the pyramid” because the league fan out on a regional basis (the fundamental reason for this being that travel expenses become more and more of an issue the smaller a club is). At the top of the tree is the Conference, a national league, and its two regional second divisions, the Conference North and the Conference South. Below this, there are three leagues. The Northern Premier League (which covers the north of England) feeds into the Conference North and the Isthmian League (which covers the south and south east of England, as well as London) feeds into the Conference South, with the third league, the Southern League (which covers the Midlands, west and south-west of England), feeding into both the Conference North and South. All three of these leagues have a Premier Division and two regional second divisions (all of these leagues have sponsors’ names too, but I’m choosing to ignore them for the purposes of clarity). All of these leagues promote their champions only, with one-off play-off matches between the second to fifth places teams (with the higher placed team at home) to determine second promotion places, except for the Conference, who do it over two legs in the semi-finals and with a final at Wembley.
The Football Conference: There are still seven or eight matches left to play in the 46 game Conference season, but only a spectacular collapse collapse by leaders Aldershot Town could cost them a place back in the Football League. Second-placed Torquay United won 2-1 at Droylsden last night, but this only cut The Shots’ lead to fourteen points. Torquay will probably go into the play-offs as the favourites, and they will be joined there by, in all likelihood, three from Stevenage Borough, Burton Albion, Cambridge United and Exeter City. There won’t be any easy games to played against any of those teams, though, and there is a good chance that two clubs that have never seen League football before (taking into account that Aldershot Town is a different club to the Aldershot that folded in March 1992) getting promoted. At the foot of the table, Droylsden and Stafford Rangers have already more less been relegated, but there promises to be almighty scramble to avoid the other two relegation places. Halifax Town lost ten points for entering into administration, and this has left them third from bottom, but they could yet pull themselves out of trouble – three points separate them, Northwich Victoria, Farsley Celtic, Altrincham and Weymouth.
Conference South: As I mentioned on here before, the battle to get out of the Conference South has been a straight two-way battle between local rivals Lewes and Eastbourne Borough since the new year. Lewes currently have the upper hand, being one point clear at the top with a game in hand, but both teams seem to be suffering from end of season nerves, and either could drop points in any of their remaining matches. It’s still too close to call with five matches left to play. The losers will go into the play-offs as the clear favourites and it’s easy to see why in what has been a very mediocre Conference South league this season. Eastleigh, Hampton & Richmond Borough and Bishops Stortford currently occupy the other three play-off places, but only five points separate Stortford in fifth place from Havant & Waterlooville in eleventh place. Any three of the teams between them could yet come through and snatch a play-off place. At the bottom of the table, Sutton United are all but mathematically down already and Dorchester Town seem set to join them (although they did breath a bit of life into their corpse of a season by beating Maidenhead United last night). The other relegation place will be filled by one of Maidenhead themselves, Weston Super Mare, St Albans City, Welling United or Bognor Regis Town, all of whom are picking up points at the moment.
The Conference North: Kettering Town are eight points clear at the top of the Conference North with two games in hand. They only need two more wins from their remaining six matches to guarantee promotion. Stalybridge Celtic have emerged impressively from the chasing pack into second place, with AFC Telford United, Harrogate Town, Nuneaton Borough and Southport just behind them. With six matches to play, there are other clubs that could come in and challenge for a play-off place, but the positions in the Conference North have been pretty static all season, and I would be less than surprised if the teams currently occupying the play-off places were all still present and correct come the end of the season. At the bottom of the table, Leigh RMI and Vauxhall Motors are sinking fast, and it looks like being a straight scrap between Hucknall Town and Hinckley United to join them, although there are a couple of teams above them that could yet be dragged into a relegation scrap.
The Isthmian League: Congratulations to Chelmsford City, who won the Isthmian League championship last weekend when AFC Wimbledon lost 4-2 at home to Horsham. Wimbledon have stuttered recently, having lost three of their last four matches, but are still likely to go into the play-offs alongside Staines Town and AFC Hornchurch. The final play-off place, though, is still very much up for grabs, with just six points separating fifth-placed Horsham and Margate, down in eleventh place. In Division One North, Dartford are six points clear of second-placed AFC Sudbury, although Sudbury have two games in hand. This one is likely to go to the last day of the season. In Division One South, Dover Athletic need just one point from the remaining four matches to guarantee their promotion.
The Southern League: There’s a three-way championship scrap going on in the Southern league Premier Division, with two points separating top of the table Halesowen Town, second placed Team Bath and Kings Lynn in third, although King’s Lynn (who are arguably the biggest “old” non-league club in England never to have played Conference football) have two games in hand, victories in both of which would but them top of the table. Evesham United seem likely to win the Division One Midlands title (they’re nine points clear of second-placed Leamington) whilst in the Division One South & West, newly-formed Farnborough are six points clear of Fleet Town with four matches to play and seem likely to end the season as champions.
The Northern Premier League: Former Conference club Witton Albion are seven points clear of Fleetwood Town at the top of the NPL, and are arguably starting to claw their way back after a decade or so in the doldrums. Fleetwood will be joined in the play-offs by Gateshead (another former Conference club), and two from Buxton, Guiseley and Eastwood. At the top of Division One North, three points separate Skelmersdale United, Curzon Ashton and Bradford Park Avenue, though Bradford have games in hand on both of the clubs above them. Bamber Bridge and FC United of Manchester are likely to join them, though United have games in hand and could yet launch a surprise bid for the championship. In Division One South, Retford United are twenty points clear at the top of the table and have already won the championship, but can’t take promotion because their ground isn’t up to the required standard. Cammell Laird seem likely to take the promotion place, although the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC, could yet end their 150th year with promotion – they’re eight points off second place, with three games in hand. It would be quite a finish to a memorable anniversary season for them.