The Premier League has two weeks to play and the Football League finishes next weekend, but for the semi-professional clubs that make up the sprawling pyramid of the non-league game, the normal league season has already ended and the play-offs are about to start. First introduced in 2004, the non-league play-off system has been highly successful, pushing up crowds towards the end of the season, increasing mobility between divisions (many divisions only promoted their champions beforehand, most now promote two now) and provide a useful little cash bonus for clubs hosting matches at the end of each season. The play-offs start this week, with matches being played on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night. For the purposes of clarity, I’ll be using the sponsors’ names this evening, for once.
The Blue Square Premier: The BSP plays it slightly differently to the other leagues, in that the semi-finals of its play-offs are played over two legs, rather than as one-off matches. The matches are to be played on Thursday and Friday night of this week, and Monday and Tuesday of next week, with the final to be played at Wembley on Sunday 18th May, with a place in the Football League at stake. The first match is between Burton Albion and Cambridge United. Since appointing Nigel Clough as their manager in 1998, Burton have made steady progress up the non-league game, winning the Southern League Premier Division in 2002, moving to the brand new Pirelli Stadium in 2005 and holding Manchester United to a creditable (and lucrative) 0-0 draw in the FA Cup Third Round in 2006. Their squad is a curious mixture of solid non-league players and experienced former League players. Clough himself is still registered as a player at 42 years of age (although he doesn’t play these days), whilst the 44 year-old Kevin Poole still keeps goal. Other names of note are the former Republic Of Ireland under-21 international Daryl Clare and midfielder John McGrath, who played a couple of games earlier in his career in the Premier League for Aston Villa. Cambridge United dropped into the BSP in 2005, and have spent much of the last two years fighting a financial battle that threatened the very existence of the club. Their front line is led by the non-league goal machine Lee Boylan (who scored 131 goals in 178 games for Canvey Island between 2001 and 2006) and the former Cardiff City striker Leo Fortune-West.
The other match is an intriguing Devon derby between Torquay United and Exeter City. Torquay United started the season as one of the favourites to get promoted back into the League, but after starting the season encouragingly, they fell away in the league as Aldershot Town pulled away at the top of the table. Torquay are already going to Wembley once, to play Ebbsfleet United in the FA Trophy Final. Exeter City fell through the trapdoor from the Football League in 2003 in a state of financial chaos and were taken over by their Supporters Trust. They entered into a CVA and only narrowly avoided extinction, thanks in no small part to an FA Cup run in 2005 that saw them travel to Old Trafford in the FA Cup Third Round, and earn a 0-0 draw, before losing the replay at St James Park. With the club’s finances stabilised, they lost last year’s play-off final to Morecambe at Wembley. Managed by former Southampton midfielder Paul Tisdale, their team features former Wrexham goalkeeper Andy Marriott and Rob Edwards, who played over 200 games for Bristol City.
Predictions: Whilst Torquay United have been the second best team in the division for much of the season and will start the play-offs as the favourites, I suspect that they will be the most pressured team in the play-offs and the intense local rivalry of two matches against Exeter City won’t help. I’m going to go for Cambridge United, who have won five of their last six matches and recently beat Torquay in a League match.
The Blue Square North: The BS North play-offs also feature three former Football League clubs, although there won’t be that many people that can remember Stalybridge Celtic’s brief stay between 1922 and 1924. The BS North and South play-offs are also over two legs, with the finals being played at Burton and Stevenage respectively. Stalybridge play Southport. Their striker, Steve Torpey, scored FC United of Manchester’s first ever goal in 2005, and signed for Stalybridge after playing a season in the BSP for Halifax Town. Southport were the last club to be voted out of the Football League under the old system of re-election, in 1978. They were promoted into the Conference in 1993 and, having been relegated, were promoted back as the first ever winners of the Conference North in 2005. They were relegated back again last year, but stayed full-time with the intention of getting promoted straight back – having been outflanked by Kettering Town, though, they took the somewhat unusual step of sacking manager Peter Davenport in April. Their attack is led by the veteran former Crewe striker, Rodney Jack.
The other match is between AFC Telford United and Barrow. Telford finished second in the table, having fallen away after chasing Kettering for most of the season. Barrow are the form team unbeaten in a seventeen game that saw them shoot up from the middle of the table to grab a play-off place on the last day of the season. Barrow were voted out of the Football League in 1972, but have had time in the Conference since then, most notably in the late 1980s, when they also won the FA Trophy at Wembley.
Predictions: AFC Telford may have finished in second place in the table, but Barrow’s exceptional form in the second half of the season is difficult to ignore, and I fancy them to win the BS North play-offs. AFC Telford have cracked before this season when under pressure (they did this just a couple of weeks ago when faced with a big match against Kettering Town), whilst Southport and Stalybridge haven’t shown the sort of consistency that would lead me to believe that they have got what it takes.
The Blue Square South: There are fewer household names in the BS South play-offs, and again a team that has been chasing the title all season is in danger of missing out on promotion. Eastbourne led the BS South for much of the season, but fell away alarmingly in the last six weeks of the season, winning just one of their last nine matches and losing their final league match last weekend against their semi-final opponents, Braintree Town, who benefited from results elsewhere to leap up from mid-table into fifth place on the last day of the season. Braintree got to last year’s play-off final before losing to Salisbury City. Braintree obtained planning permission for an ambitious 6,000 capacity stadium earlier this year, and have big plans. This season, though, they have been somewhat fortunate to get into the play-offs in the first place.
The second semi-final is between Fisher Athletic and Hampton & Richmond Borough. Fisher have been this season’s surprise in the Conference South. They deserted their home stadium at Surrey Docks, near Docklands, to ground-share at Champion Hill, Dulwich Hamlet’s home ground, in 2004. Sami Muduroglu was a director of a company called Quest Residential went into liquidation in 2002, and Muduroglu was barred from being a company director in 2005 after an investigation by the Insolvency Service. He had been the owner of Fisher but, upon his disqualification, ownership of the club passed to his brother, Eren. The club is seeking planning permission to build a new stadium at Southwark Park, with the sale of the (very lucrative) land at Surrey Docks being used at least in part to finance it. Whether this is in any way desirable is a question that I will return to in the near future. Hampton & Richmond Borough changed their name in 1999 from Hampton, and have had a successful couple of years, winning the Ryman League last season and finishing third in their first season in the BS South.
Predictions: Eastbourne are in terrible form, and I simply cannot see a team (Fisher) with average crowds of 200 getting into the Conference. Braintree, I rather suspect, have been somewhat fortunate to get into the play-offs. I think that Eastbourne and Hampton & Richmond will do battle in the final, and I suspect that Hampton might just shade it.
The Ryman League: In the Ryman League Premier Division, AFC Wimbledon (another team whose form has slumped alarmingly over the last few weeks) are at home against AFC Hornchurch tomorrow night, whilst Staines Town host Ramsgate in the other semi-final. Nothing in Wimbledon’s form or the demeanour of their supporters at the moment suggests that they will see off Hornchurch, who have that strangely indefinable swagger that some teams carry. I don’t expect Hornchurch to lose. Staines Town have just one of their last eleven, whilst Ramsgate have been looking patchy and only sneaked into the play-off places on the last day of the season.
The BGB Southern League: The university team, Team Bath, play Bashley, the village team from the New Forest, whilst Halesowen Town play Chippenham Town in the second semi-final. Bath pushed eventual champions Kings Lynn all the way to the title, but my suspicion is that they ran out of steam in the last few weeks. Chippenham Town had led the table earlier on in the season, but fell away in the last few weeks. I’m going for Halesowen Town to sneak up into the BC South.
The Unibond League: Witton Albion lost out at the very last in the Unibond League this season, and they entertain Buxton in the first leg of the semi-finals. Gateshead, a former Conference club, take on Eastwood Town in the other match. Witton Albion have been tied at the top of the table for much of this season, and I suspect that they will be too strong for their opposition. Finally (although we’re not doing the divisions below the Premier Divisions of these leagues), a quick mention and good luck message to FC United of Manchester. Their exceptional form over the second half of this season took them to second place in the Unibond League Division One North, and they are at home against Bamber Bridge tomorrow night. Should they win, they will entertain Skelmersdale or Curzon Ashton in the final at the weekend.