The National League & (Un)reasonable Doubt

One goal would have been enough to be put it all beyond any reasonable doubt. It was a highly charged weekend of football at the top of the National League, a division in which the race for the league title will go to the last day of the season with three teams still capable of winning automatic promotion. Easter Monday brought a match that few would have believed, before the start of the season, could have been quite as important as it turned out to be at the top of the table. Leyton Orient travelled to the Midlands to play Solihull Moors, who have surprised everybody in the division by staying in touch with the division’s other top two – Orient themselves and the moneyed Salford City – until the very end.

Orient went into the match two points clear at the top of the table after all three sides won their matches on Good Friday. A win would be enough to lift them the league title if Salford City failed to win their home match against Fylde, and when the darlings of the BBC’s non-league coverage went a goal down after half-time the race to find that goal only intensified. Orient, however, couldn’t afford to be too reckless in their attacking ambition, though. A Solihull goal would have flipped everything upside down and put them level at the top of the table going into the last round of matches instead. As things turned out, it was Solihull who came closest to snatching the win – Jermaine Hylton having a shot well saved by the Orient goalkeeper Dean Brill, who also reacted quickly enough to scramble to prevent the loose  ball that was rolling over the line into his arms, was the closest that either side could manage to a goal – but at the final whistle it was Orient who were celebrating the result.

Well, almost. While they were playing out their match, Salford were getting beaten by a goal to nil at home by Fylde, and these results combined leave Orient three points clear at the top of the table on eighty-eight points, five goals better off in terms of goal difference than second placed Salford and eight points better off than Solihull, who are both tied on eighty-five each. Under other circumstances, this might have been enough to set champagne corks flying in the away dressing room. Surely the chances of such a goal difference being overturned are practically zero, aren’t they? Well, not quite, but while the circumstances under which Orient could yet let the title slip from their grasp seem remote, they remain mathematically possible and this in itself will be enough to persuade some supporters that such an outcome remains a possibility, at least.

Next Saturday lunchtime, Leyton Orient entertain Braintree Town in their final league match of the season. The relegation places at the bottom of the National League were decided a couple of weeks ago (possible AGM Cup variations notwithstanding, of course), and Braintree were amongst the first to get confirmed as down following a dismal season which seen them rooted to the bottom of the table or thereabouts since last summer. They’re already safely relegated (they’re currently on forty points, eleven adrift of safety), but their apparent determination to bloody a few noses before they finally fall through that trapdoor will likely give the Orient manager Justin Edinburgh food for thought ahead of next Saturday’s match. A single, solitary point will be enough for Leyton Orient. Against an already relegated team.

Seasoned Orient-observers will already have spotted the potential banana skin awaiting them, here. Should their team freeze in the car headlights next Saturday lunchtime, the two clubs are second and third place could be ready to take advantage. For Solihull Moors, this likelihood remains slim. They travel to Dagenham & Redbridge, who are just above the relegation places in seventeenth and have nothing of significance to play for, other than ensuring that they finish the season in seventeenth place. The conspiratorially-minded might consider that Dagenham’s relatively close geographical position to Leyton Orient might do Orient no favours in terms of Dagenham wanting to pull out all the stops in order to prevent the league title heading a small number of miles south-east, but eight goals is a lot of goal difference to make up and it seems likely that, regardless of what happens elsewhere next weekend, Solihull will have to settle for a place in the play-offs, still a considerable achievement for a club only promoted to this level three years ago and whose previous two seasons at this level have seen them finish in sixteenth and eighteenth places respectively.

No such underdog status could ever be conferred upon Salford City, of course. From spending League One wages to bring Adam Rooney to their club from Aberdeen to bringing David Beckham on board as a director of the club, little that Salford have done over the course of this season has made the club particularly popular amongst fans of other National League clubs, and the burden of lavish spending and attention-seeking directorial appointments is an inevitable raising of both expectation levels within that club itself and, it’s entirely plausible, an added veneer of desire on the part of their opponents to put the flashy club who’ve been throwing money as though it’s confetti in their place. Salford are five goals behind Orient in the goal difference column but they have scored two goals more, so a swing of five goals (Orient lose by one goal, Salford win by four, Orient lose by two goals, Salford win by three) remains a possibility. It would be a stretch to call it a likelihood, but a possibility. Salford travel to sixteenth-placed Hartlepool United in order to try and chase down Orient’s advantage.

And there is always that one further complication. Braintree Town have been pretty wretched for almost the whole of this season, but they have won four of their last five league matches, including the match against Gateshead at the end of March when results elsewhere relegated them. Ordinarily, an end of season match against an already-relegated team would be considered similar to firing a blunderbuss into a barrel of fish, but Leyton Orient supporters may well find it difficult not to think, “But this is Orient” when surveying the potential permutations for next Saturday’s matches, and the consolation of a play-off place doesn’t always feel like one when your club has been chasing the division’s sole automatic promotion place all season.

All of this is, of course, a microcosm of how difficult the National League is to get out of in the first place. One hundred and nine years of Football League service which has only recently been broken means little. Money counts for a lot at all levels of the professional and semi-professional game, but Salford City have discovered this season that it doesn’t necessarily have to mean a stately procession to the league title with no opposition at all. This is a twenty-four division with only one automatic promotion place, six play-off places, and four relegation places. Financial disparity exists in the National League just as it exists in all other professional and semi-professional leagues, but it doesn’t always completely guarantee success. Not this season, anyway. Well, not necessarily. The National League title race isn’t quite over just yet.