Anybody looking for evidence that the Blue Square Premier is nearer to a proper fifth tier of English football than the top level of non-league only need take a look at the teams battling relegation.
All the main contenders are part-time and at least two have undergone major financial trauma recently, showing the difficulties of not only to competing part-time in the Blue Square Premier, but also the cost of chasing the dream of league football.
While the race for the play-offs could see any 4 of nine teams compete for a game at Wembley, the relegation places are a little less frantic, with three teams practically down and a further three squabbling to avoid the final place.
Droylsden’s first visit to the top level of non-league football was expected to be brief and their form over the course of the season has done nothing to disprove that. Currently the Bloods sit 18 points adrift from safety and are already planning for life in the Conference North.
The Manchester suburb team have only won three games all season, none of them away, and have struggled generally with players who were solid enough to take the Conference North championship but have been found out at this level. The loss of Jody Banim on loan to Torquay hit their slender survival hopes — the striker scored in their last win at home to Kidderminster at the end of January.
The season started full of optimism for Droylsden. Although colourful chairman-cum-manager Dave Pace insisted his side could win the title, most Bloods fans would have settled to avoid relegation and perhaps a mid-table finish and look towards consolidating in the Conference next season.
Sadly, despite two draws from their opening fixtures against Salisbury and Northwich that was as good as it got for Droylsden and a long succession of often hefty defeats followed until they picked up their first win of the season at home to Oxford at the start of October. A recent 3-1 home loss to Northwich indicates how much they’ve struggled.
The Mancunians have had plenty of time to rebuild for next season and with Pace already rebuilding the squad, they could well be challenging for an immediate return to the non-league top flight.
The one positive Droylsden can take is that they’ve won more games at home than second-bottom club Stafford Rangers, but a higher number of draws has left the midlands club six points ahead of the Bloods yet still eleven points away from safety.
Stafford knew this season wasn’t going to be easy. Last year Rangers narrowly avoided relegation on the last day of the season and with the league strengthening again, 2007/08 promised to be a struggle, with the club unable to compete in terms of squad and finances. Avoiding relegation again would have been the best they could have hoped for.
But Rangers’ start set the tone for the rest of the season with a home loss to new boys Farsley Celtic. It took them five games to register their first point and their first win didn’t come until late mid-September, on the road at Weymouth. By that stage, the dye had truly be cast and Stafford knew they’d need to turn things around quickly if they were even to make it into the relegation scrap as opposed to going straight down.
But it was draws, rather than wins, that were forthcoming and, despite a decent run in the FA Trophy, Stafford were in deep trouble, and with 42-year-old striker Neil Grayson still their biggest threat, the signs were not good.
Grayson, along with midfielder Kevin Street, took temporary charge when manager Phil Robinson left the club before the arrival of former Wolves and England legend Steve Bull in the managerial hotseat at the end of February.
Bull’s first game was a three-all draw at Histon, promoting hope they may be able to at least put up a fight until the end of the season. But that’s been as good as it gets and a 6-0 thrashing away to Kidderminster was confirmation that relegation is almost a certainty.
Any outside chance that they may rally for the end-of-season run in is offset by a difficult fixture list that sees them playing most of the play-off hopefuls or relegation rivals. The final game of the season against Droylsden could merely be a match that decides who’ll finish bottom.
Like Stafford and Droylsden, Northwich also appear to be dead certs for the drop, but the Vics have specialised in minor miracles in recent seasons and given that they nearly went bust before Christmas, still having a club is an achievement of sorts.
In 2004 Northwich escaped relegation despite finishing last, due to financial and ground problems of other clubs. The next season they went into administration and took a ten point deduction yet despite being pinned in the relegation zone for much of the season, they managed to finish 19th but were voluntarily demoted due to ongoing legal issues. The Vics then won automatic promotion back to the Conference but this season escaped being wound up over an unpaid tax bill at the last minute. Stability isn’t a word you hear much around their part of Cheshire.
Relegation seemed a certainty anyway when Northwich spent the first two months of the season languishing at the bottom on just one point. But slowly new manager Dino Maamria has managed to put some steel into his side and an excellent December saw them take seven points from 12 to give them hope of escaping the drop.
Despite a slight dip at the start of January, the Vics are in good form and are unbeaten in three. Northwich also have a funny habit of pulling out results when most needed. They have a kind run-in, playing mostly mid-to-bottom table sides and despite currently being nine points behind Farsley, Maamria’s side may have a huge task in front of them but don’t rule out another great escape.
The relegation scrap
Halifax, Crawley, and Woking are all in with an outside chance of being dragged into a relegation fight but, ten and eleven points clear respectively, they should have built up enough of a cushion to stay safe.
Currently one of the bigger names in non-league football, Weymouth, occupy the final relegation spot but are just one point behind Farsley and two behind Altrincham.
Weymouth’s decline has been as rapid as their rise of the past few seasons and less than 18 months ago, the Terras were in the play-offs dreaming of league football.
But the club financially imploded when then chairman Martyn Harrison, who’d put the finances of the club in with his hotel company, announced the club’s debts were too high and the entire first team was put on the transfer list.
Despite stabilising somewhat off the pitch, Weymouth’s financial troubles meant they weren’t considered challengers for the play-offs and instead have slowly slid towards the bottom four, despite a reasonably comfortable start to the season.
After beating Oxford in January, the club went on an eight match streak without a win, including a defeat to Stafford and a 6-0 drubbing at home by Forest Green last week. At that stage, few would have bet against the Terras making a return to the Conference South, but newly-appointed ex-Chelsea manager John Hollins rallied his men and pulled out a narrow victory over inconsistent promotion-chasing Stevenage.
Weymouth have an interesting run in. They play Farsley Celtic tonight, which could alter the shape at the bottom, and also face the improving Northwich, but these games are offset by tough matches against form teams Cambridge and Exeter.
But assuming Weymouth are still in touch by the start of April, they play the likes of Grays, Oxford, Crawley and Kidderminster, none of whom have much to play for, and with Altrincham at home on the last day of the season, Weymouth have a great chance to avoid the drop.
To do that, they’ll have to overtake Farsley Celtic, who’ve proved to be a resilient bunch of battlers in their first ever season in the non-league top flight. The Leeds team have had three promotions since 2003 and have ambitions to go full-time next year if they stay up.
It’s a big if, but it may just be achievable. Celtic expected to struggle somewhat but had set themselves the goal of survival and having spent much of the season yo-yoing with Altrincham for the final relegation place, they’ve finally started to consistently stay above the drop zone, despite losing highly-regarded manager Lee Sinnott to Port Vale.
Their aim will be to keep Weymouth below them for the rest of the season, and if the Terras surprised Stevenage last weekend, then Farsley’s victory over second place Cambridge was definitely a shock upset and John Deacey’s men have shown enough in the last few games that they can win enough games to keep them up.
Their run in is tricky though, although upcoming fixtures against Weymouth and Northwich provide a great chance to open up space between them and the drop zone, while Celtic also have the best home record of any of the relegation candidates. Burton Albion, in their current form, won’t fancy a trip to Throstle Nest.
Away form could be Farsley’s biggest weakness and with tough trips to Torquay, Salisbury and Oxford they’ll have to hope to steal whatever points they can take. Farsley may just have enough to stay up, but it’ll be touch and go with Weymouth.
The last of the relegation contenders, Altrincham, will be hoping politics have nothing to do with their survival. The last two seasons have seen Altrincham gain reprieves despite finishing in the relegation zone.
In the first season back in the Conference top flight, they were deducted 18 points for fielding an ineligible player but Canvey Island’s resignation from the league and a points deduction for Scarborough kept the Robins up. Last season Alty finished in the final relegation spot, but Boston United’s double relegation saw a second reprieve.
This season has been a third successive relegation battle for the part-time team but with five loanees in their squad, Altrincham are as close as you’ll find to a full-time team among the strugglers.
Like Farsley, the Robins have flirted with the relegation places but despite drawing two points clear are still only a couple of bad results away from relegation.
Their point against Torquay surprised everyone and a win against Forest Green shows that, like Farsley, they’re capable of pulling a good result out when needed. But it’s the home draws against mid and lower table sides that have proved their downfall.
Bar a visit to Aldershot, Alty have a decent set of fixtures in March and could start to build a cushion, but April is tough with four potential play-off contenders and fellow strugglers Weymouth to come. The Robins will be hoping at least one or two of the top-table sides have dropped out of the promotion race by that stage.
But, as has been illustrated throughout the article, don’t rule out a club getting into financial difficulties or voluntarily dropping down a division. Grays currently have the threat of suspension hanging over them, while Crawley have serious money worries and have come close to going bust in recent seasons. If perennial great-escapers Altrincham and Northwich occupy the final spots, what’s the betting on a double reprieve?