The Blue Square Premier Race may be tighter than it’s been for the past few seasons but, after another unpredictable weekend, few would be against Aldershot Town taking the title and giving the Hampshire town league football for the first time since the old Aldershot side went bust in 1992.
Following their narrow 2-1 at second place Torquay, the Shots are now 11 points clear at the top. They can still be caught, but it would take some loss of form. But behind them, the annual jostle for the four play-off places are as tight as ever and with some of the favourites for the top five seeing a dip in form, it’s not inconceivable that a newly-promoted unfancied part-time team could sneak the final spot.
With just 12 games left to go, Aldershot, who’ve played one game more than their rivals, can still be caught but any of the chasing pack but the title is theirs to throw away at this stage of the season. Torquay aside, Cambridge, who are 13 points off the top, may still fancy a crack at stealing first place, but this will rely on the Shots campaign getting seriously derailed in the closing two months.
However, that scenario isn’t impossible. Gary Waddock’s team are in with a chance of an unprecedented treble — the Blue Square Premier title, the FA Trophy, and the Setanta Shield — but this will lead to a mini-fixture pile up as the Shots head towards the last few weeks.
Aldershot also have to play Ebbsfleet, Burton, and Salisbury and also face a tough trip to Rushden and Diamonds on the last day of the season. The Diamonds are a difficult prospect on home soil, having lost just four times at Neane Park.
But Aldershot have talent, pace, and strength and, despite being a young side (the average age of the regular first team is around 23 years), have confidence and form running throughout their side. Winger Joel Grant and namesake striker John Grant, who’s netted 19 times so far this season, provide a constant menace to defences and with a mean defence the Shots look good for the top spot.
Behind them the play-off race is full of sub-plots with anybody down to Ebbsfleet United in 10th capable of making the top five. York and Oxford could theoretically reach the top five but would be relying on a lengthy unbeaten run combined with a loss of form from teams in front of them. Both the Minstermen and the U’s are too inconsistent and neither are traveling well.
Of the current top five, Torquay would also have to collapse spectacularly to drop out of the top five, something they’ve not done all year. Nonetheless, the Gulls will be nervously looking over their shoulder at Cambridge following back-to-back losses to Grays and Aldershot and will be hoping their FA Trophy semi-final against York doesn’t distract them from the league as the run-in starts.
Still, Paul Buckle’s men have a kind run-in with only Stevenage and Cambridge away down as the games they’re least likely to take anything from. Torquay also boast one of the most feared attacking line-ups in the division with Lee Phillips, Tim Sills, Chris Zebroski, Roscoe D’Sane and recent loan addition Kaid Mohamed all capable of hitting the net regularly, with defender Chris Todd a threat from set pieces.
The Gulls, though, are in an indifferent run of form and have an occasionally leaky defence, especially on the road. Like any good title-challenging team, that’s normally overcome by their sheer quality in attack but the odd soft goal over the course of the campaign has probably cost them the title. They should end up comfortably in the play-offs though.
Another team who should be confident of securing a play-off place is Cambridge United. Jimmy Quinn’s men have only lost once at home all season — a 1-0 reverse to Exeter — and haven’t lost in five games, a run that’s seen Quinn pick up manager of the month.
Cambridge also have a kind run-in and, playing several of the relegation-threatened teams in the coming weeks, they’ll want to be safe in the top five before they meet first Salisbury and then Torquay towards the end of April. In Lee Boylan they have a top-class poacher and Quinn is still talking up his team’s chances of catching Aldershot.
No such confidence from Stevenage, who’ll be happy to finish the season in the top five. Victory over Crawley on Saturday gave Boro their first win since mid-January and ended a six match winless streak.
Former England caretaker Peter Taylor will hope that win will give his side some much-needed confidence. Taylor has not had an easy time since replacing Mark Stimpson, who left to take over at Gillingham in October. With many players departing for league clubs in January, Taylor has practically had to rebuild mid-season and Saturday’s team was almost unrecognisable from the side that was within a point of the top spot back in the autumn.
With Steve Morrison their main goal threat, Stevenage desperately need their team to gel before the chasing pack catch up. It won’t be an easy task. Their next match is away at Histon, who’ll fancy taking another big-name scalp following their win at Burton.
Boro also have to play most of their play-off rivals between now and the end of the season and face a very tricky away trip to Halifax on the final day of the season. With only Northwich and possibly Weymouth looking like a definite three points, Taylor needs to pull off something special to keep Stevenage’s play-off dreams alive.
In contrast, Exeter City are starting to dream of a second trip in as many years to Wembley. The Grecians had a sticky autumn where too many draws left them in mid-table but, as with last season, they’ve hit form at just the right time with just one league loss, away to Torquay, since mid-November.
The loss of free-scoring Jamie Mackie to Plymouth in January hasn’t derailed their promotion push and Paul Tisdale has created a well-drilled until at both the front and the back. Their main worry is a lack of depth in the squad and with in-form striker Adam Stansfield suffering an ankle injury last Saturday, Exeter will be hoping the goals don’t dry up. They’re another team with a decent run-in and Tisdale will want to make sure of a play-off spot before the last game of the season, when City travel to Burton.
The chasing pack
Burton Albion, on the other hand, will be happy if they’re still in contention for a play-off spot going into that final game with Exeter. For much of the season Nigel Clough’s side have occupied a play-off spot but, like Stevenage, have slumped of late.
Successive replays in the FA Trophy combined with unexpected losses both at home and on the road have seen Exeter replace the Brewers in the top five and Clough must rally his team if they’re finally to become more than just the nearly-men of the Conference.
A 3-1 home loss to Histon was not in the script and despite having the prolific Daryl Clare up front, Burton face an uphill struggle with three tricky away fixtures to York, Oxford and Grays next up, with the latter two turning the corner after recent slumps.
The Brewers then probably have one of the hardest Aprils of any of the play-off hopefuls when then have to travel to Aldershot and host Stevenage and Exeter, not to mention a trip to Kidderminster and one to Forest Green just before April. They have games in hand, but unless Burton turn a corner quickly, they risk fading out of contention.
Salisbury’s only concern is that they may have left it a little late to crash the play-off party. Nevertheless, the Whites are the BSP’s form team and haven’t lost in the league since the start of December. If any team from the chasing pack can break into the top five, it will surely be Nick Holmes’ men.
It would cap a remarkable first season in the Blue Square Premier for the Wiltshire team, who’ve shown they’re no pushovers and with a strong spine and a typically English way of playing — get the ball out of the wings and stick a big man in the centre — they’re a handful for any team.
They’ll face a stern test at Ebbsfleet next but if they can overcome that then they could start dreaming. The only question mark over Salisbury’s play-off push comes in the final few weeks — Exeter, Aldershot, Stevenage, and Cambridge are all still on the fixture list. But if Stevenage’s slump continues, Nick Holmes could just sneak the final play-off spot.
If Salisbury are in dreamland, then Histon must be on another planet. The Cambridgeshire village part-timers are also playing their first season in the Blue Square Premier and have completely exceeded expectations; their 3-1 victory at Burton was proof nobody should write them off yet.
Unbeaten in four, Steve Fallon’s men could yet prove a surprise package and slip into the play-offs unseen. As you’d expect from any team with John Beck on the coaching staff, long balls are the order of the day. But there’s much more to the Stutes than route one and set pieces and if they make the top five, Histon fans won’t be surprised. Whether they can sustain themselves at higher level, or even next season, is another question. But with a relatively straightforward run-in, they could be the ones to profit from any slip-ups above them. It’s difficult to pick between them and Salisbury for the final spot.
The outside bets
Forest Green must be disappointed with the way their season has started to slip away after spending much of the season flirting with the top five. Veteran manager Jim Harvey has put together a decent squad but with goals from top scorer Stuart Fleetwood drying up — despite netting 30 times already this season, he’s not scored since December — and patchy form, Rovers will be ruing missed chances. Likely to be challengers next season, they’re still in with a shout, but it’ll be hard work.
Ebbsfleet United are the last side in with a realistic chance of sneaking in, if they can go on a good run between now and the end of April. They may be 11 points off fifth place but have at least two games in hand on most of their play-off rivals.
Until recently they were one of the form teams but a loss away at Torquay and a 3-3 draw at basement boys Northwich has stalled their run. The club formerly known as Gravesend and Northfleet came up just short last season and may well have to settle for the same this time around. They could, however, have a significant say in who takes the play-off spots with Salisbury, Histon, Cambridge and Aldershot all due to visit Stonebridge Road, while Fleet also have to travel to Stevenage and Forest Green. Expect at least one of these sides to slip up against Liam Daish’s tough-to-break-down side.