Just as teams in the Championship are stuttering as the finish line for the prize of Premiership football gets ever closer, so the contenders for the playoffs in the Blue Square Premier are also doing their hardest to avoid a top five finish, with just half a dozen games to go.
Aldershot have no such worries. Victory at Ebbsfleet tonight will confirm them as champions and bring football back to the town for the first time since 1992, when the original Shots went bust and resigned from the league. It’s been a long journey back to the football league and after last season’s indifferent mid-table finish, many Shots fans could have been forgiven for wondering if they’d be playing non-league football for at least another couple of seasons.
But behind the Shots, teams from 2nd down to 6th all seem to be suffering from a bad case of stage fright and the play-offs may not be decided until the final day of the season, making this one of the most exciting finishes in the Conference for several years. And things are no different at the bottom end of the table with two teams seemingly destined for the drop both hitting a rich vein of form at just the right time.
Fighting for survival
Halifax’s ten point deduction for going into administration may have seen the Shaymen hit their lowest ebb as they struggle to secure their very existence, but to the rest of the teams below them, it’s given fresh hope of avoid relegation, especially Northwich Victoria.
The Vics are becoming somewhat adept at performing great escapes on the pitch, after overcoming a points deduction to fight up to mid table three years ago. They were subsequently relegated due to off-the-pitch problems but bounced back in style with immediate promotion. Still, nobody would have given Northwich a prayer of staying up a few months ago. Adrift at the bottom of the table with just one point and a third manager of the season in mid-October, some bookmakers even stopped taking bets on the Vics to go down.
But manager number three Dino Maamria has overseen an astonishing turnaround in form, the kind that Derby fans have been praying for all season. Saturday’s 4-3 victory over fellow relegation candidates Stafford Rangers has seen Northwich make it out of the drop zone for the first time this season. On current form (they’ve not lost since early February) few would bet against the Vics staying up.
Farsley Celtic also good like they could cap an incredible first season in the Blue Square Premier by staying up. If they can follow up Saturday’s excellent victory away at Torquay with a win at bottom club Droylsden tonight would go a long way to ensuring survival, especially if Weymouth lose at home to in-form Grays, which seems likely.
Altrincham have also been quietly going about their business while the likes of Halifax, Northwich and Farsley grab the headlines. The Robins have been picking up vital points, often against teams like Torquay and Kidderminster, and taking three points where it matters most whenever they’ve faced relegation rivals.
Like Northwich and Farsley, they’re just one loss away from slipping back into the relegation zone (Weymouth are just a point behind) but all three strugglers who’re currently above the bottom four seem to be picking up results at just the right time.
Halifax, Altrincham and Northwich appear to have the harder run-ins with either playoff hopefuls or form teams making up most of the remaining fixtures, but few managers will relish facing the Vics in their current form while Alty always seem to put up a decent fight against the higher-placed clubs. The writing appears to be on the wall for Halifax though, with Grays, Burton, Stevenage, Aldershot and Kidderminster all to come. It’s a situation few fans would have predicted just two years after coming within touching distance of regaining their league status.
There’s no such end-of-season miracles on the horizon for Droylsden and Stafford Rangers, with relegation a near-certainty for both of them. Level on 19 points, and 18 points behind 20th placed Altrincham, it’s now a case of fighting to avoid the ignominy of finishing bottom. Currently Stafford – winless in 11 and nearly a month since they last picked up a point – seem best placed to finish last, while Droylsden, despite being relegation fodder for much of the season, have rallied somewhat and taken points off both Exeter and Aldershot. The final day game between Stafford and the Bloods is already a dead rubber, but plenty of pride will be at stake.
At the other end of the table, none of the promotion candidates are able to put together a string on wins that would confirm their place in the playoffs. Exeter have the best form of any of the hopefuls and their 1-0 win at Stevenage has kept the race well and truly alive; Peter Taylor’s men now look vulnerable with Saturday;s defeat adding to recent losses to Oxford, Salisbury and Weymouth.
Not that Exeter are playing as promotion contenders should. Saturday’s victory against Stevenage may have been a tidy, complete performance, but there have also been losses at York and Weymouth, while Droyslden picked up a point midweek at St. James’ Park.
Both teams can take consolation that their rivals seem to be suffering from similar nerves. Cambridge’s victory over Droylsden on Saturday ended a winless streak of three, that included a draw to Weymouth, while Torquay have lost to Halifax and Farsley and failed to beat Altrincham twice in recent weeks. Both sides should have safely put daylight between themselves and 6th but Burton, who currently occupy that position, only need a couple of wins to overtake both clubs.
Not that Nigel Clough’s team are making it easy for themselves either. Three wins on the bounce looked to have seen the Brewers hit form at just the right time but successive losses to Grays and Forest Green have seen them slip out of the playoffs. All five teams should have enough distance between themselves and Forest Green and Histon, who are the nearest challengers, but it would take a couple of spectacular losses of form from the big guns to get either of the two village-based teams into the hunt.
At the moment, all playoff contenders will be dreading playing the bottom teams, who seem to be able to raise their games against superior-on-paper opposition, so Burton won’t be relishing visit from Altrincham and Halifax, while Exeter will be eyeing this weekend’s fixture against Northwich with trepidation, while Dino Maamria’s men also have to visit Cambridge and Stevenage.
And it’s Stevenage who probably have most to worry about. As well as Halifax on the final day, they’ve also got to play Torquay, Aldershot, Northwich and Burton, and could well be the team that misses out on the playoff party this year. Not that the final game of the season will be any less worrying for Cambridge, who have Northwich away, and Burton and Exeter, who play each other at the Pirelli Stadium. This final day could be one of the most exciting, and closest, in recent Conference history.