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Conference title goes for a Burton

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For the Conference champions-elect to lose at Ebbsfleet may be regarded as misfortune. To lose at home to Salisbury in the same week looks like carelessness. What started as a hiccup for Burton Albion when they drew again Woking a few weeks ago is becoming a full-on wobble that may derail their title ambitions and, with it, a place in the football league.

Manchester United’s weekend defeat to Liverpool may have been a surprise but Albion’s loss to Salisbury was perhaps even more of a shock and means their previously unassailable lead at the top of the Conference has been slashed to just five points. The Brewers may have games in hand but with Cambridge United hitting a run of form, the battle for the title is anything but over.

The rise to the top

Since their promotion from to the Conference in 2002 Burton have, with one exception, continued to go one better each season. The club has never been one to overspend and has placed stability at the centre of their ambitions, and it’s this steady approach that has served them well while other clubs have gone through cycles of boom and bust.

Their FA Cup draw against Manchester United in 2006 provided a boost for this well-run club to leap from mid-table respectability to promotion challengers. After a 9th place finish that year, the Brewers fell just short the season after when the finished sixth. Finally last season Nigel Clough’s men reached the playoffs for the first time in their history, losing 4-3 over two legs to Cambridge United.

But this season, once Burton reached the top spot, they’ve refused to relinquish it and as the Brewers chalked up win after win it seemed their march to the Conference crown, like Aldershot the year before, would be a mere formality.

Even when Clough departed to take the reins at Derby after eleven years in charge at the Pirelli, caretaker boss Roy McFarland kept up the momentum with wins against Salisbury and a tight away victory at Grays. A draw at home to Altrincham was passed off as a small aberration and it was back to business with a victory against Barrow the next week.

Then came a rather unexpected and uncharacteristic 4-0 reverse against Stevenage in the FA Trophy and although the Brewers followed this up with wins over Rushden and Wrexham, the draw against relegation strugglers Woking has seen Burton hit somewhat of a wall and the team are now winless in four, although they have two games in hand.

Meanwhile Cambridge United are hitting a bit of form at just the right time, having not lost since January 22nd. Had Gary Brabin’s men converted a few more of their draws into wins they may even have made it to the summit by this stage. Only fellow play-off contenders Stevenage are in better form and the Hertfordshire side have the distraction of the FA Trophy to contend with (not, you suspect, that Borough would argue with another Wembley appearance).

Cambridge’s good run has included a convincing 2-0 win over Burton and that may well have done as much damage psychologically to the league leaders as anything. Burton are in uncharted territory and, as so often happens when a team hits the end of an impressive unbeaten run, they find it hard to get back into the groove. At the same time, it destroys the aura of invincibility and gives opponents hope.

Wobbles elsewhere

The table-topping wobbles hasn’t just been confined to the Brewers though. In the Conference South AFC Wimbledon looked dead certs for the title after seeing off then second place Chelmsford City last month. But a series of nervy draws in recent weeks allowed Hampton & Richmond Borough to make up ground on the Dons.

This weekend’s results – Wimbledon beat Dorchester while Hampton crashed to a 4-0 defeat at Welling – will have eased the pressure on the Blue Square South leaders but there are still a few tricky fixtures to negotiate, including Hampton and Richmond in their penultimate game, meaning promotion to the Conference is far from assured.

Then, up north, Tamworth were looking like favourites for the Blue Square North title until a minor blip in mid-February saw Gateshead overhaul them at the top of the table. Indeed, this is one league that looks to be going to the wire with ‘Head losing 2-0 at lowly Solihull Moors at the weekend leaving just two points between the top two.

Even in the league, the mid-season promotion favourites have lost their respective ways somewhat. Wycombe were conquering all before them in League Two until a 3-2 loss at Aldershot at the start of December ended their unbeaten run and allowed Brentford to overhaul a nine point deficit. The Chairboys are now nervously eyeing the chasing pack behind them rather than concentrating on automatic promotion.

In the league above the MK Dons have also lost their way somewhat of late, and now have a job to catch Peterborough for the second promotion spot. Meanwhile, the Championship has the most extreme example of promotion jitters.

For the first half of the season it was merely a question of which of Wolves, Reading and Birmingham would fill the automatic promotion places. But since December the three clubs have been falling over themselves not to win the league, which each of them embarking on a poor run of form that’s given Sheffield United a decent chance of sneaking in. Even Cardiff in sixth, with three games in hand on Birmingham, may fancy their chances.

Holding your nerve

Ultimately, there’s no one reason why teams who seem nailed-on for promotion should do their best to blow it. You can pick any one of injuries, suspension, fatigue, nerves or simply being found out by better teams as reasons for the slumps. Not that us neutrals complain – it certainly makes the title run-ins more interesting.

As Manchester United showed us, there’s no guarantees of an easy win or a title, no matter how good your side is. And just as you pity Fulham, the Red Devils’ next opponent, who may face a bit of a backlash, then troubled Weymouth will also be feeling somewhat apprehensive.

The Terras host Burton tonight and with the Dorest side forced to field youngsters and loanees due to their ongoing financial crisis, the match is the perfect opportunity for Burton to make sure the Brewer’s droop doesn’t become something more serious.

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