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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Against All Odds

Paul Peschisolido's Burton are surprise challengers for the League Two play-offs

It's all too easy, especially within the media, to focus on the negative. It's no different in football where those who underachieve, the fallen giant, and the surprise struggler always tend to make the headlines.

As means of explanation the one factor often ignored in certain sides underachieving is simply that other teams are doing the exact opposite - punching above their weight.

Could it simply be that said surprise struggler is not doing so well not because of anything they're doing wrong, but that other smaller, less fancier teams are maximising their resources better.

However, in a game that is fast becoming more predictable at all levels because of the influence of money, it's refreshing to still see that sides are showing it takes more than the size of your budget to succeed.

This season, that particular achievement is no more evident that in League Two. The clutch of clubs lying just outside the play-off places include the unfashionable names of Accrington Stanley, Burton, Aldershot, and Morecambe.

For all four sides to be in a position where a top seven spot is perfectly attainable is a tribute to their respective managers and players, all of who have confounded the critics to challenge.

The quartet all attract attendances in the bottom third of their division - regularly getting crowds worse than struggling sides like Grimsby, Cheltenham, and Lincoln.

Therefore, with matchday revenue often being the largest source of income for lower division sides, it is a sign of just how much these sides are overachieving.

For Stanley, their challenge has been even more remarkable. The Lancashire club came perilously close to going out of business earlier in the season due to financial problems.

Their success is testament to the solid foundations laid by long-serving boss John Coleman. He has forged a close-knit group of hard-working professionals playing good football who have also enjoyed success in cup competitions this season.

It is almost unthinkable to envisage a side attracting 2,000 fans to home matches to be playing in the third tier of English football next season. However, it is also a distinct possibility.

As is Burton Albion achieving back-to-back promotions. Some pundits expected the Brewers to be the first side to suffer instant relegation back to the Conference following promotion last season.

The stuttering way they had finished the previous campaign, allied with the appointment of the rookie Paul Peschisolido as manager didn't seem to bode well for the Staffordshire outfit.

However, their committment to playing attractive, attacking football has won them as many points as it has admirers. For a side who were promoted without any momentum, their challenge has been a surprise success story.

Another side who finished last season poorly were Aldershot Town. The Shots were another side expected to struggle in their second season back in League Two.

Their impressive start was unexpected, so to sustain it despite losing influential manager Gary Waddock to Wycombe in the autumn is credit to the players at the Recreation Ground.

Like Burton, they too endeavour to play the game the right way and entertain their supporters.

Indeed, not only is the myth of succeeding without money being challenged, but those who believe the basement division is no more than the 'kick and rush' style are seriously misguided.

The Hampshire side are now under the management of Kevin Dillon, and the former assistant to Steve Coppell at Reading has maintained Town's solid home form to keep them in top seven contention.

Morecambe have once again impressed under Sammy McIlroy's tutelage

Perhaps the highest praise that can be offered to the final member of the four teams - Morecambe - is that not many people are surprised to see them punching above their weight to challenge.

The Shrimps are only in their third season in the Football League, yet have already shown that, despite not having huge riches, it is a step-up in status they are entirely comfortable with.

The vastly experienced Sammy McIlroy has worked smartly in the permanent transfer and loan market to build a strong side capable of playing good football but also in dealing with the physical nature of the division.

The progressive Lancashire club plan to move into a new stadium next term - a sign that League Two is not the height of their ambition.

The current side taking to the Christie Park pitch might realise those dreams come the end of the season.

Such success also helps fuel the dreams and hopes of other smaller clubs. After all, the four clubs were in Non League football just a few seasons ago.

Not does does it suggest that the gap between League Two and the Conference is narrowing, but that other sides can have a similar impact in the future.

It is the kind of inspiration promotion challengers such as Kettering and Stevenage - clubs who have never played in the Football League before - can draw upon.

In fact, whether any of the four overachievers make the top seven this season or not, it is the kind of upsetting of the apple cart that keeps the dream alive for all fans outside the top flight. Money does indeed talk, but not always the loudest.


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