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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Conference Play Offs

Four sides hoping for a return to the Football League meet tomorrow evening as the play-offs in the Conference Premier begin.

Champions Stevenage Borough have already sealed their place in next season's League Two. Which one of Luton Town, Oxford United, Rushden & Diamonds, and York City will join them though?

takes a look ahead to the showdown in Non League's top division.

Final table:

2. Luton Town................44.....44.....88
3. Oxford United.............44.....33.......86
4. Rushden & Diamonds....44.....38......79
5. York City...................44.....27......78
6. Kettering Town...........44....10.......66


Luton Town vs. York City

Luton are hoping to become only the fifth team to instantly bounce back from relegation to the Conference. York are looking to end a six-year spell outside the Football League.

First leg: Thursday April 29, 19:45, Bootham Crescent
Second leg: Monday May 3, 15:00, Kenilworth Road

Luton Town

Pre-season favourites for the title, Luton struggled to adapt to life in the Conference and parted company with manager Mick Harford in October.

Since then, they've been on a tremendous run of form under new boss Richard Money [right]. He's won 17 and lost just four of his 27 games in charge at Kenilworth Road.

That run helped propel them up to second, and push local rivals Stevenage almost all the way for the title.

The play-offs represent a second chance to claim an instant return to the Football League.

York City

It's been a much better campaign for the Minstermen this term after coming close to relegation last season. Boss Martin Foyle helped them to avoid the drop and has set about re-building their fortunes this season.

After a slow start, they were consistently in the race for the play-offs and, at one stage, looked like being outside contenders for the title.

A poor run dashed any hopes of an automatic return to the Football League, which they dropped out of in 2004.

They will be hoping for better luck in the play-offs than in 2007 though - where they lost to eventual winners Morecambe in the semi finals.

Key players:

Play-offs are notoriously tight and close encounters - so having a man who can nick a goal from limited opportunities is crucial.

Both York and Luton have two of the Conference's top strikers in their respective ranks. Richard Brodie [left], with 26 goals to his name, is the division's top marksmen, and City hopes will rest on his shoulders.

Tom Craddock has been in similiarly good form for the Hatters this season, and has found the back of the net 23 times to date.

Both sides will hope their leading men will be able to add to their tallies - possibly with a promotion winning strike.

Form Guide (last six games):

Luton Town:
York City: LDWLWW

Previous meetings:

York City 0-0 Luton Town, February 16, Bootham Crescent
Luton Town 1-1 York City, October 20, Kenilworth Road


The games between the two teams this season are an indication of how evenly matched this ecounter could be.

Both have, at stages this season, been in title winning form, but also have gone through poor spells.

However, it's hard to argue against Luton just shading this over two legs. They have been in great form in 2010 and have the crucial home advantage in the second leg.

York's best bet will be if they can go to Bedfordshire with a lead to protect. If not, then expect Luton to progress to Wembley for a second successive season.

Prediction: Luton Town

Oxford United vs. Rushden & Diamonds

These two teams were relegated with one another from League Two in 2006. Since then, Oxford have looked the more likely to return, but Diamonds have experience of winning promotion from the Conference in 2001.

First leg: Thursday April 29, 19:45, Nene Park
Second leg: Monday May 3, 15:00, Kassam Stadium

Oxford United

For a long time, it seemed as though Oxford were going to gain promotion back to the Football League as Conference winners.

However, the long time leaders saw the wheels well and truly came off their title challenge in March. Five games without a win allowed Stevenage to seize top spot and leave the Oxen trailing behind.

They managed to regain their form and finished the season with four wins and draw in their last six matches - including keeping five clean sheets.

This is their second appearance in the Conference play-offs. In 2007 they squandered a first leg lead to lose to Exeter City on penalties in the semi final.

Boss Chris Wilder [right ]was also a Conference play-off final loser with Halifax in 2006.

Rushden & Diamonds

Arguably the surprise package in this season's Conference, Diamonds have been born-again under the management of Justin Edinburgh.

They raced out of the blocks and hit second place before suffering a dip in form. However, they came on strong in the second half of the campaign - emphasised by the fact they've lost just twice in the league in 2010.

That included a run of 11 unbeaten matches that helped cement their place in the top five and a first ever crack at promotion via the Conference play-offs.

They'll be aware though that one of their two defeats this calendar year was at the hands of play-off opponents Oxford.

Key players:

With 22 goals, James Constable is Oxford's top scorer this season and could play a crucial part in their hopes of winning the play-offs. With 64 goals, only York in the top five have scored fewer than United.

By contrast, Rushden's success has been more of a team effort. Despite their leading scorer, Lee Tomlin [left], only finding the back of the net on 14 occasions this term, they've scored 13 goals more than the Oxen.

Defences may well come out on top over the two legs and someone like Oxford keeper - and former Diamond - Billy Turley, could play an essential role. Particularly if penalties are involved.

Form Guide (last six games):

Oxford United:
Rushden & Diamonds:

Previous meetings:

Rushden & Diamonds 1-1 Oxford United, March 24, Nene Park
Oxford United 1-0 Rushden & Diamonds, February 16, Kassam Stadium


It's difficult to know who the momentum is with in this tie - and momentum can often play an important part.

Rushden have certainly been more impressive in 2010 and have made themselves very difficult to beat.

However, but for their wobble in March, Oxford have been very consistent all season and are almost invincible on home soil - where they will play the second leg.

They have also managed to get themselves back on form, barring a last day loss at Eastbourne.

I don't envisage many goals over the two games, but Oxford's home advantage in the deciding leg and the experience of their boss Chris Wilder might just edge it their way.

Prediction: Oxford United

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