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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Non League: Focus

Nobes takes some time to dip into the Non Leagues to look at how the big issues are shaping up further down the pyramid.

Could rookie Andy Sinton lead AFC Telford to promotion into the Conference?

It's fair to say that an almost unprecedentedly cold winter has produced an uneven picture in the Non Leagues this season.

Never before will the argument of points on the board over games in hand have undergone such scrutiny. It will be fascinating to see which wins the debate come the end of the campaign.

It's a situation perfectly illustrated in the Conference North - currently topped by phoenix club Nuneaton Town. The Warwickshire outfit are challenging for back-to-back promotions and have had an impressive season.

However, their lead at the top is by just a single point ahead of pre season favourites Alfreton Town who have a massive seven games in hand, as well as a vastly superior goal difference, over the side at the summit.

It's almost unthinkable that, in such a comfortable position, Nicky Law's men won't take advantage and end the season where most expected them to - on top and gaining elevation to the Conference Premier.

Also in the mix are my very own Boston United. I was confident of a push for the play offs before a ball had been kicked, but even I've been surprised by how well we've done this season.

I can't speak highly enough of our managers Paul Hurst and Rob Scott and the job they've done in the two years they've been at the club. Successive promotions would be a dream, but either way, just finishing in the top five would be a terrific achievement.

Especially considering we're not breaking the bank and can't match the budgets of our rivals. One of them, Guiseley, are another side who have plenty of games in hand and could well take advantage to seize a play off spot.

The current form side are Solihull Moors, who have put together a consistent run of results to force their way into the play off picture.

It would be a fitting tribute if the Moors did so after the sad passing of long-serving boss Bob Faulkner from cancer earlier in the year.

Arguably it's another phoenix side in AFC Telford who, looking good for a top five finish, would enter the play offs as favourites for promotion though - not least because of their recent play off experience.

Under former England international and rookie boss Andy Sinton, the Bucks have once again shown their quality, and boast an impressive record against the other top teams. After near misses in recent years, this could finally be their time.

At the bottom, a disastrous campaign for Redditch United - including a 9-0 home loss to the Skyrockets - looks destined to end in relegation, with the Worcestershire outfit lying bottom and 15 points adrift of safety.

The second spot appears to be a fight between financially troubled Hyde and Stafford Rangers - who are now under the stewardship of former Leicester defender Matt Elliott after the departure of Tim Flowers.

It's been another disappointing campaign for big-spending Gainsborough Trinity too, who are still nervously looking over their shoulder six points above the bottom two. Much more was expected from Brian Little's side.

Liam Daish is hoping to guide Ebbsfleet United straight back into the Conference

In the Conference South, Braintree Town are leading the way at the top as they attempt to win promotion to Non League's top tier for the first time in their history.

The Essex club - twice losers in the play offs in recent campaigns - hold a four point advantage and have a game in hand over nearest rivals Ebbsfleet United.

The outfit famous for being owned by the MyFootballClub website experiment have made a strong bid for bouncing back at the first attempt after relegation from the Conference last season.

Liam Daish's side look likely to be play off contenders at least. Also in contention are phoenix club Farnborough - gunning for a third promotion in their six year history.

Things are changing for the Hampshire club, who are also currently re-developing their Rushmoor Stadium with a new stand inspired by Preston North End's iconic Deepdale stadium.

Regular contenders Chelmsford City have bounced back from play off failure last term as have Woking - on the fringes of the top five alongside Eastleigh and this year's FA Cup giant killers Dover Athletic.

Welling United are also in the running in a division thankfully much tighter than last season when, the runaway success at the top of Newport County robbed the league of much drama and excitement.

At the bottom, St Albans City have been surprising strugglers and Maidenhead United, under former Yeading boss Johnson Hippolyte, are also struggling.

After their great escape last season, financially troubled Lewes find themselves in familiar territory in the bottom three. Following on from relegation from the Conference in 2009, there appears to be no end in sight to the struggles at the Dripping Pan.

Just outside the drop zone, Thurrock will be concerned lying just two points above the bottom three having played two more games than Maidenhead.

The Essex side appear stuck in a cycle of comfortable mid table finishes followed by a relegation struggle. As in 2009, they will hope their fight against the drop is successful.

Phoenix club Chester FC are drawing in big crowds as they enjoy success

At the next level of the pyramid, another phoenix side are odds on to continue their rise up the divisions with FC Halifax in charge at the top of the Northern Premier.

The West Yorkshire side hold an eight point advantage over nearest challengers Colwyn Bay and have three games in hand to boot. It seems hard to imagine the now completed Shay ground won't be hosting Conference North football next term.

Notable names in contention for the play offs include North Ferriby United, beaten in the semis last term. Fresh from their FA Cup exploits too, FC United of Manchester are challenging for a top five finish.

In the Southern League, Salisbury City - who were forced to resign from the Conference Premier last term because of financial issues - currently lead the way.

The Wiltshire side hold a five point lead at the summit with their biggest challenge being provided by Truro City. The ambitious Cornish team could continue their rapid rise up the pyramid via the play offs.

Another side in the mix are Cambridge City - demoted in 2009 because of the state of their ground. The Lilywhites will hope to make up for that come May.

At the bottom, the demise of Weymouth continues, with the Terras continuing their plummet from the Conference and in danger of slipping down to the eighth level of English football.

In the Isthmian League, infamous 1989 FA Cup giantkillers Sutton United sit pretty at the top, although nearest rivals Bury Town have two games in hand with which to reduce United's nine point lead.

In the running for a top five finish are Lowestoft Town - FA Vase runners-up in 2008 - and after missing out on the play offs last season, Tonbridge Angels look good for a chance in the end of season lottery this time around.

Finally, perhaps the brightest story in the Non Leagues is the revival of football in Chester. After the demise of Chester City last season, phoenix side Chester FC look destined for promotion in their first year.

The Blues have a huge 12 point lead over ambitious Chorley in the Northern Premier Division One North and, with crowds averaging over 2,000, it seems like FC Halifax and AFC Telford before them they are a new club on the brink of a bright future.

At a time when the future of more and more clubs find their future under threat, it is another good news story which should offer others hope. There is life - new life - outside the Football League.

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