Conference play-offs: A Devon Derby and a possible underdog story

The teams for the Blue Square Premier playoffs had already been decided ahead of the final day of the season but, although the final fixtures would just shakedown the final playoff pairings, there was still a decent smattering of last-day drama.

The expected pairings for the playoffs before kick-off were Torquay taking on Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion and Exeter City facing Cambridge United but, with typical footballing predictability, conventional wisdom went out the window.

First off was the clash between potential finalists Burton and Exeter, where a point would have been enough to keep the Grecians in fourth place. But the Exeter camp was hit with illness before the kick-off and it was an unfamiliar team that took to the field at the Pirelli.

Not that this stopped the game getting off to an explosive start, when Dean Moxey carried on where he’d left off on Tuesday night against Stafford by netting after three minutes, but just six minutes later Burton’s prolific marksman Daryl Clare equalised.

Burton must have thought they’d won the game when Shaun Harrard struck twice in the last ten minutes to put them 4-2 up but a first senior goal for full-back George Friend and an injury-time equaliser from City left honours even at 4-4, and Burton in 5th and Exeter in 4th.

So far, as expected. But in Devon and Cheshire matters were taking a slightly different twist. For Cambridge to snatch second place they needed to beat Northwich by two clear goals Torquay to lose at home to Crawley.

Jimmy Quinn’s men duly obliged their duties as Brazilian striker Magno Viera bagged a brace in either half to potentially move the U’s into second place, depending on the Torquay result, where Crawley were definitely ruining the Gulls’ party. Two goals in either half for the Red Devils meant that Tim Sills’s late goal was little more than a consolation for Paul Buckle’s team, who slipped to third and a playoff semi against in-form local rivals Exeter.

As for who’ll make it to Wembley – well, that’s anybody’s guess in the cliche that is the playoff lottery. Torquay may have spent their entire season in the top five, but this counts for nothing once the regular season finishes, as Hereford United found out to their cost, twice losing in the semis in successive seasons after sitting in second for much of the year. Meanwhile, Nigel Clough is already talking up his side’s underdog status – Burton are the only team in the playoffs never to have played in the league and will be less fancied than Cambridge – but the Brewers have a habit of grinding out unexpected results, although Cambridge have finished the season with three wins on the bounce.

Elsewhere in the non-league picture

Mansfield are staring into the non-league abyss after Rotherham sneaked a freak 40-yard winner at Field Mill, that leaves the Stags stuck in the relegation zone with just one league game left, and they could be relegated before then without even kicking a ball. After Dagenham, Notts County and Macclesfield all won, Chester are the only other team who could drop out of the league, but they have a game in hand at Stockport tonight, and just a draw will be enough to save Simon Davies’ men’s league status. Even then, they’ll get another chance at home to Macclesfield on the last day of the season, meaning the future looks very bleak for Mansfield.

In the Blue Square South any one of seven teams could have theoretically taken the final two playoff spots. In the end, Braintree Town were the last-day winners, leaping from seventh to the final spot in fifth after Eastleigh, who occupied that position at the start of the day, wet down 4-1 away to Thurrock. Newport County, who started in sixth, failed to take advantage of Eastleigh’s loss and the Welsh team lost 2-1 at home to fourth-placed Fisher Athletic. Newport manager Peter Beadle is already counting the cost of failure after the club subsequently sacked him.

Braintree will now play Eastbourne Borough in the first playoff, while Fisher take on Hampton and Richmond, while at the bottom of the Blue Square South, St. Albans managed to pull off a great escape, leaving Weston-Super-Mare to head down along with Dorchester Town and Sutton United.

No such surprises in the Blue Square North where Southport and Barrow both kept their nerve to see off Harrogate Town, the only other team who could have snatched a top five finish. That means Barrow will take on AFC Telford and Southport take on Stalybridge Celtic. At the bottom, Leigh RMI, Vauxhall Motors, and Hucknall were already down before the last day.

The teams that go up to the Blue Square Premier will take the place of Stafford, Droylsden, Farsley Celtic and Altrincham, with the latter team going down after a draw at Weymouth, while Halifax, who’d been pitched into a relegation battle after taking a ten point deduction for going into administration, survived by the skin of their teeth. What’s more this could be a rare year in the Conference where none of the relegated teams get reprieved due to off-the-pitch problems with teams elsewhere. And that, as much of anything, is reason to celebrate what’s been an exciting non-league campaign.

Soccerlens will bring you full previews ahead of this week’s playoff semi-finals. First up will be the first leg of Exeter City vs Torquay United on Thursday. Will it be two appearances in two years at Wembley for Tisdale’s team or will Buckle’s boys batter the Grecians? We’ll give you the lowdown on the Devon derby doubled header.

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