Who’s going up and down: non-league football reaches the last day of the season

A couple of weeks ago the Blue Square Premier looked to be moving towards several thrilling last-day games but, surprisingly, after Tuesday night, the final weekend is a lot more sedate.

The play-off places are now all settled after Exeter’s 4-1 victory over Stafford and Stevenage’s slip up to Northwich Victoria left Boro four points off Burton in 5th. It’s quite a comedown for the Hertfordshire side who were flying high until Mark Stimson left for Gillingham in the autumn. Assuming high-profile manager Peter Taylor stays on, he’ll have to do some serious regrouping over the summer.

There’s still a small bit of shaking out to do in the top five as to who will play who. Torquay look to have second place all but sown up and a point at home to Crawley on Saturday will be enough to confirm the runner-up spot. Even if they lose, Cambridge need to win away to Northwich by at least three clear goals to overtake them.

Meanwhile, the final-day fixture between fellow play-off semi-finalists Burton and Exeter will only determine who plays Torquay and Cambridge rather than the expected battle for the final play-off place. Exeter, the form team of the top five, will be keen to get a win that would see them get second-leg home advantage against Cambridge. The Brewers know they’ll be on the road for the second leg no matter what, but a win for Nigel Clough’s men would mean an all-Devon semi-final rather than a big day out a Wembley for the Westcountry.

At the bottom end…

At the other end of the table, Northwich’s win against Stevenage has confirmed their safety in the Blue Square Premier for another season — a remarkable achievement considering they only had one point at mid-October. With Weymouth also safe, and Droylsden and Stafford already relegated, only one team out of Halifax and Altrincham will retain their non-league top flight status for another season. Technically Farsley could draw level on points with Halifax, but with a goal difference of -36 compared to the Shaymen’s -8, it looks certain the Leeds-based team will only last one season at the top.

Of the other two, Altrincham appear to have the harder task, away to a newly-energised Weymouth side. The Robins have to win and hope Halifax lose at home to Stevenage if they’re to stay up, but with Peter Taylor’s men badly out of form, it looks as if Halifax will escape by the skin of their teeth.

Coming down from League 2

Three teams are already confirmed for the Blue Square Premier next season — Wrexham’s relegation from League 2 was confirmed at the weekend, bringing to an end their uninterrupted stay in the football league that began in 1921. They’ll be joined in the non-league by either Mansfield Town, Dagenham & Redbridge, Chester, Notts County, or Macclesfield.

Maccesfield are the most secure of this bunch, as they just need a point to achieve safety, although if they fail to get that against Chesterfield this weekend, then the final day game against Chester will be a proverbial six pointer.

Notts County, one of the league’s oldest clubs, are also getting nervous with their final two games against play-off chasers Wycombe, followed by Chesterfield. County are just two points above the drop zone and will be grateful that several of their relegation rivals still have to play each other.

Of those, former Conference champions Chester have a game in hand against Stockport next Thursday, but whether this will be a help or a hindrance remains to be seen. Nevertheless, mathematically they currently have the best chance of avoiding the drop.

For last year’s conference champions, Dagenham, there’s a real worry their stay in the football league will last just one season. John Still’s men travel to promotion-chasing Darlington this weekend then have a final day clash with Mansfield, which is likely to determine who goes down. The Stags have spent most of 2008 looking dead and buried but have rallied in recent weeks to give themselves a real chance while the Daggers, who looked to have got themselves out of trouble last month, have slipped back towards the drop zone. If there’s any game for neutrals on the league’s final day, it’s that one.

Below the Blue Square Premier

In the Blue Square North, Mark Cooper’s Kettering have been long confirmed as champions, although whether Cooper himself will still be at the helm next season is debatable as the former Tamworth boss has yet to sign a new contract. In the playoffs AFC Telford and Stalybridge have booked their places, while Southport, Barrow and Harrogate Town scrap it out for the other two spots, with no indication as to who’ll be sitting in the top five come 5pm on Saturday.

Finally, to the Blue Square South, where Lewes tied up the Championship after a season-long battle with local rivals Eastbourne Borough. The latter will have to settle for the play-offs along with Hampton & Richmond who are also safe in third, while there’s a real battle for the final two spots.

Fisher Athletic currently occupy 4th, but will a goal difference of just +3, they have to get at least a point at 6th place Newport County and hope Braintree lose or draw at home to Eastbourne if they’re to prevent either club leapfrogging them.

One pointy behind Fisher and a point ahead of Newport in 5th sit Eastleigh. They have a decent goal difference but that might not be enough to see them through. Only a win at mid-table Thurrock will definitely guarantee Eastleigh a play-off spot. If they fail, then any number of teams could sneak in.

Newport, with their high goal difference are favourites but face a real battle against Fisher Athletic, as do 7th placed Braintree at Eastbourne. Bath City will also fancy their chances if those above them lose or draw, but they have to beat Bishop’s Stortford away.

Finally Bromley have a very outside chance of making the top five if all above them lose or, with the exception of Eastleigh, draw but the Kent side will have to win by at least four goals. Mathematically FA Cup heroes Havant and Waterlooville can still make it, but with a goal difference of just +5 they’ll need to rack up a rugby score against Welling if they’re to make it.

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