As the Blue Square Bet Premier season edges towards its decisive last couple of months, we review the challengers for that all-important top-spot to guarantee promotion to the football league.
Table graphic courtesy of BBC Sport
Not since 2009, when Burton Albion were crowned champions by a 2-point margin, has a title race in England’s top non-league division been so open. That year, just 7 points separated he top 5 at the end of the season. As things currently stand, 8 points separate the top 6. And all of those 6 will believe that they can be the side to hit form at the right time and take the championship at the end of April.
The current top 4 have been in the mix since the early weeks of the season. Fourth-placed Kidderminster and sixth-placed Mansfield came into form a little later, but have now given themselves a great chance to challenge for automatic promotion.
Current leaders Grimsby Town haven’t lost since a 3-2 defeat away to Hyde on November 6th. They boast the meanest defence in the Conference with just 21 goals conceded and away record of only one loss on the road all season. However, part of the Mariners’ plan going forward will be to turn some of their away draws into wins, having won just 5 of their 13 away games so far. What could work in Grimsby’s favour is their record against the other sides around the top. They’ve beaten Wrexham (1-0), Forest Green (1-0), Luton (4-1) and Mansfield (4-1) at Blundell Park. Whilst goalless away draws at Newport, Kidderminster and Wrexham have added weight to the view that Grimsby have been the most difficult side to beat so far. With Andy Cook turning into one of the divisions most effective strikers, and the likes of Ross Hannah and Richard Brodie chipping in with important goals, Grimsby have as good a chance as anyone to seal a return to the Football League at the third attempt. They may even be able to call upon striker Liam Hearn in the final weeks of the season. He recently joined the squad for light training after missing the entire season so far through an injury sustained in pre-season.
Wrexham will be hoping to avoid ending up in the play-offs this time around after the only challengers to Fleetwood in last season’s title race. Andy Morrell’s men are a good quality footballing side, and perhaps have the smallest squad out of the challenging pack. This hasn’t halted their progress so far this season. They have a strong, settled side, and haven’t lost since the away defeat to Grimsby in front of the Premier Sport cameras on December 21st. In Dean Keates they boast one of the most cultured midfielder’s in the division, and Danny Wright is a handful for any team whether he plays through the middle or on the right side of a front three. The Reds have already played rivals Newport twice, beating them 2-0 at the Racecourse, and playing out an entertaining 1-1 draw at Rodney Parade. They’ve also taken 4 points off Forest Green, again winning at home (2-1) and drawing away (0-0). Wrexham have been consistent throughout this season, their record of 5 defeats is only bettered by Grimsby (4) and there is no doubt they have the quality to challenge for the title.
Forest Green Rovers currently find themselves in 3rd place, although the teams below them have games in hand which could force them out of the play-off places if results don’t go their way. After new financial backing arrived last year, many were tipping Rovers to go all the way this season. Their transfer activity in the summer also suggested they would be challengers, as they signed quality players who already had experience in this division. They’ve been in the top 5 most of the season, but have struggled against the other top sides. They beat Kidderminster (1-0) during Harriers’ winless start to the season, but have since won only once against any of their rivals. That said, it was a fantastic 5-0 away win at Newport County on New Year’s Day. But they have lost at Grimsby, Wrexham, Mansfield and at home to Newport. They’ve got a strong, physical side and great options in attack. James Norwood can’t stop scoring this season, Jan Klukowski currently has 12 from central midfield, and in the pacey Matty Taylor they have one of the better strikers in the division. To stay in contention and make up the ground on the leaders, Rovers will have to become harder to beat on the road, and hope they can take points off the teams around them in the coming weeks.
Newport County, who were the early pace-setters, are the divisions top scorers, netting 64 goals in their first 30 games. Many Blue Square Premier fans doubted whether Justin Edinburgh’s side would maintain their early-season form, but they’ve managed to stay in contention despite losing 5 of their last 15 league games. 19-goal striker Aaron O’Connor is arguably the best striker in non-league at the moment, with the former Luton and Mansfield man relishing being played through the middle in an attack-minded side. Newport will be hoping to have him back from injury soon, to get their promotion challenge back on track after those recent defeats and several postponements halting their momentum. The Exiles have had a mixed bag of results against other teams around the top, drawing at home to both Grimsby and Wrexham, beating Mansfield twice, taking 3 points from 6 against Forest Green and losing away to Wrexham and Kidderminster. Justin Edinburgh will be hoping to tighten his side up defensively, as none of the top 8 sides have conceded as many as Newport. Being harder to beat will help them challenge for the title if they can keep the likes of O’Connor, Jolley, Minshull and Sandell fit.
Kidderminster Harriers didn’t win any of their first 10 games, but have only lost 3 of their 21 games since they got their first win against Cambridge in late September. Steve Burr’s side stormed into the top half of the table and are now real challengers. Whether they can maintain such a good run of form remains to be seen, but they’ve even coped well with the loss of striker Jamille Matt in the transfer window to Fleetwood. Only Grimsby have a better defensive record than Harriers. They have already beaten Wrexham (2-0) and Newport (3-2) at the Aggborough Stadium and held Grimsby to a 0-0 draw. They will need to keep taking points off the teams above them but the main challenge for Kidderminster will be maintaining their excellent form all the way through to the end of the season.
Mansfield Town were also slow starters but their run in the FA Cup, which saw them run Liverpool close in the 3rd Round, appeared to give them momentum and they currently sit just outside the play-off places with games in hand. Since that cup defeat to Liverpool, the Stags have won 5 of their 7 games, losing the other 2 against rivals Newport and Kidderminster. Paul Cox has put together a hard-working side, spearheaded by 14-goal striker Matt Green. But they have a lot to do after defeats this season at the hands of Grimsby, Newport and Kidderminster. They have beaten Kidderminster and Forest Green. Pressure will be on Mansfield to win their games in hand, and they, like Newport, will need to tighten up defensively if they are serious about challenging for the title.
Head-to-head guide for games between the top 6:
Graphics courtesy of statto.com
Based on how the season has panned out so far, Grimsby, Wrexham and Newport seem to be the serious contenders for the title that are likely to last the distance. These 3 sides have all been top of the table at some point in the last few months, and may trade positions again between now and the final league games on April 20th. Expect Grimsby and Wrexham to battle it out for top-spot, with superior strength throughout their eleven, and game-changing options from the bench, edging them slightly ahead of Newport. If Newport do keep up their challenge with the top 2, then there is potentially a final-day title-decider come April 20th when they travel to Grimsby. Grimsby and Wrexham may also meet in the final of the FA Trophy at Wembley in March, after the two title challengers built up good 1st leg leads in their respective semi-finals, but this added fixture shouldn’t prove too much of a distraction at this stage.
Forest Green should be strong enough to comfortably make the play-offs, but their form against the rest of the top 6 will ultimately cost them. Mansfield and Kidderminster have left themselves a lot of work to do in the final 9 weeks of the season. Kidderminster are the more likely of the two, with a decent record against the rest of the top 6. But both should end up battling with Macclesfield and Luton for the last play-off spots.