By Neil Evans.
After Grimsby Town’s shock home defeat to mid-table Wrexham, three has become two in the scrap for automatic promotion back to the Football League. It’s now a straight fight between Martin Allen’s Barnet and Darrell Clarke’s Bristol Rovers for the one single place, with both clubs desperate to escape non-league’s top tier.
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And a fitting finale it is too. After 44 games, just a single point separates season-long leaders Barnet and a resurgent Rovers. Make no mistake the Football Conference is the most brutal of leagues. There’s just one automatic place for 24 teams to scrap over (if they want to avoid the lottery that can be the play-offs) and four relegation spots to avoid.
Barnet hold the advantage approaching their penultimate game at Kidderminster, on 88 points to Rovers 87 and with a massively superior goal difference. They have lead the league for most of the season, scored most goals at 91 and won most games 27. Summer signing, John Akinde has bagged 31 league goals and the Bees have played an expansive style not often associated with Allen.
They got off to a rampant start: winning nine of their first 12 games in his fourth spell with the club. An inconsistent January and February allowed their chasers to close what had seemed an insurmountable gap. But after home defeat to Forest Green, Allen’s men are now unbeaten in seven. Now it’s crunch time, with the pressure on to finish the job.
For Bristol Rovers, it has been a somewhat bizarre season. Relegation from the Football League after 94 years on the final day of last season was painful. Initially, they simply didn’t adjust, accumulating one point from their first three games. But to manager Darrell Clarke’s credit, Rovers revived and would only lose one more league game after October’s home loss to FGR, a run of 26 games unbeaten.
The biggest club in the Conference was turning on the gas, briefly reaching the summit in March. Most importantly the fans remained onside. Rovers last home game saw over 8,200 at the Memorial Stadium for the 2-0 win over Southport. The best home record in the league masked an inability to score enough goals and15 draws is a league-equalling high. But the Pirates miserly defence has been the bedrock on which promotion push has been based, with just 33 goals conceded.
Reinforcements like Jermaine Easter have dramatically boosted firepower. Their final two fixtures – Dover away and Alfreton at the ‘Mem’ – are very winnable. It would be the most delicious of ironies should Rovers be promoted on the final day; redemption for last season’s failures. It’s down to who handles the pressure best. For the runner-up, it will be tough to lift themselves for the play-offs. Grimsby are already there and then two from Forest Green, Macclesfield, Woking and Eastleigh. At the bottom, AFC Telford, Nuneaton, Dartford and one from Alfreton, Welling and Southport will begin next season in non-league’s second tier. It is refreshing, however, that relegation will be decided on the pitch rather than the financial misfortune that has beset the league in recent seasons.
Whatever happens, this is the last Football Conference campaign. From next season, with extended sponsorship, an improved TV deal and complete rebranding, it will be called The Vanarama National League. It’s two feeder divisions will also be renamed as National League’s North and South. With Brian Barwick at the helm, non-league football should be able look forward, with confidence, to a brighter and more sustainable future. Only fitting then that the last Conference title fight looks likely to go down to the wire.
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