December 21, 2012 by mapperleystag1
As the season reaches its halfway stage, everything is still to play for in the Conference. With no side attempting to emulate previous winners Crawley and Fleetwood in dominating the league, combined with the strength and tenacity of the supposedly “weaker” sides, the Conference is set up for an enthralling second half, with the prize of the Football League realistically within the grasp of the top half of the table, with the bottom half sides having the spectre of relegation looming large, embroiled in a desperate dogfight to remain in the division.
Before the start of the season, few predicted that Newport County would be the early pace-setters, leading the pack into the Christmas schedule. However, the South Wales outfit have confounded the critics, deservedly topping the table with their entertaining brand of football as the league’s highest scorers. Questions still remain over their capability to maintain their high standards across the entire campaign though.
If Newport do indeed falter in the second half of the season as many predict, expect Football Philosophy’s pre-season choice for the championship, Grimsby Town, or the other teams at the top, Wrexham and Forest Green Rovers, to capitalise. Whilst none of these sides have impressed to the extent that Newport have, they have tended to be more consistent, especially defensively, all boasting a much better goals against ratio than the Exiles. Without wanting to sound clichéd, championships are almost always built on sound defences, certainly more so than on an attacking, open philosophy.
On the subject of defensive frailties, both Luton Town and Mansfield Town have been guilty of conceding far too many goals, which has plagued their seasons up to date. Both have found themselves on the receiving end of some humiliating defeats, which has led to increasing pressure on Paul Buckle and Paul Cox, managers of the Hatters and Stags respectively. Despite their unimpressive starts, both sides are still in contention for the playoffs at least. With Buckle’s and Cox’s teams usually getting better from the New Year onwards, it would be unwise to bet against one or even both significantly improving and mounting a championship challenge.
The surprise package so far has unquestionably been Dartford. In their first season since promotion from the Conference South, the Darts have performed admirably, beating far more established sides in the process. However, in recent weeks, there have been signs that the Kent club is beginning to find life in the Conference slightly more challenging. Another side who started the campaign positively were Macclesfield Town, relegated from League Two the previous year. As with Dartford, the Silkmen have begun to fade. Nevertheless, with Steve King’s side playing a more expansive, crowd-pleasing style of football, fans at the Moss Rose are reasonably satisfied.
In stark contrast with Dartford and Macclesfield, Kidderminster Harriers and Lincoln City had a disastrous early part of the season, with both languishing in or near the relegation zone. However, Steve Burr and David Holdsworth remained calm, and in recent months, the sides have been amongst the form teams in the division, rising into the top half of the table. Whilst Lincoln may struggle to maintain their run, expect Kidderminster to be in and around the playoffs again at the end of the season, as they always seem to be under Burr.
With only nine points separating the Imps in 10th position from the bottom of the table, it is fair to suggest that the teams below are in a fight for survival. Starting with Hereford United under Martin Foyle, all these sides have been dreadfully inconsistent. Newly-promoted Woking have been solid at home but have conceded far too many times away from the Kingfield Stadium. Both Cambridge United and Gateshead have replaced their managers, with Richard Money and Anthony Smith expected to steer their respective clubs into a solid top-half finish. Tamworth have been impressive on the road but have found it difficult to pick up points at The Lamb, whilst, on the other hand, Hyde have been excellent at home but disappointing away. Until recently, Braintree Town were in the relegation zone, but a win over high-flying Forest Green lifted them to safety, at least in the short-term. Alfreton Town have enjoyed a better first half to the season than last year, and will be hoping to emulate their results and performances from January onwards in the previous campaign this time around. AFC Telford United and Stockport County both began the season reasonably positively, but have failed to win many games since, and are destined for a fight against relegation to the Conference North.
Occupying the first of the relegation places is Southport, who have been unable to recreate last season’s heroics but should have enough quality to survive. The same cannot be said of Ebbsfleet United, Nuneaton Town and Barrow, who look like prime candidates for relegation. In particular, Barrow have been totally underwhelming, winning only once this year at home, with the once feared trip up to Holker Street nowhere near as intimidating as before. Despite this, none of these clubs have been cast adrift at the bottom, and consequently will be fighting for their place in the division for the remainder of the campaign.
Already this season has thrown up a number of surprises. The fact that only 22 points separates top from bottom is testament to the standard of the entire league, which as well as providing excellent entertainment has caused many unexpected results. Therefore, it is difficult to predict what will happen from now until May. However, Football Philosophy sees no reason to change its summer prediction of Grimsby Town lifting the championship in late April, as they have the meanest defence in the league and are difficult to beat, only having lost four times so far this year. Joining Grimsby in the Football League via the playoffs will be Forest Green, who have a hungry, young side, who display many of the same characteristics of last season’s playoff winners, York City. Mirroring the playoffs from last year, I predict that fans of Wrexham, Luton and Mansfield will be left heartbroken, experiencing playoff disappointment for a second successive season. At the bottom, supporters of Barrow, Nuneaton, Ebbsfleet and Braintree will be dejected after witnessing their side’s relegation into the Conference North or South. Whatever happens though, it is sure to be one of the most tense finishes to a season in recent memory.