Seven clubs fight to preserve League status
24 April ~ Usually League Two relegation battles follow a predictable pattern. One club, often financially stricken, is condemned to the Conference long before the season's out while the second drop spot is contested between two or three long-term strugglers on the final day. And it certainly isn't as tight or as unpredictable as this weekend's season finale, where any one of seven teams could fall out of the League and even bottom-placed club Aldershot could yet escape if they win at Rotherham and results elsewhere go their way.
It's not just the tight nature of the race that makes for a fascinating final day. Bar Plymouth Argyle, who sit in 19th, all of the other strugglers are battling to avoid a return to non-League. Since the introduction of two-up two-down from the Conference in 2003 Aldershot, AFC Wimbledon, Barnet, York, Dagenham & Redbridge and Torquay have all spent a time in non-League's top flight. Accrington Stanley, Conference winners in 2006, only confirmed their survival at the weekend.
Wimbledon and York both came up via the play-offs in the last two years and have struggled with League football, while last season Hereford became the first team of the two-up two-down era to stumble back into non-League, if you exclude the financial basket case that was Chester City.
It's still too early to say if this means the gap between the Conference and League football has widened, as this season has been stronger than usual at the bottom end of the table. Last season, Bradford City's 50 points saw them finish in 18th. Had the Bantams amassed the same total this year they may well have been relegated. If Aldershot and Wimbledon both win on Saturday, the team that finishes at the foot of this year's table will end up with 51 points, a full 14 points more than Macclesfield crawled to last season.
But for all the respective strengths of the relegation strugglers, the difference between these sides and those who have thrived in recent seasons after promotion is obvious. The budgets of the last two Conference winners, Crawley and Fleetwood, would have been competitive at League Two level, let alone non-League, while Stevenage had a League club set-up for many seasons before promotion.
Low attendances are not helping sides in their bid for success. Of the seven teams who might go down only three have average attendances over 2,600 and four of the seven worst-supported clubs are among those battling to avoid the drop at the weekend.
With ex-League club Mansfield taking the Conference title, the days of a traditional non-League powerhouse soaring up the divisions seem to be fading as a more natural order reasserts itself. But with non-League filling up with several familiar faces, this year's relegated clubs can at least know what it takes to survive outside the League and even find a way back in, something bigger teams like Luton and Stockport have struggled with in recent years. Gary Andrews