Money doesn't look like buying promotion
2 October ~ Thirteen games into the season and the Conference is beginning to take shape. Unusually, given the recent trend of financial basket cases and clubs on a downward spiral dropping into non-League and then struggling, last season's relegated teams – Torquay United and Bristol Rovers – are both in the hunt for automatic promotion. Both Rovers and the Gulls are in as good health as a team that's just been relegated to non-League can be and this has been reflected by their results so far.
Torquay's ten-game unbeaten run only came to an end with a 4-3 loss to Telford United last weekend, followed by a midweek defeat to Forest Green, while Darrell Clarke's Rovers have put a slow start behind them to win five in a row before drawing at Eastleigh on Tuesday.
Yet both sides will have their work cut out to become the first team in ten years to secure an immediate return to the Football League. In what looks to be one of the tightest promotion fights in recent seasons, Barnet have established themselves as the team to beat as they aim for their third promotion to League Two.
Martin Allen, now in his fourth spell with the Bees, has made the Hive a much happier place after Edgar Davids's short but eventful reign. However, despite big wins against Altrincham and Dartford and an early season victory over a Bristol Rovers side still adapting to life in non-League, the Bees have yet to play any of their nearest challengers and suffered a 1-0 loss against Wrexham, who have promotion ambitions of their own.
The Welsh side, along with Gateshead, Kidderminster and Woking – the only name in the top eight not to have featured in the Football League – could yet trouble the front runners, but it's one of non-League's most heartening stories who may just take the title at the end of the season. FC Halifax Town impressed many with their fifth-place finish last season, despite losing to Cambridge in the play-offs, and Neil Aspin's side have continued where they left off last season.
The club have rapidly climbed the non-League pyramid after the original Halifax Town's liquidation in 2008 and have yet to take more than two years to secure promotion ever since reforming in the Northern Premier League Division One North. This is a club that's become accustomed to success, yet retains the modesty you'd expect from a fanbase that has lost everything. With a strong squad, their biggest threat to promotion is a League club poaching Aspin, whose name is regularly linked to each new managerial vacancy.
Despite many of the promotion challengers having a decent budget by non-League standards, encouragingly none have seen the need to spend heavily in pursuit of promotion. Instead, this season's big spenders, Eastleigh and Forest Green, sit nine and seven points off the top respectively. While Crawley and Fleetwood's strategy of outspending all rivals was successful, this season suggests a little stability and experience could go a long way in deciding the title. Gary Andrews