Saturday 18 April ~
The non-League football season is about to reach its climax. Burton Albion could have gained promotion to the Football League if they had earned a point from their home game last night. But they lost 1-0 to Oxford United, which means that second-placed Cambridge United could yet overtake them. Cambridge need to win their last two games and hope that Burton lose again, at Torquay. It will be the biggest choke ever if Burton fail now given that they were 19 points clear at one point. Even if they do still make it, caretaker Roy McFarland has scarcely made a pressing case for keeping his job on a full-time basis, having presided over seven defeats in the last 11 games.
Cambridge missed out on promotion last season in the play-off final against Exeter, but history is with them should they progress to Wembley in that no team has lost two Conference play-off finals. They could yet have a county derby in the final as Histon are currently third. If the latter were to go up, they will be the smallest place in England with a Football League club and indeed something of a throwback to the 19th century when the modest communities of Darwen and Glossop were in the League.
Among those looking to fill one of the Blue Square Premier vacancies are AFC Wimbledon, who are starting to make their own history rather than being known as a club spawned out of protest. They are on the verge of completing an historic promotion season, and potentially finding themselves only two divisions lower than the entity that took their place, the MK Dons. Local and fellow promotion rivals Hampton & Richmond are the only team that can stop AFC from achieving their goal.
Some opposition fans at Ryman League level have claimed that AFC have an advantage because they have by far the biggest fanbase, hence generating more income and enabling them attract players who are better than the level at which they are playing. It clearly has nothing to do with the fact that they are simply the best team in their division then? Sour grapes, more like.
Ryman League Premier side Dover Athletic, who recently clinched automatic promotion to the Blue Square South, regularly attract gates of over 1,300 for league games, and 3,500 in a FA Cup third qualifying round tie against AFC. The same “big crowd advantage” argument has been levelled at Dover, but manager Andy Hessenthaler said: “Our success this season, and last, has nothing to do with money. The players here have been a breath of fresh air. Their attitude to training has been superb, the commitment has been first-class and there's not one lad in our team who has not enjoyed being a Dover Athletic player.” Dover had nine years as a Conference club from 1993 and would seem to be the best-equipped club at their level for a big push at League status - perhaps they and AFC Wimbledon will pass MK Dons going the other way. Sam Inkersole