As fans across the country prepare for the prospect of the Sky Bet League One play-off final, excitement is running through the blood of Wycombe Wanderers and Oxford United supporters.
Many fans don't get the chance to witness the thrill and twists of the play-off venture, but they haven't experienced what goes on in the non-league system- the National League (North and South). Following the decision to end the season on a point-per-game ratio, Barrow FC were granted the title and key to the promise land that is the EFL, as the Bluebirds will go from facing the likes of Chorley FC to Bolton Wanderers and Bradford City, it's quite the step up.
Nevertheless, it is 2nd to 7th place in the National Leagues who get to battle in the highly-contested play-off system, as 7th place face 4th place in a preliminary round whilst 6th take on 5th, and the winner of 7th versus 4th take on 3rd place and the victor of 6th against 5th challenge 2nd place. The winner of these two semi-finals will compete against one another in the final at Wembley Stadium- complicated, to say the least.
Within the National League North, it has been a warped and incalculable campaign, with Kings Lynn Town reaching their highest point in history and edging out promotion against York City, whilst Bradford (Park Avenue) were able to remain in England's sixth tier, despite finishing 14 points adrift of safety in a crestfallen season for Mark Bower's men.
The coronavirus pandemic means that no ball has been kicked since March, and with club's facing financial uncertainty due to its ramifications, the Premier League were generous enough to help out by donating £200,000, split between the National League, National League North and National League South, to aid the confirmation of the play-offs to hold the integrity and structure of the league.
This leaves the National League North play-off system as follows. In the preliminary round of fixtures, 7th place Gateshead will take on 4th place Brackley Town whilst 6th place Chester are battling it out against 5th place Altrincham. Of course, Chester's chances will be slimmer as star striker Akwasi Asante opted to depart the club before the play-offs and join the rebuild job going on at Gloucester City. The winner of Gateshead and Brackley will face York City, who are the clear favourites, and the conqueror of Chester and Altrincham will clash with Boston United.
In the opening game between Gateshead and Brackley, it will be a tight encounter with Brackley as narrow favourites due to their higher league position. The danger man and one to watch in this game is without a doubt Brackley's forward Lee Ndlovu. Ndlovu, who has made over 170 appearances for the Saints, uses his physicality to carry the attack forward, being an excellent option to hold up the ball whilst also using his pace and power to lead the line.
He netted 21 times last season as the solo striker, and this year has matched it by scoring 21 goals so far, before the play-offs. Alongside the experience of Dan Holman, who has spent time in the EFL with the likes of Cheltenham Town, Brackley have a deadly strike and need to utilise it if they want to be playing in the National League next season. Another pivotal player for the Saints is midfielder Matt Lowe, who has appeared over 200 times for the club, and has been a key part in the Brackley midfield this season. Lowe has become a servant to the club despite being just 24, and his determination and work rate could be enough to supply the assists to Ndlovu and Holman up top.
In terms of Gateshead, a ground I had the pleasure of visiting this season and was welcomed kindly by the stewards there, they are a club back on the upwards road following a shock relegation last season due to poor ownership. But the club are well prepared for their visit to St James Park, no not Newcastle or Exeter, but Brackley, and have secured the signature of Dom Tear on a non-contract basis to help boost their chances.
Tear, who has made 30 appearances across the season, could play a huge role in the Tynesider's promotion ambitions, as the midfielder has already added to nine goal contributions this season and will hope to carry his form into the play-offs. He originally joined on loan from Huddersfield Town, but has since been released by his parent club and so he will be adamant to earn a full time contract with his part-time side.
With the extra incentive, Tear will be hopeful to play-off playmaker Greg Olley, who has just signed a new contract at the club. Olley has been an excellent addition to Mike Williamson's squad and it was a surprise to many when he opted to remain at the club despite their shock relegation. Olley is clearly National League standard, so his capabilities in the National League North play-offs will be crucial to Gateshead's chances in the play-offs.
Prediction: Brackley Town 2-1 Gateshead
The quality of Ndlovu, Lowe and even James Armson in midfield should be enough to see of the Tynesiders, who should be proud of their efforts to reach the play-offs but Brackley manager Kevin Wilkin is a fantastic, experienced manager compared to Williamson and his tactical knowledge should be enough to outclass Williamson's troopers. Gateshead are also lacking a real goal-scoring prowess, and so it'll be tough to break down Brackley unless Olley can pull a blinder.
Transitioning into the next preliminary play-off fixture, Chester FC will be scrapping it out with Altrincham at Moss Lane. The away side, Chester, will be without star man Asante as he completed his switch to fellow National League North side Gloucester City, who are my tip for promotion next season with the standard of signing they are attracting, and so Chester will have to find their goals from someone else if they are to progress to the National League.
Chester players offered to play for free in the play-off fixtures to the proud Anthony Johnson as they were aware of the club's off the field financial barricades, which will allow the Blues to participate against Altrincham.
The principal man for Chester could be experienced centre-back Danny Livesey alongside Simon Grand in the structured defence. Livesey, who addressed the fans personally in a recent interview to rally the troops ahead of the big game, and made a bold claim in stating that no matter what happens he wants to remain at the Deva Stadium despite the fact he is out of contract. The actions and remarkable attitude of Livesey, as well as his on field quality and leadership, shows how tightly knitted and close the Chester squad are ahead of the huge encounter.
Altrincham have been fantastic this season in terms of goals, with Jordan Hulme and Josh Hancock being formidable and merciless in front of goal, getting a combined total of 28 goals between them. Hulme is zestful, silky and diligent when leading the line for the Robins, whilst Hancock has worked brilliantly with manager Phil Parkinson as he followed him from Nantwich Town to make the number 10 role his own.
Hancock has started 26 games this season, and whilst he does not traditionally set up the goals as an attacking midfielder should but acts as more of a shadow striker, feeding off of the rebounds and scraps which Hulme can't act on. The 'JH' partnership has been pivotal in a marvellous season for Altrincham, which fans can certainly be pleased about, but a lot of their form has also come from the back. Like Hancock, defender Andy White followed Parkinson to the club from Nantwich and has never looked back since, making 24 appearances this season, and even getting two assists, White has been an experiences wall in a back four, knowing when to pass out from the back and when to clear the imminent danger he is contesting.
Calm and composed on the ball, White is entering the prime of his career and if he can order his defence into playing as well as he does, Altrincham will be hard to beat.
Prediction: Altrincham 2-0 Chester
Altrincham possess plenty of quality ahead of this fixture, but with Asante leaving Chester it's hard to see where the goals are going to come from for the Blues. Livesey and Grand have been strong at the back, but Hulme and Hancock have been unstoppable at times this season and I can see them replicating this is in the play-offs to overcome the Chester back line. If Chester had Asante, this game would've ended up very differently, but Altrincham look like the current favourites for me.
The team who will be challenging either Brackley or Gateshead in the play-off semi-finals will be Boston United, who are moving into their new stadium as of next season, and look confident ahead of the play-offs. Manager Craig Elliott has assembled a dangerous squad for the 2019/20 season, with Jordan Thewils and Dominic Knowles having netted a combined 29 goals so far this season whilst also possessing the defensive quality of Scott Garner and Luke Shiels, Shiels who has earned himself a notable seven man of the match awards so far this season.
Shiels possesses communication, strength and a fantastic level of footballing knowledge (I think he'd make a great coach) as the defender is composed at reading the game whilst knowing how to control his back line and leave the attackers reassured that if they do their job- his defence can do theirs. If Boston were to stay down, Shiels is surely going to be a target for a number of National League clubs who may be lacking defensive stability right now. Up top Thewils has been lethal this campaign, netting 16 times and acting as the poacher when getting in behind the defence with some brilliant movement and equanimity in front of goal.
Prediction: Boston United 2-0 Brackley Town
Don't get me wrong, Wilkin's Brackely are a fantastic addition to the play-offs, but Boston have such a well-balanced and excellent squad this season that they will be hard to breakdown. They are accomplished in every position, Peter Crook in goal has made the most appearances this season, Shiels and Garner have built a strong partnership at the back, Brad Abbott and Andi Thanoj have both been irreplaceable at times in the Boston midfield, and Thewils and Knowles are both fatal when facing the goalkeeper.
When talking to Richard Boryszczuk, the Boston United Chief Scout, in a recent podcast I conducted, he spoke so proudly on the squad and praised chairman David Newton, claiming he was "The best chairman in non-league football". With a new stadium, an ambitious chairman and such a capable squad, there's no reason why Boston can't be playing National League football next season.
The final side who are challenging in the National League North play-offs are the favourites to go up- York City. York were so unlucky to be bested by Kings Lynn in race for pole position, as the Linnets pipped the Mistermen to it thanks to points-per-game, and so there is certainly an extra level of inducement.
York would be facing either Altrincham or Chester at Bootham Crescent, but like Boston it will be the last game to be played at the stadium as they will be also playing in a new stadium as of next season. Also like Boston, York have treacherous frontmen in Jordan Burrow and Alex Kempster who have scored 24 goals between them and terrorised defences in the National League North at times. One thing which is very discernible about this strong City squad is their mixture of youth, quality and experience when it comes to the starting eleven.
In midfield they have the likes of Andy Bond and Adriano Moke, two experienced yet very capable players to command the middle of the park, Harry Spratt and Nathan Dyer are two young defenders who have done well on their chances and will be fighting for first team positions thanks to the guidance and advice of Steve McNulty, and of course the quality of Burrow and Kempster, both in their prime, will be lifting the club possibly up to the National League.
Prediction: York City 3-1 Altrincham
York are without a doubt the best side currently in the play-off race. That being said, Altrincham have a proficient team and Hulme and Hancock could prove difficult to defend against, yet McNulty, who has gained promotion with the likes of Tranmere Rovers through the play-offs on numerous occasions and Joe Tait could help subdue the attacking prowess. Kempster and Burrows need to simply just do their job and they could help carry the Mistermen to the play-off final to potentially tackle Boston.
Play-Off Final Prediction: York City 0-1 Boston United
Boston have a bright future ahead of them, with the great leadership off and on the pitch, the new stadium which will hopefully be ready for the 2020/21 season and a brilliant communicative array of staff helping to take the club forward, manager Elliott has the tools at his disposal to reach promotion to the Vanarama National League alongside Kings Lynn Town.