To begin with, a huge congratulations to not only Northampton Town, but also Wycombe Wanderers – what a story they have been this Sky Bet League One campaign. They’ve been such a joy to the third division that their players, who at the start of the season were hoping for perhaps a mid-table finish, have earned the plaudits from the likes of Paul Pogba and Jurgen Klopp, whilst being declared as the greatest ever Wycombe team. What a time to support the Chairboys.
Following the news that the National League, National League North and National League South would be concluded by a points-per-game ratio, this spelt good news for the likes of Barrow, Kings Lynn Town and Wealdstone who were all automatically granted promotion up a tier. In my previous set of predictions towards the National League North play-offs, I prognosticated that it would be Craig Elliott’s Boston United who would edge out York City to reach the National League alongside King’s Lynn and Wealdstone- but who would become the fourth and final side to fight a league higher next season?
In the opening elimination round, Slough Town face Dartford at Arbour Park as Steve King looks to continue the Darts impressive form into the play-offs (if that is possible, as no ball has been kicked since March due to the coronavirus). But what’s the key behind Dartford’s rise up the table, as they had a change of manager in October due to poor performances? The dangerman for King’s Darts has to be forward Darren McQueen who has netted 16 times this season, contributing hugely as to why Dartford are the third highest scoring side in the league, only behind the top two Wealdstone and Havant and Waterloovile, and alongside him Elliot Romain, who joined the club from Eastbourne Borough due to financial difficulties at the club.
Both have each netted 16 goals each and therefore have an outstanding combined total of 32 goals, identifying why Dartford’s form had such a dramatic upturn, alongside the help of defensive stalwart Josh Hill. Hill has made 32 league appearances so far this season, netting five from centre-back, and has been a constant in a strong back line which has helped hold onto any lead that McQueen or Romain may have provided.
Moving onto their preliminary round opponents, and the hosts, Slough Town will be hoping to reach the National League for the first time since 1997, where they were relegated due to not meeting ground regulations. Like Dartford, Slough have a fairly prolific strike duo of Ben Harris and Dan Roberts, who have a combined 25 goals between them this season, and Roberts is familiar to netting against the Darts having helped Slough do the double over them this season, yet joint manager Neil Baker has stated this does not give his side a psychological advantage over their adversaries.
Slough also possess a strong midfield accommodating the likes of Matthew Lench and Warren Harris who like to donate a goal every now and then, as well as a heavily reliable defence with Josh Jackman, George Wells Sam Togwell and Guy Harris all forming a tightly-knitted and well coordinated defence who teams have struggled to break down this campaign, hence why Slough have such a good league position despite the fact they aren’t financially thriving.
Prediction: Slough 2-1 Dartford
This game is hard to predict as both competitors have two formidable forwards that can nab a decisive goal at any point, however I feel as if Slough have a more built and wall-like defence compared to the Darts. However, I do believe the silky talents of McQueen and Romain are sure to result in a goal but Slough have beaten Dartford twice already this season- there’s a reason for that. If they can withhold the pressure and just play their game which a focused and calm mindset, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be backed for a victory at Arbour Park.
The second elimination round to take place this Sunday is Bath City versus Dorking Wanderers at Tiverton Park. This game will see the mighty Bath dawn their gorgeous home kit (seriously google it) in a bid to return to the National League for the first time since 2012 when they had a dreadful season resulting in them being relegated with five games remaining, the first side in England’s top five tiers to do so. Ahead of this game, the man to look out for in Jerry Gill’s side is inevitably midfielder Tom Smith, who won the non-league paper’s National League South Player of the Season, and with good reason.
The 22 year old plays in the centre of the park yet he has managed an astounding 17 goals this campaign to Gill’s delight, who allows the staunch to play in the number 10 role, he has to track back and help keep his side in the game by defending but then he is given the freedom of the pitch ahead of him to aid a possible attack or if not to pull something out of nothing, he is that sort of player.
As a Bradford City fan, I’d love to have Smith playing for us, a youngster who is clinical in his attacking prowess whilst also being able to track from box to box to help his side to defend from oncoming danger – he’s a top player for this level, and I’d be surprised if he remained there if Bath were to be defeated by Dorking. Another target for Bath to exploit could be their marksman Ryan Brunt, who has EFL experience with the likes of Plymouth Argyle and Bristol Rovers, and has scored 7 goals in 16 appearances so far this season.
Bath’s rivals for the upcoming National League South clash is Marc White’s Dorking Wanderers- and I mean literally White’s Dorking, he is the chairman and manager of the club. White spoke in a recent interview stating that he is aware his side are the underdogs, being priced at 16/1 to gain promotion, but how that suits his side to the ground. Dorking have two bountiful strikers in Jason Prior and Eliott Buchanan, as Prior was the National League South’s top scorer last season and Buchanan netted 39 goals in the Bostik Premier two seasons ago, so both are known to have predatory instinct and an eye for goal.
The Wanderers are also attested between the sticks with shot stopped Slavomir Huk, a Slovenian goalkeeper who has been with the club for four years now, winning the 2017 and 2018 Player of the Season awards whilst also proving himself time and time again in penalty situations, so White can know that if the game was to finish a draw and the prospect of penalties became a reality, he can have confidence in all 5 foot 9 of Huk.
Prediction: Bath City 0-1 Dorking Wanderers
I like the attitude and confidence in Dorking legend White, who have belittled the chances of Dorking’s success to rile his players up into a championship winning performance on Sunday. They have several experienced players who are in their prime right now, like Prior, Buchanan, Huk and defender Ed Harris, who will all be keen to play at the National League level.
Bath are an interesting side, as from an outside perspective they look like a bit of a one man team with the majority of their goals coming from Smith, so if White can execute a knowledgeable game plan to mark Smith out of the game, he should be able to exploit Bath’s weaknesses and allow Prior to excel at his best.
The team who will be facing either Slough Town or Dartford are, understandably, the favourites to gain promotion to the National League- Havant and Waterlooville. The Hawks ended the season on 67 points, just three behind title victors Wealdstone as they looked to bounce straight back up to the fifth tier following last season’s relegation.
However, Havant have one their last four games and, whilst form may mean very little, it’s proof that their vying to rekindle the heights of last season with the help of the striking duo of Jonah Ayunga and Danny Kedwell. Ayunga is currently the league’s golden boot holder, having disposed of 17 goals and Kedwell having 11.
With a combined 28 goals between them, the Ayunga-Kedwell union is one to be feared, especially as Ayunga is currently tied on 17 goals with St. Albans striker Joe Iaciofano, and as Iaciofano isn’t competing in the play-offs Ayunga has a chance to write his name in National League South history as the 2019/20 top scorer.
The Hawks are also a side blooming with experience, from Ross Worner in goal, Dean Beckwith in defence, Andy Drury in midfield and of course Kedwell up front, they are a real force to be reckoned with in the play-offs, their communication as solidified side and obvious chemistry allows Paul Doswell to play some mesmerising football at the Westleigh.
Prediction: Havant and Waterloovile 3-0 Slough Town
When I talked before about Slough having a unbreakable defence and free flowing attack, they aren’t quite on the level of the Hawks in my eyes. Doswell has used his connections with Sutton United to make a side who are well suited to one another, such as Beckwith, Worner, Roarie Deacon and Bedsente Gomis all coming from Doswells former side.
Along with that he has such experience and high quality flowing through the team, Kedwell was thriving in the National League two seasons ago for Ebbsfleet United and helping the Fleet reach the play-offs as their leading marskman, before their financial decline, and now he’s aiding Ayunga into forming a daunting strike partnership who will be difficult to stop, as they have been all season.
The final side set to be competing for the gateway to the National League is 3rd place Weymouth, who will be tackling either Bath City or Dorking Wanderers, depending on the winner of that clash. The Terras have the second best home record in the division, behind champions Wealdstone, with 11 victories and 37 points from 18 games, which has contributed hugely to why they are the joint third top scorers alongside Dartford.
The strange thing about Weymouth is that they don’t necessarily have a leading top goalscorer, but rather that the goals are spread throughout the squad, with Brett Williams netting 11, winger Abdulai Baggie grasping 12, and midfielder Jake McCarthy finishing 10 times. However, the largest threat comes from defence with left-back Ollie Harfield who has made 37 appearances so far this season for the Terras, even getting himself 10 assists and having a win ratio of 54%.
At the age of 22, I wouldn’t be shocked if a football league club came in for Harfield’s services, as the Bournemouth academy graduate is really starting to find his feet since his drop down the leagues and has been a pivotal force in the Terras brilliant campaign. Baggie is also a warrior who needs to be kept an eye on, having scored 12 this season and gaining 8 assists. An explosive winger with a rocket of a left foot, Baggie has 5 international caps for Sierra Leone so experience is not lacking at the age of 28, as he is also entering his prime.
Prediction: Weymouth 2-1 Dorking Wanderers
Weymouth have really flown this season, and like Dorking this is their first season in the National League South after being promoted last season so this skirmish is most unexpected. However Weymouth clearly have fantastic team cohesion judging by the spread of goals throughout the squad, it shows how Mark Molesley’s troopers are willing to put a pitch in for one another and fight for the badge. Dorking have a good team, but there’s a reason why the Terras have been able to climb the table this high.
Play-off Final Prediction: Havant and Waterlooville 2-0 Weymouth
As Wealdstone were accorded promotion to the National League thanks to the point-per-game ratio, Havant and Waterlooville were forced to battle it out in the play-offs, despite how close the title race was. There will be extra incentive and fight from the Hawks, who will be hungry to snatch back what they feel was taken away from them.
Saying that, the usage of Ayunga and Kedwell up top could prove crucial against Weymouth, as when they show up the rest of the squad usually does. It helps to know that if you give your forward an opportunity, he can be trusted to rustle the ball into the back of the net and help your side gain the much needed three points.
Doswell is a National League standard manager, as he showed for so long with Sutton and their constant play-off pushes and finishes, so his appointment was a huge coup for the Hawks and I believe it will pay off, as the squad he has inherited and improved on is top drawer for sixth tier football.