This is the 12th season of the Conference Premier play-offs and four teams will compete over the next three weeks to join Skrill Premier champions Luton Town in the Football League. The Hatters achieved a record margin of 19 points over runners-up Cambridge United as boss John Still secured a wholly impressive third Conference winners’ medal. Cambridge topped the table for over 120 days during the regular season, including a 97 day run which came to an abrupt halt just after Christmas. The U’s have won just eight of their 22 league matches during 2014 and enter the extended season off the back of four straight defeats.
The last of those, a 2-0 reverse at Gateshead, allowed their hosts to secure a third-place finish in the final table. Heed boss Gary Mills is looking to repeat the trick he performed at York City two seasons ago by taking his side to League 2 via a Promotion Final victory. The North East side recovered from an abysmal start to the season in which just one point was gained from their first five games.
Gateshead now approach the semi-finals a very different side and in outstanding form, unbeaten in their last 12 Skrill Premier matches. They’ve beaten Grimsby Town to fourth place in the table and will now have the perceived advantage of being home in the 2nd leg against the Mariners. Blundell Park chief Paul Hurst took sole charge of the team midway through the season following Rob Scott’s departure. Hurst’s side replicated last season’s place in the table but were five points short of their previous total. Grimsby’s form going into the play-off period includes just two wins in seven matches and a defeat against fifth-placed FC Halifax Town. That win, and good recent form, allowed the Shaymen to come through in the final spot, a position which has the weight of history against it. Neil Aspin’s side are aiming to be the first team from fifth in the table to gain promotion. The second-placed team also has a poor record, with just two promotions in the previous 11 seasons. The winner of the 3rd v 4th semi-final has been promoted an incredible nine times!
What Alan says –U’s boss Richard Money says he isn’t concerned about their recent form, but people will certainly question whether his team can turn it back on again. There’s probably a reason that teams that finish second have a poor record in these play-offs and a lot of that can be attributed to waiting around. Let’s face it Cambridge have been confident of a top five place for a long while now, but their title hopes probably ended in February. That’s a long time to remained focused. Money has faith in his team though and, on paper at least, they have a good chance. I was impressed with them at Woking where they won 3-0 and that was followed up with putting seven past hapless Hyde. Four games since have yielded zero points and zero goals, hardly ideal preparation. They’ve won just eight of their 22 Skrill Premier matches in the calendar year. Their away games have been low scoring and holding Halifax to a draw at the Shay in the first leg would be a very good result. The crowd at the Abbey certainly helped in 2009 when United overturned a 3-1 first leg defeat to Stevenage by winning 3-0 in extra-time. They will be hoping it’s third time lucky after promotion final heartache in that season and the previous one, both when finishing as runners-up. Looking back at the positives they would be top of a mini-table involving all four team on results in the regular season. From those matches they’d also hold a 6-2 aggregate supremacy over semi-final opponents Halifax.
What the boss says – RICHARD MONEY –Am I concerned that we’re not scoring goals? No! We scored 28 goals in the previous 8 games. Am I concerned that we’ve lost the last four games? No! I don’t think it will have any bearing whatsoever. Every time we’ve needed a big performance from these players they’ve given it, in the key games. I have a great deal of respect for Halifax. They are tough opponents. The league table never lies. People might look at the fact we’ve lost the last four and dismiss us, maybe, but we’ve been in the top two for 45 out of 46 games and have deserved to finish second. The play-offs are fifty-fifty games and I couldn’t predict who will win the final. It’s all about who can handle the day and previous form is totally irrelevant.
What the bookies say –Cambridge certainly aren’t being dismissed by the bookmakers – with every single firm making them the overall favourites. 12/5 is the best price available ahead of the semi-final 1st legs.
What Alan says –The Heed were unbeaten in their last 12 regular season matches and come into this extended part of the season in the best form of the quartet. Their last ten games have featured seven clean sheets and that’s just the kind of statistic that can pinpoint a promotion winner. Barring a somewhat convenient last day defeat at Grimsby, Newport County would have had a very similar record last season, and they were the ones that prevailed at Wembley. The season before that it was York City under the leadership of a certain Gary Mills – who is now in the hotseat at the International Stadium. He knows exactly what is required at this stage of the campaign. While it’s easy to make a case for Mills’ side, there are a number of concerns they need to address. They took just one point off semi-final opponents Grimsby in the regular season and would be (un)comfortably bottom of a four-team mini-league. They’ve also won just five of 18 matches against their fellow top ten teams in the table. That said, there’s no mistaking that this is a very different side that started the season and they seem to have the belief, solidity and form all peaking at the right time to go very, very close to winning a place in League 2.
What the boss says – GARY MILLS –It’s been hard work. I came here in September and challenged the players to get here. Whether they thought I was daft or not I don’t know. I’ve proved to them I wasn’t. In turn they have proved to me that they have what it takes. This is the first time this team has reached the Conference play-offs. I love breaking records. It means you are doing things well. Now we have two games to get ourselves to Wembley. The chairman of this football club is fantastic. He’s a football man, but first and foremost he’s salt of the earth. The big thing here is the togetherness, which took a little while to get right. I’m not just talking about the squad of players, I’m talking about the supporters, everybody connected to this football club. We’ve been together, we’ve worked hard together, hopefully that will get us where we want to be.
What the bookies say –Despite their fantastic form towards the end of the season and their third place finish, Gateshead have been relatively friendless with the punters. All bookmakers have them as the outsiders of the quartet and the best available price prior to a ball being kicked is a generous 7/2.
What Alan says –Consistently inconsistent. Over the last seven games of the regular season the Mariners didn’t record one consecutive set of results, no back-to-back draws, defeats or victories. Just a real mixture of performances that ended up in them finishing in fourth place. That’s exactly where they finished last season, albeit with five more points than they needed in this renewal. Ahead of that end to the season they managed four straight away victories by a 1-0 scoreline, something that hints at the ability to employ a good balance of defensive stability on the road to produce results. Their away record against the big teams this season has been second to none, they were one of just three teams to prevent champions Luton scoring at Kenilworth Road. Home form has been a problem though and they would be as low as tenth in a table based on those matches alone. Bad luck with injuries hasn’t helped and boss Paul Hurst had to cope with upheaval off the pitch before Christmas as long-time partner Rob Scott was shown the door at Blundell Park. Ross Hannah has struck four times for Hurst’s side in April and will be key to their promotion chances.
What the boss says – PAUL HURST –Playing the first leg at home and the second away is actually an advantage for us. This team can go anywhere and win, and if we can perform how I know we can, I just think that will suit us. I think we’ve got a great chance in both games. We’re playing the form team out of the four, hopefully they’re due a defeat. Some people may look and think Gateshead are the outsiders because the likes or ourselves and Cambridge are so-called ‘big clubs’ – while Halifax also have good support. Gateshead are the form team though and we’ll have to put in two good performances to give ourselves a chance of getting to Wembley. I had no real preference about who we played. I could make cases for playing and not playing any of them. I certainly wouldn’t swap my squad for any of the others though.
What the bookies say –The Mariners were always expected by the majority of bookmakers to secure a play-off spot, even when they required a haul of points from their games in hand. That meant their promotion price rarely drifted and they feature as second-favourites with most firms. Their best available price is now 3/1.
FC HALIFAX TOWN
What Alan says –Neil Aspin would rank with lots of people as the manager of the season in the division but he’ll be unlikely to rest on that praise as he chases a second successive promotion. I might keep stating this point, but the way that Halifax managed to win promotion from the North division last season – through the play-offs and with deep fixture congestion – nobody could have expected them to be in another play-off battle in this higher league. Certainly not with the way they started the season at Cambridge. Yes away form wasn’t great on balance (they’d be just 13th in the away table) but they really know how to win games at home and only Woking have plundered all three points in HX1. Of course only one of the three play-off matches can take place at the Shay, but this is a side that achieved five of their six away wins at the backend of the season. If Aspin has found the key to them winning on the road of late then the other three teams need to be very wary. One huge stat against them is the total number of play-off winners from that fifth spot in the table. It stands at zero from 11 attempts, but you write of Halifax and Aspin at your peril.
What the boss says – NEIL ASPIN –We can look at the prospect of facing Cambridge in two ways. We’re better off playing them when they are not in a run of wins, that’s obvious. But they’ve got personnel, they can change the team. If they can go back to what they were like at the start of the season we know they’re a strong team. But we’re not scared of them and we’re really going to give them a good go. A lot of our players have had to play when we would have liked to have rested them, but they’re young, fit lads. They’ve been doing it all season and they’ve just got to go again in these play-off games. They’ve done fantastically well and they’ve got to enjoy being in this position. They’ve got to play their best but they can enjoy it. We’ve got a good record of promotions and we’re not fazed by being in the play-offs, even at this level.
What the bookies say –Punters latched on to the good form of the Shaymen a couple of months ago and a few bookies might have some hefty liabilities on Neil Aspin’s side. Most aren’t taking any chances on back-to-back Halifax promotions and the best available price is 3/1 with just two firms.
ALAN’S VERDICT – GATESHEAD
I don’t think Cambridge United will be able to turn on their good form like a tap and for that reason I think FC Halifax Town will beat them to a place at Wembley. I’ll go with the weight of history and say that the winner will come from the other semi-final. I can see Gateshead coming through against Grimsby Town and then Gary Mills’ team overcoming Neil Aspin’s men at Wembley for the huge prize of a place in League 2.
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