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State Of Play: We take a look at the promotion contenders

SURPRISE PACKAGE? Solihull Moors have been a revelation this season PICTURE: Ian Morsman

This article originally featured in Sunday’s NLP… how quickly things can change!

By Matt Badcock

We need to talk about Solihull Moors. This time last year they were struggling at the bottom and looked to be on their way out of the National League.

Twelve months on and they could be leaving it through the front door. Tuesday night’s 3-0 victory at Aldershot Town was their fifth win in six National League games and sent them top of the table.

Anyone wishing, at 250/1, they’d paid closer attention to The NLP’s season preview when former Torquay United boss Kevin Nicholson picked them out as his surprise package? (A self-congratulatory pat on the back to this hack and news editor Jon Couch for also mentioning the Moors in pre-season premonitions). Not that anyone saw a title push in the crystal ball.

When boss Tim Flowers arrived last season alongside Mark Yates, some astute signings – former title winner Kyle Storer for one – helped them go unbeaten at home as they sealed safety with games to spare. Flowers, now in sole charge with the knowledgeable Gary Whild alongside him, has continued that this term.

Some players have championship pedigree in this division. Along with Storer, striker Danny Wright won the league at Cheltenham, Terry Hawkridge did it at Lincoln?City, while Nathan Blissett has been promoted twice – through the play-offs with Bristol Rovers and last year’s league triumph at Macclesfield.

Blissett scored a hat-trick against the Shots on Tuesday and his addition, along with Lee Vaughan, shows they mean business – even if Flowers himself recently said, “Forget us in terms of titles, you’ve got to be kidding me, haven’t you?”

It feels one of the most open races in a long time, even at this stage when usually teams are breaking, or have broken, away.

Leyton Orient had just two wins in seven leagues games ahead of the weekend. Injuries to Josh Koroma and centre-back pairing Josh Coulson and Marvin Ekpiteta came at the wrong time but they have a manager in Justin Edinburgh who knows what it’s all about at the top. Signing Jay Simpson this week could prove a masterstroke with the striker possessing obvious League quality and he will lighten the load on top scorer Macauley Bonne.

Off-field issues seem to have cooled the feelings on Wrexham with new boss Bryan Hughes their third manager of the season. But even with the upheaval they are still in the title hunt and, like Orient, have a game in hand on Solihull. Hughes knows he needs to help them find more goals but defensively they are a mean prospect.

AFC Fylde came into the weekend fourth in the league after dropping points at Maidstone United last week. The performances are generally good but results have, at times, been inconsistent. Still you wouldn’t want to face them.

Ryan Croasdale and Dan Bradley are two of the best midfielders in the division, Nick Haughton is a class act and in 25-goal striker Danny Rowe they have someone who features in every opposition team-talk every week.

There’s a reason the Coasters, after the laughter finally subsided, rejected a £50k bid from a Football League club in January.

Salford City aren’t having things their own way. There’s no hiding last week’s defeat to Braintree was disappointing for a side with title ambitions but hit levels like their recent 3-0 win over Orient and they’re a side who can hurt.

That leaves Sutton United going under the radar. As said in pre-season, it’s probably an insult to their quality they have that they’re not spoken about more in the promotion conversation. Only Orient and Fylde have lost fewer games this season and, before yesterday, were eight points behind Moors but, crucially, with two games in hand.

The final play-off spot is going to be one heck of a bun fight. Harrogate, Gateshead, Eastleigh and even Ebbsfleet will absolutely feel they can nab it.

In the National League North, Chorley continue to set the pace as they have all season. A win on Tuesday over Brackley sent the Magpies six points clear.

What a run-in the fixture computer has for them. In March and April, they take on nine of the current top ten – Kidderminster, Boston, Chester, AFC Telford United, Altrincham, Stockport County, Spennymoor Town and Bradford Park Avenue. All will have their say in the months ahead.

In the South, Torquay United have won 12 of their last 13 games – the only blip a narrow defeat to high-flying Bath City. Gary Johnson’s side are the team to beat.

Woking have a game in hand and boss Alan Dowson has been promoted at his three previous clubs. Dave Tarpey could be a game-changing signing if he can rediscover his Maidenhead United form after a long injury lay-off.

Chelmsford City are no pushovers, however, and have reached the play-offs under Rod Stringer in the last two seasons. Third time lucky?

Bath have quality, while Billericay Town – albeit a long shot for the title – are a dangerous proposition now they’ve settled back in under Harry Wheeler. It’s a shoot-out for the play-offs with a handful of clubs in the race.

VERDICT: Right down to the wire where at least three clubs will be able to win the league on the final day. Still fancy Leyton?Orient to get there and then the play-offs are anyone’s guess – wouldn’t want to face Solihull or Fylde.

Editor Alex Narey says…

The team that have really caught my eye of late have been Stockport County. A sleeping giant in the blood bath of National League North for far too long, Jim Gannon’s all-action side appear to have a bit of menace about them as they chase Chorley’s tail.

Saying that, the Magpies had opened up a six-point gap before yesterday’s fixtures and the Hatters cannot afford the luxury of a blip. Meanwhile, don’t rule out Brackley; a side who will pose serious problems in the play-offs.

Torquay have looked a class above all season in the South. Brilliantly led by the wily Gary Johnson, I can see them keeping their noses in front of the rest but their nearest challengers Woking will be wary of the sides below them – most notably Chelmsford City.

For the big one, I have backed Salford from the word go but they look so vulnerable now. Wrexham, not the most entertaining, could be in with a shout for the title.

VERDICT: Chorley and Torquay have enough about them to hold off the rest at Step 2. Brackley, under Kev Wilkin, right, look dangerous for play-off success, while Woking should edge out the rest in the South. Solihull Moors, with their blend of youth and experience, can join Wrexham in the Football League.

News editor Jon Couch says…

ALTHOUGH I will quite happily take any aforementioned pat on the back for tipping Solihull Moors pre-season as promotion dark horses, it wasn’t until very recently that I believed Tim Flowers’ men could actually last the distance.

Indeed, it was only after having the privilege of seeing them ruthlessly dispose of Aldershot Town on Tuesday night that I was totally convinced that they had the X-factor needed to stage a title push.

With leaders all over the pitch, Moors have the guile and ability to grind out results consistently using either an expansive or more direct style, whichever suits.

Leyton Orient, too, boast performers for the big stage but have been hit hard by injuries to the likes of Luke Coulson, Marvin Ekpiteta and Josh Koroma. They, though, remain the team to beat, whether it be for top spot or success through the play-offs.

In the North, Chorley look an unstoppable force right now but look out for Brackley Town hitting form at the right time.

It’s no longer a two-horse race in the South, but I do still expect Torquay United and Woking to prevail with Gulls boss Gary Johnson enjoying yet another title success.

VERDICT: Solihull Moors, in many ways they reminded me of the title-winning Macclesfield Town side which rolled over Aldershot with similar ruthlessness 12 months ago. It’s whoever holds their nerve and Moors are showing no signs of wilting just yet.

Online editor David Richardson says…

Salford City have disappointed me this season and they’re continuing to do little to convince me they’re consistent enough to win the title.

The Ammies play promotion contenders Eastleigh (H), Ebbsfleet (A), Sutton (H) and Solihull (H) in their next four games which will go a long way to proving their title credentials.

Solihull Moors’ rise under Tim Flowers has been superb and Leyton Orient just keep on churning out the results. The penultimate game of the season sees the two go head to head – what a title decider that could be!

Flowers aside, Torquay’s Gary Johnson and Alan Dowson, at Woking, are both strong contenders for Manager of the Year across Steps 1 and 2. Johnson has galvanised the Gulls since taking over in September at a club threatening to implode – they’re my pick for the title. Dowson rebuilt Woking’s squad from scratch in the summer and the Cards look a good shout for the play-offs.

Jamie Vermiglio has kept Chorley safely at the top in the North. They have a tricky run-in, but the title is in their grasp and I don’t think they will let it go.

VERDICT: It’s Leyton Orient for the National League title; the signing of Jay Simpson could prove pivotal. Torquay will edge out Woking in National South, and despite Stockport’s charge, Chorley should pip them in the North.

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