By Russ Penn, Kidderminster player-coach
The race for the title in the National League North has been superb and the two clubs butting heads for honours – Chorley and Stockport County – have been a class above the rest since the table began to grow its legs back in the autumn.
Both Chorley and Stockport would be worthy champions and they have shown that all season. Chorley have more or less been top all term. There were a few other contenders early doors, but once Stockport got things going after an inconsistent start, it has been all about the Hatters and the Magpies.
Looking at the fixtures, I have to say my head is with Stockport. They have been the chasers all year, but with a game in hand and what I consider to be a much easier run-in, Jim Gannon’s side look the better shout for the title.
Yes, Chorley have the advantage of hosting Stockport in the much-anticipated top-two clash on April 20, but they have to go away to both Altrincham and Spennymoor – clubs that will be scrapping to finish strongly to make their play-off battle that little bit easier.
Come the final day of the season, with Stockport facing Nuneaton and Chorley lining up against another tough side in Bradford (Park Avenue), I have to give the Hatters the edge here.
When Stockport played their recent two-legged FA Trophy semi-final, Chorley could not have done more; they cashed in by playing twice and pulled seven points clear. But County just keep chipping away and have kept them in range, responding well with back-to-back wins.
My big fear for Chorley – if they do finish second – is how they will fare in the play-offs. The run-in could take so much out of them and you often see the side that just misses out on the championship struggles to recover for the extra games in May.
Saying that, Chorley have bags of experience and are a very solid side who give little away, so even on their bad days they are tough to break down with the three lads at the back.
Stockport’s signing of Jason Gilchrist from Southport could prove pivotal for County – a fine player and a proven goal-scorer at this level that could just get them over the line.
Matty Warburton has been the Hatters’ main man this season but I look at the impact and consistency of Paul Turnbull in midfield; a model professional who I have played against many times.
Frank Mulhern also looks a super player who really makes them tick; they have class through the ranks and should they go up, with the crowds they get at Edgeley Park, they are more than equipped to challenge in the National League and beyond.
Playing in this league, I have seen first-hand each and every club and it’s a brute of a division with quality everywhere.
People talk about Spennymoor being a surprise package, but they haven’t really surprised me. Look at the players they have, the likes of Glen Taylor and Rob Ramshaw – seasoned professionals!
The side that has impressed me, and I suppose surprised me, is Altrincham. Fresh from promotion last season, they have stepped up and delivered, and on their day can run rings around you – just ask Alfreton!
In the South, I have said all along that Torquay have the squad and more importantly, the manager to get them over the line and it seems I have been proved right after Saturday’s thrilling draw at Woking. When Gary Johnson arrived at Plainmoor, Torquay were 14th and frankly, a promotion challenge did not look forthcoming.
But they have been superb and while Johnson’s services will not have come cheap, his track record and the way he works closely with his players was always going to make the difference.
Woking will be worthy runners-up and they are clearly the second-best team in that division. People will say Alan Dowson brought a lot of quality over from Hampton & Richmond, but you have to know how to get it all working in order to move in the right direction and he totally rebuilt the squad in the summer. They play some lovely football, and the FA Cup run will have put a few smiles on faces after last year’s struggles.
For the play-offs, they have time to recover and it might be in their best interests to rest a few players in the last few games with second place assured. Their situation is slightly different from Chorley’s, and they may just benefit.
I don’t pretend to know the National South inside out, but one club that could miss out on the play-offs when they looked nailed-on for a title challenge is Billericay.
They are without a win in seven having only taken two points from a possible 21. It’s been another eventful term for Glenn Tamplin’s club as players and managers have come and gone and come back again.
But there is quality there; in Alan Julian, Jake Howells, Sam Dearing and Ross Lafayette they will be relying on seasoned pros to see them through.
By Russ Penn, Kidderminster player-coach