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Is the National North title race already over?

Friday 24th November 2017

We are only in the middle of November, but is the National North title already won?

The National North is the sixth tier of English football with promotion from the league into the National Premier, the top level of Non-League. For this season there is one automatic promotion spot on offer with those finishing 2nd-7th entering the playoffs. While the number of those competing in the playoffs has been extended this season from 4 to 6, only the champions gain automatic promotion.

Since the early weeks of the season two sides have led the way, Harrogate Town and Salford City. Both clubs turned full time in the summer with aspirations of rising up the leagues, into the professional game. However, in recent weeks a seven-point gap opened up with Salford moving clear.

Two weeks ago the Ammies came from behind to win a tough game at Tamworth 2-1, while Harrogate fell to their first defeat on the road, at fifth-placed Spennymoor Town. Despite both winning fixtures since then, it has left Salford clear at the top of the table with a host of sides behind them.

Has Salford won it already?

Before a ball was kicked the Ammies were favourites for the league title. Backed by the class of 92, everything was in place for a title push after playoff semi-final defeat last season.  Harrogate in second have a game in hand which could cut the gap to four points, but already it is hard to see Salford being stopped.

They suffered a false start on the opening day when they lost at home to Darlington, who since have struggled. However, since they have only lost once, a 3-2 defeat at home to Leamington. The spending power they have meant if they do have a mid-season blip they have the option to change things around. So far from their 19 league games, they have amassed 47 points.

The challengers

Four sides still have hopes of pulling Salford back into the pack, Harrogate, Brackley, Blyth Spartans and Spennymoor. Yet, even at this relatively early stage one of them will have to go on a strong run to have a chance. For example, Spennymoor in fifth are 13 points off the top and for them to win the league and automatic promotion, Salford would have to fall apart and I just can’t see that happening.

After the top five, the league is very tight with only a handful of points separating the majority of the teams. With the new playoff system, any of the sides in mid-table could quite easily go on a four-five match winning run and turn their season around.

The rest of the season

For Salford to be stopped the next two months will be crucial. While not a lot of games are scheduled they play a lot of the other top sides. This weekend is the FA Trophy, but they travel to Brackley,  where a defeat would send out a message to the rest that they can be beaten.

By the end of January, they travel to Brackley again in the league, host Harrogate, play away at Blyth, as well as travelling to former Football League sides Stockport County and Darlington.

Second place Harrogate meanwhile play three of the bottom four in their next four fixtures, a great chance to try and bridge the gap.

Looking to the end of the season, Salford’s last six games will all be games they should win if they need to. For anyone else to have a chance they need to have overtaken them before the end of March.

While there are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before April in the race for the playoffs, I don't think the same can be said for the title race.

Simon Hahn

Lifelong sufferer following Darlington FC from League Two to the Northern League. Freelance Sports and data journalist. Living for 3pm on Saturday.

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