The National League playoff finals preview
Background photo: Rob, CC BY 2.0
This weekend, the playoff finals take place in the three National Leagues. North, South and Premier. Which three sides will gain promotion?
National North: Chorley v Spennymoor Town
There has already been plenty of drama in the National North playoffs this season. Three of the four games have gone to penalties, including both the semi-finals. Chorley came from behind at home to ten-men Altrincham before edging through from the dreaded penalty spot. Spennymoor, who have won two playoff games to get to this stage, triumphed 5-4 on penalties at Brackley despite the hosts having a spot kick to win it.
It is one of the biggest games in both clubs' histories. Chorley have previously played in the top level of non-league football, but they have been below that level since 1990. Spennymoor, meanwhile, have never played in the National Premier.
Chorley had the league title in their own hands with two games to go before dramatically losing in stoppage time at Spennymoor. That would prove the decisive game in the automatic promotion race.
Chorley were nearly faultless in the first half of the season but have struggled in the last few months. They will hope that home advantage can play a part on Sunday. They have the shadow of playoff failure to overcome, though. In 2015 and 2017 they lost in the playoff final, then last season suffered defeat in the semi-finals.
Spennymoor come into the game with a lot of momentum, both from this season and recent years. They are looking for a fourth promotion in six seasons, with the previous two having come via playoff glory. They had a wobble in March but recovered to win their last six games.
The league's top scorer, Glen Taylor, has proven too hot to handle for most teams this season - including Chorley. In their two meetings, Spennymoor have come out on top, with Taylor scoring on both occasions.
The bookies will have Chorley as favourites due to finishing second and home advantage. However, I believe come Sunday night it will be the North East side looking ahead to National League football next season.
National South: Woking v Welling
It's a big W, I tell ya, a big W! In the South, Woking and Welling do battle, both looking to regain their places in the National Premier.
Woking ended the league season in second, two points above Welling. For much of the campaign they were in a title race with Torquay United, but the relentless pressure from the Gulls finally showed. Their form has nose dived in the final month-and-a-half of the campaign, winning just one of eight league games.
However, Sunday’s victory at home to Wealdstone will give Woking a lot of confidence. They looked dead and buried at 2-0 down with 13 minutes left, but three goals, including a stoppage-time winner, saw them come through 3-2.
Likewise, Welling hit a very late winner at home to Chelmsford. The visitors had levelled with just seven minutes to go before a penalty in the 96th minute put them through to Sunday’s final, 3-2. They have won 10 of their last 14 matches, which saw them finish the season in third position.
Welling were last in the top flight of non-league in 2016. Woking were relegated from the National Premier on the final day of last season.
Including the FA Cup, the sides have already met three times this season. Woking won two and drew one. They will start the game favourites. Yet, given the two teams' recent form, Welling are in with a great chance.
National Premier: Salford City v AFC Fylde
The big one, the National League playoff final at Wembley with a place in the Football League at stake. Two sides who have flown up the leagues in the last few years, and one of them will now take their place in League Two for the very first time.
Salford City were pushed right to the wire in the playoff semi-finals last weekend, only overcoming Eastleigh on penalties. In the regular season the Ammies took their fight for the league title to the final game, having been in with a shout throughout the campaign. Ultimately, though, they finished third as Leyton Orient clinched top spot.
Despite this being Salford's first season at this level, they started the campaign as title favourites with most bookmakers due to their spending power. Graham Alexander took over as manager last summer and made several big name signings, such as Adam Rooney and Danny Lloyd. It's paid dividends.
If Salford were to gain promotion, it would be a fourth in five seasons for the Class of 92. Regardless of finances, that is some achievement given how competitive non-league football is in England. This Sunday also marks the clubs first ever trip to Wembley.
Fylde are also looking to reach the Football League for the first time in their history. They have been made to work hard for their place in the playoff final - finishing fifth in the division, they overcame Harrogate and then won at second-placed Solihull Moors. The Coasters also have another game at the national stadium a week later when facing Leyton Orient in the FA Trophy final.
The play-off final will be all that matters right now for Flyde, a team which have come to fruition in the last decade. This is their second season at this level, having also reached the playoffs last time out. To boast their chances, they have one of non-league football's most formidable strikers in Danny Rowe, who has been nearly unplayable in recent years.
It is a close one to call. Having already had their scare, if favourites Salford can shut out Rowe, I expect them to take their place in League Two next season.