National League title race: Who's in the box seat?
With the 2018/19 season well past the halfway mark, the race is heating up to see who will win the National League and claim a spot in the Football League next season.
Non-League football can be unforgiving, nearly all the divisions have two promotion spots with the champions going up automatically along with one play-off winner. Over the last decade or longer, many huge Football League clubs have dropped out of the top 92 into the National League. Alongside them, there are many up and coming teams who are spending big bucks in an attempt to reach the promised land for the first time. In this day and age, earning promotion to the professional league is at its toughest.
Before the season started, newly promoted Salford City were quickly made the favourites. However, they certainly are not having things all their own way. Until the festive period, it was Leyton Orient and Wrexham who looked set to battle it out for the title, but the busy winter has shown that everything can change so quickly in football.
In all the National League, divisions teams are paired for a double-header with fixtures on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day with Salford City and Wrexham meeting for the first time in league football.
Wrexham put their marker down for the title in the first game; hammering Salford 5-1 in front of a huge crowd at the Racecourse ground. The Ammies then also lost their next game which was live on BT Sport at Barrow, conceding a stoppage-time winner. Defeat at Barrow was their fourth straight league loss and has seen a significant gap open up on those above them.
However, Manchester United and the class of 92 were always able to bounce back quickly from defeats and some of this has certainly rubbed off on the team they now own. They got revenge on Wrexham with a 2-0 victory in the reverse fixture on New Year’s Day before putting in an even more impressive display as they won 3-0 at league leaders Leyton Orient last weekend. This brought them back within two points of the summit; when just two games ago the title looked out of their reach.
Wrexham started the season strongly and are hoping to end their long stint outside of the Football League. In between their games with Salford, they were also able to beat Solihull Moors 1-0, another side in the automatic promotion mix. However, the second game with Salford has started what could be a disastrous week for their automatic promotion chances. Further defeats have followed at home to Dover and then at Bromley to make it three straight league defeats. It has left them fourth in the table with Solihull themselves moving ahead of them into third.
Leyton Orient’s dip
From the start of the campaign, Orient’s form has been near impeccable. They began the season going twelve games unbeaten to put them as firm favourites for promotion. The O’s fell out of the Football League two years ago and last year was very much a rebuilding process for the club as a whole, but they have come back stronger this term. Like Wrexham and Salford, though, maybe not surprisingly, their form has taken a blip over the recent busy period. One win in four, including two defeats, has seen their lead at the top cut. However, it will be the defeat to Salford that will be the most concerning.
Others still with a chance
Solihull Moors are the surprise package in the division this campaign, they're currently third, just three points off the summit. Last season they only just survived relegation but have managed to turn it around on the pitch. They have been consistent, whilst not putting together the long unbeaten runs other sides have. Minimal draws placed them into a position few would have expected before the season started.
AFC Fylde are also still in with a shout in fifth, seven points off the top, but like many of the others in the top seven, they've faltered recently when maximum points would have had them in touching distance.
One team that have been in good form are Sutton United. If they were to win their game in hand, it'd only leave them five points behind Leyton Orient so they can’t be counted out either.
The league has taken a break this weekend with sides in FA Trophy action, Leyton Orient beat Wrexham in one of the ties, but attention will be fully focused on the league. With six playoff spots available for those finishing second to seventh, all those in the automatic promotion picture will get a second chance. However, as everyone in football knows, this can be a lottery.
If Leyton Orient can quickly snap out of their current run they will have a fantastic chance, but it is hard to look past the power that Salford potentially have. While not all of their big money signings have done as well as hoped, if they want to they can go out and buy again whereas the other teams may not have that luxury. For me, Graham Alexander’s Salford side are still the team to beat.