From Wednesday night, four clubs will fight it out in the Conference play-off finals for the right to be 72nd club in the Football League next season. The Championship play-off final may be the single most important game in monetary terms, but entering the Football League has the potential to have the biggest impact on the lives of the players themselves.
Most of those competing in the Conference are only part-time footballers. Football may be their passion, but it’s not their everything. It can’t be. Holding a full-time job remains a necessity for many competing at the this level, and this certainly puts the European away trips and media duties that are often cited as reasons for fatigue in Premier League in perspective.
Momentum is great tonic for such fatigue, and BT Sport’s Helen Skelton believes that form has the potential to be the biggest factor in the play-offs: “Gateshead are the form team, and all the other managers have been playing the ‘Jose Mourinho card’: they’re playing down their teams chances, and saying Gateshead are the favourites to go up”.
This assessment doesn’t bode well for Cambridge United, who travel to Halifax Town for their first leg of the semi-final on Wednesday night. Despite having a strong first half of the season, Cambridge have now lost four in a row, and go into the play-offs in the worst form of the four. However, Skelton believes they’re still in with a chance if they can harness the experience of recent seasons: “They’ve been here before, and missed out, so they know what’s going to happen. They know what’s at stake, and they’ll take a lot from that I’d imagine”.
Compared to their opponents, Halifax are relatively inexperienced this level, and go into the play-offs looking to achieve back-to-back promotion. Skelton has sees Halifax as the Conference “story of the season”, regardless of how they fair in the finals.
Grimsby Town have the unenviable task of hosting in-form Gateshead in the leagues second play-off semi-final on Thursday night. And Skelton believes Grimsby to be somewhat of an unknown quantity: “Their final game of the season was against Baintree, who were supposed to be in with a shot of making the play-offs [only to fall away at the last minute]. But it ended up being a bit of an easy game, so it’ll be interesting to see how this affects their chances”.
Whoever ends the season victorious will know that their work is far from over. The Conference is a competitive division but the play-off winners will have to pit their wits against relative behemoths such as Portsmouth next season. “It’s definitely a big step up,” Skelton explained, “but I think any club with the coaching setup to take advantage of the amount players from higher divisions who are looking to drop down to League Two in order to gain experience will do well’.
Whatever the outcome, drama is always paramount in the play-offs, and expect this year to be no different. The money of the Premier League may be fantastical, but it’s in the reality of the Football League where lives are really changed.
One group of players out of Grimbsy, Gateshead, Cambridge and Halifax will have their whole worlds transformed on May 18th. And if that isn’t a thing of fantasy, I don’t know what is.
Fans can watch both legs of The Skrill Conference semi finals featuring FC Halifax Town v Cambridge United and Grimsby Town v Gateshead exclusively live on BT Sport 1 and ESPN. BT Sport is free with BT broadband, to find out more visit www.btsport.com
FC Halifax Town vs Cambridge United
Semi Final 1st leg Wednesday 30 April KO 7:45pm BT Sport 1
Grimsby Town vs Gateshead
Semi Final 1st leg Thursday 1 May, KO 7:45pm BT Sport 1
Cambridge United vs FC Halifax Town
Semi Final 2nd leg Sunday 4 May, KO 1:30pm ESPN
Gateshead vs Grimsby Town
Semi Final 2nd leg Sunday 4 May, KO 4:30pm BT Sport 1