BLUE SQUARE BET PREMIER PLAY-OFFS PREVIEW
Monday Apr 22, 2013
BY ALAN ALGER
This is the eleventh season of the Football Conference play-offs and over the next two weeks we will see the four teams who finished 2nd to 5th in the Blue Square Bet Premier table battle it out to join champions Mansfield Town in League 2. Kidderminster Harriers were left as runners-up on the final day of the season and the prices for which of the quartet - the rest of which is made up by Newport County, Grimsby Town and Wrexham - will gain promotion has Steve Burr's team as the favourites. Kidderminster are the form team with an incredible 25 wins in their last 29 league games of the season. They take on last year's runners-up Wrexham over two legs in a semi-final. The Red Dragons are appearing in their third consecutive end of season shootout and are yet to make it beyond the last four stage. Grimsby and Newport met on the final day of the regular season and a home win for The Mariners secured a two-legged fixture between the two for a place in the Promotion Final. Newport's selection for that game will be very different from the side which starts at Blundell Park in the first leg.
TEAM BY TEAM GUIDE
The key question hanging over the runners-up of the division once they enter the play-offs is "can they shake off the disappointment of missing out on the title". Kidderminster don't have long to recover after the final games of the season went against them on Saturday. Only two previous runners-up have managed to win promotion. The Harriers are in a slightly different position than most second placed teams. Their horrendous start to the campaign has meant that they have been in catch-up mode all along. That could benefit them in this four-team scenario. Their stats since mid-November are nothing short of phenomenal. 25 wins in their last 29 league games, just three defeats and one draw. Another thing that Burr will be encouraged by is their excellent record against the other three teams. They are unbeaten against their fellow promotion hopefuls and have by far the best points per game ratio in the tougher matches that the league throws up. In their last 18 matches they've failed to score only once and have some great attacking options to call upon including Michael Gash and Anthony Malbon. Defensively they have looked sound too, with just one team managing to score past them more than once in their last ten fixtures. Having missed out on the play-offs narrowly a handful of times in the last few seasons, they need to take the positives into what promises to be a thrilling fortnight.
What the manager says: STEVE BURR - "Our form couldn't be better than it is at the minute. "I was thinking if we did not win the league we would be going to Grimsby but we've got Wrexham, which is a lot better because it's closer. "We've done very well and it's a big improvement on the last couple of years where we've just missed out [on the play-offs]. "The players all want to finish on a high and now we haven't won the league we'll just get on with it."
Seasonal head to head versus the other play-off teams - P6 W5 D1 L0 F12 A5 Pts16
Form of their last ten league matches - W9 D1 L0 F27 A9 Pts28
Finishing 16 places higher than last season deserves plenty of credit and County boss Justin Edinburgh has seen his side transform from relegation scrappers to promotion contenders during his 18 months in South Wales. The Exiles flirted with top spot in the table in the early part of the season, only losing two of their first 15 games. A third place finish on 85 points is still a great achievement. Edinburgh sensibly rested players on the final weekend of the regular season to get a breather into his squad. A very different team will line-up at Blundell Park on Tuesday as they battle for a place in the Promotion Final. The former Tottenham defender may be concerned with a record throughout the season which has seen his team fail to win any of their six games against the other teams battling to be promoted. They failed to score in three of those games. Their chief goal threat is Aaron O'Connor, although a winter disrupted by injury has seen him net just four times in his last 21 appearances. As a team they've failed to score in four of their last nine games and taking on better defences here they will need to sharpen up. On a positive note they managed to beat champions Mansfield Town twice this season, so will consider themselves worthy of joining The Stags in League 2.
What the manager says: JUSTIN EDINBURGH - "Nothing about our performance on Saturday will have a bearing on the play-offs. "There will be so much more at stake on Wednesday. "I rested quite a few players and the plus is that we didn't pick up any injuries and we've got pretty much a full squad to pick from. "Grimsby might think they've got the psychological advantage but it will be a totally different game on Wednesday. "We will have Aaron O'Connor, Christian Jolley, David Pipe, Andy Sandell and Lee Minshull back in the squad and we will prepare well over the next few days and make sure we are ready to go again back at Blundell Park."
Seasonal head to head versus the other play-off teams - P6 W0 D2 L4 F4 A11 Pts2
Form of their last ten league matches - W5 D4 L1 F13 A7 Pts19
Two 11th placed finishes in their first two seasons at this level have been improved on with a fourth place finish this time. The Mariners were even quoted as short priced favourites for the title as recently as February 9 after hitting the summit with a 12 game unbeaten run. That was followed by just two wins in their next nine games and title aspirations were downgraded to a shot at a ‘Wembley double'. Management team of Rob Scott and Paul Hurst taking them to the national stadium in the FA Trophy final only to lose out on a penalty shootout to play-off rivals Wrexham. The duo will be looking to make amends with a quick return to the venue. They finished the regular season with nine unbeaten matches and look back to somewhere near their defensive best. Just 0.83 goals conceded per match was by far the best in the division over the 46 game season. 13 of their 23 wins were registered without their opponents scoring a single goal. That style of play lends itself to the play-off format along with their seasonal record of just four away defeats. Striker Liam Hearn got his only goal of an injury-wrecked campaign on the final day of the season and will be a threat if back to full fitness for what could be a tough three games to regain their league status.
What the managers say: ROB SCOTT & PAUL HURST - "It's great getting promoted in the regular season and I was lucky enough to do that as a player. "In this scenario, if you get to that final, there's nothing else to worry about. "So much hard work has gone in, right from pre-season through the campaign, and particularly recently when we lost a few games and had to bounce back from that. "That has made us more resilient and helped us draw the group closer together. "To cap that off with promotion would be an absolutely fantastic achievement. "There will be four teams in there and our first goal is to get to that final. "Secondly, it's about winning it."
Seasonal head to head versus the other play-off teams - P6 W2 D3 L1 F5 A3 Pts9
Form of their last ten league matches - W5 D4 L1 F15 A8 Pts19
Having failed at the semi-final stage in the last two seasons, Wrexham will be hoping to reach Wembley to pull off the same double that York City achieved last season. The Minstermen won the FA Trophy and the Promotion Final on consecutive weekends, and Wrexham have the chance to emulate them, albeit with a bigger gap in between. Their first Wembley victory was on March 24 against Grimsby one of the teams they could be facing again in a showdown final. First of all they need to negotiate a passage past in-form Kidderminster Harriers, a team they have lost to twice in their league fixtures. In fact boss Andy Morrell has seen his team win just six matches out of 22 against top-half opposition this season - a stat which does not bode well for the next two weeks. A come from behind win against eventual champions Mansfield a few weeks ago shows what they are capable of on their day though. Morrell has an injury-hit squad to pick from but will be encouraged that some of the fringe players performed well when called upon in recent weeks. But they did finish the season with just three wins in their last ten games (failing to score in half of them) and will need to be back to their very best to avoid a third consecutive semi-final exit.
What the manager says: ANDY MORRELL - "There was no preference and we didn't try and engineer anything because you don't know what is going to happen in the other games. "We'll just take on Kidderminster in the semi-final and try to win over the two legs. "Hopefully we can get a few of the injured players back. "We've got a couple of days training on Sunday and Monday before the first leg, and we'll be looking to push on. "They'll be in on Monday for the basics and set pieces. "We've played them recently, does that make a difference? You just have to get on with it. "They are a good side, who have done well this season but I'm looking forward to playing them again."
Seasonal head to head versus the other play-off teams - P6 W1 D2 L3 F4 A6 Pts5
Form of their last ten league matches - W3 D3 L4 F7 A10 Pts12
TEN STATS AFTER TEN YEARS OF THE CONFERENCE PLAY-OFFS
NO TEAM HAS EVER WON THE PLAY-OFFS FROM A FIFTH-PLACED FINISH IN THE FINAL TABLE.
SIX OF THE PREVIOUS 20 SEMI-FINALS HAVE BEEN SETTLED ON A PENALTY SHOOT-OUT, BUT NONE SINCE 2007.
WREXHAM ARE THE SECOND TEAM TO APPEAR IN THREE CONSECUTIVE SEASONS OF THE PLAY-OFFS. LUTON TOWN WERE THE FIRST LAST YEAR.
NINE OF THE PREVIOUS TEN WINNERS HAVE REMAINED IN THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE. 2005/06 WINNERS HEREFORD UNITED WERE THE FIRST TO BE RELEGATED LAST SEASON.
FIVE OF THE TEN LOSING FINALISTS NOW PLY THEIR TRADE IN THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE.
WITH FIVE WINS IN THE TEN FINALS, THE THIRD PLACED TEAM IN THE REGULAR SEASON TABLE HAS BEEN MOST SUCCESSFUL. FOURTH IS NEXT WITH THREE WINS, SECOND HAS WON TWICE.
THE SEMI-FINAL MATCHES AVERAGE EXACTLY 2.5 GOALS PER GAME, WAY UNDER THE REGULAR SEASON TOTAL OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS OF 2.95.
THE LAST EIGHT FAVOURITES FOR THE PLAY-OFF STAGE HAVE FAILED TO WIN PROMOTION.
AFC WIMBLEDON'S 8-1 THRASHING OF FLEETWOOD TOWN IN 2010/11 WAS THE HIGHEST SCORING SEMI-FINAL AGGREGATE.
EIGHT OF THE PREVIOUS 20 SEMI-FINAL FIRST LEGS HAVE ENDED IN DRAWS.
All FIVE Blue Square Bet Premier play-off matches including the Promotion Final are live on Premier Sports TV - visit www.premiersports.tv for subscription details.
You can play your part in the commentary for every game! Contact commentators Steve Bower and Ian Snodin during the action to give your thoughts - email: firstname.lastname@example.org OR Twitter: @steveandsnodsps