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COLUMN: Could This Be The Year Of The Underdog In The National League?

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As every manager across the country will say, the league table at this stage of the season isn’t worth looking at. No one has already been promoted or relegated – yet forcing myself to go against their advice and scanning over the National League standings, and going by what I’ve seen of the action so far, I can’t help but think we might be in for a surprise this season, why not?

Sutton United lead the way, followed by Bromley, then Aldershot Town, Boreham Wood and in fifth, Dover Athletic. It’s hardly your Tranmere Rovers, Dagenham and Redbridge, Hartlepool United, Wrexham and Barrow line-up…yet.

This season has brought around some fresh hope for the perennial mid-table finishers (looking at you Macclesfield) as the National League expanded the number of play-off places from four to six.

These extra two spots will no doubt be targeted by those who are always lurking around the top ten and just below – somewhat bad news for the purse strings of most football club chairmen. While no team that has finished fifth in the play-offs has ever been promoted, it would be sod’s law that seventh place this year would pull off the unthinkable and reach the Football League.

Usually, there’s always at least one surprise package that makes the play-offs. Aldershot last year and Braintree Town and Dover the year before – treading in the footsteps of newly promoted FC Halifax Town in 2014. Now with sixth and seventh place enough to qualify, the door has been opened further for the part-timers.

Clubs like Sutton, with their 3G pitch at Gander Green Lane, money from their astonishing FA Cup run last season and a solid support base are exactly the type of ‘underdog’ that could pull off a shock. You would expect the Tranmeres and Hartlepools of the division, despite their disappointing starts, to eventually be up at the top. But what if they aren’t?

I’ve been reluctant to use the Leicester City example so far. When they won the Premier League, all of the top 6 were off their game. With the extra incentive of the two added play-off spots, it’s more likely that the clubs around mid-table will fork out a bit extra on another striker or an experienced midfielder, making them, in theory, more competitive against the off-colour Tranmere types. But Leicester didn’t just qualify for the Champions League or Europa League, by finishing fourth or fifth, they won the league.

It’s fair to say that Lincoln City lifting the National League title last season was a surprise by all accounts. Under the management of the Cowley brothers, a top-half finish was at least expected – Lincoln having never previously achieved one since suffering relegation from the Football League. To win the league then, while making history in reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, was astonishing.

Without wanting to take anything away from the Imps, they were a sleeping giant of the National League and had the resources for a top 5 finish. It was a surprise to see them as the eventual champions, but they weren’t exactly a complete Leicester-style outsider.

So where’s the title upset coming from this season? Aldershot fall into the Lincoln category after overachieving to read the play-offs last season, but it’s very feasible they could go one better. Sutton and Bromley both have the 3G pitch-factor. They’ve started excellently and if they crucially remain injury-free then a shock might happen.

Boreham Wood are an interesting one. Attendances rarely top 500 at home games but their outside revenue streams from hosting Arsenal Ladies is topping up their budget nicely. They’re the joint highest scorers so far and if the Wood are capable of keeping the same number of clean sheets as last season, the upset will be on.

Whatever happens, it’s sure to be an exciting scramble to make seventh place, with hopefully some surprises thrown in.


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