As the season reaches its climax, the seventh tier of English football is hotting up as teams vie for a place in the National League South next season. The league table is starting to become clear now that most of the sides in promotion contention have played similar numbers of games and the points tallies are becoming clearer. However, this league is made even more competitive than most of the top divisions due to the fact that only the winners win automatic promotion, making the incentive to win the title even greater than just the prize money.
With the title contenders having no more than ten games left, it is Havant & Waterlooville who sit on top of the pile with a game in hand over their challengers which could potentially send them four points clear of their closest challengers, Bognor Regis Town. However, the season is far from over as a contest as the Hawks and the Rocks are still to meet at Westleigh Park and Bognor’s form shows no signs of slowing after a valuable point on the road at Leiston this weekend to keep them in contention. With the Hawks’ form being questionable of late, especially at home, it is very possible that Havant could slip up and allow Bognor a way back to top spot. As I said before, this season is far from over.
It is difficult to see beyond either of the current top two as far as automatic promotion is concerned, as Needham Market in third place could find themselves as many as 16 points off top if Havant win their games in hand. However, the play-off chasing teams will still have a major say in the automatic promotion race before the end of the season, with the Hawks playing four top ten teams, as well as Bognor, in their remaining ten matches, while the Rocks face three top ten sides in their run-in, excluding Havant. While automatic promotion is out of reach for most of the teams at the top end of the league table, they can still leave their mark on this season’s promotion race in a big way.
Looking at the run-ins of the top two, it is difficult to find too much difference in terms of the quality of the teams they will be facing up against. The key for Havant will be to get a result at Dulwich Hamlet later this month, as a win in their game in hand would ensure that Bognor could not slip up if they wanted to catch the Hawks. They also have difficult ties when they play Needham Market and Tonbridge Angels, both of whom are currently in the play-off positions and will be approaching the game with the aim of cementing their places in the top five. Bognor, by contrast, do not have to face any of the teams between third and fifth, having already got their most difficult games out of the way. Leiston’s visit to Nyewood Lane is as difficult as it will get for the Rocks, apart from the all-important game between first and second, and they will be confident after they scored a last-gasp equaliser to snatch a point in the reverse fixture this weekend.
It looks like the Hawks are the more likely to slip up judging by their run-in and their ability to fail to turn up in important games, which could poise the title perfectly so that it is decided in the penultimate game of the season when the Hawks and the Rocks meet at Westleigh Park. The match will have great importance anyway, what with the two sides being friendly local rivals, even more so after Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford crossed the West Sussex-Hampshire border to join Lee Bradbury’s side in the summer. The Rocks narrowly missed out on promotion last season, and would be gutted if they were to do so again at the hands of a side which has come in and used their financial pulling power to assemble a team which is reportedly paid several times as much as their own. When the two sides meet in the penultimate match of the Ryman Premier League season the match is surely going to be a feisty affair and both sets of fans and players will be giving their all to try and secure a win which will make or break their season.
Although the Hawks team has a net worth of far more than their promotion challengers’ it is difficult to separate the two of their squads. The Hawks’ front two was formidable last season at Bognor and have continued their partnership at their new club. Jason Prior has registered 20 league goals this season and has hit a purple patch of form as we near the end of the season, while Alfie Rutherford has, once again, passed the ten goal mark, with 12 to his name. However, the Rocks have shared their goals more evenly among their squad, which sees James Fraser lead the scoring charts with 15, followed by James Crane and Ollie Pearce who have each netted eight goals.
Both teams have shrewd defences as well, with the two best records in the division, having conceded just 71 goals between them in the league (Havant 35, Bognor 36). Ryan Young is proving that age isn’t everything between the sticks for Havant, as the 37 year old has been an ever-present for his side. Bognor, meanwhile, have a young ‘keeper they can rely on in Dan Lincoln. The ex-Reading man has had a trial at Arsenal this season, as well as appearing for Braintree in the National League on a dual registration basis. He made a couple of costly errors in the fixture between Havant and the Rocks at Nyewood Lane, but has shown he is more than capable at this level and has played a big part in the club’s success this year.
If I had to put money on the outcome of this season’s Ryman Premier League I would have to say that Havant will keep their noses in front of their rivals but it will undoubtedly go right down to the wire. The deciding fixture could well be when the Hawks and the Rocks meet on 17th November, and it looks to have all the makings of a non-league classic. It is criminal that this level of the game gets as little coverage as it does, but this year could go a long way to proving that non-league football isn’t the hoof-ball, slide tackle, pie-fest it is portrayed as by some areas of the media. Both teams could easily compete at a higher level and it will be very unfair if it is not Havant and Bognor who find themselves in the National League South next season. With teams such as these as low down as the seventh tier, is it really that surprising that non-leaguers like Lincoln and Sutton can go toe-to-toe with football league players?
It’s something worth thinking about next time your league club overcharges you for a ticket and the players seem disinterested in everything but their paychecks. Local non-league football needs all the support it can get, and if you fancy going along to watch your local club near you, you will be treated to a great afternoon of decent quality football for a very reasonable price. I can’t recommend it enough.