Whilst Cardiff City and Portsmouth play out their league campaigns, with one eye on their sojourn to Wembley in two and a half weeks, many teams across the country have reached their season end. Some of the leagues lower down the pyramid played out the final games at the weekend; for other clubs with league games to complete the season is effectively over anyway.
My visit to Chertsey Town on Saturday, back to the source so to speak, prompted me to look at how the teams I have encountered in this FA Cup have faired this season. And as one would expect, there has been a mix of fortunes.
Mid-table respectability (or mid-table obscurity, depending on the ambitions or expectations at the start of the season) was the final resting place for a few of the clubs. In my last post I mentioned Chertsey Town’s campaign. Their 1-0 win over Wembley lifted them into the upper half of the table. They ended up playing three games in the FA Cup and in the FA Vase they were out by September after a 5-1 reverse against Deal Town. Another club that I visited for an FA Cup tie from the same league (Combined Counties Premier Division) were Camberley Town who had an arguably more successful season with a 3rd place league finish, six games in the FA Cup and a successful run in the FA Vase, reaching the Fifth Round before succumbing to Concord Rangers.
The middle reaches of the table were also final resting places for Sittingbourne and Bromley. Sittingbourne, who eliminated Chertsey Town in early September, finished 9th in Ryman Division One South, a league won by fellow Kent outfit, Dover Athletic. The FA Trophy wasn’t any kinder for them, losing in October in the First Qualifying Round to Northwood. Bromley had a tense culmination to their Blue Square South season. For a long time just outside the promotion chasing pack (aiming for the Blue Square Premier) they still had a mathematical chance of sneaking into the play-offs. However a last day home defeat quashed any dreams and Bromley ended up down in 11th, missing out by only five points in what was a very tight top half of the table.
For Weymouth, their run-in to the end of the season was equally tense, but not in the way they would have hoped. For a long time embroiled in a Blue Square Premier relegation battle with the likes of Farsley Celtic, Altrincham, Halifax and Northwich Victoria they escaped with an 18th place finish, five points above the drop zone. Their defeat at Cambridge United in December was their fourth FA Cup game. In the FA Trophy they lost in the Third Round to eventual finalists Ebbsfleet United.
For a few other teams that I have taken in this season, an exciting climax beckons.
Wolverhampton Wanderers have been typically inconsistent this season, but with the final set of games this coming Sunday they can still reach the Championship play-offs. In an incredibly tight league, West Bromwich Albion virtually assured promotion with their 1-1 draw with Southampton on Monday evening. Then it is likely to be Stoke City or Hull City joining them, with those two and Bristol City guaranteed a play-off slot. After that, anyone of five clubs can claim the last play-off slots, including Wolves. It will be a nail biting final day. Mick McCarthy’s side finish at home to Plymouth Argyle but their fans will have radios tuned in for results elsewhere.
For Eastbourne Borough the season continues. The Blue Square South league fixtures are complete and the Sussex side finished runners-up to local rivals Lewes. The lottery of the play-offs now awaits the men from Priory Lane. Eastbourne Borough led the league for a large chunk of the season, but could not hold on to their position in the final stretch, winning only one of the last six games. They now battle out a two-legged semi-final with Braintree Town. Should they be successful, the club, who recorded the league’s second highest average attendance of 872, would have a play-off final date at Stevenage’s Broadhall Way ground on May 8th.
Another of our FA Cup teams with a play-off extension to the season is Cambridge United. They also finished 2nd in their league, behind Blue Square Premier runaway leaders Aldershot Town. The club enjoyed five FA Cup games but lost in the FA Trophy in January to local rivals Histon. Burton Albion are their opponents in the play-off semi-final. Who knows? Cambridge United may still get to Wembley this season.
But out of all the teams I've seen the most successful club has to be Dartford who were crowned league champions a few weeks before the end of the season. They won the Ryman Division One North by nine points, losing only seven games. The team I have seen most in this season’s FA Cup, they scored an impressive 107 league goals, 31 one them coming from the division’s leading scorer Brendan Cass. Dartford have swept most teams aside with apparent ease this season, chalking up some impressive score lines; 7-2 v Witham Town, 6-1 v Enfield Town, 6-1 v Canvey Island and three separate 5-0 wins. And their supporters have turned out in force, averaging 1,135 at Princes Park. To put that figure in context, the next best average was Canvey Island’s 325. The league’s lowest average attendance was 73 for Waltham Forest. Congratulations to Dartford.
So a mix of fortunes indeed. Cardiff City and Portsmouth complete their league campaigns this weekend and next respectively. The team from Wales cannot reach the Championship play-offs whilst Pompey can theoretically still finish as high as fifth in the Premiership. But with an FA Cup Final appearance looming on the horizon, both clubs will quite rightly claim that it has already been a successful season.
And for one of them, on May 17th, it could get even better.