Five battling for Conference title

This season’s Blue Square Bet Premier title race is the most open for years, with all of the top five in with a realistic chance of lifting non-league’s biggest prize and returning to the Football League.

With only four points separating leaders Wrexham and fifth-placed Grimsby, the identity of this year’s champions might not be known until the final round of matches on 20 April. It’s a stark contrast to 2010-11, when Crawley Town – not to everyone’s taste – stormed to the Conference title with 105 points, 15 ahead of runners-up AFC Wimbledon. Under Steve Evans – even less to everyone’s taste – non-league’s Red Devils were crowned champions with five games remaining.

Last season was a little tighter, with Wrexham favourites to go up as champions, but it was Fleetwood Town who went on a 29-game unbeaten run and sealed the title with two games remaining. Hitting 102 goals and racking up 103 points in the process, the Cod Army finished five points ahead of the Red Dragons, who themselves fell in the play-offs.

Like my beloved Cambridge United, all of the top five are clubs with a Football League history. Kidderminster are the longest-serving of the quintet at Conference level, having been relegated along with the U’s in 2005, while Newport and Grimsby are comparative newbies down here. Harriers have been transformed from relegation material to serious promotion candidates, so there may be hope for us all.

Kidderminster have also stolen – sorry, signed – our joint top scorer Michael Gash and loaned us Nathan Blissett in return. Luther’s nephew broke the record for the fastest goal by a United player – 17 seconds with his first touch on debut at Southport – but looked dreadful last Saturday against Woking. It’s not clear what the question is, but he certainly isn’t the answer.

Wrexham are top of the tree at the moment. Both Kidderminster and Mansfield are matching them on points, but the Welshmen have a superior goal difference. Newport, two points behind, and Grimsby a further two points adrift, have each topped the table in recent weeks while sixth-placed Forest Green Rovers, third not so long ago but now six points shy of the Mariners, are now seemingly out of the running.

It would be good to report that Cambridge will have some influence on the end of season shake-up, but it is not to be. A heroic streak of only one defeat in 12 games lifted Richard Money’s men from 20th to 8th and the Abbey faithful were once again talking about the play-offs. That in itself should have been a warning of course, with the 2008 and 2009 Wembley defeats to Exeter and Torquay indelibly branded on the collective amber psyche.

Four successive losses – with the abysmal U’s conceding three goals in each – put paid to any more silly talk and had us looking over our shoulders at the drop zone rather than up towards a return to the promised land before a much more typical sequence of win-draw-lose-win restored the familiarly cosy inconsistency and a return to mid-table nothingness. Money insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the season is not over for United.

“We want to be in this division next year and, at the moment, we’re not sure,” the head coach said after last Saturday’s last-gasp home win over Woking. “So we didn’t want to come off the pitch with a defeat today. “We’ve got to go to Grimsby next weekend and we’ve still got Luton and Wrexham. The first thing is getting another win and then we can play with a little bit more freedom.”

He might have added that United also face Newport in the coming weeks, so maybe with several top teams potentially in receipt of charitable points donations from an inconsistent and often unpredictable United, anything can happen. Well, almost anything.