Mark Carruthers: Promotion drama hotting up across the non-league football scene

The Cheltenham Festival is rapidly becoming a distant memory and the focus is fully on events at next weekend’s Grand National.
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But the action in last month’s festival in Gloucester and whatever happens at Aintree next Saturday will do well to match the intriguing title races being played out across the non-league pyramid this season.

Many are two-horse races, something that will not attract the keenest of onlookers - but they will provide plenty of drama between now and the end of the season.

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In the National League North, Gateshead have got their noses ahead of Brackley Town as the relentless duo go head-to-head with the final fences of a titanic battle lying in wait.

Non-league verdict.Non-league verdict.
Non-league verdict.

A key moment comes this weekend when they face each other at Brackley’s St James Park, and a stumble from either will not decide who passes the post first - but it will go some way to enhancing confidence and momentum.

It is a meeting of contrasting styles with Gateshead’s eye-catching flair taking on a disciplined Saints as the division’s high scorers face the meanest defence.

The Northern Premier League Premier Division title race has taken more twists and turns than the Grand National over the last eight months.

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But with the final furlongs approaching, it seems much-fancied Matlock Town and Scarborough Athletic have endured one stumble too many and are now relying on mistakes from those in front.

That has left current frontrunners Buxton and pre-race favourites South Shields to match each other stride-for-stride as the winning post approaches.

The Mariners dislike for unfamiliar turf has caused significant harm to their own challenge and they are currently without a win in the their last seven games away from home.

That is a complete contrast to their form on home ground with Kevin Phillips’ side winning their last eight games at the 1st Cloud Arena - a run that has kept alive their hopes of pipping Buxton at the post.

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Gainsborough Trinity - so impressive on their own turf - will present a sizeable fence for the Mariners to overcome this weekend.

With three home games in their last five fixtures, Buxton remain the favourites to be first past the post as South Shields await a wrong step from their rivals.

The battle for the East Division is very much a two-horse race with Marske United and Liversedge striding further and further away from the rest of the pack throughout the season.

Just one point separates them as the final month of the campaign arrives with Marske sat one point behind their rivals - and with the benefit of a game in hand.

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The Seasiders could even get their noses back in front this weekend as they host Hebburn Town as the Sedge look on from the sidelines.

A crucial moment is rapidly arriving on the horizon and one that could be a defining moment in the title race as Marske host Liversedge in two weeks time.

Stumbles from either contender have been few and far-between and it seems highly likely this race with go to the final stages of an intriguing contest - a fact that adds even more importance to their meeting over Easter weekend.

Northern League Division One’s own title race has seen a few unlikely contenders threaten to spring a surprise with the likes of Ryhope CW, Thornaby, Ashington and Newton Aycliffe all challenging in the top four at some point during the season.

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Ultimately, the two pre-season favourites have emerged as frontrunners Consett and North Shields have hit their stride at a key point with the race reaching a fascinating climax.

Consett - for the vast majority of the season - have held a significant advantage and they looked set to ease their way through the final stages and move further clear as the winning line approached.

But recent stumbles against the likes of Crook Town and Redcar Athletic have left them to watch over their shoulders as North Shields race up on the rails.

The Robins suffered a stumble of their own at Seaham Red Star in February but they have recovered well and regained an unrelenting stride with wins against Penrith, Crook Town and Newcastle Benfield.

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Home draws against Whickham and title rivals Consett have been minor setbacks - but there is little to call between the two sides at this point in time.

Many will point towards the four games in hand North Shields hold over the Steelmen as an indicator they hold the upper-hand.

But in a strange set of circumstances, the Robins will bring down the curtain on their home fixtures for the season against Guisborough Town on Saturday before embarking on a run of six away games to complete their campaign.

They include visits to third-placed Thornaby and fourth-placed Newton Aycliffe and local derbies with Whitley Bay and West Allotment Celtic before a tough-looking game at West Auckland Town ends a dramatic season.

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There will be more drama between now and the end of this title race.

It would take a brave - or foolish - punter to lay their money on any of the runners and riders in these races.

But what we can say with confidence, is the Grand National will do well to match the drama and unpredictability that the final weeks of this season will provide.

Where does your money lie?

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