With four games in hand on their Northamptonshire rivals, the Gloucestershire club are the bookmakers' favourites to lift not just the title but the FA Umbro Trophy, in which they visit Emley in the quarter-finals tomorrow week. Indeed, the greatest threat to the Robins' hopes of promotion to the Nationwide League may come not from Kettering but from third-placed Rushden & Diamonds, who are three points adrift of Cheltenham having played the same number of games.
All three title hopefuls were in action on Tuesday, and all had to settle for draws. Cheltenham were held 0-0 at home by struggling Farnborough Town, while Kettering's trip to Woking also saw neither goalkeeper beaten. Rushden, who visit Morecambe tomorrow, let a two-goal lead slip in a 2- 2 draw at home to Dover Athletic.
Steve Cotterill, Cheltenham's manager, was not surprised that the top three all dropped points. "It's a tough league," he said, "there are no easy games. Whoever wins the league will deserve it.
"I'm up for it, but I'm not tense," Cotterill added. "I've got to keep my head so that the players keep theirs."
While Kettering have sold their promising 19-year-old striker Ben Wright to Bristol City for pounds 30,000, Cheltenham have been adding to their options up front. They paid a five-figure fee to Farnborough on Wednesday for Dennis Bailey, who once scored a hat- trick for Queen's Park Rangers against Manchester United at Old Trafford. The 31-year-old striker, who watched Tuesday's encounter between his old and new teams, has scored 21 goals in all competitions this season.
Whoever loses out in the Conference title race this term may still be facing Nationwide League opposition next season. Rumours are circulating that Conference clubs may be invited to compete in the Auto Windscreens Shield.
It will require the biggest shock in the tournament's history if Bedlington Terriers are to be denied a trip to Wembley for the FA Carlsberg Vase final. The Northumberland side travel to Thame United for tomorrow's semi- final second leg with a 5-0 lead from the first leg last weekend.
The Terriers' top scorer John Milner, who scored a hat-trick against the Oxfordshire outfit despite missing a first-half penalty, said: "This was even better than our result against Colchester in the FA Cup because it gives us a real chance of playing at Wembley." Like Thame, the Essex men found Bedlington too hot to handle, going down 4-1 in a first-round Cup tie in November.
Keith Perry, the Bedlington manager, said: "We are in the driving seat now, and if we don't get to Wembley then we don't deserve to. I will never forget this season. It's a roller-coaster ride that just keeps on getting better."
In the other Vase semi, the holders, Tiverton Town, are almost as well placed as the Terriers. The Devon team enjoy a 3-0 advantage over their Screwfix Direct League title rivals, Taunton Town, after the first leg in Somerset.
Russell Musker, Taunton's manager, remains positive against the odds, however. "We've left ourselves a mountain to climb but we won't give up hope," he said, "as an early goal could prove vital."Reuse content