THE RACE for the Nationwide Conference title is becoming increasingly tense, as the three leading contenders are now level on points following the midweek fixtures.
Cheltenham Town still lead the way on goal difference but they missed the chance to open up a gap when they went down 3-2 at Hednesford Town on Monday. "We don't like it," an angry Robins' manager, Steve Cotterill, said. "The sooner we return to winning ways the better."
Kettering Town, beaten 3-0 at Cheltenham last Saturday, slipped to third place after Rushden & Diamonds won 3-2 at Leek Town on Tuesday to move up to second spot. "At this stage results are more important than performances," Brian Talbot, Diamonds' head coach, said on Wednesday, "but to be fair the players did magnificently last night."
Both Rushden and Kettering have the chance to earn a three-point lead at the top of the table when they meet in an all-ticket Northamptonshire derby at Rockingham Road tomorrow. The Poppies will be keen to improve upon their dreadful record against their county rivals on their own ground: Diamonds' two previous Conference visits have resulted in 4-0 and 5-1 away victories.
Rushden know that if they win all their remaining fixtures they will be playing Nationwide League football in August. After tomorrow's third- against-second encounter, they entertain Cheltenham at Nene Park on Easter Saturday.
Cheltenham can forget about their league campaign tomorrow when they continue their defence of the FA Umbro Trophy with a quarter-final tie at Emley. The West Yorkshire side, who gave West Ham a fright or two in the FA Cup last season, have a reputation as a good cup side, but they are not in good form. After Tuesday's 2-0 UniBond League defeat at Accrington Stanley, the Huddersfield-based Examiner newspaper reported that Emley were "dismal, disjointed, short of direction and, even worse, short of heart".
In the other Trophy quarter-finals last season's beaten finalists, Southport, visit Forest Green Rovers, Northwich Victoria entertain Kingstonian, while there is a 1pm kick-off at Clarence Park for St Albans City against Boston United - a tie which guarantees that one semi-finalist will come from outside the Conference.
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