Although winning promotion to the Premier League is financially the biggest prize in football, clambering out of the Conference represents a lifeline to many teams as a world of difference remains between the rewards of being a Football League club and not.
While champions Fleetwood Town are set to be League first-timers, all the sides in the Conference play-offs have been fighting for a return to the fourth tier for some time.
Luton remain arguably the biggest club in the division and having twice missed out in the end-of-season showdown since relegation, the sense is that it’s now or never for a club which has a 10,000 capacity and not so long ago were one goal away from being part of the Premier League.
However, if this is to be the season for Paul Buckle’s team, they will have to get past the best line-up ever seen in the Conference play-offs, featuring former FA Cup semi-finalists York City, European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finalists Wrexham and last season’s FA Trophy runners-up Mansfield.
Here’s a look at the betting odds for this week’s semi-final first-legs as well as my prediction on which side will emerge from Wembley victorious after what’s sure to be five highly competitive games.
YORK CITY v MANSFIELD TOWN
3Way football betting odds: York 13/10 Draw 11/5 Mansfield 7/4
Paul Cox’s Mansfield arrive in the play-offs as the form team with six straight wins but they face a battle to continue that run against a team who’ve already proved their pedigree in knock-out football in FA Trophy finalists York.
The Minstermen have led the most balanced campaign in the division as the only side to be in the top five for attacking and defensive records, with their 11 wins at Bootham Crescent also key. Their playoff experience should see them through an exciting encounter against the highest scoring side in this year’s line-up.
Betting Tip: Both teams to score @ 57/100
LUTON TOWN v WREXHAM
3Way football betting odds: Luton 13/10 Draw 21/10 Wrexham 37/20
Weight of expectation has hurt Luton many times since they tumbled into the Conference less than two decades after gracing the top flight, so having needed a final-day win at champions Fleetwood in order to even face Wrexham may actually work in their favour.
The Hatters’ campaign has been streaky at best and having followed a seven-game winless run by going five unbeaten, they are something of an unknown quantity. However, Buckle’s squad does have proven quality in former England U18 goalkeeper Mark Tyler and Trinidad & Tobago World Cup star Andre Boucard. They should be able to beat a side still smarting from missing out on automatic promotion in front of a sell-out crowd at Kenilworth.
Betting Tip: Luton/Luton at half-time/full-time @ 14/5
So I’m predicting the last two losing play-off finalists to get another crack at Wembley, with Luton facing York on May 20th.
With two of the best groups of travelling supporters in the non-league, that should make for a cracking atmosphere and if their two-legged FA Trophy semi-final is anything to go by, this would be a tight game worthy of that atmosphere.
However, with their history and quality, I’m backing Buckle’s boys to get revenge for that 2-1 aggregate defeat and finally break their play-off curse to return Luton to their ‘rightful’ place in the Football League.
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