Salford City return to The Peninsula Stadium on Saturday when Barnet are the visitors in the Vanarama National League (KO 15:00).
The Ammies are unbeaten so far in March with four wins from four, and clean sheets in all to back it up. That has included wins against fellow promotion hopefuls Ebbsfleet United, Sutton United and Solihull Moors, with a tricky trip to Aldershot safely negotiated last weekend.
It is the sort of form that has kept any title ambitions alive with Salford Now four points behind Leyton Orient, who have a game in hand. That gap could be down to use one point with the leaders again in FA Trophy action on Saturday, although they will have two games in hand.
Nevertheless it is exactly what Graham Alexander’s side needed to do to give themselves the best possible shot, and attention is now on one of this season’s cup heroes Barnet, who visit The Peninsula Stadium for the first time.
If there’s one team that knows the importance of getting points on the board it’s The Bees, after they suffered relegation from the Football League last season on goal difference on the last day of the season, despite a late turn around in form.
There were high hopes for this season too; a number of players were retained from last season and John Still was appointed manager in the summer after guiding Dagenham & Redbridge to within five points of the play-offs. Further recruits were added from Aldershot Town, who finished fifth, but it took five games before The Bees recorded a first league win. That kicked off a run of five wins in a row, but from then consistency escaped The Hive.
However it was a different story in the cup competitions, with Still starting the work by guiding The Bees into the FA Cup Third Round with wins against Bristol Rovers and Stockport County, and the FA Trophy Second Round, before ‘retiring’ in late December (then taking up a role with Maidstone United).
Current manager Darren Currie stepped in as caretaker and masterminded a 1-0 win at Championship promotion-hopefuls Sheffield United in the Third Round to set up a Fourth Round clash with the other Bees, Brentford. A 3-3 draw at The Hive forced a replay, but Barnet’s FA Cup journey came to an end after a 3-1 defeat at Griffin Park.
Meanwhile in the FA Trophy, Barnet reached the Quarter-Finals with wins against Bath City, Dorchester Town and Carshalton Athletic before AFC Fylde won on penalties at Mill Farm after a 0-0 draw.
Those cup runs left Barnet perilously close to relegation, but with games in hand and they should be safely mid-table come the end of April. With a relatively young squad, including four academy graduates in the starting line-up against Harrogate on Tuesday, the North London club are setup for the future and will not doubt take this season as a learning curve to making an assault at promotion next season.
But their season isn’t quite over and they could still have a significant impact on how the top of the table looks with Orient and Wrexham still to visit The Hive, and trips to Fylde and Eastleigh still to come in addition to Saturday.
As they catch up on fixtures Barnet have had a testing run of Saturday-Tuesday matches throughout February and March, and ended a run of four games without a win on Tuesday against Harrogate. Dave Tarpey scored his first goal of the season, and The Bees kept back-to-back clean sheets for just the third time this season, equalling their best run too.
Generally Barnet have been defensively sound, they have the second lowest ‘goals against’ column in the bottom half and have only been beaten by more than two goals on three occasions, and on one of those goalkeeper Mark Cousins was sent off early on.
That return to a solid foundation has served Salford well, and for Barnet taking points off Hartlepool and Harrogate will give them lots of confidence heading to The Peninsula Stadium.
One to Watch – Wesley Fonguck
Much as in the reverse fixture in which he scored, Fonguck is a crucial part of Barnet’s attack. The 21-year-old joined Barnet as a scholar from Croydon and made his debut in May 2016, since when he has gone on to become a regular fixture in The Bees’ first team.
This season has definitely been a defining one for Fonguck who made his England C debut in October and has 10 goals in all competitions, with nine making him the club’s top scorer in the league. Able to play on the left or down the middle, Fonguck will glide forward quickly and isn’t afraid to take a shot on from distance.
Last time we met we came from behind to win 3-1 at The Hive at the end of October. Fonguck’s opener was quickly cancelled out by Rory Gaffney before half time, then Tom Walker and Mark Shelton made sure of the points in the second half.
Goalkeeper Max Crocombe made a few appearances for Barnet in League Two, on loan from Oxford United in 2015.