Interview: Helen Skelton previews Skrill Conference playoffs

BT Sport presenter Helen Skelton looks ahead to the Skrill Conference playoffs, with Cambridge United, FC Halifax Town, Gateshead and Grimsby Town all involved.

Cambridge United started the Skrill Conference season at such a pace that if he was brutally honest, even their manager Richard Money was surprised.

The U's were unbeaten from their opening 16 fixtures, as well as seeing off Ryman Division One North side Needham Market in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup.

Money's men eventually fell well short as far as the title was concerned, with John Still's Luton Town proving to be too consistent over the course of 46 matches. Cambridge finished 19 points adrift in second, but despite their lofty placing, they go into tonight's first-leg playoff encounter against FC Halifax Town without a victory or goal in their last four outings.

Yet, as a club, the Abbey Stadium-based outfit have recent experience where the Conference playoffs are concerned, losing in the final at Wembley to Exeter City and Torquay United in 2008 and 2009 respectively, as well as lifting the FA Trophy under the famous arch courtesy of a 4-0 win over Gosport Borough earlier this campaign.

Helen Skelton, who is part of BT Sport's presenting team for Conference fixtures, believes that such know-how could well hold Cambridge in good stead over the coming days.

"Cambridge started so well, even some of their fans were probably thinking that it was too good to be true. However, because of that start, nobody is surprised to see them in the playoffs. It depends a lot on if their recent form stays in their head. They've been in this position twice before - they know what is at stake and that it hurts not to get promoted," she told Sports Mole.

Ian Miller of Cambridge United lifts the trophy as his team celebrate during the FA Carlsberg Trophy Final 2014 at Wembley Stadium on March 23, 2014 © Getty Images

"Anybody that has ever kicked a football, you dream of playing in a World Cup and playing at Wembley. The fact that Cambridge have done [the latter] recently, it may help them with any nerves and anxiety - they will know what to expect if they make it to the final. It would be impossible not to get caught up in the hype of being at Wembley, but because they've been there and done it, they can get their heads down quicker and concentrate on the job in hand."

While Cambridge have surprised some this term, so have their opponents Halifax. Chester, who have since been relegated, were runaway leaders in the Conference North last season, whereas the Shaymen prospered through the lottery of the playoffs.

However, having risen from the ashes of Halifax Town AFC in 2008, the West Yorkshire club have gone from strength to strength. Now, Neil Aspin's team are just three matches away from securing their fourth promotion in six years.

"Halifax came through the [Conference North] playoffs and some people backed them to kick on, as well as Chester, but look where Chester are compared to where Halifax are. Do they have the infrastructure and facilities to go up and stay up? That's maybe a debate for another day," said Skelton.

"Looking at the statistics, they finished fifth last year [in the Conference North] and they've done the same thing this year. If you're a superstitious person, there might be something in that. When they met on the first day of the season, Cambridge won 5-1 and Halifax had two players sent off, so there is no doubt that it's going to be a fiery game, if that fixture is anything to go by.

"At this level, there is a lot more for clubs to contend with. If you look at Hereford United, they are battling just to be able to pay their players. It would be a great story for the Conference if Halifax went up - it would be back to back promotions after all. The only worry is, are they ready to go up? They've got a great stadium and some of the loudest fans that I've met this year!"

Gateshead manager Gary Mills stands on the touchline during a match against Oxford United on December 05, 2013.© Getty Images

The other semi-final has pitted in-form Gateshead against Grimsby Town. Many bookmakers, with their 12-match unbeaten run in mind, make Gateshead the favourites to advance through to the final. It's a far cry from earlier in the campaign when Gary Mills's team looked destined for a return to the Conference North.

According to Skelton, Mills, who took over the Gateshead International Stadium hotseat in September last year, is fully deserving of all the plaudits that he has received this season.

"Gary Mills has done fantastic things for Gateshead this season. They've had such a great run because they were in the relegation zone at one stage. That's credit to Mills, his players and their fans. Whatever happens to them now, they cannot finish without thinking anything else than that they've had a great year," she added.

"Football is such a big part of the North-East. I suspect that there might even be some Newcastle United or Sunderland fans at Gateshead's second leg on Sunday. It's such a positive club to be a part of right now, they probably do have the capability to attract a lot of fans if they do get promoted. Mills is very highly regarded and he has a lot of contacts. That is a real asset for them, because at this level you need to be able to bring in players on loan."

As for Grimsby, they have been out of the Football League since 2010. Despite that absence, Skelton believes that everything is still in place for The Mariners to more than hold their own in League Two should it be them that is celebrating at Wembley next month.

"It wasn't that long ago that Grimsby were in the Championship playing clubs like Manchester City. They lost out [to Newport] last year and had a massive change in terms of the playing squad during the summer. They are a club that has the backing, facilities and fanbase to be a Football League club - you need all of that," said the 30-year-old.

Grimsby's Ross Hannah celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Huddersfield during their FA Cup third round match on January 4, 2013© Getty Images

A scan of the final Conference table shows that a number of big clubs, such as Barnet, Lincoln City, Macclesfield, Wrexham and Aldershot, as well as big-spending Forest Green Rovers have all fallen short when it comes to securing a place in the playoffs this season.

With already-demoted Torquay and either Wycombe Wanderers, Northampton Town or Bristol Rovers joining the division from August onwards, Skelton feels that the division is only becoming more "competitive".

"You only have to look at how the table has finished to see how competitive the league is. Luton had been out of the Football League for five years and it's taken them that long to get back. The Conference is not an easy place to be. A lot of the players are working other jobs and a lot of the clubs are dealing with financial constraints - there is so much to deal with it at Conference level that people probably underestimate it.

"Forest Green Rovers are the club that everybody expects to spend the money and look we've they've ended up. People also thought that Chester would push on from promotion and ride that wave like Halifax have done, and they've ended up being relegated.

"As a channel, we've been so grateful to the clubs and the managers in particular because they've let us do anything and everything. I hate to have to ask the managers questions during the first and second halves, yet all of them have spoken to me."

Fans can watch both legs of The Skrill Conference semi-finals featuring FC Halifax Town v Cambridge United and Grimsby Town v Gateshead exclusively live on BT Sport 1 and ESPN. BT Sport is free with BT broadband, to find out more visit www.btsport.com

FC Halifax Town vs. Cambridge United
First leg - Wednesday, April 30, KO 7.45pm BT Sport 1

Grimsby Town vs. Gateshead
First leg - Thursday, May 1, KO 7.45pm BT Sport 1

Cambridge United vs. FC Halifax Town
Second leg - Sunday, May 4, KO 1.30pm ESPN

Gateshead vs. Grimsby Town
Second leg - Sunday, May 4, KO 4.30pm BT Sport 1

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Tables
TeamPWDLFAGDPTS
1Luton TownLuton1493234122230
2Notts County149232415929
3Exeter CityExeter149232216629
4Wycombe WanderersWycombe147522821726
5Accrington StanleyAccrington148242418626
6Newport County147342214824
7Stevenage147342322124
8Coventry CityCoventry14725148623
9Lincoln City146531613323
10Swindon TownSwindon147162018222
11Grimsby Town146351921-221
12Mansfield TownMansfield145542019120
13Cambridge UnitedCambridge146261415-120
14Colchester UnitedColchester145362020018
15Carlisle UnitedCarlisle145361920-118
16Cheltenham TownCheltenham145271920-117
17Crewe AlexandraCrewe145271520-517
18Yeovil TownYeovil144372028-815
19Crawley TownCrawley144281216-414
20Barnet143471719-213
21Morecambe143471220-813
22Port Vale143291520-511
23Forest Green RoversForest Green142391231-199
24Chesterfield1422101227-158
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