There were a lot of lessons to be learned last Saturday; not all of them were taught at Borough Park, but they all point towards a positive conclusion to the season.
Ever mind the excitement of being two steps from Wembley, although I can't deny that I'm fighting unsuccessfully against the temptation to get carried away! After all, when the final whsitle went round the country on Saturday there were only two sides from the top half of the Blue Square Premier into the last eight, with the two sides that, along with us, are seen by the bookies as the class acts of the division both going out.
It was the nature of their defeats which encourages me most though, and it has nothing to do with our cup run. On seeing that they'd both been hammered my assumption was that they'd prioritised, resting players with an eye on their promotion campaigns. A look at the sides they fielded swiftly disabused me of that notion though. They both played strong elevens but were hammered, scoring none and conceding seven between them!
I'm not daft enough to draw conclusions on a team from just one game, but I do think the concurrence of these results tells us something. This just isn't a great division. The NonLeague media would be horrified to hear this as their line is that The Conference is on a par with League Two, and I don't want to sound too critical, as I've really enjoyed myself this season and have been impressed by the way teams set out to do their jobs. Clearly there has been a huge rise in standards in The Conference in recent years, reflected by the culture shock we experienced when Northwich turned up at The Racecourse with such a distressingly ugly game plan last week; I think a lot of us expected all the strugglers to play like that but instead the likes of Woking and even Lewes came up here with the intention to play football.
However, there's clearly nothing to fear in this division, and we should bear this in mind as we push on for promotion.
Another indication of the slip in standard can be seen when we look at how players we've rejected have fared. Adam Smith, who didn't impress on pre-season trial here, has made an impact at York. Mind you, amazingly you could substitute the word Christian for Adam in that last sentence and be equally accurate! Likewise, Rob Duffy has made a good start to his spell at Mansfield Town, which is an interesting one. He didn't cover himself in glory last season for us, although one might argue that Brian Little, having brought him in to a great fanfare, hardly gave him much of a chance to show what he could do! Instead he opted to use Drewe Broughton at the sharp end of our attack, and we went down.
I suspect the success of players who the fans I'm sure would be unaninmous in agreeing wouldn't improve our side shows that The Conference isn't the toughest league in the world. I'm not for a moment suggesting we'll catch Burton, they'd have to pull off a Devon Lock to let us do that (or more likely The Conference would have to find a cupboard-full of unregistered players locked away at The Pirelli Stadium!) However, I am saying that the squad Dean Saunders has assembled is at the very least the equal of anyone at the top of the table. If only he'd been here from the start of the season!