The 1998/99 season began with Doncaster Rovers being arguably the biggest name to come down into the Nationwide Conference since automatic promotion and relegation began battling it out for an instant return.
However, despite their name and stature, Rovers found it extremely difficult adjusting to life outside the Football League.
Support from the terraces, however, mostly stayed with them, despite disappointing form on the field and their lowest crowd of the season – 2,119 for the game against Dover Athletic just before Christmas – topped many other team`s highest!
Managed by Ian Snodin, Doncaster seemed happiest playing against the teams at the top end of the table and struggled against the lower sides.
But they did beat Southend United in the First Round of the FA Cup and won the Endsleigh Challenge Trophy – the League Cup – by beating Farnborough Town in the two-legged final – the home leg of which was watched by 7,160 after just 643 saw Rovers win at Cherrywood Road!
Coming up from the feeder leagues were Barrow and newcomers Kingstonian and Forest Green Rovers.
Poor Barrow really suffered that season and ended up going straight back down, despite finishing fourth-bottom due to entering Administration.
The new boys fared a little better, with K`s managed by the experienced former Woking boss Geoff Chapple finishing eighth and winning the FA Trophy Final at Wembley, ironically beating fellow newcomers Forest Green at Wembley, courtesy of an early second half goal from Tarkan Mustafa.
They also reached the Second Round of the FA Cup after beating Burton Albion in the First Round, bowing out at Leyton Orient after a replay at Brisbane Road.
Chapple`s strike force of David Leworthy and Eddie Akuamoah and a solid defence was a major factor in their success.
Forest Green, FA Vase winners in 1982, surpassed expectations by finishing twelfth as well as reaching Wembley.
Their shrewd manager Frank Gregan, who had guided them through two previous promotions in the Southern League, had a useful strike force in former Weston-super-Mare head coach Marc McGregor and Alex Sykes and they can be rightly proud of being the first team to reach both the Vase and Trophy finals.
Despite Doncaster`s name, moneybags Rushden & Diamonds started the campaign as title favourites having come close the season before.
And Brian Talbot`s side started like a train – seven successive wins at the start of the season made the bookmakers nervous.
But they drew 1-1 at Dover on September 8th and then lost 3-2 at Nene Park against Telford United four days later and their next ten matches brought just two victories.
They did enjoy a good FA Cup run though and after wins against Forest Green and Leatherhead, Diamonds beat Shrewsbury Town 1-0 at home in Round One and Doncaster after a replay in the Second Round, earning them a massive Third Round tie at home to Leeds United.
It was a 0-0 draw at Nene Park and then almost 40,000 saw goals from Alan Smith with two and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink outgun Carl Heggs` effort for Diamonds in a 3-1 victory – Leeds finished fourth in the FA Premier League behind Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea that season!
The `new` Diamonds side had built up a fierce rivalry with their neighbours a few miles up the A6, Kettering Town.
And a re-built Poppies side under the returning Peter Morris led the table for a good deal of the season, and although they weren`t the most prolific side in the league, their defence in front of outstanding goalkeeper Adam Sollitt conceded only 16 goals at Rockingham Road all season!
Nearly 10,000 saw the two derby games between Diamonds and the Poppies, but in the end, it was the team who had finished runners-up in 1997/98, Cheltenham Town, who pipped them all.
Then, Cheltenham finished nine points behind eventual champions Halifax Town and secured a place at Wembley in the FA Trophy Final, beating Southport 1–0.
Their title-winning season was once again built on solid form at their Whaddon Road fortress.
In 1997/98 Steve Cotterill`s side went through the entire campaign with only two defeats at home, and they followed that up with just one defeat in 98/99, that being an 1-0 defeat by Northwich Victoria on January 23rd.
It didn`t start well for the Robins though, as they lost their opening game 2-1 at Welling United, who finished the campaign third-bottom, but were reprieved due to Barrow`s off-field problems.
However, Cotterill`s men didn`t lose again after that until November 11th when they were beaten 1-0 at Woking.
Such was Cheltenham`s consistency, they suffered defeat only four more times, although two of those came as they had a bit of a hiccup near the end when they lost two and drew the other of their final three games.
But in the end they won the title and promotion by a four-point margin from Kettering, with Hayes surprising most people by finishing in a tremendous third spot after being one of the pre-season favourites to go down!
Cheltenham`s success was noted at the end of season awards when rising young boss Steve Cotterill won the manager of the year award and goalkeeper Steve Book, defenders Mike Duff and striker Neil Grayson all made it into the team of the year, with Grayson, winning the overall player of the season gong.
Leek Town, who narrowly avoided the drop in their first season in the Conference in 97/98, did finish second-bottom this time round, with Farnborough ending up as the other relegated outfit, being bottom on goal difference.
Words by Steve Whitney