A century of football history has been needlessly cast aside for some, while for others the reorganisation of the non-League game is long overdue. John Carter reports
T he glum knot of red-and-black-clad fans huddled in the main stand intrigued spectators at the Isthmian League play-off game between Bedford and St Albans. Could they be rossoneri supporters nostalgic for the atmosphere of the San Siro while visiting relatives in the south midlands? In fact the gloomy little group were from Lewes, in Bedford to watch their own team take on the hometown Eagles. Unfortunately the players were back at Lewes’s ground beating Kingstonian. Until late the previous day Isthmian League officials insisted the Rooks would indeed be playing Bedford, contrary to all other indicators. It took a Football Association announcement to override their stubbornness and correct the error. To date there’s been no word of any apology from league officials.
So it’s with a sense of relief, as well as triumph, that Lewes take their place among the 44 clubs making up the new northern and southern divisions beneath the Conference. The Conference are nothing if not efficient and it’s hard to imagine them committing a blunder of Isthmian-like proportions. In this respect, at least, membership of the new league can only represent an improvement but what will it mean otherwise? The two, as yet unnamed, new divisions make up step two of the FA’s restructured pyramid, with step one the unaltered Conference. Step three features the reshuffled carcasses of the Northern Premier, Southern and Isthmian leagues; four regional divisions of the same leagues make up step four. Step five consists of 15 county leagues, with lower steps represented by their subdivisions.
In the face of the changes, for now fans’ spirits are moderately high, with most looking forward to new rivalries and different burgers. The bubble of enthusiasm among supporters of the new Conference teams is especially noticeable. They see membership as a rise in status and expect entertaining football and increased attendances as a result. In reality, however, most are in precisely the position they were this past season – one notch below the Conference proper – and it’s hard to see where any sustainable increase in support will come from. Supporters of step-three clubs are less happy: they expect loss of talent to clubs above them followed by declining gates. It’s at this level where the failure to address one of restructuring’s principal tasks is most evident.
With the exception of the Isthmian League, now essentially a London and south Essex rump, travelling distances are still considerable. The Southern League reaches from Kings Lynn to Tiverton and the Northern Premier from Workington to Lincoln. Visiting support for most midweek games was rare last season. Now, given the distances and costs involved, it may be hard for players to show up, too.
The Conference expansion is the largest absorption of existing clubs in the history of English professional football, bigger even than the 1920-22 induction of sides into the new regional Division Threes of the Football League. While unquestionably ambitious, one wonders what effect this latest attempt at empire building will have on the majority of non-League clubs. The Conference aspires to be a big fish but its member clubs are mainly small fry and it’s hard see how a team such as Ford United – average attendance 154 – will ever be anything but the tiniest minnow.
Rumours of silly money being offered to players by clubs on the second tier are rife, leading to fears of yet another round of inflationary contracts that could damage those sides in the long run. For step three teams, who see a drawbridge being pulled up in front of them, contracts of any kind are increasingly out of the question. Players kitting up for four or even five different teams a season to follow the scent of a few extra pounds are not unusual. Such a situation makes team cohesiveness impossible for managers and identification difficult for fans.
The day after the Isthmian’s comedy play-offs came a touch of drama. Hendon, the league’s fourth place finishers and expected title contenders in Conference South, declined their place in the new division. With gate receipts covering only 20 per cent of the playing budget their board felt this was not the time to step up. Hendon’s average attendance last season was 251; only three incoming teams average over 1,000. Next spring the rubber meets the road; on April 1, 2005 all clubs must meet Conference category B ground criteria or face expulsion. For some this could be difficult. Hendon’s choice, though disappointing in the short term, could yet turn out to be the wise option.
From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month