Nick House and Torquay are bidding farewell to the basement for at least a season or so, but while it's a sweet enough feeling he can't deny that it's a lot less grim than in years past
It’s more than 40 years since the sage of the sixth form, already a football fan of a certain outlook beyond his years, passed judgment on the league to which we had returned in 1972: “Northern teams play industrial football; southern teams are more cultured. You see it at Plainmoor every other week. Dirty northern bastards all of them.”
A year or two later, now at a university handily placed for trips to Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster, a harsh truth dawned one dire second half. Division Four, whisper it, was harbouring its fair share of dirty southern bastards. And some of them wore yellow and blue. Nostalgia? Cliche? Guilty on both accounts but that was the division in those days. A sprinkling of fading midfield generals; the odd promising young tyro; and an awful lot of resolute defenders of all shapes (invariably misshapen) and sizes (mainly large). Grass was for standing on and depositing the victims of the nefarious activities associated with a contact sport.
Now, on evidence accumulated from following the fortunes of a certain team for 31 of the past 32 basement seasons, the time has come to shatter a myth. The ball is played along the ground these days rather more than it endangers the floodlights. The change has been gradual and mainly apparent over the past five seasons. The arguments may be well rehearsed but ring true: cultural change throughout the English game; talented young players displaced from larger clubs; managers appointed on the basis of coaching qualifications rather than ten years of loyal thuggery.
The truth dawned for this observer when watching a footballing team (us, of course) struggle against a route-one outfit (them, of course). “Ah, but we never play well against that sort of team.” But we win most of our games so there must be fewer of those teams. QED.
For sure, there’s a range of styles – and referees certainly have their work cut out with some teams – but there’s more time on the ball, more imaginative tactics and eye-catching performers abound such as Liam Lawrence (Mansfield), Michael McIndoe (Doncaster), Luke Guttridge (Cambridge) and David Graham (Torquay). Teams may lack the consistency of their betters but when the parts spark, as they did for Mansfield during a memorable first half at Bristol Rovers, the product can be hugely entertaining.
How it fits in to the wider scheme of things is debatable. Much of the above also applies to Division Two then and now. The gap between the two divisions arguably remains constant. Of teams promoted from Division Three to Two between 1994 and 2003, 11 were relegated immediately. Half of all promoted teams have returned whence they came. The statistics for teams relegated and returning are virtually identical.
Three of 2003’s promoted clubs did well: Hartlepool reached the play-offs; Bournemouth and Wrexham finished comfortably. Rushden only faltered once Dr Martens’ stitching came undone. But three relegated teams – Huddersfield, Mansfield and Northampton – all reached the Division Three play-offs. Nothing proved. Other than to conclude there are yo-yo teams (Northampton, Swansea, Chesterfield), Third Division clubs who visit the second (Cheltenham, Scunthorpe, Macclesfield), bigger clubs who pay us the odd visit (Huddersfield, Plymouth, Luton) and natural Second Division outfits (Bournemouth, Wrexham, Blackpool).
Maybe we should judge the Third for what it is and by its own standards. The long-term prognosis suggests reason for optimism: most clubs are better-run than in the recent past, grounds have improved, attendances are healthier. But it’s volatile: the ending of youth schemes at a handful of clubs may either prove an act of profound wisdom or folly; the actions of a few maniac owners could easily destabilise the division (I’ll be out when you call, Mr Reynolds).
Paradoxically, greater stability might be at hand for an unlikely reason. One down to the Conference caused untold gnashing of teeth – tell me about it – simply because only one team ever came back. Now it’s two down, two up (and what’s wrong with three down and three up?) the chances of relegation are higher but, somehow, the stakes are becoming lower. This year’s relegation of York and Carlisle – before the last day admittedly – was played out under a lesser media spotlight than in previous seasons. As this season’s Conference play-offs indicated, the way back could amount to fifth place and good penalty-taking.
And that, perhaps, is how we should view Division Three: a 30-team league with the true fault line lying somewhere between Exeter and Morecambe. Or am I just being unusually lofty for only the second time in 30-odd years? I may take another view at the end of the 2005-06 season.
From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month