8 July ~ When is relegation not relegation? The news that Rushden & Diamonds have withdrawn their appeal against demotion ends another protracted Blue Square Premier League relegation battle. This uncertainty is becoming something of a regular occurrence – only three times in the last ten years have all the teams occupying the bottom-four positions in this division gone down. The final tables regularly feature asterisks denoting clubs being demoted, docked points or sanctioned due to financial/administrative issues.

The final relegation place was seemingly settled on the last day of the season when Southport went down to a 3-1 defeat against Kettering. Southport are no doubt happy to have won a reprieve from relegation to the Blue Square North, but now face a race to get their squad up to standard having released a number of players due to a potentially reduced budget for 2011-12.

The other clubs involved in the relegation scrap have found themselves in similar positions previously. Forest Green, who narrowly avoided finishing fourth from bottom with a slightly better goal difference to Southport, have twice escaped the trap door in similar circumstances. In 2009-10 they stayed up because of Salisbury's demotion. This season they finished third from bottom – only three relegation places existed due to Chester City having to have their record expunged. They had similar good fortune in 2003-04 when Northwich Victoria went down despite finishing higher up the league.

Altrincham, who finished third from bottom this year, did go down. But on three consecutive occasions between 2005 and 2008 they occupied the designated relegation place only to be spared by off-the-field issues. In 2005-06 they finished bottom of the league when only two relegation places were available – the reduced number due to the formation of North and South Conference feeder leagues. They were spared due to the resignation of Canvey Island and the demotion of Scarborough, who were subsequently wound up. Financial crises for Boston United the next year and Halifax Town in 2007-08 then saved Altrincham again who finished fourth from bottom on both occasions.

The issues that have hampered Southport's summer have created a butterfly effect throughout the pyramid. The league's fixtures have only just been released and the FA competition draws have been delayed. Given the regularity  with which this has happened, teams who are reckoned to be relegation certainties from the outset may be advised to simply aim not to finish bottom. Any higher and a reprieve could in the offing. Paul Clark

Comments (5)
Comment by Sean of the Shed 2011-07-08 20:30:57

Most clubs are aware that at least one club per season are ejected from the Conference for reasons other than what happens on the field, the key word in the acronym AGM cup is Annual, but none would be stupid enough to be content with 21st place. Southport's manger said immediately after the game at Kettering that he expected to be reinstated as he was aware that the financial predicament of at least one club would see them expelled.
The loss of players would have happened anyway, it's just the way it is at smaller clubs at this level. At Tamworth we have lost some key players to Lincoln, Cambridge and Kidderminster. We have also let go some players that weren't up to scratch last season. Out of a squad of 18 or so, that means only a few are left and the team that takes the field for the first game of the season can look very different to the one that left the field at the end of the last one.
When expelling a club from the league, the Conference then have to allow all legal process to take place, including an appeal, so there is no point in setting the league placements in stone until this is complete. Likewise the FA can't fix the FA Cup and Trophy fixtures until they know which league the teams are in, as this determines which round they will join the competition. To delay this process just a few days is one of the rare sensible decisions made by administrative bodies at this level.

Comment by madmickyf 2011-07-10 05:56:06

Unfortunately Rushden & Diamonds are just the latest Non-League club to fold when a wealthy benefactor withdraws their support. This is becoming all too common, you have to wonder where the likes of Crawley and Fleetwood will be 10 years from now. There is already criteria for clubs on ground standards in order for them to enter the Conference and the Football League, maybe there should also be criteria around their level of support as well? For teams to be promoted they would have to have average crowds above a certain level over a sustained period (say 5 years) to demonstrate that they have the necessary support to survive if their Sugar Daddy up and leaves. It may not be 100% effective but I reckon it would stop a lot of small clubs crashing and burning chasing a dream they cannot hope to sustain long term.

Comment by grerman 2011-07-11 11:13:24

Spare a thought for poor Bishop's Stortford FC, who are among the big losers from the annual farce known as the Conference's "AGM Cup" and ultimately paying the price for Rushden's financial failures.

Rushden's expulsion meant that Thurrock, who had the best record of the 6 relegated step 2 teams, were reprieved and allowed to remain in the conference south. This in turn that meant the two regional divisions were unbalanced and to solve this, Stortford have been shunted north.

For a club from the Herts/Essex borders, this means a massive increase in travel costs, difficulty in finding players and reduced income from away support. So while Thurrock's prize for relegation is an undeserved season in their preferred division, Stortford's prize for staying up is possible bankruptcy and near-certain relegation a year later.

Save for forcing Thurrock into the north, it is difficult in the circumstances to see what else could have been done, but it's another sad story of the boom-bust culture that's sweeping across non-league football.

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-07-11 13:00:38

@madmickyf Why don't we just relegate / promote at every level on the basis of who has the biggest fanbase? That would save large, well-supported teams the bother of playing irksome smaller teams.

Comment by madmickyf 2011-07-12 00:59:49

Jongudmund, that's a pretty flippant reply and not at all what I was trying to argue. Is it really good for football to have this constant boom-bust cycle with small clubs soaring up the leagues on the back of some rich man's money and then plummeting back down again when he gets bored with his new toy?

I'd rather see organic growth with teams building their support by engaging with their local community and building a fan base that will stick with them. This is the path that the likes of Rushden, Gretna and Boston should have taken but it was a lot easier and quicker to just buy their way up the leagues.

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