Non-League structure dampens fans' enthusiasm
Conference South is too spread out
17 August ~ With the 2012-13 season starting this weekend, I should be looking ahead with eager anticipation. My club, Dover Athletic, have strengthened, seem stable financially and according to the bookies, have a good chance of promotion back to the non-League top flight they left ten years ago. With the board acting upon supporters' concerns, particularly with regard to pricing policy, only the incurably cynical could fail to find grounds for cautious optimism. Yet, while confident we'll do well, it's difficult to raise enthusiasm for another season in the purgatory of the Conference South.
The North and South feeder leagues were brought in as a half-way house between the semi-pro game and the now almost exclusively full-time Conference National, but the regionalisation implied in their names doesn't really exist.
That Cornwall's Truro City were promoted to Conference South at the start of a season in which a Home Counties club, Bishop's Stortford, were compelled to switch to the North division to keep the numbers even illustrates that a rethink is long overdue.
Geographical location will always make life difficult for a Dover fan. Though we would find the going tough at the next level, we might expect 3,000-plus crowds when teams such as Luton Town visit. While we've no desire to return to the Isthmian League, we retain fond memories of the endless stream of games against traditional rivals.
The best thing to be said about Conference South is that it is ridiculously competitive. But in a division in which so many clubs are doing well to compete, given limited resources and close proximity to bigger clubs, muscular pragmatism has become a trademark.
With no disrespect intended to any club, if you can imagine a Premier League with a dozen Stoke Citys in it you've summed up the Conference South. Some are more loveable than others, but I'll no longer be visiting a club that comes to Dover with one away fan and a team that attempts to bore us to death.
It makes sense for any club to do its long-distance travelling at weekends whenever possible. The problem is that derby games are often scheduled for midweek – those few clubs with a travelling support won't bring many on a Tuesday night when there is a top level live game on TV.
Looking at our fixture list, I suspect we'll have to work a little harder to create any kind of atmosphere, given that I'd only expect Chelmsford City to visit in significant numbers. Visitors from the North and Midlands would often ask, usually tongue-in-cheek, if we wouldn't be better off in the French league. Sometimes, I'm compelled to think that maybe that's not such a daft idea. Mark Winter