Glory years now well behind them
1 February ~ Just as the Conference is laden with ex-League clubs finding out to their cost what a difficult division it is to escape out of, so too do clubs further down the pyramid know how problematic it is to return to non-League's top tier. Thirteen of the 24 clubs who competed in Aldershot's promotion winning season five years ago have since been relegated or demoted; so far only Ebbsfleet and Woking have returned. One club who made their debut in the division that year now seem unlikely to return in the near future.
Histon's rise to the top of the non-League pyramid was well documented. The club rose from Eastern Counties level to the brink of League Two, climbing four divisions between 2000 and 2007 before finishing third in the Conference two years later and beating Leeds United in a televised FA Cup tie. After this the staff and players pivotal to those achievements moved on and crowds rapidly receded. The club, from just outside Cambridge, now sit one place above the relegation zone in the Conference North after falling to that level in 2011.
As with so many small clubs blinded by ambition, financial troubles have followed as results have diminished. November's game at Colwyn Bay was postponed at short notice due to "circumstances unforeseeable to the present board". An agreement was later reached with past directors to write off loans that might otherwise have been reclaimed, which would have left the club "in a position where it would neither be able to meet any of the demands or continue to trade". While the future of the club now seems more secure there is little money to spend on the playing budget, not aided by home crowds down to an average of 307 this season. This is just over a quarter of what it was four years ago and even that is supplemented by relatively bumper gates against well-supported Halifax and Chester.
Beyond the likelihood that the club will now survive there are at least some promising signs for the future. Their scholars have knocked out Bradford and Crawley, both away, to become the only non-League side to reach the fourth round of this season's FA Youth Cup. Their reward is a home tie against Liverpool on February 13, a game which is expected to draw a bigger attendance than any of their first team has played in front of since they left the Conference. Graduates fill that first team and last week's win at play-off chasing Worcester came by virtue of three goalscorers who are products of the youth setup.
On Saturday they host Droylsden, who made their first appearance at Conference level in the same season as Histon but finished bottom. Failure to beat a side who haven't won away all season and sit ten points from safety will raise the spectre of Southern League football for the hosts. With an average attendance now lower than half of the sides in that division, it could be said that this would be a return to a more natural level, one they last left as champions eight years ago. Those glory days are now passed; whether they stay up or not it will take more than a repeat of the unlikely 5-5 draw between the sides in the corresponding fixture last April to bring the crowds back to Bridge Road. Matt Ramsay