Sunday 18 May ~
When Hull City and Bristol City face each other in the Championship play-off next weekend we will hear a lot about how much promotion is worth to them. Less has been made of the monetary incentive for Cambridge and Exeter to win promotion from the Conference in today's Wembley final. This is partly because the financial gap between the top of non-League football and League Two had been bridged to some extent by the increased media coverage of the Conference, with live games on Setanta twice a week. Indeed the majority of its clubs are now full-time. But this in turn has led to a series of financial crises, with Halifax the latest club to face extinction.
Halifax Town have experienced some turbulent times in the past decade. They are to date the only club to have been relegated from the League to the Conference twice. They went into administration earlier this season but just avoided relegation despite a ten point deduction. Now they have been expelled and may have to restart several levels further down the non-League pyramid.
Like the other clubs who dropped down from the Football League, Halifax opted to remain full-time; several "traditional" non-League sides who have not yet been in the League, such as Weymouth, have also gambled on turning professional in a bid to win promotion from the Conference. But, as has happened in Leagues One and Two, many clubs have simply spent beyond their means.
In some cases, club owners are directly to blame for being unrealistically ambitious. Canvey Island won a succession of promotions on the back of the financial support of their owner-manager Jeff King but their fanbase didn't increase significantly along the way and they withdrew from the Conference two years ago. King is now involved with Chelmsford City, a club with a much bigger catchment area, who have just won promotion to the Conference South.
Well-run clubs can prosper in the Conference. Graham Turner was another manager-owner at "Division Five" level for nine years with Hereford United, whom he took back into the League two years ago. Exeter lost in last year's playoff final and have a highly-rated young manager in Paul Tisdale. Their opponents today, Cambridge are buoyant now, but they were close to disappearing only four years ago when their supporters trust helped to save them. Halifax fans watching today's final may face a long wait to see their club restored to the fifth level. Barrow have just returned to the Conference having been in liquidation - but it has taken them nine years to get back.