Grim reality

His club Scarborough are doing well but as Mark Staniforth explains, getting to the play-offs in the Third Division is no great achievement

In my darkest moments – either a 4-0 defeat at Rochdale or an argument with a girlfriend brought about by a 4-0 defeat at Rochdale – I often wonder  what is the purpose of a Third Division football club.  It is no longer to act as a feeder club to any of the Premiership sides; they just go abroad or buy the boys when they’re six years old anyway.

It would be folly to suggest the club is a source of local pride. OK, the success of Manchester United has undoubtedly contributed a significant amount to the city’s tourist industry, but I hardly see people flocking to Rochdale or Scunthorpe after catching the town’s name on the vidiprinter. Better, surely, not to have a Football League team at all than to have one which is a source of constant ridicule and therefore surely reflects badly on its location. Doncaster? Crap team, it must be an awful place. Telford? New ice rink. It’s happening.

There were three categories of clubs in Division Three this season; Notts County, Doncaster Rovers and The Rest. It made for quite an exciting season mathematically – a team in the bottom four in the New Year could still have easily reached the play-offs – but it has done little for the quality of the football on offer. Scarborough cruised into the play-offs, just behind Macclesfield, who could barely win away all season, and Torquay, who developed an incredible knack of losing every match from January onwards yet always remaining one point clear of the chasing pack.

This was Scarborough’s tenth season in the Football League and statistically it was our most successful.But it was hardly sparkling. The first time I came out of the ground positively enthusing about what I’d seen was after we’d beaten Exeter 4-1 in February. Before that, we’d got to our elevated position by virtue of being slightly better than our distinctly average opponents, and grinding out more victories by a single goal than draws.

There seems to be a general lack of ambition or a sense of resignation pervading the basement division now. Few of the clubs could sustain themselves in Division One for any length of time, and only a small number would even have realistic hopes of coping with Division Two.The move towards all-seater stadia has hardly helped matters – Manchester United think they have atmosphere problems when all their 50,000 are forced to sit down, but you ought to try Glanford Park – a passionless void if ever there was one.

The players are not as good; there are less and less good young players coming through the ranks because they are snapped up well before then. The Third Division used to be a rest home for elderly and semi-disabled Premiership players: these days it appears to be a rest home for elderly and semi-disabled Division One players, and that says it all.

So what of the future? It is difficult not to be pessimistic. Part-time football and regionalization will come eventually, probably followed by the adoption of most Third Division outfits as nursery clubs to the glamour boys. None of those three options seem so bad any more. Part-time football must come as soon as people take their heads out of the sand and accept that most Third Division clubs cannot function as viable businesses. Better to be semi-pro, playing local teams with local players, than to be defunct. Better, perhaps, to be semi-pro than to be in the Third Division.

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month