Dover soul Mark Winter believes that the dramatic changes to the non-League game outlined below will give Athletic a lot more matches he can actually go to
Imagine you spend your season in a league with just one promotion place on offer. From here, take the quantum leap to assume that there are now 13 promotion slots on offer. That is the prospect facing supporters of the three feeder leagues below the Conference, which is to get two second divisions, a north and a south, from next season. For clubs at this level, restructuring of non-League football is long overdue and something to be celebrated.
My club, Dover Athletic, find themselves back in the Doc Martens after nine years in the Conference. Out on a limb geographically, life in non-League’s elite was usually a struggle. Finally, after a 2001-02 campaign that saw pantomine boardroom antics mirrored on the pitch, we finished bottom and £400,000 in debt. That figure probably doesn’t include invoices that are still behind the fridge. Last season was much better, as the club, with a new constitution and a voluntary agreement with its creditors, had good runs in both major cups and finished third in the league. The title and therefore promotion were always going to be Tamworth’s, however, as was reflected in late-season home gates across the league.
This season, Athletic might reasonably argue they are well equipped to win the Doc Martens, though a dozen other clubs could make the same claim. But while that must remain the aim, few could make a case for us being equipped for a return to the Conference when we still need to find £3,000 per month to clear old debts. Conference Two, though, is a level to which we and most rivals can aspire.
This is not to claim that the Doc Martens isn’t a competitive and well run league. Where it falls down, however, is in a loss of its geographical roots. Traditionally, this is the Southern League. Having just made a 380-mile round trip for Athletic’s opener at Grantham – and the majority of the club’s journeys will involve travelling a similar distance – I’d be pressed to make an argument for that still being the case.
Quite simply, this isn’t the sort of football you watch on the box. Like many of my contemporaries who support a club at this level, I like to get to as many games as I can. And if Dover, as expected, do find themselves in Conference Two (South) next season, I’d antici- pate attending a lot more. Of course, there will be anomalies, and I appreciate that a midweek trip to Tiverton (Devon) might still be on the cards for me. But to balance that out, 13 current Ryman League clubs, many of whom you could hit with a judiciously bunged brick while driving around the M25, might reasonably expect my custom. In a nutshell, we’ll be looking at a lot more “home at tea-time” fixtures than the current crop of last-orders affairs.
The financial conditions of membership are stringent but seem fair. Given the monetary problems encountered by some Conference clubs, one suspects they needed to be. Filthy lucre apart, one or two might be expected to flounder upon the rocks that the Conference ground-grader has been known to drop from a great height. As many non-League fans will know, the term “Conference standard”, when applied to your home ground, can be made to mean anything you damn well please. And I suspect we haven’t heard the last of the Ryman League management committee, still threatening legal action at the prospect of losing leading clubs. But when so many of its members apply for Conference membership every season, it’s difficult to imagine how a case might be made.
It is to be hoped the debate about restructuring the non-League game won’t centre around a loss of empire. With a little fine tuning, there’s no earthly reason why existing leagues can’t prosper. A merger between the Ryman and Doc Martens leagues might be the first major adjustment to expect once the dust has settled. By the same token, the Unibond might find its membership extending a little further south. Either way, it’s safe to assume that traditional boundaries are to be redrawn.
I consider myself a fairly typical non-League fan. Middle-aged and cherry-cheeked roisterer I may well be, as per the Match of the Day Road to Wembley photofit, but I do attend a lot of games. Next season, I won’t be alone in watching a lot more.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month