Despite their confidence earlier this year, frustrated Conference clubs are still waiting for the League to agree more promotion places to the Third Division. Louis Williamson reports

It’s the time of the year when things start to get a little sticky around the action area of the Nationwide League Third Division. Exeter, Carlisle, Torquay and the rest are preparing for the climax of a frantic struggle for survival. If the Conference has its way, though, in future years there will be two or even more League teams giving up their guaranteed place on the pools coupon come the end of the season.

Whether that change is imminent is still far from clear. In early January the Football League decided not to bring in two-up, two-down promotion and relegation, somewhat to the surprise of Conference officials, who believed they had a verbal agreement that an extra promotion place would be made available.

Conference chairman Bill King had already been on Radio 5 Live confidently asserting that change was very much a matter of “when” rather than “if”. How­ever, perhaps knocked out of joint by such premature proclamations, Football League spokesman John Nagle was quick to reimpose the hierarchy: “Hopes were built up when it was never going to be the case. All this requires a radical change in the Football League rules and that requires the approval of the League’s 72 chairmen in the summer.”

Was it all just a case of hoping the turkeys would vote for Christmas? Nagle is clear that this is not the case. There seems to be a lot of support for the proposed amendment: “The League has canvassed all clubs on this and they are generally in favour of it,” he says. “There is a widespread feeling that it is a good thing.”

Of course, according to Nagle, there are still one or two more bridges to cross: “We have to stress that this is not a case of the League being awkward; it is a case of us working within and abiding by our rules.”  One possible sticking point is the issue of payments for League clubs that drop down. Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn, who advocates three-up, three-down, insists the Third Division clubs have accepted the idea of greater fluidity in principle, but argues they are entitled to “compensation for surrendering their rights” – a “parachute payment” of £7 million for relegated clubs to be exact.

Some in the Conference feel they have heard it all before. Claims have already been made that the decision-making process of the League is not transparent enough. Certainly the Conference chairmen are no longer going to rely on the benevolence of their League cousins. The Non-League Paper on January 14 carried the pugilistic response: Now It’s War.

While the disappointment in non-League circles is understandable, their next move is not quite so straightforward. Five chairmen have been nominated to represent the interests of the Conference and will push the claim with the Football League to the courts if necessary in order to secure two-up, two-down for next season. This, they believe, is central to the future development of the game not only in the Conference, but also in the lower part of the Football League. The tone of their official statements so far has been restrained: “Given the current progress both on and off the field, it is vital that an early decision to complete the agreement is made in order for the Conference clubs to continue with planned investment in stadium development, commercial activities and playing staff.”

Some chairmen have been more outspoken. Kettering’s Peter Mallinger said: “We feel badly let down. We’ve been fobbed off again and it’s a real blow for Conference clubs. I can’t see the League’s stance chang­ing. It’s all about self-interest... There may be a case for a legal challenge over restraint of trade... but realistically our best course of action is to get public opinion on our side and mount a strong national campaign.”

They certainly will not be lacking for support from fans of Conference clubs. In a year in which five non-League teams reached the FA Cup third round, the time would seem right to push ahead. Both Yeovil and Rushden, the two leading challengers for promotion, are averaging more than 2,700. When the two sides met at Rushden’s Nene Park in November, 5,283 saw Yeovil’s 2-1 win. Not all clubs can rely on such a following – Telford United and Leigh RMI both average comfortably under four figures – and gates are still less than half those in the Third Division.

However, with a maximum of only four clubs entering and leaving the Conference each year, the number of redundant matches towards the end of the season is far higher than in any division of the League. An extra promotion place could only help to stimulate interest among fans of the stronger Conference clubs.

The case for more fluidity between the divisions has also been strengthened by the revival of the clubs relegated from the League in the past few years. Since the collapse of Newport in 1989, all the clubs coming down have defied the assumption that relegation from the Football League is the end of a club’s useful life. The obvious irony, of course, is that those League clubs voting against the system change now might find themselves on the other side of the argument if they were themselves to be relegated. “If they were in the Conference they would be the first to scream,” said Darlington chairman George Reynolds, who is arg­uing for the Conference to be incorporated as an official Fourth Division. The Conference clubs would also have reason to hope that Barnet, Wycombe, Kidderminster, Cheltenham and Macclesfield will remember their roots when it comes to a vote.

It is ludicrous that a division operating an upward escape-hatch of four (with the added incentive of the play-offs) should allow a downward fall of only one. There have been mutterings in the Conference that if they are denied for much longer they too should only allow one club to go down. This would send the rest of the pyramid into chaos and is hopefully little more than a kneejerk reaction to the disappointment of the League’s failure to make a decision.

However, hopes do not remain high. More than a deg­ree of cynicism had already settled over Conference followers in the past few seasons, and this has not been improved by recent events. Sadly, it seems as though the Football League will hang on to the status quo for as long as possible. The time for changing with dignity is here, but you can’t help but feel that the League will not submit to anything as old fashioned as that.

From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month

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