Professional clubs are getting more and more out of reach for their non-League counterparts, but Mark Winter argues that the Vauxhall Conference is still worth a watch
You could be excused for thinking that life in the Vauxhall Conference has never been better. A glance at the Sunday paper would tell you of a three horse race for the Championship, that most end of season games have a bearing on the promotion/relegation issues, and that attendances of four, five and even six thousand are becoming more and more commonplace.
Add to this the high profile FA Cup performances of Woking and Hednesford Town (who accounted for four Nationwide clubs between them before scaring the life out of Coventry and Middlesbrough respectively) and you might imagine that things, on the whole, are tickety-boo and a half.
Well, appearances can be deceptive. It would be far nearer the truth to state that there are maybe five current Conference clubs with the wherewithal to achieve their stated aim of delivering League football.
For the majority of the rest of us, including Dover fans such as myself, life is becoming something of a struggle. (When your cele-brity fan is a sadly, yet deservedly, underrated cabaret singer called Steve Chameleon, you begin to get the picture.) This is not to say that there aren’t a dedicated few at every club trying to raise money, it’s more a question of getting some bugger to part with it. The National Lottery, God rot it’s blighted soul, is costing many clubs a sizeable proportion of their commercial revenue, with the weekly jackpot schemes being the hardest hit. For my part, I’d sooner give my £1 per week direct to my favourite good cause and have a reasonable chance of winning something. Though I appreciate the size of the minority this puts me in, I’m afraid the opera will just have to struggle on without me.
With dwindling attendances being the norm for many clubs, often irrespective of performances, Newcastle’s rather tame exit from European competition proved to be a plus for those of us who play our mid-week games on a Tuesday evening, and had lost 30% of a home gate to a televised UEFA Cup tie. Sadly, after spending many hours organising a normally lucrative quiz night, I failed to check the fixtures in the Bring a Rich Friend League, or to note that MU plc were at home to Porto. Thirteen people turned up to just about cover the cost of the prizes, thus making me as qualified as most to state that the notion of success for “our” clubs in Europe being good for “our” game, is usually the utterance of the guy raking in the TV cash.
Another trend that alarms me is the growing tendency of Conference clubs to make facilities available to the reserve teams of our betters. Looking at this from the perspective of the uncommitted supporter, as it seems many of us now are, I have a decision to make. Assuming I can be bothered to get off my backside in the first place, do I pay £2 on Tuesday to watch Stan Collymore and Patrik Berger playing for Liverpool reserves at Haig Avenue or £6 on Wednesday to watch Southport v Welling? Mmmmm.Tough one.
With murmurings about “feeder” clubs gaining momentum, it doesn’t take too much imagination to visualise the first marriage of convenience between League club and non League neighbour (and following Gateshead’s recent run of results, Ginola might hold down a place in their first team.)
Yet despite all the current drawbacks, Conference football is still of a good standard, relatively affordable and, given a certain sense of humour, bloody good fun. When we do moan, it’s between ourselves over several beers, rather than to Mellor and the nation at large.
So if you’re bored with “live and exclusive” football and the Saturday DIY you know where to come. If, however, you’ve got kids who insist on wearing Premiership replica tops, please leave them at home with their consoles...
From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month