The Conference has recently received a Premier League windfall. Andy Brassell is not alone in asking how, and why

If you thought the Premier League was an insular, money-hoarding microworld of its own, think again. Maybe. Even at its most altruistic The Best League In The World can’t catch a break from some cynics, though their powerbrokers surely can’t be surprised that their relatively recent interest in the Conference is raising a suspicious eyebrow or two. 

A cautionary tale of foiled ambition, financial crisis and battles with several authorities. Gary Andrews explains where it all went wrong

Plenty of non-League clubs have gone from play-off contenders to penniless relegation fodder in recent years, but Grays Athletic are one of the most extreme cases. Four years ago they came close to promotion to the Football League with one of the best Conference teams of the past decade. But what followed was a mix of managerial instability, stadium issues and, ultimately, near-extinction.

Bottom of the league with no points from 27 matches in the Unibond Premier Division, Owen Amos takes a look at what has gone wrong for the ambitious Durham City

According to the Northern Echo, Durham City are “the worst team in the country”. While that may not be true, they are by some distance the worst team in the Unibond Premier Division, one step below the Conference North. After 27 games, Durham had won none, drawn none and lost 27. They’d scored 16 goals and conceded 121, an average of over four per game. In fact, the only match they’ve won all season was at home to Washington – who play three divisions below – in the Durham County Challenge Cup.

Matt Withers looks at a fierce neighbourhood feud between the clubs of a Cheshire market town

In November, a week prior to Northwich Victoria’s home FA Cup second round victory over Charlton, Graham Shuttleworth, enterprising secretary of town rivals Witton Albion, took to Addicks message boards. Albion offered travelling Charlton supporters parking at their ground for £2 on the day, along with opening the social club early to offer them “a comfort break, a drink or something hot to eat”, while “no doubt enjoying the build-up to your game on the large screen”.

Dave Jennings reflects on the demise of Newcastle Blue Star

Winning a promotion play-off final is surely one of the best feelings in football. It’s arguably better than winning a championship or a cup final because it’s transformative; not only has your team triumphed under enormous pressure, but it has turned itself into something higher and better than it was at the start of the day. After all the tension and euphoric release of the big day, you can enjoy the close season while relishing the prospect of the new grounds you’ll visit as your club enjoys its new, improved status.

Owen Amos reports on how the FA Vase provides an opportunity for smaller clubs to have their moment in the Wembley sun

To understand to whom the FA Vase matters, look at the list of winners. Since 1974-75, the Vase’s first season, 20 of the winners have been suffixed “Town”: from Brigg and Bridlington, to Whitby and Wimborne. By contrast, just two winners – Truro and Winchester – have been Cities.

With the Conference giving varying punishments to different clubs, fans are understandably unsure as to the reasoning behind their decisions. Matthew Gooding reports

Another season is reaching its climax, and the fate of football clubs up and down the country is slowly becoming clearer. But in the Conference, such trivial matters as final league position are often irrelevant when it comes to determining issues of demotion and promotion. For this is a division that has seen at least one club relegated for non-­footballing reasons in each of the past three seasons, with Canvey Island and Boston suffering demotions, and Halifax and Scarborough going out of business all together and re-forming further down the pyramid.

Ryman League Division One North isn't normally awash with transfer scandal, however intrigue is rife after Ware FC lost manager, assistant, physio and the entire playing squad in less than a season. Si Hawkins reports

West Ham and Portsmouth fans may have spent the winter transfer window ­worrying about losing their finer players to ­better-off rivals, but at least those players left one by one, and for hefty fees. Far below the Premier League, in a leafy home counties commuter town, followers of the once upwardly-mobile Ware FC entered the new year bemoaning the loss of an entire squad, the manager, his assistant, and even the physio. Rarely can a promising club have unravelled so quickly.

It is not only the FA Cup that mixes minnows with giants: county cups do so, too. Gavin Willacy champions these wrongly neglected events

Having despatched Northern League Second Division strugglers Prudhoe, Newcastle United face the University of Northumbria in the cup ­quarter-finals. This is not fantasy football, FIFA 08, or Football Manager. It’s the Northumberland Senior Cup, one of the many county cups that feature Premier League giants taking on not only players who are unknown outside of their front doors, but whole teams that few people have even heard of. In the midst of the 21st century sports business world, they are as much of an anachronism as the Boat Race, the ­Varsity Match or cricket festivals.

Foreign players are becoming common in the Conference – there's even an ex-Barcelona man at Northwich, writes Michael Whalley

You might expect a Blue Square Premier club to be giddy with excitement after taking a former Barcelona first-teamer on trial. Yet Nigerian defender Gbenga Okunowo’s arrival at Northwich Victoria in early December created so few ripples that the club didn’t even mention it in their next programme.

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