Employment status is a major factor in non-League success. Andy Ollerenshaw witnessed part-time Altrincham’s relegation

It was relegation decider day for part-time Conference Premier club Altrincham FC. A larger than normal home support poured through the turnstiles to witness the crucial end-of-season encounter with Eastbourne Borough, bringing with them the familiar tensions that saturate these occasions: the nerves, the nail-biting, an atmosphere fuelled by a heady mix of expectation and trepidation. A whole gamut of emotions that would, towards the end of the game, peak in several minutes of high drama.

Altrincham had to win and hope their relegation rivals would slip up in order for them to stay in the division. Coming into this game Eastbourne Borough had already been consigned to a first-ever relegation in their history. The league’s bottom club, Histon, were demoted some time ago; they went down on the same early April day that Eastbourne’s more affluent county neighbours, Crawley Town, achieved their own holy grail by gaining promotion to the Football League.

The match lived up to its billing. The visitors raced into a 3-0 half-time lead and, with results elsewhere going in Altrincham’s favour, were dramatically hauled back to 3-3 with minutes remaining. As Altrincham pushed for one more goal that would seal an improbable last-gasp survival, Eastbourne spoiled the party with a late winner. Examination of the league table at the final whistle confirmed relegation, but for many observers it painted an altogether more worrying picture. The season had ended with the relegation of four part-time clubs.

In a sport with many divisions, there exists a divide in football that is not immediately obvious to identify – the line that separates the full-time professionals from the part-timers. In the last decade the indefinite position of this delineation has crept further down the football pyramid. Ten years ago the demarcation fell around the upper reaches of the fourth tier of the Football League; it now sits, rather uncomfortably, within the higher echelons of non-League. In the Conference Premier this season it was clear that a club’s status had a real bearing on the level of success on the pitch.

Altrincham’s chairman Grahame Rowley is forthright about how difficult it is operating as a part-time club in the Conference. The limited training opportunities and the travel versus work pressures that players experience in this national league have a tangible bearing on performance. Rowley explains that his manager, Ken McKenna,  who resigned on May 9, believed he had “a decent mid-table side at least” if it weren’t for the part-time constraints.

As recently as 2002 the club were heavily in debt, a burden that was cleared only last year. Rowley is understandably proud that Altrincham no longer owe a penny but he is equally critical of the powers that be who allow clubs to operate beyond their means. He sees himself and his committee as “custodians of the club” and the pride Rowley speaks of comes from the knowledge that they will continue to ensure long-term survival of the club. He is “not prepared to put that [survival] at jeopardy by spending money that we haven’t got”.

This sentiment is echoed by other part-time sides knowing that in reality they are not competing on a level playing field. Back in early April Garry Wilson, Eastbourne Borough’s manager, spoke about how much harder it is year-on-year for part-time clubs to compete. He explained that “the [Conference] league’s moved on so much since we joined it three years ago” with more clubs at this level choosing to go full-time. Wilson sounded genuinely disheartened about this trend; the fact he was being interviewed while on a tortuous Tuesday evening coach journey from the south coast to Gateshead probably didn’t help his mood.

While part-time clubs may argue that they are in effect penalised for managing their finances responsibly, there is an acceptance they do have a choice: to go full-time and gamble on success or to stay part-time and accept the inherent difficulties. Rowley is adamant that his choice was a pragmatic one, believing that to be a sustainable full-time club attendances need to average over 2,000. This season Altrincham achieved roughly half that figure.

Perhaps relegation for Altrincham is a blessing in disguise? Of course, the answer in this corner of Cheshire is a resounding “no”. The drop down will impact on the club’s finances, with an estimated six-figure reduction in income next season as the size of away support significantly diminishes and sponsors naturally drift away. The answer was also plain to see in the reaction on the terraces and on the pitch during and after the game. In the end, with relegation confirmed, all that was left at Moss Lane was a half-hearted pitch invasion as the majority of the home support slowly drifted away, some annoyed with the team, others applauding their season’s efforts.

One hopes that the fans’ despair is tempered by recognition that the future of their club is in good hands. Altrincham may not be happy about playing next season in the Conference North – but at least they can.

From WSC 292 June 2011

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