Twenty years after the start of the Alliance Premier League, or Conference, Simon Bell asks if it was all a good idea
Good idea at the time: in a certain light it still does. When the “cream” of the English non-League game were brought together 20 years ago as the Alliance Premier League, the agenda was clear enough and the will firm. The annual farce of election and re-election had to end, giving way to meritocratic promotion from a single, national, non-League division comprising the best and best-run clubs outside the full-time game. At the same time the lower rungs of the non-League game set about a grand overhaul to form a “pyramid” with the Alliance (subsequently the Gola League and then the Conference) at its pinnacle. It was the way forward.
Twenty years on, defenders of the Conference (and the pyramid in general) will have it that non-League football has taken giant strides. There is a more or less automatic promotion spot available to the Football League. Crowds are up year after year – from an average of 1,219 in 1979-80 they reached 1,627 last season. Ambitious clubs have thrust their way through from the backwaters by a combination of raised footballing standards and commercial nous. Non-League football is taken seriously, sort of, even if mainly by the League sides most likely to finish in the bottom half-dozen slots in the Third Division. It’s progress.
It hasn’t come free from compromise, of course. From the early days, the Conference made it clear that any small fry seeking admission would have to jump through an initial set of hoops before their crack at the (really) big time. The initial invitation was extended only to the larger clubs in the historically semi-pro Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. The Isthmian League, which had finally given up on its Corinthian amateur ideals in 1974, was excluded, although Enfield and Dagenham quickly jumped ship when invited. Wycombe were the first Isthmian club to come up as of right in 1985.
The accusation that the Conference is the natural home of the wannabe club has recurred at intervals. Its members are sometimes seen as a largely closed shop content to march to the League’s tune for the sake of the chance to play Rochdale rather than Rossendale, and to hell with the rest of the non-League game.
It’s true that any club relegated from the League has to be accepted by the Conference (as long as it doesn’t go bust first) regardless of the state of its ground – the League are more fastidious when the traffic threatens to come the other way. It’s also the case that some apparently deserving causes have been excluded from Conference football on the basis, apparently, that they will reduce the viability of the organisation in the eyes of big brother as a provider of “suitable” pro clubs.
But the Conference has been innovative, too. Following the introduction of the perfectly comprehensible three points for a win in the early Eighties, the then Alliance Premier introduced the “three points for away wins, but only two for homes” brain-stretcher, which had the dual benefit of encouraging attacking play away from home and stopping Nuneaton Borough from winning anything. They would have been champions in both 1984 and 1985 under the former, less exciting, system. They’re still cross about it.
Fortunately, sanity was restored in time for Scarborough to become the first club promoted to the League on merit in 1987 – just eight years after the competition was set up with that end in mind. They’re back now, which is more than can be said of Maidstone – victims, perhaps, of a stretch too far. Barnet, too, continue to walk a tightrope. In fact, based on a brief run through of the trials of Conference sides promoted to the League, you have to wonder whether the financial risks involved in a part-time club setting itself up for the full-time game are worth taking.
Too many clubs continue to chase the single place still up for grabs after 12 years, and continue to put themselves into hock to do so. Bad hock, some of them – clubs many League supporters won’t have heard of, but clubs which still matter to their fans.
That’s the culture of aspiration for you. I probably couldn’t rationalise why I’d sooner see Woking play Exeter than Altrincham. From what I’ve seen, it’s got less to do with the quality of the football than the peculiar mystique of that dividing line between League football and its apparent opposite, non-League.
The Conference tantalises: it offers a gateway to the Promised Land that’s as narrow as an away turnstile, and the more intriguing for it. Three-up three-down, play-offs, a regionalised Third Division: all have coherent, impassioned advocates. I’m not one, really. Like many fans at this level, I’m just peering enviously through the fence at Wycombe, Cheltenham and Macclesfield. But if the fence wasn’t there, how much fun would it actually be?
From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month