Feeder frenzy

The dispute over the steamlining of non-League football is producing more bad blood than solutions, reports Gary Boswell

Observers of politics will be familiar with the ambiguous answer from a minister who has not been involved in the policy changes on which he is being questioned. There is a dis­tinct feeling of such woollyheadedness in the current dispute over streamlining the Conference and its feeder leagues.

The announcement in July that the three feeders were to be reduced to two (North and South, with each promoting two clubs) was presented as a fait accompli. The arrogance of this was staggering, given that the third of those leagues, the Ryman (still Isthmian to its friends), was not party to the proposals. Ryman detractors call it the “M25 league”, which is not strictly true, though nearly all its member clubs are drawn from the south east, overlapping with the Dr Martens (Southern) League, which also includes clubs from the midlands and west.

Not surprisingly, the result was an ugly public falling out between the main combatants. “You are finished,” blazed Southern League chairman Doug Gillard to his Ryman counterpart Alan Turvey. The decision to ex­clude Turvey from streamlining talks was “best for football” said Gillard, who added that the negotiations between three feeder leagues had been a case of “hitting our heads against a brick wall”.

Turvey hit back in August, alleging the pro­posals would have a “devastating” effect on non-League football. He has been backed en masse by the Ryman club chairmen, some of whom had previously indicated they might jump ship and sign up with the new leagues.

Conference chairman John Moules has backed the proposed new structure as part of his campaign to secure automatic promotion to the Football League for the top two clubs in the Con­ference. The comfortable adaptation to League status by the likes of Wycombe, Macclesfield, Cheltenham and now Kidderminster suggests there is little difference in standard between the Third Division and the top level of non-League. Indeed, Boston United’s owner Pat Malkinson has claimed he will go to the European courts alleging restraint of trade if a fairer system of promotion and relegation is not introduced – assuming his club should happen to finish in the runners-up spot.

The need for change at the top is cut and dried, but the Conference’s case can only be made effectively if the situation at the bottom is equally clearly defined. Accepting clubs from two lower leagues rather than three would in theory red­uce the number of clubs competing and thus raise standards among the teams coming up.

Hardly surprising, though, that the Ryman took exception to the idea that this could be achieved by simply demoting their competition to make it a subsidiary of the Southern League. The Ryman’s strength is borne out by the performance of last year’s champions, Dagenham & Redbridge, currently fourth in the Conference.

Talks have been going on behind closed doors since the end of August but the signs are that the long awaited FA response to the proposals may not see the demise of the Ryman as was at first expected. Whether cordial relations bet­ween Mr Turvey and Mr Gillard will ever be restored seems less certain.

From WSC 165 November 2000. What was happening this month