Fifth amendment

It's 20 years since automatic promotion blurred the distinction between the League and Conference. Roger Titford charts the acceptance of what at the time was a revolutionary step

Twenty years ago Torquay and Preston finished in the bottom two places in the Football League. Both were re-elected, along with Exeter and Cambridge. Then the re-election process itself was voted out and replaced by automatic relegation to the Conference, ending almost a century of tradition. Election and re-election had always been fundamental to the League. The clubs had always chosen their fellow-members rather than admitted them through any public demand or involuntary mechanism. Yet the possibility of new member clubs existed from the very first season, 1888-89, when the bottom four, in a League of only 12, had to reapply. All were successful, as so often would later be the case, including Notts County who this season finished perilously close to the relegation line.

By 1950 the League had expanded to 92 clubs and then effectively closed their doors to newcomers. The re-election process, which took place at the League’s AGM in early June, became known as the “old pals’ act”. In the smoke-filled rooms of London’s Café Royal the same old representatives of the same rotting clubs gathered enough votes each year to remain stagnant at the bottom of Division Four. Unless there was an astonishingly strong non-League candidate (Peterborough 1960, Hereford 1972) or an amazingly bad League club (Bradford PA 1970) there was little chance of change as the many non-League applicants split their own vote. In 1980 the non-Leaguers decided that only the champions of the Alliance (the predecessor of the Conference) would be put forward as a candidate. Still no one succeeded, although Altrincham would have ousted Rochdale in 1980 if the man from Grimsby had stood in the right part of the room and the man from Luton not got the time of the meeting wrong.

By 1950 the League had expanded to 92 clubs and the
A decade of effort and national consolidation by the non-League game paid off in 1986 when re-election was replaced by a one-up, one-down system (becoming two-up, two-down in 2003) determined by league positions and subject to ground suitability criteria. The relegated League club would be assured of a “parachute payment” and a place in the Conference. For teams such as Burnley and Preston, former League champions but then scraping around at the bottom of Division Four, it still looked like falling off a cliff, into an unknown league where most clubs only had attendances in three figures. Immense was the relief at Turf Moor on the afternoon the Clarets won to send Lincoln down automatically in 1987. Immense, too, was the confusion and disorder that awaited new boys Scarborough in their first League match against Wolves a few months later, with travelling hooligans literally falling through the roof of the stand.

Two decades on, the longer-term effects of the abolition of re-election can be seen. They are very largely positive, though not necessarily what they were expected to be at the time. First, there have been some great “fourth tier” occasions, from that day in 1987 when nearly 16,000 unexpectedly appeared at Burnley to prove League status really mattered. Simultaneously Torquay were saved in injury time that was added on for a police dog biting a player. Rochdale’s escape by two mislaid votes in 1980 was a tragi-comic private event. But Hereford v Brighton and Barnet v Torquay, last-day games for a place in the League, caught the national press’s imagination. Sports Report revelled in Jimmy Glass, the on-loan keeper who scored an injury-time goal to save Carlisle in 1999. This season’s denouement – one from seven to go down – had Jeff Stelling in near hysteria. Horrible for those involved, but more thrilling than learning of a predictable re-election in early summer.

By conceding the meritocratic principle in 1986 the lesser Football League clubs set a helpful precedent for the later debates about entry criteria into any Super League/Premiership. Promotion and relegation had to be taken as a given. Unlike in Scotland, harsh conditions were not subsequently imposed about the size or quality of grounds of clubs promoted to the top division. At the same time there has been a narrowing of the once prized distinction between League and non-League. Torquay manager Ian Atkins made the point that relegation to the Conference is not the terrible and unknown prospect it was 20 years ago. John Moules, Director of the Conference, says: “We’re the trap door for clubs that fail in the Football League; we take them in, brush them down and re-wind them,” citing League Two champions Carlisle as a prime example. The “fourth tier” is now too competitive to be a recuperation ward. It is the badly managed (Oxford, Exeter) rather than the poorly resourced (Rochdale, Torquay) who fall. Abolishing re-election has played a part in reviving non-League football. Gates in the Conference have doubled since 1986, twice the rise that the League’s bottom division has seen. In part this may actually be because nearly half the current Conference is of ex-League origin.

But in its most fundamental aspect, the composition of the Football League, the change has had surprisingly little effect. Between 1967 and 1986 re-election introduced four new clubs (Cambridge, Hereford, Wigan, Wimbledon). The first 20 years of automatic promotion has produced a net difference of only seven new clubs (see table), little increase on the old system. Three promotions were barred for inadequate ground facilities and four clubs have come and gone. Eight relegated clubs have fought their way back and thus blocked the flow of some new blood. Many candidate clubs of the mid-1980s who looked certain to benefit have fared particularly badly. Not only did Altrincham, Bath, Enfield, Kettering and Weymouth fail, but all saw near-neighbours – Macclesfield, Cheltenham, Barnet, Rushden and Yeovil respectively – promoted. Other large centres of population such as Woking, Stevenage and Chelmsford still await League football, while some of those promoted, such as Barnet and Macclesfield, would have had a hard time putting their business case at the Café Royal. Then again, would Torquay have kept being re-elected?

Twenty years after the end of re-election, the aspirations of the old non-Leaguers are intact but the opportunities infrequently realised. For the Leaguers, League status is as fiercely prized as ever but the drop now offers the chance of a renaissance rather than doom. The incredible symmetry of Accrington’s rise and Oxford’s fall – 44 years after the latter replaced the former – shows how far the return journeys can go since the barrier came down.

From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month