NPL, 1977-78

John Chapman recounts the year Wigan Athletic won promotion via the ballot box

The long-term significance
Before 2004-05, this was the last time Wigan Athletic finished second in their league. Like last season they went up, but on this occasion the champions didn’t. Despite winning their fourth title in six years, Boston United’s ground was failed by the Football League inspectors, just four years after it had hosted Derby County and 11,000 spectators. So Wigan, 12 months after their worst ever season but on the back of a good FA Cup run, got put forward for election to the League. After tying 26 votes all with Southport in the first ballot, they won the second 29-20. They were to be the last side promoted to the league in this way.

Story of the season
Second before Christmas, Scarborough faded after it, whereas Boston and Wigan maintained their challenge. Boston beat the Latics 4-2 in April’s championship decider (indeed they won all four games between the sides that season). In a fashion not unknown in the non-League game, a wide disparity in the number of matches played means that teams had unrealistic positions during the season. For instance, on December 17 Northwich were top with 39 points after 28 games and Bangor tenth with 25 from 21 – they finished sixth and third. There was no relegation from the NPL in those days so South Liverpool, Buxton and Macclesfield were safe after their season-long struggles.

In the FA Cup, the bottom three in the Football League, York, Southport and Rochdale, were beaten by Wigan, Runcorn and Stafford Rangers respectively, with Wigan going on to beat Sheffield Wednesday and Stafford getting past Crewe in the second round. Altrincham, FA Trophy semi-finalists the year before, won it this time and Bangor City reached the Welsh Cup final, although they only had to beat Shrewsbury Town to do so.

For the record books

Buxton’s Silverlands is the highest English ground to stage senior football. Some years later, Boston manager George Kerr excused a surprise pre-season defeat there by saying: “We’re not used to playing at altitude”. Runcorn won six ties in the FA Cup that season, as many as eventual winners Ipswich Town.

Same place today

Of the five teams who will start 2005-06 in the Unibond Premier League, Kendal Town (as Netherfield became known as in 2000) have since spent the least time outside it – four years in total. Gainsborough Trinity only left the league to join the newly formed Conference North at the start of 2004-05. In 1977-78 the NPL was just one rung below the Football League and Northwich have stayed a promotion away from it until last season, when they got relegated due to an administrative error.

Moved furthest away
Aside from Wigan, Macclesfield are now an established League club, and Scarborough were until Carlisle’s injury-time survival in 1999. Having built a ground fit for the League by the early 1980s, Boston finally had a team good enough for it in 2002. Bangor City are now in the completely different structure of the League of Wales, winning it twice in the Nineties.
In the other direction, Buxton are in the Northern Counties East Premier League, two down from the Unibond Premier. Great Harwood Town and Goole AFC were formed from the ashes of Great Harwood and Goole, but there was no such reprieve for South Liverpool, who folded in 1991.

Went on to greater things
Joe Hinnigan ~ Scored Wigan’s first goal in the Football League before leaving to play for Sunderland (in Division One) and Preston. He is now the physio at Bury.
Steve Thompson ~ Boston’s centre-half later managed Sheffield United to an FA Cup semi-final in 1997-98.
Jim Arnold ~ Stafford’s goalie, subsequently turned out for Blackburn, Everton, Preston and Port Vale.
Tony Galvin ~ Went from Goole Town to Spurs in January 1978, appearing for the Republic of Ireland in the European Championship a decade later.

Disappearing from view
Election to the Football League ~ In 1987 automatic promotion from the Conference was instituted, linking the League to the rest of the Pyramid, with the Latics being the last team to gain from the previous system. So gone was the arcane system that allowed the 1st and 24th teams (Boston and Rochdale respectively) to stay where they were, but Wigan (2nd) and Southport (23rd) to swap places. And people complain about the playoffs….
Rod Belfitt ~ Worksop striker, once a squad player at Revie’s Leeds, leaving them to play for five other League clubs before ending up in the NPL.
Northern Premier League ~ It still exists but its importance has declined, with the formation of the Alliance Premier League in 1979-80 taking many top teams and Conference North doing the same in 2004-05.

From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month