Amid heated debates (no, really) over restructuring non–league football, John Carter explains why Ryman Isthmian clubs are stuck in the middle of a biscuit
Isthmian League fans reckon Claremont Road’s climate has more in common with the Yukon than Cricklewood. But bone-chilling temperatures alone don’t explain why only 243 fans turned up for the mid-December clash between long-time rivals Hendon and Enfield. Yes, there were special circumstances: most of Enfield’s fans have “done a Wimbledon”, deserting to breakaway new boys Enfield Town; the club’s travelling support now typically consists of three men sharing a cup of Bovril. Nevertheless, many of the terrace foot-stampers that afternoon remember times when the fixture could be expected to draw ten times the paying customers it does today.
Football pyramid supporters tend toward greying temples, but those of the Ryman Isthmian League are ageing most sadly. Dr Martens Southern League clubs, whose catchment area surrounds them, consistently outdraw most Isthmian teams. Currently the average Southern Premier gate is 659; the Isthmian’s is 429, down from 570 in 1998-99. Worse, the Unibond Northern Premier League’s attendance, the lowest of the senior leagues, is catching up, with a 412 average. When the expected departure of Aldershot at the end of this season is factored in – the Shots take about 500 supporters to every away match – the picture gets even gloomier. Even if AFC Wimbledon arrive soon to make up some of the resultant shortfall, what kind of a league depends for its survival on one or two well supported clubs just passing through?
While the Northern Premier covers a well-defined area, the other two leagues resemble a Jammy Dodger. The Southern League’s biscuity bits stretch from Lincolnshire to Kent to Devon, while the Isthmian’s gooey parts are essentially an M25 league. Easy access to other entertainment, including higher quality football, compromises the viability of many Isthmian clubs. While the standard of football is not inferior, they are forced to compete for players with Southern League teams whose more stable populations, at greater distance from the glittering metropolis, give them a financial edge. Isthmian clubs face tough choices. Do you improve facilities or buy talent? The former might get you relegated, the latter may lead to promotion being refused because your ground isn’t up to snuff.
Against this backdrop recent activity regarding non-League restructuring begins to make sense. The pyramid has been a camel since its inception. History rather than geography, rivalry rather than rational organisation, with individual league autonomy paramount, have formed the modus operandi. There’s no financial fairy godmother on the horizon, so the 30-year decline in support will surely continue. Everyone agrees something needs to be done, but what? Realignment, comes the reply: if clubs were reshuffled in a way that made more geographic sense, all might survive.
Early last year, the Football Association released five alternatives for restructuring non-League football. All included expanded Conference involvement, rejigged affiliations for the pyramid, or both. The status quo remains a sixth option. While the FA mulled over responses, other parties were at work too. At the turn of the year the Conference, non-League football’s one bona fide success, attempted to force the issue. They proposed to all clubs in the three senior pyramid divisions an expanded Conference composed of 44 additional teams organised into two regional divisions. Of the 69 clubs, 63 responded positively.
Faced with the defection of most of their elite teams, the blazers of the Isthmian and Southern leagues scrambled. A counter-proposal was announced in January. The premier divisions of the two leagues would realign on geographical lines creating a north-western division, administered by the Southern League, and a south-eastern division run by the Isthmian. After the FA rejected the Conference proposal (on the basis of a lack of prior notification), the two lower leagues had high hopes for their fast-tracked scheme. Unfortunately they didn’t get an opportunity to present it. Southern League clubs ignored their administrators’ advice and “emphatically rejected” the plan, booting the ball back into the FA’s hands. Southern officials fell into line.
So Isthmian clubs worry and wait. While the Conference proposal is still a possibility for 2004-05, only seven or eight Isthmian clubs would be involved. The facilities of most won’t pass muster, leaving them relegated by default to a lower level of football.
The entire edifice of non-League football needs unification, followed by serious marketing efforts, if long-term financial survival is to be realised. Salary caps and profit-sharing may be necessary. It’s a domestic rather than epic drama, but if the situation doesn’t alter in a few years the shivering few at Hendon and Hitchin, Walton and Wealdstone, will be counted not in failing hundreds but in rare dozens.
From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month