The fifth column

Isn't the Conference great for football? Roger Titford, for one, is not so sure about the gradual rise of the Football League's younger brother

Football League membership has, I’ve always thought, been a very precious thing, a distinction that was historically conferred on a club by the existing members. That once huge distinction between League and non-League is suddenly getting very blurred. I feel there’s a fifth column, literally, in our divisional tables now; someone else pretending to be part of the League family, creeping in bit by bit. Unfashionable though it may be to say so, I’m not sure I like what’s happening any more.

You have to say the Conference has done a great job in the past 25 years. Against the grain of the usual reformist thinking in favour of part-time, regionalised football, it has succeeded in its prime objective of establishing its credibility as a kind of Division Five on a national basis, with many full-time clubs. Where once there was a chasm between the perception of League and non-League football, there may now be little difference in the minds of younger fans of bigger clubs.

The Conference has the same sponsor as the Foot­ball League, its clubs seem to get more exposure on Sky than those in the Third Div­ision, its results and tables often follow on the same page on Ceefax and are treated with equal emphasis in the Sunday papers. Some of its clubs compete with League clubs in the LDV Trophy, some have all-seater stadiums, others full-time staffs.

With two up, two down the exchange of clubs between Division Three and the Con­ference is likely to grow. Next season half the Conference clubs will be either ex-League clubs or from towns that used to have a League club, while there will be half a dozen “non-League names” in the Third. It’s all being done softly, softly and around the edges without any objections. Well, here’s a tiny one. The press reported that Doncaster owner John Ryan is now the oldest-ever player at 55, taking Neil McBain’s record, set back in 1947. No! That’s a League record and John Ryan has never (yet) played in the Football League. But that’s what I mean about the distinctions being blurred – a non-League gimmick said to take the place of a League record. Rothmans, at least, is so far maintaining the distinction in its coverage.

There are a few other things that concern me about treating the Conference as if it were a Fifth Division. Clubs in it appear to be less stable – appearing out of nowhere (Rushden & Diamonds, Dagenham & Redbridge) or suddenly disappearing from national view (Enfield, Maidstone). That old non-League ten­dency of players suddenly marching off to follow a manager is still there (the Farnborough exodus to Steve­nage this season). The crowds are not terrific – averaging about 1,600 versus Division Three’s 4,450 this season, less than half as much.

The main impact the Conference has had on followers of League football is to give us some new clubs, though fewer than you might suspect since the introduction of automatic promotion in 1987. Scarborough, Maidstone and Barnet have come and gone, so the net effect is seven new clubs (see table). All but two will be playing in the lowest League division next season and only one, Wycombe, has so far made a substantial impact in the Second Division.

It would be unthinkable to go back to the old process of re-election whereby the bottom four clubs were judged very largely by the votes of the top two divisions. The chairmen of Arsenal and Tottenham, for instance, had the same amount of say in whether Aberdare Athletic or New Brighton lived or, in 1927 and 1951 respectively, died as did all the clubs they played against those seasons. After the creation of the Fourth Division in 1958, only six clubs came into the Football League by that process: Peterborough, Oxford United, Cambridge United, Hereford, Wimbledon and Wigan – all of whom have now reached Division One level (at least) in their League history. In those days there was more to getting in than your playing record, though some of the decision-making looks to have been as arbitrary as a Roman Emp­eror’s thumbs up or down.

For all its friendly media treatment, we should remember the Conference is not part of the Football League and promotion into the League is not solely and automatically on playing merit. Certain financial and stadium criteria have to be met. Kidderminster, Macclesfield and Stevenage have all failed at this hurdle, though the first two have subsequently jumped it. Boston’s controversial pro­motion season left them with other obstacles to overcome. Yet I still have the nagging feeling that it has now become just a little too easy to make the jump, that half a season of terrific form can get you in, via the Conference play-offs, at the expense of a solid 80-year-old member of the League that has had a bad season.

Promotion and relegation is a two-way street, of course, and it is also easier for a relegated club to get back into the League. Halifax have been out, in and back out again within a decade and that example, in particular, gives League status at this level a temp­orary air. It is becoming disposable and retrievable, less of a precious distinction and more of a current situation. Faced with the growing status of European competition and the Premiership, perhaps we should worry more about this erosion of the central pillar of English football’s architecture, membership of the Football League.

Ins and outs since 1987

NOW IN            GONE OUT
Macclesfield        Newport
Wycombe            Aldershot
Kidderminster    Hereford
Rushden & D      Chester
Cheltenham        Halifax
Boston                Shrewsbury
Yeovil                  Exeter
Scarborough, Barnet and Maidstone have come and gone

From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month