The long game

wsc301 Neil Nixon sympathises with fans of the Confrence North and South

Sitting below the Conference, the lowest national league, and above the regional feeder leagues, the 44 clubs of Blue Square Bet North and South endure an annual ritual of reorganisation. Location is everything. The 22 northernmost clubs form one division, the 22 southernmost make up the other. The national map involved identifies a line of “border counties”, cutting a swathe across the map from Pembrokeshire to Norfolk, and taking in middle-England heartlands such as Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

Border clubs can play in either division. The fallout from the demise of Rushden & Diamonds in 2011 left Bishop’s Stortford FC, near neighbours of Stansted Airport, as the 22nd most northerly club in the sixth tier. In a league where the fluctuating price of diesel and cost of motorway food is an agenda item in some boardrooms, the additional travel costs did not go down well. Bishop’s Stortford were compensated to the degree of £12,000 but nobody is looking to compensate fans.

On January 21, one group of Workington supporters made the longest trip possible in this league. The round trip from Borough Park in Workington to Woodside Park, Bishop’s Stortford, is 600 miles. Almost within sight of the ground, the Workington fans passed a sign welcoming them to “Hertfordshire: county of opportunity”. Having departed Borough Park at 5pm the previous evening and pulled an overnighter in Hinckley, the red army cut a fairly cheery mob in the cosy and welcoming Bishop’s Stortford bar. All told 12 of them had paid £80 for the round trip on the team bus.

Another half dozen had taken advantage of the match’s proximity to London and visited the capital, making a weekend of the game. Cumbrians tend to gravitate south for work, so a few southern-based west Cumbrian fans made up some numbers. A handful of curiosity seekers from Carlisle United’s large and vibrant London branch of support joined the trip. In total, there were 40 away fans in the 466 crowd.

Workington have not been this far south in search of league points since they were ejected from the Football League in 1977. The curious travellers and diehard fans who attended the game might not keep coming if the fixture is scheduled again next season. In a league of modest budgets, where the so-called “squeezed middle” make up much of the support, a number of clubs now worry that their geographical separation might condemn them to years of relegation battles.

The recession appears to be hitting northern clubs more seriously than their southern counterparts and the creeping southernification of Conference North could continue for a few more seasons. It will not deter the diehards like Margery or the legendary “Burnley Bob” Atkinson, whose support of Workington goes back to 1966 and the club’s fifth-place finish in what would now be a League One play-off place. But Bob, Margery and their counterparts all share concerns about the ever-increasing distances they have to travel.
There were a handful of novelty elements to the whole caper. Jacquie, who had brought her daughter and son-in-law, watched a Ryanair flight climbing over Woodside Park and remarked that a plane flying that low over Workington would be a cause of panic. Nearby, the vocal Workington support set about drowning out the locals with the chant of “just a bus stop in Stansted”, a first for Workington fans. The chant of “Conference North, you’re having a laugh” had two meanings at this fixture.
On the pitch, it was 17th in the league at home to 18th. A predictably tight encounter was enlivened when Workington took a first-half lead through a stunning overhead kick that sailed into the top corner. Workington held on until the last minute, when the insistent home side won and scored a penalty. Workington’s Johnny Wright missed a chance in stoppage time.
Updates on the unbelievable events at fellow strugglers Hinckley also helped to keep Workington’s traveling army entertained.Hinckley, who sit in the division’s highest relegation place, went 4-0 up against promotion-chasing Stalybridge Celtic. But they were overhauled by five second-half goals, before sneaking a late equaliser. The results left Workington hovering close to the relegation places in 18th, but their Hertfordshire hosts gained a place thanks to their hard-earned point. It was an eventful enough afternoon – maybe – to provide enough talking points on the 300-mile coach trip home.

From WSC 301 March 2012