The (Conference) North/ South Conundrum
When is Worcester further south than Gloucester? When did Bishops Stortford become a northern town? How is it right for a part-time football team to travel 8,000 miles a season?
Welcome to a geography lesson, Conference style.
The outpouring of angst over Bishops Stortford being shifted from the Blue Square North from the South has been so great it has almost overshadowed the other news from the Conference AGM, the bit about Rushden and Diamonds being expelled. The Hertfordshire-based club are now appealing being swapped from one Step 2 league to the other, or to use the words of the Conferences bigwigs “transferred from Conference South to Conference North on a geographical basis,” just weeks before pre-season.
Obviously the town has not been uprooted and shifted up towards Sheffield, but Bishops Stortford is officially in the north now, subject to the club’s appeal. If they win the appeal or decide to resign from the league – the two options currently on the table – a number of things could happen, Stafford might be reprieved or it could be Lewes or maybe the Conference North will run with fewer teams, its not especially clear and as we shall see, clarity and common sense doesn’t really seem to come into it at any point. And aside from the shock and anger from the club ,the Bishops Stortford situation has once again raised the geographical nightmare which is faced by teams at Step 2.
Back in the old days (well 2004) it was simple, the Conference North was roughly from the Midlands upwards, the Conference South was M25 clubs and the M4 corridor or thereabouts. There were 44 teams, the 22 furthest south all played each other and so did the 22 furthest north.
Then in 2008 Worcester City, the most southern of the northern clubs were shifted into the Conference South because no southern teams were relegated that year, causing mass disruption and the departure of a fair few of their Midlands-based players. Understandably Worcester City were pretty annoyed by this and sought assurance from the powers that be that they would be allowed to stay in to stay in the same league for two seasons and not get moved again.
Jump forward to 2009 and Gloucester City beat Farnborough to win promotion out of the Southern League and find themselves in the Conference North, despite their ground that season (Cirencester Town’s Corinium Stadium) being further south than Braintree, Bishops Stortford, Chelmsford and of course Worcester. Every other Saturday the Tigers’ team bus would pass the Worcester team bus going in the opposite direction on the M5, as northern Gloucester headed off to AFC Telford, Farsley and Blyth and southern Worcester travelled to Weston, Bath and Newport. The Gloucester Citizen worked out the Tigers could’ve driven to Outer Mongolia and back that season with the culmulative mileage.
The various woes of Chester City, Salisbury, Farsley Celtic, Northwich Victoria and several others made the 2010 Conference AGM Cup particularly complex, no team was relegated into the Conference North, no team was relegated from it, although Worcester were swapped back from the South. The original (pre AGM cup) league line-up had Forest Green Rovers in a different league to Gloucester, despite a distance of about 10 miles between each club.
The various expulsions and parachuting of teams from the Conference Premier into Steps 3, 4 and below has pretty much destroyed the nice neat map the bigwigs would’ve had in mind when they brought in the new league structure, there is no longer a clear North/South divide and the grey area between the two is spreading like an ink blot to include the likes of Weston (with its good links to the North via the M5) on its periphery. Add into this the success and recent promotion of Truro City, down in Cornwall, miles away from everyone and suddenly the fixtures secretaries have a huge headache. When a club disappears from a league during the season it causes disruption (lost points, reduced gate receipts etc) but when a club disappears after the season has ended the trickle down effect can be even worse, with the feeder leagues flooded with the failed clubs from higher up and line-ups shuffled and swapped.
Bishops Stortford, like Gloucester and Worcester before them, will now have to try and attract a squad who are happy to spend four, five, six hours on a coach each Saturday, travel to the likes of Harrogate or Guiseley on a Tuesday night in March because the original fixture was called off and who don’t get car sick. For the clubs with cash-rich owners its not so much of a problem, Truro City flew to their fixture with Cirencester Town a couple of years back when both teams were in the Zamaretto South and West, chartering a plane to a nearby airfield!! Meanwhile, Workington didn’t bother with an overnight stop and did the full 250 or so miles to their game with Gloucester in one go, sitting on a bus for three hours is not the best preparation for a game of football and the journey home was not improved on the back of a defeat. With budgets cut all over the place there will be fewer and fewer of the part-time teams who can justify putting their squad and backroom staff up in a hotel overnight before a match.
The argument that ‘its not fair because of the travelling’ may be one on the tips of the tongues of many Bishops Stortford fans, but it’s the same for Blyth (nearest opponents either Workington or Harrogate, both about 100 miles) or Workington (Blyth or Staylbridge, both around 100 miles away.) The distance between Histon and Bishops Stortford is roughly the same as that between Worcester and Gloucester so at least they will have a local derby. If you are looking at total mileage for the season Gloucester might be a few degrees further north (51.866 degrees to Bishops Stortford’s 51.812) but they have to travel 5,985 miles compared to Bishops Stortford’s 5,445, along with 21 miles round trip every time they play at home – a long way but not when you look at Workington and Blyth who are both racking up around 8,000 miles each. It’s a long way, on par with the distances travelled by Newcastle United and Sunderland – full time Premier League clubs.
And its not like the distances in the Conference South are much better thanks to the addition of jetsetting Truro, anyone who has ever tried to drive to Cornwall over a Bank Holiday weekend will know that the motorway kind of stops a long way before you get to Truro and can often resemble a caravan park stretching on and on into the distance. The average journey for Truro last year was more than 450 miles, only Carlisle United and Plymouth Argyle covered more tarmac.
Before this becomes a bit too much like a GCSE maths problem, which you can’t concentrate on because it’s too hot in the school hall and you didn’t revise that bit of the syllabus, we should probably consider how on earth the Conference can solve this. Clearly it is not sustainable to have teams, on limited budgets travelling thousands of miles for football every week, it is not sustainable financially and not sustainable in the green sense either. Obviously a North/South dividing line on a map could be thrown into chaos by unbalanced relegations. The idea of a Conference Midlands has been touted but give it a few years, a few more expulsions and relegations and it will be exactly the same, with a Midlands club ending up in the North, an M25 club stuck in the Midlands and more rows, appeals and complicated maths. Run the leagues with different numbers of teams – that complicates promotions and relegations. Or how about creating a travelling fund for all teams, worked out on a sliding scale based on the total mileage over the course of the season, perhaps paid for by the FA or the Conference themselves or sponsored by the bloody motorway service stations which get so much business from travelling teams on a Saturday?