Three Up, Three Down & The Stigma Of Non-League Football
Earlier this week, a curious Early Day Motion was presented to parliament. Early Day Motions are one of the more endearing quirks of our antiquated parliamentary system, allowing Members of Parliament the opportunity to get whatever may have been on their minds of late which couldn’t be considered of national importance out there in the open. They tend to err on the side of the trivial and humorous, but they can – as happened with the 1979 vote of no confidence that ended the Labour government of Jim Callaghan and ushered in Thatcherism – be introduced on matters of considerable importance.
Whether the EDM presented by Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat representative for Westmorland and Lonsdale, earlier this week falls into the former or latter of those two categories may depend upon which football club you support. Farron, whose constituency covers, amongst other places, Kendal and Windermere, is of the opinion that there is a bottleneck at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier, and that the Football League should introduce a third promotion place between League Two and this division. As gestures go it is a certainly a grand one, but, as the chairman of Burton Albion, Ben Robinson, stated when recently questioned on the subject, “it will take a lot of hard work to convince the majority of clubs.”
There was of course, a time when there was no automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the myriad of leagues which sat below it. The only way in which a football club could break into this elite group of ninety-two clubs was to be voted in and at the end of each season the bottom four clubs in what was then known as Division Four were made to apply for their place alongside any non-league clubs that were interested in joining the league. The results could, in some respects, be contradictory. In 1960, Gateshead failed to be re-elected into the league even though they hadn’t even finished at the bottom of the Football League table and were replaced by Peteborough United whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, Hartlepool United were made to seek re-election on no less than fourteen different occasions and survived the cut every time.
This was a situation that was unsatisfactory, and after fourteen clubs applied to join the Football League in 1975, agreement was reached between the Football League and the Northern Premier and Southern Leagues that only two clubs would be allowed to seek promotion, a number that was cut to just one after the formation of the Alliance Premier League – as the Football Conference was known at the time – in 1979. This league was formed in no small part to increase the pressure upon the Football League to allow automatic promotion and relegation between the two divisions and, whilst none of its first eight champions were elected into the Football League, change did finally occur in the summer of 1986 when agreement was reached for one automatic promotion and relegation place, and at the end of the following season Scarborough became the first club to take advantage of this new arrangement, while Lincoln City made the opposite journey.
Much has changed in the intervening years. A second promotion and relegation place was introduced in 2003, with that second place going to the winners of the Blue Square Bet Premier play-off winners after a match that has come to replace the FA Trophy as the biggest single match of the non-league calendar. This hasn’t, however, helped too many former Football League clubs, many of whom have found the fifth division to be considerably more difficult to get out of than it was to fall into. Next years Blue Square Bet Premier will contain eight clubs that were relegated from the Football League after having been long-standing members of it with a further two – Macclesfield Town and Kidderminster Harriers – who have been promoted from the Football Conference and relegated back and a further three – Barrow, Southport and Gateshead (although the latter of these two aren’t strictly speaking the same entity as the one that was relegated in 1960) – who were relegated under the old system.
If dropping into non-league football is a culture shock for the supporters of those clubs concerned, then their arrival in it and failure to get promoted back has changed the face of the environment into which they have plummeted. Many more “purist” (for the want of a better word) don’t even consider the Blue Square Premier to be “proper” non-league football any more, holding it to be more a half-way house between the Football League and the non-league game. The financial hit that relegated clubs have to take is less extreme than clubs face when relegated from the Premier League, but it can be damaging nevertheless. Upon the relegation of his club from League Two in May, the chairman of Hereford United, David Keyte, spelled out the financial challenges ahead for his club in saying that, “”We used to get £100,000 in August and then the same again in January from the Football League fund but I think the equivalent funding now is £50,000, so we are going to have to cut our cloth accordingly.” The temptation to spend, spend, spend in order to secure a quick return to League Two may be strong, but the financial realities of life in the Blue Square Bet Premier seem to some to overshadow these.
Of course, it makes sense for a third automatic promotion and relegation place between the fourth and fifth levels of the game. Two promotion places is a very small number from a twenty-four club division, and with the last two seasons having seen the sole automatic place taken by clubs pumped full of money – which is clearly not a healthy state of affairs if it encourages other clubs to go “all or nothing” in pursuit of promotion, since such a state of affairs can only make it likely that, in time, casualties will be seen – there is an increasing sense that increasing the number of promotion and relegation places is the right thing to do. As Ben Robinson says, however, convincing the clubs of the Football League, who ultimately are the decision-makers on this, of its merits will be a big, big challenge, especially if the financial gulf between the two divisions and the stigma of being considered a “non-league” club remain.
With the perception of the Blue Square Bet Premier now being that of being something approaching a half-way house, though, perhaps it is time to consider a radical thought – that the very phrase “non-league” may be approaching the end of its usefulness. This may seem like something approaching the unthinkable, but the very phrase itself was one that was first applied when getting into the Football League was a daunting challenge, and its continuing usage – perhaps most notably in Non-League Day, which exists to seek to promote smaller clubs and will this year be held on the thirteenth of October – occasionally feels as if it continues to exist because no-one has come up with a better phrase to replace it. Perhaps, however, such semantic matters are, broadly speaking, an irrelevance. What matter is that, broadly speaking, there is fluid league system which exists from the multi-billion pound Premier League right the way down to the very smallest of clubs. This state of affairs is, perhaps, the one thing that English football should be proud of above anything else, and adding a third promotion place to the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier would further strengthen the sense that, for all of its failings, fluidity of movement between the divisions is a valuable asset of our domestic game.
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