The Blue Square South Bottleneck
In the Blue Square Premier this season, there is only one round of matches left to play and many of the awards and trinkets have already been tidied up. Stevenage Borough are the champions after their win at Kidderminster Harriers last Saturday, and will take their place in the Football League next season just thirty-four years after they were formed. Meanwhile, Luton Town and Oxford United will play Rushden & Diamonds and York City in the play-offs. Only which of the first two of those clubs will play which of the latter two clubs remains to be decided on Saturday afternoon. The winners of these two semi-finals will, of course, play at Wembley for a place alongside Stevenage in the League next season.
At the bottom of the table, however, there is still all to play for. Chester City’s expulsion has only left three relegation places, one of which has already been filled by Grays Athletic, whose utter decimation as a club will be the subject of a write-up on here in the next few days. This leaves two relegation places and there are several contenders for these spots. Ebbsfleet United have to win at Tamworth to stand any chance of staying up, and Gateshead have to do likewise at home against an out of form Wimbledon. Should either of these two teams win, however, Eastbourne Borough, Forest Green Rovers or even eighteenth-placed Histon could be relegated.
This, combined with the potential machinations of promotion into the Blue Square North and South, could have serious implications for the make-up of the Football Conference’s two regional divisions next season. The champions of the Isthmian and Southern Leagues, Dartford and Farnborough FC respectively, are determinedly “southern”, and the results of the play-offs in those two leagues could result in even more of a bottle-neck starting to appear in the Blue Square South at the end of this summer. With too many clubs looking to play in the division, the FA and the Football Conference could be left with some difficult decisions to make this summer.
The obvious thing to do in such a situation, of course, is to shift clubs between the Blue Square North and the Blue Square South, but this is unlikely to happen without angering clubs. All of the clubs that could be described as “Midlands” clubs at that level already play in the Blue Square North apart from Worcester City, the northern-most Blue Square South club, who were moved from the Blue Square North two years ago with a guarantee that they would spend three years in the Blue Square South before having to switch divisions again. They seem unlikely to want to go into the Blue Square North (should they avoid relegation at the weekend), and it was their refusal to do so last summer which meant that the then newly-promoted Gloucester City had to go into the Blue Square North when they were promoted from the Southern League for this season.
The worst case scenario could see up to three clubs having to switch from the Blue Square South to the Blue Square North next season and, even taking into account the fact that FA rules state only that clubs in the position in which Worcester currently find themselves will only be given a three year guarantee “where possible”, this could mean that the Blue Square North stretches as far south as Braintree, Bishops Stortford or even St Albans next season – a situation brought about due to the coincidental strength of the southernmost clubs in the leagues below the Blue Square South and the relative weakness of several of those in the Blue Square Premier.
What, though, would be the problem for southern clubs playing in the Blue Square North? To take St Albans City as an example, it would likely be worse for the club than for the supporters. Although only four miles north of the M25, St Albans is situated between the M1 and A1(M) motorways, and travelling supporters on the train will find that local trains connect with inter-city trains at nearby Luton or at railway stations in north London. It may even prove to be easier for them to get to the Midlands than to get to, say, Dorset or Hampshire. Arguments about them losing local derbies don’t carry much weight, either. The decline of such clubs as Hendon and Enfield mean that they don’t really have any local derbies as things stand anyway.
For a club that is already in a stricken financial condition, however, being forced into the Blue Square North could prove to be another nail in the coffin. Travelling costs for the club itself would be likely to increase, and finding good quality part-time players that would be willing or able to give up more of their lives for trips to places such as Yorkshire, Lancashire or Merseyside, especially with their playing budget already seeming likely to be slashed during the summer anyway. On balance, it feels as if the negative aspects of going from the Blue Square South to the Blue Square North for any of the current BSS clubs south of Worcester would comfortably outweigh any positives to be taken from it.
The get-out clause from relegation for Worcester City (and/or their relegation rivals Lewes) could be the situation at Grays Athletic. We’ll have more on the situation at Grays before their match against Forest Green Rovers on Saturday, but it seems likely that they are to request to drop straight into the Ryman League Premier Division at the end of this season, which would free up a space in the Blue Square South and would, on top of the collapses of Chester City an Farsley Celtic this season, mean that only two clubs are relegated from the Blue Square South this season. The promotion of a Midlands based Southern League side through the play-offs could also mean that the southward march of the Blue Square North is postponed for another season.
The shape of the non-league pyramid means that these situations are almost inevitable. Some have suggested an East/West split, but the idea of, say, Blyth Spartans against Dover Athletic or Workington against Dorchester Town doesn’t seem appealing to anyone that wants to cut travelling distances for smaller clubs. In the absence of there being a perfect way of deciding these things, it seems as though the imperfect North/South split will be here to stay, and we can say two things with a degree of certainty. Firstly, with this being non-league football, it is highly unlikely that everything will be cut and dried when the final whistle blows at the final play-off match of the season. Secondly, no matter what decisions are made, who drops out and who stays up, someone, somewhere will have something to complain about.