The Blue Square South Bottleneck

The Blue Square South Bottleneck

By on Apr 21, 2010 in Latest, Non-League | 13 comments

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.

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    13 Comments

  1. I wonder what the easiest three-way divide at this level of the pyramid would be… maybe the change to Conference North/South wasn’t the best idea in retrospect?

    (That said, I personally advocate regionalisation at a higher level than tier 6 of the football pyramid… might a window of opportunity for this arise with an energy company soon to be sponsoring the Football League, and hence able to exploit a reorganisation – npower Championship, npower League North and npower League South? – as a green measure?)

    David Howell

    April 21, 2010

  2. @David: Leeds United would not want to play Accrington, Morecambe and Burton. Similarly, Crystal Palace do not want to be playing Dagenham, Barnet and Aldershot.

    Matt Boothman

    April 22, 2010

  3. Although there’s no easy work around, and as you say whatever happens someone will complain, perhaps the solution is to have a three-way regional split and smaller divisions (so Conf North, Conf Midlands, and Conf South, each of 18 or 22 clubs). This could then lead to an imaginative solution for the end-of-season promotion situation, with say the champions of each division promoted to the Conf Premier, with the remaining promotion place determined by cross-regional play-offs. I’ve no idea of the feasibility, or even desirability, of this solution, but it’s certain that something has to change at step 6 before many more clubs go to the wall.

    Martin Brodetsky

    April 22, 2010

  4. We at http://theballisround.co.uk have been following this for a few weeks. The whole north south divide this year has been problematic with Dorchester, Weston-super-Mare, Newport and Weymouth in the division, meaning some huge journeys for the likes of Dover.

    We have always advocated a complete re-organisation of the league structure and having 5 x leagues of 20 teams (Prem, Championship, Div 1, 2 and 3) and then having 3 regional leagues of 20 – same number of teams.

    The situation of having Gloucester in Blue Square North yet 30 miles up the road Worcester in Blue Square South is a farce.

    Surely the only logical solution next year is to have more teams in the BSS than BSN for a season.

    Stuart Fuller

    April 22, 2010

  5. You state Gateshead have to win against Wimbledon to stand any chance of staying up, but surely a draw would be good enough if Eastbourne lose and Ebbsfleet fail to win?

    Sussex Harrier

    April 22, 2010

  6. Eastbourne may be unlikely to lose seeing a Oxford appear to be putting out the reserves.

    I personally advocate regionalisation at a higher level than tier 6 of the football pyramid

    This strikes me as very wrong-headed. Regionalised divisions don’t have nearly the same appeal to fans as national divisions. Nothing has done more to promote non-league fotball in the public mind than the introduction of the Coference all those years ago (indeed, I often argue that the Conference, not the Premier League, is the real success story of English football). What might be gained in reduced travel costs would be lost many times over in reduced attendances. How many people* watch the regionalised third tier in Spanish football? Far fewer than watch its nationwide counterpart in England.

    I think regionalism goes along with semi-professionalism. If a club can support a professional playing staff, it cando so in a national division. Conversely, if it can’t manage the travel costs, then it needs to be part-time because it won’t attract enough supporters to do anything else.

    [* an exception can be made for Oviedo, who pack in enough support for more than half-a-dozen other clubs]

    ejh

    April 24, 2010

  7. if u were to have 3 divisions of 18, this would free up space at the end of the season for play offs involving all 3 divisions. maybe only have 2nd-4th place in each division in a play off. say 3rd could play 4th to determine who would play 2nd.
    the only problem is it would leave 3 play off winners and i dont think there is time to then play a further round robin format involving these. what are people thoughts on deciding the 4th promotion place

    chelmsford toffee

    April 24, 2010

  8. The South, mostly the south-east, has the most temporary ego-trip boom and bust clubs and this is the net result, that’s all.

    Martin

    April 27, 2010

  9. “Although there’s no easy work around, and as you say whatever happens someone will complain, perhaps the solution is to have a three-way regional split and smaller divisions (so Conf North, Conf Midlands, and Conf South, each of 18 or 22 clubs). This could then lead to an imaginative solution for the end-of-season promotion situation, with say the champions of each division promoted to the Conf Premier, with the remaining promotion place determined by cross-regional play-offs. I’ve no idea of the feasibility, or even desirability, of this solution, but it’s certain that something has to change at step 6 before many more clubs go to the wall.”

    You mean a bit like things were six years ago then?…

    People have got carried away with change; I blame the election.

    Martin

    April 27, 2010

  10. “The situation of having Gloucester in Blue Square North yet 30 miles up the road Worcester in Blue Square South is a farce.”

    There has got to be a dividing line somewhere and the Midlands would make most sense…

    “Surely the only logical solution next year is to have more teams in the BSS than BSN for a season.”

    You mean like this season once King’s Lynn folded?

    Martin

    April 27, 2010

  11. ejh, I’m not sure how relevant your comparison with Spanish regional football is as our countries are so different, in geographical, political and football terms.

    I think we the only country in the world to have over 100 professional football clubs and that figures only looks like increasing.

    Whilst the Conference has eased the transition for ambitious clubs from non-league into the League, it has been a double-edged sword littered with countless financial disasters and frauds over the last two decades.

    Martin

    April 27, 2010

  12. How about doing a East and West? actually that probably wouldnt work either, as it would hardly stop the long travel distance for teams… I guess a 3 way split woudl eb best
    BlueSquare North / Midlands / South?

    D

    April 29, 2010

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  1. Scottish football: a seven point plan | Twohundredpercent - [...] geography is awkward too. Another columnist on this site wrote recently of the problems caused in the Conference South in …

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