League Two And The Blue Square Premier: The Blurring Of The Lines

By on Oct 11, 2010 in English League Football, Latest, Non-League | 22 comments

In 1979, when the Alliance Premier League was founded between clubs from the Northern Premier League and the Southern Football League, there was a fairly clear line in the stand. There was no automatic promotion and relegation between it and what was then known as Division Four. Clubs in the bottom four of the Football League stood for re-election against the most ambitious of the non-league clubs, but very few actually went up or down. The Football League remained a closed shop until the 1987 when, faced with decimated league attendances, the APL rebranded itself as the GM Vauxhall Conference, the Football League introduced automatic promotion and relegation, and the lines of demarcation between “league” and “non-league” have been slowly blurring more and more ever since.

In the early days of this automatic promotion and relegation, with the GMVC still largely made up of part-time clubs, those that suffered the indignity of relegation from the Football League didn’t, on the whole, find life too tough. The first team relegated, Lincoln City, won their way back at the first attempt, and Darlington and Colchester United had similar success. Since the early 1990s, however, as more and more Conference clubs have turned professional, relegated clubs began to find it more and more difficult to get promoted back and this is a situation that hasn’t improved a great deal in recent years, even with the introduction of a second promotion and relegation place in 2002. The truth of the matter is that what we now know as the Blue Square Premier is, for teams relegated from the Football League, a hell of a lot more¬†easy to fall into than it is to climb out of.

An article on the front page of the When Saturday Comes website over the weekend took the time to pick over this from the perspective of Grimsby Town, who dropped out of League Two at the end of last season. The BSP is littered with such clubs – former Football League clubs that slipped on a banana skin too many and now find themselves in the unenviable position of being big fish in a small pool, yet not so big that rising to the very top is something that can be done at a canter. Every dropped point seems to start to feel like a personal affront. Every trip to the likes of Forest Green Rovers (members of the league since 1998) or Altrincham (members of the league for all bar six of the league’s thirty-two year history) seems to be an insult to their sensibilities.The Blue Square Premier is “tinpot”, yet they are stuck in this purgatory until the people running their club get their act together and manage to get them up again. Some of them have been waiting for rather a long time, now.

The truth of the matter is, however, that the Blue Square Premier has escaped its moorings and now has more in common with the division above it than the two regional leagues immediately below it. Matches in it are shown live on the television (indeed, Blue Square Premier clubs are shown more regularly on the television than those in League Two), the overwhelming majority of them have professional squads and the amount of media coverage devoted to it, while it obviously palls in comparison with the Premier League or the Championship, dwarves that of the leagues below it. If there is a dividing line between the haves and the have nots below, say, the Premier League and the Championship, then that demarcation line no longer falls between League Two and the Blue Square Premier – it falls between the Blue Square Premier and the Blue Square North and South.

The draw for the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup was made this morning, and it was a draw that served to demonstrate this blurring to the fullest of its extent. After a narrow win at Kingstonian this evening in their Third Qualifying Round replay, St Albans City of the Blue Square South will travel to Kenilworth Road to play Luton Town in a couple of weeks. There is a division and a half between the two clubs in league placings, but the gulf between them feels considerably greater. Luton’s average home attendance to date this season is 6,655, whilst that at St Albans is 360. There is practically nothing about this match that feels like it being a match between two non-league clubs with just one division between them, but that is merely a reflection upon where the dividing line falls these days. These are two teams that are local to each other (there are about twelve miles between St Albans and Luton), but St Albans have only played at Kenilworth Road once before and it wasn’t against Luton – it was against Dagenham in a semi-final replay in the 1970 FA Amateur Cup. Their paths have never crossed competitively before.

Where we will be with this in, say, ten years’ time is open to question, but it would be unsurprising to see the number of promotion places between League Two being increased again. Consider the record of clubs that have been promoted into the Football League, for example. Exeter City, Yeovil Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and Carlisle United have all been Blue Square Premier clubs in the last decade and now inhabit League One alongside the likes of Southampton and Charlton Athletic, while the same applies to Doncaster Rovers of the Championship. It would surely make sense for the clubs of the Football League to realise that one of the biggest single reasons why so many former members find it so difficult to get back after relegation from League Two is the fact in itself that only two promotion places are available for those that fall through the trapdoor. Until such further changes are made, however, it seems likely that relegation from the Football League will retain its stigma and that the newly-demoted will continue to find their new surroundings tougher to escape than they might expect.

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    22 Comments

  1. The BSBP and L2 should be merged and then regionalised. Would cut down an awful lot of unnecessary travel.

    Keep 4 down from L1. 2 up from each regionalised L2 and direct promotion from BSPN to L2N, and BSPS to L2S.

    I speak as an Oxford fan. Been there. Done that.

    Bernard

    October 12, 2010

  2. The BSBP and L2 should be merged and then regionalised. Would cut down an awful lot of unnecessary travel.

    It would also deprive them (another Oxford fan writes) of most of their interest. The whole reason why falling out of the league hasn’t been the death of clubs which have done so is that the decision to make the top tier of non-league football national made it a much more prestigious competition. Look at the attendances, for pity’s sake.

    People talk about regionalisation as if its sole effect would be to cut costs. They are very wrong. Its major effect would be to reduce interest and therefore income. There is more interest in the fifth tier of English football than there is in – to use an example with which I am familiar – the third tier of Spanish football, and a major reason for that is that the former is national and the latter regional.

    The formation of the national fifth tier is one of the best things ever to happen to English football. Reversing that move would, to put it kindly, be extraordinary.

    ejh

    October 12, 2010

  3. Another excellent article that captures clearly how much easier it is to fall into the BSP than to rise out of it and, speaking as (another) Oxford fan, the strength in depth of competition makes me wonder if even going to three up/down would make that much difference.

    Two comments, though. Do not underestimate the strength of some of the clubs coming up into the BSP from below. For every St Albans, having their day in the sun, there is an AFC Wimbledon, Kettering or, this year, Newport County and Fleetwood Town, just to add to the growing number of ex-league clubs finding going tougher than they ever imagined (as if the experiences of Oxford, York, Cambridge, et al, would not apply to them).

    The other issue is “tinpot”. There is no doubt in the minds of many that the management of the Conference is appallingly tinpot. When the debacle over player registrations came to light a couple of seasons ago, it was not just one club but four that faced penalties – regarding the same issue in the same season. Coincidence or an incompetent process in Head Office? How the Conference ignored its own and the FAs rules when failing to deal with the former owners of Chester City last season blighted not only the Conference but the FA as well. And do not get me started on the way they (at the time, at least), set fixtures by hand. Their management was more amateurish than some leagues several steps further down the pyramid. The management of the league is tinpot – the competition is rock’ard.

    Dr Bob

    October 12, 2010

  4. I had to smile to myself as an Oxford fan responded positively to the concept of merging League 2 and ConfPrem.

    Oxford almost bankrupted themselves getting out of the Conference last year, and to think that some of their supporters would happily go back to playing Kettering Tamworth and Kiddermister is shocking.

    No offence intended to Tamworth or Kiddermister.

    Phil

    October 12, 2010

  5. Re: regionalisation – it’s a red herring. For every Bath v Darlington you lose, you’d also lose, say, Kettering v Luton depending on where the arbitrary line is drawn. It really wouldn’t cut costs much, you would lose local derbies in the midlands and of course the southern half of the league would still have some very long distance fixtures – as a Bristol Rovers fan our three longest distance fixtures are Carlisle, Hartlepool and then Colchester. Regionalisation at our level (which also gets suggested with wearisome regularity) would still see us travelling to Essex and the likes of Col U, Southend and Gillingham making long treks to Plymouth and Exeter. I’d also rather see us playing a decent Carlisle side than a (usually) not so decent Torquay. Sure the same applies lower down.

    BlackthornEnder

    October 12, 2010

  6. “The truth of the matter is that what we now know as the Blue Square Premier is, for teams relegated from the Football League, a hell of a lot more difficult to fall into than it is to climb out of.”

    Sorry, but don’t you mean “more difficult to climb out of than it is to fall into”?

    StonesFan

    October 12, 2010

  7. I don’t think regionalisation is the answer. Fans of clubs live all over the country (myself a Luton fan living in Yorkshire) so it is far easier and cost effective for me to go and see the team play away to York, Altrincham, Darlington, Fleetwood, Southport etc. Instead the BSP should stop working out fixtures with pencil and paper and get in the modern age and use a computer. Scheduling is the main issue here, Luton travelling to Barrow, Darlington and Gateshead in the space of a week and a half for instance is ridiculous.

    Tom

    October 12, 2010

  8. As a small diversion take a look at the example of Altrincham. For a few seasons they have been trying and failing to get out of the Blue Square Premier. The only difference is that they’re trying to go downwards. Their best laid plans seem to get scuppered by a couple of basket cases stealing the relegation places from right under their noses.

    Phil

    October 12, 2010

  9. Thats not really based on fact Phil is it. This season apart we have always done our best to stay up, other clubs bleat when they have finished above us by cheating the tax and vat and paying players that could never afford on a level playing field. The last two seasons we have easily stayed up on merit…don’t let the facts get in the way of a good moan though.

    Nigel Foster

    October 12, 2010

  10. Excellent article. Whilst I’m sure Luton fans would support the idea I can’t see regionalisation ever being reintroduced – it’s simple maths. If we take a theoretical merger between L2 and BSP as an example: currently between 48 clubs there’s 6 promotion slots. Merge the two into L2 North and South and there’d be no more than 4, a 50% reduction. OK, the promotion places would be to a higher league, but it would still mean more clubs with less to play for come February and March.

    Dermot O'Dreary

    October 12, 2010

  11. Hey Phil,
    Not sure what team you support but I’m a Altrincham and your your information we are ‘trying to get relegated’ by reducing out debt (inherited from a previous pie-in-the-sky regime) and paying our players and staff what we can afford.
    I’d rather we struggle and risk relegation than invest money we don’t really have and certainly didn’t earn like many in our league and those above. We’re a part-time team paying wages we can afford which will mean we struggle to survive.
    And by the way, the ‘basket cases’ went out of business leaving innocent parties out of pocket and in some cases fans without a club to support. We didn’t have any part in that.

    So come on Phil, fess up .. who’s your club? Let teh rest of us have a pop…..

    Pottsy

    October 13, 2010

  12. Division 5 should have the same promotion/relegation as between divisions 4 and 3. Speaking as a York fan its been a grind in this division and I fear we are here for many years yet. Crawley are spending sugar daddy big this year – my advice to them ……remember Gretna.

    Dave W

    October 13, 2010

  13. It would nice if they brought Division 5 in line with Division 4 and regionalisation would solve a lot of issues but turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

    Martin

    October 14, 2010

  14. “Luton travelling to Barrow, Darlington and Gateshead in the space of a week and a half for instance is ridiculous”

    Is it?

    I expect combining long-distance away fixtures in this way would save clubs and fans money.

    No club near London has any credibility when complaining about travelling times anywhere as it’s by far the best place to be to get everywhere the fastest (it’s only 3 hours to Barrow by train these days for instance).

    Martin

    October 14, 2010

  15. Martin – in theory, you’re right, the problem was the matches were Tuesday-Saturday-Saturday, with a home match on the Tuesday between the two Saturday matches.

    Luton did ask Darlington and Gateshead if they were prepared to change the dates of the matches to Wednesday-Friday to enable them to stay over, but both clubs refused.

    Dermot O'Dreary

    October 14, 2010

  16. Agree with most on here (apart from Phils comments) regionalise Div2 and BSP in this day and age of carbon footprint gumf surely it makes sense.

    Billy Bones

    October 14, 2010

  17. Oxford Utd fans always seem to think they have a divine right to get back into the football league. Why???? They were ” not good enough to stay in the league, but are realising that the clubs are better then they thought in the BSP.I support Kettering Town and they do like to look down their noses at us.

    Dave

    October 14, 2010

  18. Great job, Ian, and I am glad to see the Guardian thinks so too.

    Bill Turianski

    October 14, 2010

  19. So they got it right about the Tuesday and Saturday consecutively “oop north” then?

    Everyone wants to be in a national division but no-one wants the occassional accompanying hassles.

    Martin

    October 14, 2010

  20. Rather than merging the BSP with League 2 to create two regional divisions how about creating a Division Five? You could take say the top eight clubs from the BSP (conditional on ground and average crowds meeting certain criteria) and then add the bottom twelve clubs from League 2.

    Leagues 1 & 2 and the Championship would all be reduced to 20 teams (bottom four from Championship to League 1 & bottom eight from League 1 to League 2). The smaller divisions would create more games with meaning as there would be less scope for teams to just chug along in mid table.

    Micky F

    October 16, 2010

  21. @DrBob: “How the Conference ignored its own and the FAs rules when failing to deal with the former owners of Chester City last season blighted not only the Conference but the FA as well.”

    To be fair to the Conference, they were allegedly being pressured by the League to accept Chester into the Conference National, while the FA made an unannounced one word change at the end of May 2009 to their rules that enabled Chester to no longer break FA rules. Without that one word change, the FA would have been breaking their own rules.

    @Micky F: I’ve thought the same for years.

    Rob

    October 16, 2010

  22. As a Shrewsbury fan regionalisation would be the worse thing that could happen because we would probably be put in the Southern half even though most of our closest games (Crewe, Port Vale, Bury etc) are with northern teams. The vast majority of the teams that would be in the southern league are a lot further from us than the northern teams. Not a good idea for us Midlanders!

    Cal

    October 16, 2010

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