Spiralling wage bills aren’t the only thing that are making the lives of non-league football clubs more and more difficult. Paul Caulfield has taken a look at the difficulties that clubs face and arrived at the conclusion that a possible solution may be to reintroduce greater regionalisation back to the lower divisions.

When one Mike Gilbert of Beaconsfield wrote to the Non-League Paper last year bemoaning the current structure below the Football League, he was spot-on in his analysis. Non-League football clubs are travelling too far for league games and screwing themselves up in the process. Fixtures like Bath City versus Gateshead have no place at this level, or anywhere below League One for that matter. For those arguing that wages, not travel is the problem, try turning out for Gateshead at Bath and getting to work the next morning, and you will understand why the Tynesiders’ Chairman Graham Wood took his club full-time.

Bath City, who remain semi-pro, face midweek trips to Barrow and Gateshead in March (who drafts these fixtures?),  something that irks Director/Manager Adie Britton, who supports regionalisation from League Two downwards. “We are trying to run a Conference club on gates of 700-800. How can it work? It is unsustainable. There are nineteen full-time clubs in the Conference out of twenty-four, with managers looking at their personal ambitions, not the viability of the clubs. Clubs drop out of the Conference and go into oblivion. Is that success or not?”

Britton is right. Clubs are over-reaching themselves, and the semi-pro game harmed itself in scrapping regional leagues for its top clubs. They could be reintroduced if the Conference National was incorporated into the Football League, giving the full-timers the status they crave and leaving the remaining structure in place. But this won’t happen because of the effort in creating the current set-up, and the egos of those running it. Then, of course, there’s ‘direct promotion’. It is almost sacrilege to say it, but promotion to the Football League and the formation of the Conference harmed the semi-pro game and brought a ‘League football at any price’ mentality. Maidstone United were the biggest casualties as clubs mortgaged themselves in the process. The Conference brought all the costs of Football League membership such as nationwide travel (and the full-time status required to accommodate it) without an equivalent increase in income.

A quick look at the bottom of League Two and the top of the Conference makes you wonder whether the system is working at all. Ten or so clubs have bounced between the two divisions in the past decade, or reached the bottom half of League Two and stayed there. At time of writing, seven of the Conference top eleven have played League football in the last ten years  and six of League Two’s bottom ten have been in the Conference. Promoted clubs play at a level they can’t afford, and hover around the bottom of the the Football League awaiting relegation.

Promotion to the Football League was supposed to revolutionise English football. But after the novelty wore off, it became clear that the Conference was just a temporary home for ex-League clubs taking a breather (Oxford, Colchester, Doncaster, Torquay, Shrewsbury), before regaining their former status while remaining full-time. Two-up, two-down brought more full-timers to the Conference, making it harder for relegated sides to make a quick return. In response, existing Conference clubs went full-time to compete; a far cry from the 80s and talk of semi-pro status in the old fourth division. Of the original ‘non-Leaguers’, only Wycombe, Stevenage, Yeovil and (to a lesser extent) Cheltenham have made a real success of things, while Accrington, initially at least, traded promotion for financial problems. Meanwhile, the non-League game has lost a setup that was working well.

In the days of re-election, Wimbledon and Wigan entered the League in successive seasons. A similar system would work today if non-League football was regionalised, with one or two clubs promoted from each region, and no Wembley playoffs (and don’t get me started on that subject).Clubs would not have to travel the length of the country for low-profile fixtures, and would have time to generate support and develop their stadia.

Wimbledon, under Alan Batsford’s inspired management, were Southern League champions three seasons running before their election, and eventually presented a cast-iron case for Football League membership. Wigan, meanwhile were in the top two of the Northern Premier League in five of their last eight seasons; a momentum they carried into League football. Common to both was success on the field without the burden of excessive travellling and full-time football.

Altrincham should have been next, but in 1979, the League’s bottom four were returned at the expense of the Robins – then NPL champions – and Kettering Town; with the League unwilling to jettison another club. The ‘great leap forward’ of the Alliance Premier League the following season made little difference. No-one else was elected. It took direct promotion in 1986 for Scarborough to claim their overdue League status – and we know what happened there. Maidstone, meanwhile, were on borrowed time the moment they sold their ground, with promotion to the League a mere prelude to bankruptcy. Had the non-League game kept its nerve and retained its regional setup, clubs like Scarborough and Maidstone would not have drained the coffers travelling the country on diminishing crowds and declining resources.

As Conference clubs have tried to compete with newly-relegated rivals, short-term thinking has inflated players’ wages, with predictable results. In 2008, clubs voted to ease the limits on the Approved Player Budget (APB). This scrapped the previous limit of 60% of turnover which could go on wages, and gave the league’s big fish all the incentive they needed to spend their way into the Football League. The APB was replaced by the Financial Reporting Protocol (FRP). This required all  member clubs to provide quarterly reports on payments to customs and excise.. While Conference clubs’ tax debt has dropped 83% since the FRP was introduced, the  system has not been a complete success.

In 2010, Forest Green Rovers had to be rescued by green energy tycoon Dale Vince, after previous chairman Trevor Horsley had revealed serious debts, while in 2009 the original Kings Lynn club  folded over an HMRC debt of £67,000. At the time, the Linnets were paying a ‘four figure’ weekly wage bill to a squad including  Julian Joachim (ex-Leicester) and Andy Johnson (ex-Norwich City). Chester City, meanwhile, were expelled from the Conference in February 2010 for failing to fulfil a fixture at Forest Green after the players had gone unpaid. The club’s debts included £26,125 owed to Customs and Excise, which their parent company, Chester City 2004 Ltd, had failed to settle. For their part, the renamed Kings Lynn Town, now run by speedway owner Buster Chapman, gained a 25 year lease on The Walks stadium and currently top the United Counties League.

The UCL or Southern League may be their ideal level. There is no point joining the Conference or its regional setup unless you have Football League ambitions. And if you can’t do that from your own resources, don’t do it at all. As Crewe manager Dario Gradi told the Chester Chronicle, “clubs keep getting to the brink of disaster and then being saved. That doesn’t discourage people from overspending.” Such good sense seems rare in the game, though there is good practice further down the Pyramid.

Marine FC are a model of stability who have maintained their place in the Northern Premier League while managing their money and cutting the playing budget if necessary. There is no big backer at Rossett Park, just an experienced committee unfazed by the lure of Conference football. The emphasis on sound finance is refreshing, as the alternative if the books don’t balance is the arrival of the Sugar Daddy, an all-too-frequent visitor to non-League football. Over-reliance on a major investor, such as Michael Chinn at Kings Lynn, leaves clubs banking on the goodwill of that person.

For most non-League clubs, life is a world away from the professional game. People at Conference level and lower down should consider this, and think what they would lose before spending their way up the Pyramid. Fans are attracted to local football by the relaxed atmosphere, lower prices and closer relationship with players and officials. Because clubs at this level depend on fans for survival, they (usually) speak to supporters and act accordingly. Non-League clubs should be social clubs and sports centres for their communities, offering players a chance to progress in the game. Once the club is self-financing, then they can consider promotion. The ‘Conference National’ does not fit this ideal. The emphasis on promotion to the League and the presence of the playoffs encourages over-ambitiion, with excessive spending (usually on wages) the inevitable result. This won’t befall Bath City, according  to Adie Britton; “Whatever happens, we will run on a sustainable budget and we will have a club next year whether we’re relegated or not.”

The message must be; appreciate your worth as a non-League club and enjoy your football. Make ends meet. Provide opportunities for local players and low cost admission for supporters. Do these things and you will serve your purpose. You may not get into the Football League or even the Conference, but you will have attractive local derbies and occasional Cup runs, and you won’t have to sell your ground to bail yourself out. And these days, there’s a lot to be said for that. Just ask Maidstone United or Scarborough.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the Non League Digest.