With just a handful of matches left at the end of this season, there is something of a bottleneck starting to form between the bottom of the Football League and what we call, increasingly euphemistically, the top end of the non-league game. At the foot of League Two, just four points separate bottom of the table – at the time of writing – Aldershot Town from Dagenham & Redbridge, while at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier Wrexham’s two-one win against Mansfield Town on Thursday evening meant that a little uncertainty was thrown back upon the expected outcome of the league title in that division, with Mansfield staying a point behind the league leaders, Kidderminster Harriers, in second place in the table, albeit with two games still in hand.
It has long been argued that the true point of separation between “league” football and “non-league” football no longer falls between these two divisions. The teams at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier are professional clubs, just as those above them in League Two are, and most of them are former Football League clubs who have fallen through the trapdoor and into the non-league game after many years as stalwarts of the lower divisions (or, in the case of some, such as Luton Town, somewhat higher than that, even), whilst the also-rans of this division are the clubs that, on the whole, more closely resemble what we would understand as being “non-league” clubs, with the division’s part-time club’s hovering around the relegation places along with others, such as Stockport County, who have fallen surprisingly far from grace in recent years. One thing that a quick glance at the Blue Square Bet Premier table does remind us of is how easy it can be to become an also-ran these days.
Yet, between these two divisions of twenty-four clubs there are just two promotion and relegation places, and the reason for this feels increasingly anachronistic. When a fifth national division for England was created in 1979 by a breakaway of clubs from the Northern Premier League and Southern League, automatic promotion and relegation was something of a pipe dream. The Football League was a closed shop, with entry restricted to the somewhat farcical and often discredited system of re-election, whereby the bottom four clubs of what was then known as Division Four would have to re-apply for their Football League membership along with any non-league clubs which wished to have a go at being voted in. It was an obviously flawed system which severely restricted the ability of many non-league clubs to progress beyond their appointed station in the overall scheme of things, but the newly formed Alliance Premier League played its hand skilfully in its formative years, experimenting with rule changes – some of which, such as having two points for a home win and three points got an away win or even tinkering with the laws of the game the the extent of having no offside from free kicks – were less than successful, whilst ordering itself in order to lobby the Football League. In the end, a Football League spooked by plummeting attendances agreed to the introduction of one automatic promotion and relegation place in 1987, and this number increased to two in 2004.
What has happened since the Football League saw sense over this matter has been revealing about the nature and potential of lower division football in England. As more clubs in the fifth division have turned fully professional, the gap between the two divisions has all but vanished, but former inmates of the Football League have found the Football Conference – as the Alliance Premier League was renamed in 1987 – more difficult to get out of than it was to slide into, and few clubs have been promoted straight back into the Football League following relegation, even since the introduction of that second place. The clubs at or near the top of the division are largely clubs that fell into this division at least in part as a result of some degree of financial trauma and/or mismanagement, with the most extreme example of this being Luton Town, who were relegated largely thanks to a punitive points deduction for financial irregularities which has come to look increasingly cruel on account of not having been repeated since then.
Meanwhile, there is no complacency any more at the foot of what is now known as League Two, but still there are only two promotion and relegation places between these two divisions of twenty-four clubs. The Football Conference has continued to lobby for a further increase to this number, and their point on the subject is not difficult to argue. Clubs promoted into the Football League in recent years have had mixed fortunes, but few would argue that the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation hasn’t been a success and its expansion would seem to be a logical next step. This next step, however, is not the choice of the Football Conference. The Football League may not be the closed shop that it once was, but that fear of dropping into the fifth division remains a very real one and persuading the League of expanding promotion and relegation has been unsuccessful so far. This fear of falling amongst some its more lowly member clubs, however, might even be allayed by the introduction of a third promotion and relegation place, and if the argument can successfully be made that it is time to push that door open a little more widely then the reality will be that those clubs that are unfortunate enough to drop another level will have a better chance of getting back up, whilst non-league clubs may even be tempted to spend a little less money that they haven’t got in the pursuit of ambition if getting promoted into the Football League is made a little easier.
The lack of success of this lobbying so far doesn’t mean that it won’t be successful in the end, though. Just as we might never have believed that the Football League would allow anything to open the doors to its closed shop in the 1980s, it happened, and relatively quickly. Extending interest at the top and bottom of these two divisions would have clear financial benefits for many clubs, and financial considerations tend to trump all others these days. Many watchers of non-league football already only consider the Blue Square Bet Premier to be a halfway house between the Football League and the non-league game rather than being ‘non-league football’ in the traditional sense. It’s time for the Football League to look seriously at a proposal that would increase competitiveness across both of these divisions.
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