The town of Braintree sits near the border between Suffolk and Essex. It’s a small town with a population of 42,000 which sits rather in the shadow of its larger neighbours Colchester and Chelmsford, with London looming in the distance, radiating its influence over the whole of the east and south east of England. It’s not, to coin a cliche, a town of flat caps and whippets, but external circumstances seem likely to mean that Braintree Town Football Club will have to switch from the Blue Square South to the Blue Square North next season. This situation has come about because of a certain lop-sidedness that is inherent within the non-league. Non-league football is arranged into a pyramid system, by which the leagues get more and more regional the further one gets from the Blue Square Premier.
The biggest single flaw in this set up is unavoidable. For example, it seems likely (if not certain) that three of this year’s four relegated Blue Square Premier clubs will be undeniably southern. Lewes and Woking have already fallen through the trap door, while Weymouth seem likely to follow them. This means that one club will have to switch from the BSS to the BSN. Just from looking at a map, the obvious candidates for this would be Worcester City, but Worcester only transferred in the opposite direction last year and the Football Conference has rules which ensure that clubs can’t be shunted from north to south every season.
Things aren’t quite that simple, of course. This is non-league football, after all. Team Bath have already resigned from the Blue Square South for the end of this season, and there may be further resignations to follow if the apocalyptic predictions over the state of finances in the non-league game are to be believed. There is still confusion over which team will benefit as a result of Team Bath’s disappearance. It would appear obvious that, in the case of a team quitting a division, the third bottom team in that division (in the case of the BSS, Thurrock) would be spared the drop. However, the Conference has two regional divisions and there has been widespread talk that it will be the team in the either the BSN or the BSS with the most points that would avoid relegation, which, at the moment, would be Hyde United of the Blue Square North. This, of course, would mean more shuffling of the regional packs.
The situation has been further complicated still today by news that Kings Lynn have been – subject to appeal – demoted from the BSN. The Linnets were promoted at the end of last season and have struggled in their first season in their new division amid rumours of unpaid wages. They have narrowly avoided relegation this season, but have fallen foul of the dreaded Football Conference ground grading rules and have been demoted. On the one hand, this is somewhat surprising news. Kings Lynn’s The Walk has been host to the second highest average crowds in the BSN this season – just short of 1,000 – and the local council had promised £250,000 to carry out the required remedial work during the summer, but rules are rules and the rules are that The Walk had to be started by the start of April, and they hadn’t been. This may appear, on the face of things, to be a harsh rule – after all, it has been safely hosting BSN football all season – but it is a long time rule (and is in place so that everybody knows which division everybody is going to be in at the start of the summer) and is common knowledge amongst non-league supporters.
There are certainly questions to be asked over how a club like Kings Lynn came to find themselves in this somewhat humiliating situation. As I’ve already mentioned the club has the second highest crowds in the league and, moreover, The Walk is owned by the local council which charges them only a peppercorn rent for its use. League rules state that newly-promoted clubs are notified of the work that they need to do in the autumn, so why weren’t the council (who, it’s fair to say, have been pretty generous in their offer to pay for all of the work required) notified of the dates by which this work needed to be done earlier? This demotion will hit the supporters of the club hardest of all but, short of blaming everyone else apart from themselves, there has been precious little by way of apology from the people running Kings Lynn Football Club at the time of writing.
Meanwhile, Braintree Town face the possibility of crippling travel costs in the Blue Square North next season. Amongst the trips that they may have to make will be Workington in Cumbria and Blyth Spartans in Northumberland. Quite aside from the cost of travel, they may also find it more difficult to attract players. Part-time players have jobs that they have to juggle with their football and some may find it difficult to be able to continue to play for the club. It’s difficult not to have sympathy with the club. Their nearest away match next season might turn out to be a 240 mile round journey to play Hinckley United. There is certainly a case for saying that there should be a degree of flexibility in the size of league where special circumstances allow it. Would it really be so bad to have a twenty-four club Blue Square South and a twenty club Blue Square North for a season or two in the hope that this situation can realign itself.
At present, all of this remains conjecture. There are plenty of people that are saying that this summer will see a grand cull of non-league clubs, which have been crippled by spiralling wage costs and falling crowds. If anything like this comes to pass (and I could reel off a list of clubs at this point) the league tables could end up looking very different before next season even starts, and every club teetering on the brink has a knock on effect through the divisions. Will Team Bath resign from football altogether? Will Lewes go into the BSS or will they have to drop further down than that? It’s not implausible to argue that there has never been a better time to finish at the bottom of the table. If you’ve managed to avoid points deductions, financial mismanagement, regional reorganisation and the ground grading rules, you’ll probably manage to avoid relegation, even if you don’t win any matches.