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.