There was, of course, a time when the boundaries between the Football League and non-league football were considerably more clearly defined than they are now. There was no such thing as automatic promotion and relegation from the top of non-league football, and non-league clubs wishing to make that particular great leap forward had to apply for a place amongst the top ninety-two. They would usually end up disappointed. The bottom four clubs of the bottom division of the Football League would have to apply for re-election at the end of each season, but the de facto closed shop atmosphere of those end of season Football League served existing members well. Hartlepool United held the record for the number of successful re-election bids with fourteen, eleven of which came between 1960 and 1984.
In 1986, re-election was replaced with one automatic promotion and relegation place between the Football League and the Football Conference, with a second being added in 2003. The top level of non-league football has changed since then, and the Conference is now largely a professional league which has more in common, perhaps, with the division above it than the two regional divisions below, although it is worth pointing out that there have always been professional clubs in non-league football, going back as far as the golden years of the Southern League at the start of twentieth century when one of their number, Tottenham Hotspur, became the last non-league club to win the FA Cup in 1901. That line at the foot of League Two, however, is where the dividing line between “league” and “non-league” football remains. In the FA Cup, there have never been that many wins by non-league clubs over top division opposition. Until yesterday, only six clubs – Colchester United in 1948, Yeovil Town in 1949, Hereford United in 1972, Wimbledon in 1975, Altrincham in 1986 and Sutton United in 1989 – had managed such an achievement since the end of the war, and none of those had come since the start of the Premier League in 1992.
Luton Town’s magnificent win at Carrow Road yesterday, therefore, should be regarded firmly within this context. There have been some over the last day or so who have commented that Luton’s win at Norwich wasn’t a seismic shock. Several theories have been put forward to support this, including Luton’s home crowds of 6,000, the fact that the two clubs were playing each other comparatively recently – their last meetings in the league between the two clubs came in the 2006/07 season – and a perception that these are two clubs of a similar size. Luton’s collapse from the Football League Championship to the Football Conference was certainly rapid, with successive relegations sending the club into non-league football in the space of three years, but the club is now in its fourth season as a Conference club, with there being no guarantees of returning at the end of this season, either, and regardless of the rights or wrongs of the harsh points deductions handed out by the FA which led to Luton’s tumble through the divisions, the reality of their current position is that they remain a Football Conference club.
To put the extent of that financial gulf into perspective, Norwich City made £45.5m in television revenue alone during the 2011/12 season, and will repeat that figure again this year. The television deal that the Football Conference has with cable channel Premier Sports, meanwhile, is a revenue sharing arrangement whereby clubs receive 50% of the revenue raised from subscriptions, on top of the normal rights fee paid by the broadcaster, once the costs of production have been met. During the 2010–11 season, though, Premier Sports failed to attract enough viewers to its Conference football broadcasts to share any revenue with the clubs beyond the £5,000 broadcast fee paid to home clubs and £1,000 to away clubs. Herein lays a gap so massive that our perceptions of the size of the clubs concerned become something of an irrelevance and this is the real reason why Luton Town’s victory is one that should be treated with the same level of respect as those managed by the likes of Sutton United and Wimbledon, all those years ago.
There are no excuses for Norwich City for yesterday’s result. The argument that “the cups don’t matter” is a well worn one which may well be true for the clubs themselves (notwithstanding the potential psychological effect on a squad of players that is not as far from the relegation places as it was this time last year), but for supporters that stinging sensation that comes with defeat against lower ranked opposition remains as painful as ever. It is doubtful that those that were booking the home team from the Carrow Pitch upon hearing the full-time whistle there yesterday afternoon will have awoken this morning and thought, “Ah well, at least we should still be good enough for sixteenth place in the Premier League by the end of this season.” They will feel let down by their team, let down by their manager and let down by their club, and they will be all too painfully aware of the fact that the record of being the last top division club to be beaten in the FA Cup by a non-league club is one that they are likely to hold onto this unwanted record for some considerable time to come.
Yesterday afternoon’s result, however, was not really about Norwich City and their shortcomings. Luton Town, with a favourable draw in the next round of the competition, could make a vast amount of money from their Fifth Round appearance and might yet become the first non-league club in living memory to make the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Promotion back into the Football League remains the main aim at Kenilworth Road though, and Luton Town remain in touch with the clubs at the top of the Football Conference, with wins in the games in hand that they now hold over the teams above them in the table meaning that a return to League Two could also yet be on the cards for the club at the end of the season. Beating a Championship side and a Premier League in the FA Cup certainly demonstrates that they have the capability to do it. The question now facing everybody at Luton Town is that of whether such an unlikely double could be achieved. If Luton Town could manage it, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that it would constitute an achievement to match anything that the club managed during the 1980s.
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