The first round of this years AGM Cup was completed with the FAs initial announcement of which clubs will be playing in which division next season, then, and the two most significant losers are two clubs are that have been appearing on the pages of this website more than most over the last year or so: Darlington and Kettering Town.
The initial proposals confirm that Kettering Town will be dropping two divisions into the Southern League Premier Division, but most of yesterdays headlines were made by Darlington, who will be dropping a vertiginous four divisions to play in Division One of the Northern League from the start of next season.
The reason for the severity of Darlingtons plummet is one that we have discussed on these pages before. The club entered into administration again at the end of last year but has been unable to agree a CVA with its creditors – the largest of which by some considerable distance is former chairman Raj Singh – meaning that the club has been left with no option but to exit administration without a CVA in place, a decision which leaves it in clear contravention of the FA’s regulations on dealing with insolvency events. As such, whilst the club itself had been hoping for a two division drop into the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League, it had been forced into a position in which it was prone to greater sanction, and greater sanction is exactly what has happened.
But what will the club find upon stumbling, blinking, weary and battered by the events of the last ten years or so? The Northern League is a curious league, one which was at the very top of non-league football during the era when there was a clear distinction made between the amateur and professional versions of the game. The league dominated the FA Amateur Cup – record ten-time winners of the competition, Bishop Auckland, were members – while its clubs made occasional forays to the latter rounds of the FA Cup, with the most celebrated example of this coming, perhaps ironically, four years after the FA ended the formal distinction between amateur and professional clubs in 1978 when Blyth Spartans made it all the way to the Fifth Round of the competition.
Since then, it could be argued that the Northern League has stayed at least partly rooted in a past that no longer exists. When non-league football began to calcify into what we now know as the Pyramid, the Northern League chose not to get involved, and this was a state of affairs that remained in place until the 1990s. By the time it did get involved, its status was much-reduced and it now acts as a feeder league to the Northern Premier League. Even now, though the last traces of the attitudes of amateurism (as a philosophy rather then as a pejorative reference to how its member clubs run themselves) remains in place. The champions of the last three years, Spennymoor Town, have opted not to apply for promotion into Division One North of the Northern Premier League, and they are not the only club to have made this decision.
To those looking in from the outside, this may seem like a curious state of affairs. After all, at the overwhelming majority of clubs at all levels, winning and progressing up through the division has become the be all and end all of clubs’ existences, with what is still regarded by most as the Holy Grail of a place in the Football League awaiting those lucky few that reach the very pinnacle of the Pyramid. It may seem perverse that there are several clubs that do not get involved in the celestial dance that is the application process for promotion, but to understand the reason why this is requires an understanding of the practicalities of running a semi-professional club at this level, and in this part of the world.
At the top of the Northern League, there are few amateurs who play purely for the love of the game and no financial recompense whatsoever. As such, a clutch of clubs in the north-east of England are pursuing a clearly definable group of semi-professional players, and with average crowds in the Northern League running at just over two hundred people per match, it is clear that these players are unlikely to earn very much. If a club from Division One of the Northern League (the NLD1) was to take promotion into Division One North of the Northern Premier League (the NPL1N), it would find that its costs would very quickly start to rise. Last season, there were just two clubs from the north-east in the NPL1N – Durham City and Harrogate Railway Athletic – and one of them finished in a relegation place at the end of last season.
This has three significant likely effects for clubs that may be considering applying for promotion. Firstly, clubs from the north-east have to factor in very high travelling costs at a level of the game at which income is very limited. Secondly, players have to be found who are willing and/or able to give up almost every other Saturday and several midweek dates for lengthy trips to the Yorkshire and the north-west of England. Again, the limited financial resources available to these clubs mean that they can’t lure players to play at a level one division higher with significantly better wages. Finally, there is the fact that the clubs of the NPL1N, whilst they tend to enjoy somewhat higher average attendances than the NLD1, the length of journey for supporters is likely to put at least some of travelling. As such, the likelihood of attracting bigger attendances may not be as high as for clubs in the north-west, who enjoy a range of local derbies as part of their normal season.
It is impossible to say at present how Darlington will fare in Division One of the Northern League. On the one hand, it is likely that, even if their support falls away somewhat from the start of next season on account of the four division drop and the fact that they will be playing their home matches in Shildon, it is still likely that they will enjoy by a very long way the highest crowds in the division. If we work to the principle that the hardcore of the clubs support in the Blue Square Bet Premier sat at about 1,800 people, even a two-thirds drop in crowds from the start of next season would leave them with average home crowds comparable with the next best-supported club in their division. This has the effect of creating a virtuous circle in which commercial and sponsorship revenues are higher, which gives the club the ability to sustainably offer plumper contracts to players, which should give them a considerably better chance of being successful, which should lead to more local interest and higher attendances. This virtuous circle exists at the heart of all football finance, but it is at its simplest and most pronounced at this level of the game.
There will, of course, be supporters of Darlington FC who are looking at this drop with considerable trepidation, and those with no experience of the Northern League may well be imagining spending next season visiting roped off park pitches and wooden signs with “Here Be Dragons” clumsily painted on them. The facilities of some of the grounds that they visit next season may be a little basic and opposing crowds will, of course, be considerably smaller than they are used to. However, while it is difficult to quantify exactly how “good” or otherwise the NLD1 is, its clubs have clearly dominated the FA Vase in recent years (the NLD1 is at the highest level of the game that competes in this competition rather than the FA Trophy) and to merely write off clubs such as Spennymoor Town (the NLD1 champions for the last three seasons), Whitley Bay (FA Vase winners for three consecutive years between 2009 and 2011) or Dunston UTS and West Auckland (who played out this years FA Vase final at Wembley) might turn out to be something of a misjudgement.
From the point of view of the experience, though, Darlington supporters might just find themselves presently surprised. They are, of course, not the only set of supporters to have found themselves suddenly watching football in a very different environment to that which they had been accustomed. The supporters of clubs such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester have found themselves dropping from a greater height than Darlington have this week, and it is certainly not uncommon to find supporters of those two clubs who thoroughly enjoyed their experience of this level of the game and who wouldn’t change anything whatsoever about their years at or near the foot of the pyramid. The impulse to look at how far Darlington FC has fallen and grieve for this loss is completely understandable, of course, but it should also considered an opportunity to rebuild from the base up, to mould a club in the image that the supporters themselves want, free from the likes of Reynolds, Houghton and Singh, the wretched trio who did the groundwork which ultimately put it where it is today.
In a broad sense, if non-league football is to survive in the twenty-first century, a switch in perceptions is required. Darlington Football Club should aim for success on the pitch and promotion back to the level of the game from which it fell, of course. This sense of hope is the rationale behind the entire non-league pyramid and is the elixir of the twenty-first century football supporter. It is not, however, the be-all-and-end-all of Darlington FCs existence. After its experiences of the last year, its aims must be broader than the mere acquisition of mere trinkets. It must rebuild the bridges burned with its local community and, more importantly than anything else, it must work towards a home of its own in the town of Darlington itself. This is a long-haul job. Brighton & Hove Albion took twelve years to get a home of their own that they could genuinely call home. Enfield Town took ten years. FC United of Manchester will have taken around nine or ten years by the time that they move into their home in Moston. Football supporters, however, make their choices at an early age and supporting a club is a lifetime commitment. Those who stick by the club now should heed this advice – there is no words that can adequately describe the feeling that comes with every achievement on the road back to redemption.
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