The Long Read: Democracy (Not) In Action – The Football League & Re-Election

by | Oct 7, 2018

It’s now been one hundred and thirty years since the Football League was founded, and we tend to look upon the modern game as having some degree of meritocracy about it. True enough, the game is distorted by money. Some clubs have considerably more of it than others and this enables them to buy the majority of the best players, but at the end of each season the best get promoted, the worst get relegated, and even those who are richer than Croesus have to follow this process rather than merely buying a place in a higher division – most of the time, at least. The game remains, for now, ultimately decided by what happens on the pitch.

This, however, was not always how things were decided at one particular spot in the game. Leagues are ultimately little more than the sum of their parts. They’re bodies made up of their membership at any given time, and when a place within any given body is as valuable as a place in the Football League can be, falling out of that organisation to be replaced by somebody else came to be thought of as unthinkable. There was no automatic promotion and relegation from the Football League between 1888 and 1987, which meant that the clubs below this level – still, as then, referred to as “non-league” clubs – were cut off from access to the greater revenues and status that came with Football League membership.

This closed shop did allow access occasionally, of course. By the 1960s, the bottom four clubs of the Football League had to be voted back into the competition at the end of each season whilst non-league clubs could apply to join at the same time. It was, of course, the thinnest veneer of democracy, and clubs didn’t often fail to re-elect one of their own. After all, their own fate might well hang in the same balance one day, and should they find themselves under the same circumstances they would find themselves dependent on clubs just like those that they voted for every other season. So it was that re-election became an end of season ritual, a decision-making process held behind closed doors and filtered through to the public from newspaper and television news reports in an era during which people had to wait longer for their news than we do nowadays.

When the Football League was founded in 1888, only twelve clubs were invited to join it. Demand for more regular fixtures was, however, considerably greater than this. A rival league, the Football Combination, set up at the same time but ran on a different system to the Football League. The Football League had a smaller number of clubs, playing each other twice at each other’s home grounds per season. The Football Combination had twenty clubs, but each played only eight other clubs from the league at home and away over the course of the season with no central control of fixtures. With friendly matches and cup matches being played as well, confusion and late withdrawals from matches became commonplace and the league was wound up after just one season. The Football Alliance stepped in to take its place, playing the same system that had reasonably successfully been introduced in the Football League. In 1892, the Football Alliance was merged into the Football League to form the Football League Division Two, with promotion and relegation between the two through a form of play-off called “test matches”, with automatic promotion and relegation being added in 1898.

With the game continuing to expand, though, the number of leagues just kept growing and growing. In London and the south, which had largely overlooked and been overlooked by the formation of these bodies, the Southern League grew to a size and status that was comfortably equal to the Second Division of the Football League, whilst the continuing popularity of amateur football brought about numerous leagues with names drawn from the ancient Greek eductions of their founders: the Isthmians, Hellenics and Athenians. This, over the decades, came to coalesce as “non-league” football. The amateurs remained separate on the statute books until 1974, by which time the battles for popularity that came in the crucible that early professional had been were long over. The amateur game had remained popular – the FA Amateur Cup had reached the height of its popularity as late as the 1950s – but this was largely for the final itself. For the vast majority of the season, however, all of the attention went on the Football League. And for a large number of non-league clubs, a place amongst that top ninety-two became highly coveted.

Re-election has been a part of the Football League since its very beginning. Stoke became the first club to be voted out in 1890, though they were only away a year before being voted back in again, and the end of season ritual continued for the League’s three bottom clubs – two from 1909 on – until shortly after the end of the First World War. Some well-established names earned their place in the League during this time through this method, such as Tottenham Hotspur, who were elected in 1908 by the very thinnest of margins, with the League’s management committee voting by five to three to allow the 1901 FA Cup winners – the last non-league club to win the FA Cup – in at the expense of Lincoln City after they tied a second vote.

When the Football League introduced its two new divisions in 1920 and 1921 with the introduction of the Third Divisions South and Fourth respectively, re-election became increasingly ritualised part the close season, a small coda hidden away in the back pages of the newspapers at the start of June in an age before television (or, at its every beginning, even radio) made news reporting more immediate. A report from the Football League’s AGM would confirm whether the two bottom clubs in each of the divisions had been voted into the Football League, and if they hadn’t, then who had replaced them. The traditional amateur clubs tended to stay out of this, but there were still a lot of professional and semi-professional non-league clubs about and, more pointedly, a lot more newly-wealthier businessmen seeking the perks, both official and unofficial, that came with being the chairman of a Football League clubs.

The first club to be voted out following this expansion was Aberdare Athetic in 1927, and if their experience was anything to go by the future for relegated clubs might be bleak. Aberdare had joined the League in 1921. The club had merged with Aberaman Athletic in 1926, though it kept the same name, but was voted out the following year and replaced by Torquay United. Following relegation, the club lasted one season in the Southern League before splitting into two pieces again, with the Aerdare side folding. The following year’s drop-outs faired little better. Durham City were replaced by Carlisle United. Following their demotion, they dropped down through local leagues to the Wearside League before folding in 1938. The Durham City that continues to this day in the Northern League was a 1949 re-establishment of this club.

As if in a rush to weed out undesirables brought about by the mass influx of club several years earlier, the Football League’s clubs voted out yet another the following year. Ashington were a well-established club, first founded in 1883, and perhaps this prepared them a little better for their failure to get enough votes in 1929. Ashington were replaced by York City, and they jumped from league to league a little before becoming founder members of the Northern Premier League in 1968. After one season, however, they resigned their place and switched to amateur football, joining the Northern League. In 1974 they were losing semi-finallists in the last ever FA Amateur Cup and they continue to play in the Northern League to this day.

After a year’s break, however, the Football League’s AGM struck again. This time the victims were Merthyr Town, another club who’d joined the Third Division South upon its formation. Merthyr were voted out in favour of Thames AFC, a club formed just three years earlier in East London. This turned out to be the death of two football clubs. Thames AFC (the “Association” was part of the club’s name before being abbreviated upon taking Merthyr’s place) played their home matches at the West Ham Stadium, a cavernous 120,000 capacity greyhound stadium, but still managed to attract the smallest attendance for a Saturday match ever by a Football League club when just 469 people turned out to see them play Luton Town in December 1930. They resigned their place and folded.

Fifteen months after their demotion, however, Merthyr thought they spied an opening for a return. The state of the economy was taking a toll on football clubs, and in October 1931 Wigan Borough resigned their place in the League with debts of £30,000 (£1,863,000, adjusted for inflation to 2018). Merthyr Town offered to take over their remaining fixtures, but the Football League said no, and Merthyr’s brief glimmer of hope came to an end. The Football League expunged Wigan’s record and continued a club short for the rest of the season. Wigan Athetic were immediately formed as a replacement club a year later, but more of them later. Merthyr Town soldiered on in the Southern League before folding in 1934, and that club’s replacement club, Merthyr Tydfil FC, continued to play in the Southern League until folding in 2010. The current incarnation of this convoluted story has reverted to the Merthyr Town name. Newport County were voted out of the Football League at the same time as Merthyr, coincidentally, but were only away for a year before returning to take the space left by Wigan Borough’s collapse. So it goes.

The following year, the last of this initial rush of clubs to be voted out followed, and on this occasion it was tight. Nelson finished adrift at the bottom of the Third Division North the previous season and were in deep financial difficulty. They were replaced by Chester City, who folded in 2010 following relegation from the Football League through the automatic promotion and relegation place that would later replace re-election. Their successor club, Chester FC, now play in the National League North. The numbers, however, were starting to tail off. Perhaps it was the broader issue of the economy.

Perhaps it was the cautionary tales of so many of those voted out (and occasionally of those voted in), but in the early 1930s the numbers slowed, and in 1934 no-one even applied to join the Third Division North, meaning that the two clubs that had finished the season in bottom places in the table were voted straight back in. The re-election axe would only swing one more time before the Second World War blew a hole in the schedule that would last for seven years. Gillingham had been founded in 1883 as New Brompton FC and had joined the Southern League as founder members in 1894, changing their name to Gillingham in 1912. They hadn’t had an especially successful on the pitch during all those years, though, and their replacement in 1938 came with the club having already had to seek re-election on five occasions over the course of their seventeen years of membership. Ipswich Town took their place and, when the Third Divisions North and South expanded from twenty-two to twenty-four clubs in 1950, Gilligham rejoined them.

With the game more settled and crowds rising, the number of clubs voted in and out of the Football League had already slowed by the time that Gillingham lost their place, and this slowing of the pace continued after the Football League resumed in 1946. The next team to get voted out of the Football League were New Brighton, in 1951. New Brighton had been formed as a continuation of South Liverpool, taking on that club in an arrangement that might be considered a little Franchiseque in 1921. Voted into the Football League two years later, New Brighton were almost promoted to the Second Division in only their second season as members. This, however, was by a long way as good as it got for the club, and in 1951 they were voted out in favour of Workington. The club continued to drift down through the divisions before folding in 1983.

The Football League changed Division Threes North and South into their Third and Fourth Divisions in 1958, and with it came the spectacle of the four bottom clubs in the Fourth Division facing re-election alongside whichever non-league clubs applied alongside them. This new system claimed a victim within a couple of years. South Shields FC had been formed in 1899 and became a member of the Football League with the League’s expansion to two divisions of twenty-two clubs in 1919. The club moved and changed its name to Gateshead in 1930, and when it came to require re-election in 1960 there wasn’t any great panic within the club. Gateshead had finished in third from bottom place in the table, and they were hardly repeat offenders either – this was the first time they they’d been required to apply for re-election since 1937, and only their second time ever.

On the 28th May 1960, however, the Football League’s AGM had a nasty surprise in store for Gateshead. Eighteen different non-league clubs applied for a Football League place in 1960, but after Oldham Athetic had their place confirmed it was confirmed that Peterborough United of the Midland League had finished in second place, meaning that a Football League club was going to lose its place. Even when Hartlepools United grabbed the third spot, though, Gateshead still had cause for optimism. Southport may have finished a place above them in the table, but they’d had to apply for re-election for the previous three seasons whereas this was the first time that Gateshead had been required to reapply in twenty-three years. Southport won eleven votes more than Gateshead, though, and the Newcastle Chronicle reported the next day:

Gallant Gateshead are out of league football. Gone from the tough competitive scene are a team who have always played hard and earned their own little corner in soccer history. They battled in the shadow of the great Newcastle United and Sunderland – for cash as well as points. They were always fighters, but now their ‘colleagues’ have kicked them out.

The strong rumour was that the owners of southern clubs were tired of having to travel all the way up to Tyneside, though this has obviously never been verified by anbody in an official position. Two years later, however, when a new club was required to replace Accrington Stanley, who’d folded during the season, the voting saw a landslide for Oxford United, who received thirty-nine votes, thirty-four more than the next-lowest placed club, Wigan Athletic. Throughout the remainder of the 1960s, such landslide votes were the norm, but with very different results – non-league clubs normally came nowhere near the required total number of votes.

In 1968, however, irregular circumstances in more than one sense led to a club having to go before a vote under very specific circumstances. In January 1968, a Football League investigation into Port Vale led to the Football Association charging the club on six counts, as follows:

1. Several amateurs had been paid despite not being registered.
2. Associate schoolboys having played for the club against FA rules.
3. Extra bonuses being paid to players after a 3-0 League Cup victory over Chester in August 1967.
4. Illegal bonuses being been paid to two players.
5. An illegal signing-on bonus being been paid to one player.
6. A director of the club offering gifts to young players.

The club was fined £2,000 but, more significantly, the Football Association also recommended that Vale be expelled from the Football League at the end of the season. The League deliberated over it for a month before fining the club a further £2,000 and duly informed the club that it would be expelled at the end of the season. The club’s directors stated that they were “shocked and appalled” at the “savage penalties” handed down, penalties that were probably as harsh as they were on account of coming in the slipstream of the 1964 betting scandal, which had done the game’s reputation no good whatsoever. There was, however, a critical caveat that would save Port Vale’s skin. They may well be voted out at the end of the season, but they could still reapply to join again immediately. When they did so at the start of the summer, they were reinstated by forty votes to nine.

Two years later, however, arguably the most well-known victims of re-election of all plunged through the trapdoor. The Bradford Football Club had been founded in 1863, playing rugby and joining the Northern Rugby Football Union – which, after a series of mergers, would later become the Rugby Football League – in 1895. In 1907 came another split. This time around, a narrow majority of members voted to switch to play association football. The minority, who wished to continue to play rugby league, left to form a new club, Bradford Northern, while the football club became known as Bradford (Park Avenue) FC. Bradford Northern continue to play today as the Bradford Bulls. This split came to be known as “The Great Betrayal.”

By the end of the late 1960s, though, Bradford Park Avenue – as they were most commonly known – were in a sorry state. The end of the 1969/70 season saw the club finish at the bottom of the Fourth Division for the third season in a row, after all. When the votes came in at the Football League’s AGM, even with a field that might have been split by the inclusion of thirteen non-league applicants, Bradford Park Avenue could only finish in sixth place in the voting below both Cambridge United of the Southern League and now-perennial applicants Wigan Athletic. Cambridge, therefore, took Bradford’s place in the League and Bradford slipped into the Northern Premier League, where they would remain for four further seasons before folding in 1974, despite having sold their Park Avenue ground a year earlier. The club of the same name that currently plays in the National League North was founded in 1988.

Two years later, Barrow were voted out in favour of Hereford United. It was, for the outgoing club, something of a perfect storm. Despite winning promotion to the Third Division in 1967, relegation back in 1970 saw the club in a poor state both on and off the pitch. The club’s directors decided to install a sppedway track around the pitch in order to try to cover some of their financial losses, but this was not popular amongst other clubs. In addition to this, Barrow were – as Gateshead arguably were twelve years earlier – relatively geographically isolated, whilst Hereford United’s run to the FA Cup Fourth Round during the 1971/72 season meant that there was a non-league club which already had a high profile ready to take their place. Barrow continue to play today, in the National League.

As the 1970s progressed, though, it started to feel as though English football was slowly starting to move towards greater fluidity. The FA ended the distinction between professional and amateur players in 1974, whilst in 1976 the Football League limited the number of new applications to two clubs, which had an immediate effect on re-election. The following season, Workington were voted out to be replaced by Wimbledon, the second club from the far north-western coast to be voted out of the Football League in six seasons. This wasn’t that much of a surprise, really, Workington ended the 1976/77 season bottom of the Fourth Division and with just four league wins all season. They’d finished bottom of the table at the end of the previous season, too. A year later, another club from roughly the same paart of the world (albeit a little further south), Southport, were also voted out. They’d tied with Wigan Athletic on the first vote, and on the second vote the Northern Premier League club’s years of experience at canvassing made all the difference as they beat Southport to the last place in the Football League by nine votes.

1979 saw the introduction of the Alliance Premier League, a new national league formed by the biggest clubs in the Southern League and Northern Premier League explicitly with the aim of pushing for automatic promotion and relegation with the Football League. The number of applicant was reduced from two to one, and this almost had an effect immediately. Much as Hereford United had several years earlier, Altrincham had built their reputation on the largesse of Peter Swales and Noel White – who would end up on the boards of Manchester City and Liverpool respectively – and the club spent £50,000 on ground developments and £10,000 on canvassing for their 1980 bid for a place in the Football League, whilst FA Cup runs also helped to raise their profile.

Rochdale had finished two of the previous three seasons in the bottom four in the Fourth Division, were desperately struggling to attract crowds, and were generally considered to be extremely vulnerable to Altrincham’s bid. On the day of the vote, however, everything went wrong for the non-league club. The Grimsby Town representative ended up in the wrong part of the building, whilst the Luton Town representative got the time of the meeting wrong and was hopelessly late to turn up. Both had previously pledged their support to Altrincham, but neither voted on the day. Rochdale defeated Altrincham by twenty-six votes to twenty-five.

It turned out that Southport would remain the last Football League club to be voted out of the League and replaced through re-election. The Alliance Premier League started at an inconvenient time, when attendances across all levels were tumbling precipitously, but, while its early years were a struggle for many of its clubs – attendances at many clubs struggled to reach four figures – the new league did raise the profile of the non-league game with its innovations. Not all of them were successful – experiments with no offside from free-kicks and two points for a home win and three for an away win certainly weren’t – but they did get it known, and by the middle of the decade such was the state of the entire Football League that it was considered that further reform of the divisions was inevitable.

In 1986, the Football League reached agreement with what was by now known as the Football Conference for automatic promotion and relegation to begin from the summer of 1987. As GM Vauxhall Conference champions for the 1986/87 season, Scarborough became the first club to win automatic promotion to the Football League, with Lincoln City becoming the first club to make the return journey. Ground grading regulations meant that it wasn’t guaranteed that clubs would get promoted come the end of each season, but the Conference raised its game eventually, and in 2003 a second promotion and relegation place was added, which the Conference gave to play-off winners. With the National League – as the Football Conference is now rebranded – now largely professional in its own right, there remains considerable support in non-league circles for the number of automatic promotion and relegation places between it and the Football League to be increased to three, though this hasn’t happened yet.

For decades and decades, however, this semi-closed shop existed, and its iniquity can be seen in some of the figures associated with it. Hartlepool United hold the record for falling into the re-election places on the most occasions, with fourteen, but they were never voted out of the Football League. Gateshead, on the other hand, were voted out at the first attempt, whilst four of the clubs that were voted out of the Football League in the years following the creation of its third tier were only in that position for the second time. Re-election was occasionally predictable – it was no surprise when, say, Bradford Park Avenue or Workington were voted out – but it still wasn’t quite predictable enough, especially as football clubs had to increasingly organise themselves as businesses.

From the perspective of the non-league clubs the position prior to 1987 was considerably more unsatisfactory, although they could do little to force the Football League to open itself up. The record number of applications to join the Football League stands with Wigan Athletic, whose successful application in 1978 came at their twenty-fifth attempt. The most applications without getting voted in were made by Yeovil Town (who managed to get there of their own accord as Football Conference champions in 2003), but the three clubs below them in that list – Bedford Town, Kettering Town and Chelmsford City – have still never tasted life in the Football League. One amateur club, Argonauts, famously applied on three successive occasions between 1928 and 1930 without playing a single game. In 1981, annoyed at the fact that applications could only be made from the Alliance Premier League while the only pathway into it could be made from the Southern or Northern Premier Leagues, Wycombe Wanderers from Isthmian League made an application, had their ground confirmed as acceptable for League football, and then withdrew it. The Isthmian League didn’t get automatic promotion and relegation into the Alliance Premier League until 1985, although Enfield and Dagenham were invited to join in 1981.

For clubs applying from the non-league game, though, this was all important. As long ago as 1907, Oldham Athletic produced a pamphlet to be sent to each Football League club reminding them of their virtues. Small wonder, when they had just five minutes to make their claim to the League clubs’ chairmen. Oldham narowly missed out on being voted in that year but were permitted to join thanks to a resignation. Twelve years later, South Shields sent their manager Jack Tinn to every Football League club with a prospectus demonstrating their success both on and off the pitch and were voted in. As time progressed, sending a prospectus increasingly became the norm and this, combined with the potential costs of improving facilities to get them ready for the Football League – something which senior non-league clubs took until the end of the 1990s to predictably be able to get right – made seeking promotion a costly business with the likelihood of success remaining extremely slim.

If that sounds familar, well, to this day non-league clubs throw good money after bad in the pursuit of a place in the Football League. We can see that from the positioning of Salford City and Billericay Town at the tops of the National League and the National League South respectively, at this precise moment in time. Yet the benefits of a place in the Football League are far from guaranteed. There are plenty of clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League who live just as much of a hand to mouth existence of those who play below it. In terms of prestige, though, a place amongst the top ninety-two retains a pull that continues to consistently attract those who consider the gamble of sinking their money into “project promotions” to be worthwhile. Getting a place in the Football League has never been easy for most, but for those with the money to burn, it’s never been more tempting, either.