The lights went out over Prenton Park and Whaddon Road last weekend. After ninety-four and sixteen years respectively, Tranmere Rovers and Cheltenham Town fell through the trapdoor at the bottom of the Football League on Saturday, and both will start next season, quite possibly still a little chastened from the whole experience, in the Football Conference, or, as it will be known after a summer’s worth of rebranding, the National League. The Football League Show will cease to be much of a relevance on Saturday evenings. The League Cup and The Johnstones Paint Trophy will be replaced by the FA Trophy. Things won’t be the same for either club, from the start of next season.
More than a quarter of a century after the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation from the basement of the League, this particular relegation still carries with it a fear and sense of loss that is completely unique. No matter how hard many have tried, a blurring of the sense of exaggeration in the distinction between the fourth and fifth tiers of English football has never fully taken hold. Even though the majority of Conference clubs are now full-time and the division has a hold over the non-league game that can at times look similar to the stranglehold that the Premier League has over the Football League, this particular relegation still carries a real and tangible fear for supporters, players and clubs alike, but why should this be?
It is not a reflection upon the club itself that few tears outside of Whaddon Road will have been shed over the loss of Cheltenham Town from the top ninety-two. The club’s rise from the middle order of the semi-professional game to the Football League in seven years between 1992 and 1999 was one of the more understated success stories of that decade. Once safely ensconced amongst the top ninety-two clubs, the club made modest progress, enjoying several seasons in League One before falling back. But Cheltenham Town remain amongst the new wave of clubs that swept the old guard aside as it readily became apparent that the Conference was far easier to tumble into than to haul oneself out of in an upward direction.
There was rather more forelock tugging over the fall of Tranmere Rovers. It often feels as if continuing to exercise an interest in professional sport is an exercise in trying to hold onto the last traces of our youth, and for those of us who spent every Sunday morning scanning league tables in the newspapers as if trying to crack some sort of hidden code that could predict the future, Tranmere Rovers were certainly part of that. They tended to play their home league matches on Friday night (in order to avoid clashing with Liverpool and Everton, who alternated Saturday afternoons in an era when there was almost no football played on Sundays), and then there was that name. The average football supporter’s geographical knowledge is greatly enhanced by the sheer volume of clubs whose exact whereabouts we feel compelled to memorise, and Tranmere was a place which suggested more mystery than most. Tranmere. A sub-division of Birkenhead. A sub-division of Liverpool. The other side of the water.
The club also flirted with success during the 1990s, with FA Cup runs and even chase for a place in the Premier League, but those days are now long gone. Financial mismanagement and years of steady, unremitting decline did for the club’s place in the League, but for those of us who remember a time when seeing a football result in the newspapers on a Saturday morning was, in its own tiny way, an event, or who remember the club most vividly because their Friday night fixtures meant that they featured regularly on ITV’s Saturday lunchtime chuckle-a-thon Saint & Greavsie, the news that a club whose name had become a byword for the desperately dire straits in which the lower reaches of the lower divisions of the Football League became as football’s stock fell throughout the 1970s and early 1980s carried an air of poignancy about it. Sure enough, Tranmere Rovers always seemed to be struggling somewhat and there always seemed to be talk of some financial crisis or other emanating from it and other clubs of a similar hue, but they always seemed to somehow pull through. It’s an illusion, the last vestiges of which vanished from view last weekend.
The truth, of course, was a little less benign than this romanticised version of the game’s history. The likes of Tranmere Rovers maintained their place in the Football League because it was a closed shop, offering only re-election – a process by which the bottom four clubs in what was then called the Fourth Division had to be voted back in at the end of each season – as a sop towards meritocracy. And the truth of the matter is that these turkeys very seldom voted for Christmas. Every few years or so, somebody would be voted out and replaced by a bright-eyed newcomer from the labyrinthine network that constituted the non-league game at the time. The last club to be voted out by this means was Southport in 1978, and even though teams did occasionally slide quietly out of view rumours were rife at the time that the system was rigged to ensure the survival of the unfittest. Certainly, long-term performance on the pitch seldom seemed to have much to do with the decisions reached at the Football League’s AGM each summer.
Things had to change, of course, and when the Football Conference brought together the best of the Northern Premier and Southern Premier Leagues under the slightly unwieldy name of the Alliance Premier League in 1979 with the stated aim of pressuring for automatic promotion and relegation with the Football League, the writing was on the wall for the League’s closed shop model. It took until 1987 for this to come to pass, by which time the finances crises that afflicted lower division clubs was reaching something approaching fever pitch, and in 1988 Lincoln City became the first club to plummet, replaced by Scarborough after the Football League caved in. With four automatic promotion places up for grabs and a de facto state of no relegation at the bottom, they had no choice. Over the years since then, many names had become, in their own way, objects of permanence in our minds – Grimsby Town, Wrexham, Stockport County, Chester City, and a whole host of others – have since become “non-league clubs,” though, with all the baggage that comes with such a title. They in turn have been replaced by a combination of some of the bigger traditional names of the non-league game – Wycombe Wanderers or Yeovil Town, for example – and the financially plumpened, such as Crawley Town or Fleetwood Town. There’s been a second promotion place since 2003, but even this sometimes doesn’t seem to have diminished the special place that the fear of losing that Football League place holds in the psyche of many supporters.
For the supporters of those that do drop in this way, that fear is understandable. From a practical perspective, the lesson of the last quarter of a century has been that it’s far easier to fall into non-league football than it is to clamber out of it in an upwardly direction. Even Luton Town, a club who missed out on a place in the Premier League by one season and who were really only relegated in the first place off the back of the most swingeing points deduction that professional football in England has ever seen, took several years to get back. Then there is the small matter of civic pride. It may not mean much to everybody, but being a town with a Football League club resident in it carried – and still does carry, albeit to an arguably smaller degree – something about it which legitimised a town or city, in a way. To pick a random example, who would be familiar with the town of Scunthorpe – outside of the that filthy song so beloved of some – were it not for Scunthorpe United? The same rule, we might well argue, surely also applies to Tranmere, as well as scores of other small towns, cities or districts.
This is all very well for the supporters of the clubs concerned, who may well take relegations such as this as being something bigger and more symbolic than the sum of its parts, a crystallisation of the recent decline of their club, but what about the rest of us? There were, after all, definite pangs of regret for the fall of Tranmere Rovers on social media last weekend from people who we might have assumed to have had no significant emotional attachment to this club. Perhaps clubs like Tranmere Rovers are a reminder those days of childhood, of that feeling that things had always been this way and always would be this way. We assume they’ll be amongst the top ninety-two forever, and suddenly they’re not. Time marches on relentlessly, whether we like it or not,abd despite any pangs of sadness over these relegations, we all know that they are am inevitable side-effect of the very necessary need to end that closed shop at the bottom of the Football League.
Perhaps the non-league experience will be a temporary one for one or both of Cheltenham Town and Tranmere Rovers. It’s possible that either or both will bounce straight back, and this will all be seen as something of an aberration, akin to a collective nightmare from which supporters awaken back in the Football League. Perhaps supporters will enjoy the sensation of winning a few games, albeit at a slightly lower level than they’ve become accustomed to. For Tranmere supporters, the prospect of taking on local rivals such as Wrexham, Chester, Macclesfield and Southport may add a little spice to non-league life. At this precise moment, it’s all ifs, buts and maybes. They may well not feel the same after they’ve played a few games at the start of next season, but for now supporters of both clubs may well feel as if they’re staring into an abyss. How long they spend there is a question that will be start to be answered over the nine months from August. For the time being, though, things will not be the same again for either Cheltenham Town or Tranmere Rovers.
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