Twenty years ago automatic promotion from the Conference to the Football League structure was introduced, with Scarborough becoming the first club to “step up to the big time” with Lincoln City falling into the unknown of Non-League football. For years many well run, well supported non-league clubs had been denied their chance in the league thanks to an anarchaic process that involved the chairman of the league clubs voting on who should stay in.
Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic were the last two teams voted into the league in the late Seventies, replacing Workington and Southport respectively. This decision was justified with both teams going onto reach the Premier League and a major domestic cup final apiece, whilst the teams they replaced are still knocking around in the Blue Square North. Who is to stay what the league structure would have looked like now if automatic promotion and relegation would have been put in place then. Twenty years later and we have seen new teams make an impact on the leagues, such as Wycombe Wanderers, Yeovil Town (who came within minutes of a place in the Championship a few seasons ago), Cheltenham Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and this season Burton Albion.
The process has also seen a number of teams fall out of the league, only to return much stronger, the best example being Doncaster Rovers who fell out in pieces with possibly the worst ground in the league, only now for them to be sitting in midtable in the Championship with a lovely new 10,000 capacity stadium. colchester United (also with their own new stadium), Carlisle United, Exeter City, Barnet (twice!), Shrewsbury Town, Lincoln City, Torquay United, Hereford United and Darlington have all returned to the fold after relegation. A few teams though have struggled. Macclesfield Town, Accrington Stanley and Morecambe all have struggled to adjust to full time life and the locals have not supported them in the new world of league football. Accrington recently had to rely on the generosity of Premier League newboys Burnley in playing a friendly at the Fraser Eagle Stadium to ease the financial pressure on them.
In total twenty seven diffrent teams have been promoted from the Conference since 1987. Out of these Boston United and Halifax Town have almost disappeared back into the lower non-leagues. Maidstone United and Scarborough have gone out of business and three teams are back in the Conference (Kidderminster, Chester City for the second time and Rushen & Diamonds). The rest have made progress to varying extents in the league structure. The conference was created in 1979 after Wigan Athletic’s promotion to the league. In the seven years between formation and automatic promotion the league was won by five teams, four of which do not exist as they were today – Runcorn, Enfield, Wealdstone and Maidstone United. Only Altrincham who won the first two titles in 1980 and 1981 are still in the same division but more by luck than judgement.
Take a look at the crowds on Saturday 12th September from the respective leagues. League Two had a high of 11,439 thanks to Bradford City, who are far and away the best supported team in the division. Two old non-league teams all got relatively disappointing crowds – Dagenham & Redbridge just over 2,000 and Macclesfield Town just over 1,100. Rochdale and Bury got under 2,400 each. In the Blue Squar Premier this situation was remarkable.
Five clubs got over 2,200. The highest, Luton Town’s 6,264, which only included 35 away fans from Barrow was higher than every League Two gate apart from Bradford City’s and the Sven-fuelled Notts County experience. It was also higher than five clubs in League One. In total seven clubs in this league average over 3,500. And all of these clubs, only one has technically never played league football – AFC Wimbledon. Of the others, Oxford United and Luton Town expect crowds of 6,000 + for most home games, significantly higher than all but a small handful of clubs in the division higher. In contract eleven clubs in Division Two average less than this, of which NINE are former non-league clubs or have played in the non-leagues in the last twenty years.
So is it as simple as that? Not at all. Look at the other spectrum in the Blue Square Premier. Hayes & Yeading, promoted from the Blue Square South last season via the play offs got a crowd of just 355 for their game against Tamworth. Gateshead, promoted in the same manner from the north division 478. These clubs are simply out of their depth at this level. What would happen if they somehow were promoted? Would the crowds flock to see them? I doubt it. Gateshead obviously come from an area that is already supporting two huge teams in Sunderland and Newcastle United, but play in the very unfriendly International Athletics Stadium. With both the Geordies and the Mackems playing in front of empty seats week in, week out I do not see many being interested in a game against the likes of Salisbury City, let alone Barnet. Altrincham, once one of the great non-league teams now sees most young fans head up the metro to Old Trafford or City of Manchester stadium rather than watching their local team. Small local teams such as Forest Green Rovers, Eastbourne Borough, Salisbury City and Crawley Town survive on crowds below 1,000 but simply do not have the financial muscle to make an impact on the division now, so the final table will always have a familiar look – the top 6 today has 4 ex-league clubs in it.
One level below is the Blue Square North and South. Crowds down this far rarely get into four figures. Fleetwood Town, currently enjoying an excellent season just one point off top spot got 1,126 on Saturday, the best crowd in the division but most were around the 500 mark. In the South division four clubs often get over the 1,000 mark with Newport County, Woking, Chelmsford City and Dover. All of these clubs have played at a higher level for significant periods in the past and crowds have been used to success (Just under 30 years ago Newport County were in the Quarter Finals of the European Cup Winners Cup!). Dover, Newport and Woking are currently occupying the top three spots – any co-incidence?
So what does all this show us? Ex-league clubs get the bigger attendances? Sure, but just because you have big crowds is no pre-requisite for success. Or that in any league you will have big clubs and little clubs rubbing along in blissful harmony. Every team has its own hardcore of fans, following them through thick and thin. Cynical Dave and Deaks are two such fans, following Lewes all over the league, adding two to the attendance at Bath City and Chelmsford City in the past week.
Have we fallen out of love with the beautiful game, or have we been priced out? £10 for a ticket at virtually every club in the Blue Square South is good value considering how much it is to see a Premier League game, but what is the club doing to attract new fans? Nothing, and that is the fundamental problem with football. It’s been run for too long as an insular industry, encouraging the same people and ideas to be regurgitated at a commercial level…..but that is for another day.