Who is the fairest of them all?

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.

A bit of a dramatic entrance

A bit of a dramatic entrance

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?

Lolly's interpretation of "The Ball is Round"

Lolly's interpretation of "The Ball is Round"

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.

And now, the end is near…..

“….and so I face the final curtain”….not my words but those of Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blues Eyes.  And what could be more apt for a final day game in the Blue Square Premier League than a trip back to one of my favourites, Lewes for their last game at this level.  Since seeing them beat Grays on the 22nd November (see When Two Blogs Collide) the team have played twenty five league games, winning three times and losing the remaining twenty two games.  Nine points out of seventy five is not really play off material so it comes as no surprise to anyone, including the Lewes fans that the team confirmed their relegation some weeks ago back to the Blue Square South.  Hopes were never very high for this season after the farcical events of last summer after promotion had been confirmed, and hadn’t been helped by the management of ex-Brighton & Hove Albion commercial manager (i.e no football management experience) Kevin Keehan being in charge of team affairs for most of the campaign.

Last April things were so different in this lovely little town in East Sussex.  The club has risen from Rymans League Three to the Blue Square Premier in just seven seasons, an amazing effort and I doubt that any visiting fan can ever have a bad word to say about visiting the Dripping Pan.  Then the owners of the club made some bizarre decisions and have reaped the rewards of their bad harvest this season.  Administration has been avoided, which appeared to be the only option a few months ago for the club.  So there are some positives for next season andI have vowed to adopt them as my second team from August and get to as many away games as I can in the Blue Square South to keep up our commitment at TBIR to cover non-league as much as European football.

But for this last horaahI was obviously going to be attending with Mr. Last.  The man who has taken his blog (EFW) to new levels of reporting by securing endorsement this season from the creator of Steptoe & Son (Alan Simpson), two Ashes winners (Jimmy Anderson and Jack Russell) and a comedy genius (Frank Sidebottom).  This would obviously involve a number of Harvey’s being sampled – when in Rome, etc so the train was the carriage of choice for this one.

York were the visitors for the last day, and after a bit of squeekybum time in the past few weeks they secured Conference football with a 2-1 away win at Weymouth on Friday night.  I had seen York on four occasions already this season and their performances had varied from solid (Histon), attacking (Burton Albion), defensive (Salisbury City) and woeful (Eastbourne Borough).  Of course there was always the passionate support to look forward to.  The York fans have supported their club through thick and thin over the past few seasons and are one of the only clubs to have a recognised “Ultra” following.  Some of their fans can be a bit exuberant to say the least (see February 2009’s post on “I do like to be beside the seaside”) but at least they care and show a bit of passion.  They have exceeded a number of expectations though this season.  The form of centre-forward Brodie has been nothing short of sensational at times, and with 18 goals this season he has been their shining light.  His goals also secured a first trip to the New Wembley Stadium for the club as they are due to play Stevenage Borough in the FA Trophy final in a few weeks.

With all four relegation places confirmed these two had nothing to play for.  I had some money on an outside bet for Oxford United to reach the play offs which required a Torquay defeat at home to Burton Albion and a Kidderminster draw or defeat at home plus the assumption that Oxford would beat already relegated Northwich Victoria themselves. So I would have one eye on the Blackberry and one eye on the fantastic bar at the Dripping Pan.

The sun was shining as CMF taxi’s pulled up in Brighton andafter an hour on the beach with the Little Fullers I was off up the road to meet Mr Last at the European Football Weekends HQ – aka The Lord Nelson, officially the darkest pub in the world.  Obviously a couple of Harvey’s were in order and after a discussion on the latest non-league gossip we were off to Lewes on the train.

Lewes 1 York City 1 – The Dripping Pan – Sunday 26th April 2009 4pm

The teams emerge to an almost San Siro welcome

The teams emerge to an almost San Siro welcome

The weather was so good in East Sussex that it seemed a shame to play a football match.  One good thing to come out of the relegation of the club is that next season they do not have to abide by the ridiculous rule that means that no alcohol is allowed to be served during the game from the bar behindthe goal will not be enforced.  The amount of revenue the club will see next season should make up for the lower number of away supporters.  This season the biggest attendances have been when the big clubs have come to visit.  York brought a couple of coaches with them and filled the small away terrace at the far end, enjoying the BBQ in full force.  Danny took the opportunity to induct a couple more people into the EFW fanclub, snapping Richard Brodie and Martin Foyle from York City into the gallery.

To tell you the truth the game was poor.  York City played witha number of squad players starting, with Foyle looking at likely candidates for their big Wembley appearance.  He had kept top scorer Brodie on the bench, and even Lewes chose to rest their teenage sensation David Wheeler for the first half.  I cannot remember one single chance in the first half, although you would have never guessed by the noise the few hundred Lewes fans made.  Scored kept filtering through from around the country.  Firstly Torquay scored against Burton, and then news came through that the divisions form team Northwich Victoria had taken the lead at the Kassam against Oxford United.

Half time came and another Harvey’s disappeared and it was touch and go whether we went back out onto the terrace.  But we did and both teams decided to take it a bit more seriously and on came Brodie and Wheeler.  York City eventually took the lead with ten minutes to play as Brodie headed a free kick across the goal for York captain Mark Greaves to turn the ball in, and the hopes of all home fans that there would be anything apart from another defeat.

But the team obviously wanted to give the fans something of a summer send off and from a Foreman free kick, Cullip knocked the ball on and top scorer Joe Keehan was on handto bundle the ball home with just two minutes left on the clock.  So a predictable result in the end, which is more than can be said from elsewhere in the Conference as Kidderminster Harriers, Stevenage Borough and Burton Albion all lost.  Now that could (and should) have meant that Cambridge United and Oxford United winning their home games to secure automatic promotion (Cambridge) anda play off place (Oxford United).  But with matters in their own hands they could not deliver and so Burton Albion won automatic promotion, and Oxford United fell short of the end of season shakedown.  And Lewes?  Well they will be looking forward to renewing acquaintances with Havant and Waterlooville, Bromley and Welling United next season.  Of course this will mean a few new grounds for the travelling Rooks including Dover Athletic.  One thing is for sure, this will not be the last time I visit the Dripping Pan….

The teams emerge to an almost San Siro welcome

One to go and all to play for…

 As a new twist to the family of football offerings from Fuller Inc you can now add Scouting.  Not the Baden Powell type but the “seeing what talented footballers are out there” type.  I had been asked by a certain football league club to have a look at Kidderminster Harrier’s Player of the Season in 2007 and 2008 Mark Creichton in their game at Stevenage Borough.  This suited me perfectly for three reasons:-

1. I hadn’t been to Stevenage for over 12 years;

2. I have always said I knew more about football than most of the people I have ever met in football.

3. I managed to persuade Football Jo to come, and to get her to drive me to and from the station

Let’s look at point one.  In November 1996 on a “country drive”, CMF and I stumbled upon a small farm called Tewin Bury.  At the time we were shacked up with Marc Oedipus in our love nest in Notting Hill (above Mike Atherton, opposite Lawrence Dallaglio and two doors down from Norman Lamont if you wanted to know) and in a rash moment of impulse we decided to get married there.  We were not engaged, nor had we ever really planned to get married but we (well she) was seduced by the beauty of the venue, and they had a space for our (her) preferred date in August 1998.  So we booked it and I paid a £2,000 deposit.  I thought it was a tad unfair that we had spent so much money on something I would get little enjoyment out of (don’t say I just said that!)  so I suggested we go into Stevenage so that I could look in PC World.  Thirty minutes later I had spend £1,000 (Remember this was pre-little Fuller’s and life was good) on a new PC and £400 on a new DVD player (at the time when they were like suitcases).  I noticed that a few people were parking on the retail park with football shirts on and threw in a request to go to the game, whoever the locals were playing.  The response I got chilled me to the bone:-

“Now that we are engaged that is fine”

Er when had I proposed.  Sure, I had just paid £2,000 as a non-returnable deposit on a wedding but that wasn’t the same as actually proposing.  Still I bit my tongue and we went off to find out it was an FA Cup 1st round game between Stevenage Borough and Hayes in the FA Cup. 

Anyway, back to the present.  Yes I went through with the wedding and yes I did the proper proposal (Amsterdam 9th February 2007 if you want to know) and yes I had never been back since.  Football Jo was at a loose end as her latest chap had decided to go to work so she wanted to come along and “advise” me on the best players to scout.  It was going to be an interesting evening.  So 20 minutes after being picked up in Harpenden we had parked across the road from the ground.

Inside the stadium hadn’t changed much – a new roof at one end but it still looked one of the better stadiums in the Conference.  Stevenage had been there or there abouts on a number of occasions at this level, coming mightily close in 1994/95 when they actually won the Conference but the stadium was not deemed fit to allow league football.  It took then nearly a decade, a few financial close escapes and an FA Trophy victory to get back into the play offs but they lost to Carlisle United in 2005.  This season their form had taken them from the bottom three (after a disastrous start which saw them lose 5-1, 3-1 and 4-0 in their first four games) to the situation in early 2009 when they won ten consecutive games.  In fact since the turn of the year the team had only lost once in their last thirty games and that was to tonight’s opposition just two weeks previous.

Kidderminster had also been in a similar position to Stevenage in that they had finished top of the conference in 1994 but were refused entry into the league due to the ground not being up to standard.  This was rich at the time considering the state of a number of grounds in the Football League.  Who can ever forget visiting grounds like Barnet, Blackpool or Cambridge United in that season and seeing the poor facilities on offer.  Ironically that season they hosted West Ham United in the FA Cup in front of 8,000 at the so-called unprepared stadium without any issues.  They eventually made it into the league in 2000 when they won the league at a canter.  If ever there was a title not to make the step up to league football it was 2000.  First went the revenues from ITV Digital, then the revenues from the deal to supply websites through Premium TV and finally the strength of the local Premier League teams meant that money was hard to come by.  They returned to the non-leagues in 2005/06 and have since failed to threaten the top of the league until this season when Manager Mark Yates has created an impressive attacking team.  Their home form for most of the season has been the impressive element so this game was to be a real challenge for them.

 Stevenage Borough 3 Kidderminster Harriers 1 – Broadhall Way – Tuesday 21st April 2009

Stevenage Borough 3 Kidderminster Harriers 1

Stevenage Borough 3 Kidderminster Harriers 1

 There was a fair size crowd in the stadium for his one.  Obviously the Stevenage public had been wowed by the style of football they had seen and the astounding results of the team.  Quite rightly the club can be proud of their performance in the second half of the season, but with up to six big games left it could all end in tears.  Step one was to beat Kidderminster Harriers, one place above Stevenage in the league in what would be a huge motivational boost for the team.

I was very keen to see how the Stevenage front two played.  I had heard good things about Morison up front, and being one of the leading scorers in the league where goals are often hard to come by was going to be interesting.  Lee Boylan on the other hand was a name from the past.  I first saw him in West Ham United’s youth set up in the late 1990’s, and was at the Youth Cup Final at Anfield when West Ham lost to Liverpool 2-1 in the second leg in a team alongside Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard (The Liverpool team on that day included Gerard and Michael Owen).  What did surprise me was that he had appeared to have scored many goals so far this season.  Kidderminster had an impressive front two themselves, with Barnes-Homer and Richards having scored 35 goals between them, making them the most prolific duo in the Blue Square Conference this season.  

So the game started on a lovely Bedfordshire (or is it Herftordshire?) evening and it was obvious that the man we had come to watch Creighton looked tired and unfit.  He seemed to make his way forward for early set pieces but left his team mates exposed as he was not able to get back in time to assist the defence on the break.  Stevenage attacked from the word go and right midfielder Drury impressed with his speed down the flank.  From his cross on four minutes top scorer Morison slammed the ball home after his initial shot was blocked.  Kidderminster were reeling and within minutes it was nearly two as Morison took a ball on his chest on the right hand side of the penalty area and hit a magnificent volley that dipped, curled and swerved over the keepers head before it smashed into the bar.

Stevenage were certainly playing impressively and it took a good half an hour before Kidderminster found their rhythm.  Their front two were certainly fast and the midfield engine Penn (who was rumoured to have been the subject of a £100,000 transfer approach recently) was instrumental in pulling them back into the game.  His pass found Richards 20 yards out and his quick feet found a space and a shot which ended up in the back of the net to make it one all.

The second half was a completely different story.  To tell the truth we had given up watching our friend from Kidderminster as he was simply being run ragged by Boylan and Morison although he was certainly “no nonsense” in his approach to defending, a characteristic that is essential at this level.  Just two minutes into the second half Boylan turned him around 30 yards out, took two steps and then rifled a low shot into the corner.  Fifteen minutes later he made it three one when he beat Creighton at the near post to turn in a smart cross from Mitchell Cole.

After this the game was never in doubt.  Stevenage have hit form just at the right moment and this win lifted them into the playoff places for the first time in a few weeks.  With just one game to go they now hold the upper hand over Oxford United, Torquay United and Kidderminster in the race for the final slot.  Kidderminster seem to have done enough to earn a spot, and with Torquay United hosting Burton who have to win they could still yet make it into the end of season shake down, and who knows a repeat of the 2007 FA Trophy final against Stevenage.

We exited stage left, winding our way through the non-league WAG’s (have to be seen to be believed), past the signs around the pitch for “missile defence systems” (I didn’t know it was so rough in the town) and crossed the main road.  Outside the car park was a Robin Reliant with the sign Boys2Men on the side – nothing like drawing attention to yourself…As I say – strange place Stevenage.

About the Broadhall Way
Certainly one of the better grounds in the Blue Square Premier and one which would not look out of place in the Football League. On one side is the all seated covered, Main Stand, that looks quite impressive. It is unusual in so much that at the back of the stand on either side of it, there are large gaps between the back of the roof and the stand below. Whilst in the middle of the stand at the back, there are a number of glass fronted areas to various Club offices. Opposite is the fair sized East Terrace, that is covered and is quite steep. Eventhough like the rest ground, the stand is relatively new, it does have a gable with a clock sitting on its roof above the half way line, which gives it a touch of character. At one end is the South Stand, which is another single tiered all seated covered stand. This stand given to away supporters. There is an electric scoreboard on the roof of this stand. Opposite at the North End of the ground, is a small covered terrace. A set of four new floodlights (one pylon in each corner) were installed for the start of the 2007/08 season.Thanks to Duncan Adam’s excellent site http://conferencegroundguide.co.uk/ for the above information

Getting to Broadhall Way
If you are driving you will undoubtably come via the A1. In which case exit at Junction 7 and take the A602 towards Stevenage. Go straight across the first roundabout and as you approach the next roundabout you can see the floodlights of the ground over on the right. However, if you go straight across the roundabout then you will see the entrance on the left to the large official car park which is free. You can also take the 1st left at the roundabout and park in Old Meg – not the local witch but an retail park.The nearest station is Stevenage which is about a mile away from the ground. Leave the station booking hall and turn left towards the town. Take the stairs on the right before the bridge over the dual carriage way and head along the A602, Lytton Way. At the roundabout which has the police station on the right, take the second exit into Six Hills Way. At the next roundabout take the third exit (south) continuing along the A602, Monkswood Way, passing a large Asda store on your right. After about 3/4 mile (McDonalds/Burger King etc will be on your right) you will arrive at a roundabout and the ground will be opposite you on the other side of the A602.

How to get a ticket for Broadhall Way 
It’s pay on the door for all games (bar any big FA Cup matches) at Stevenage.  Even the FA Trophy Semi-Final this season only attracted just over 3,000.  Pricing is relatively simple – £15 for a seat in the main stand or away end behind the goal and £12 for a place on the covered terrace.