Michael Farrow's sports blog

A collection of new and old writings

…on why we must reform and possibly wave goodbye to the Conference National

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Scarborough were the first team automatically promoted but their "Theatre of Chips", McCain Stadium, was torn down in 2011 after the Seadogs went bust

It’s 25 years since Lincoln City became the first team automatically relegated from the Football League. Founder members of the Football League Second Division and ever the trend-setters, the Imps decided the best way to bounce straight back was to stay professional in a semi-professional league. Little did they know that a trend had started which would permanently change the Conference where today, 18 of its 24 clubs are fully professional. It’s time to face up to what the Conference has become and reform it, else it will become a burden.

The Alliance Premier League, as it was then called, was formed in 1979 by teams from the traditionally-professional Northern Premier and Southern Leagues, forming only the second national league after the Football League itself. The League at the time used an election system to decide its members, with the bottom four clubs facing re-election in a ballot alongside new non-league applicants. The long held view was that, despite Cambridge United, Hereford United, Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic being elected in the previous decade, more than one non-league applicant split the vote thus only the Alliance Premier League winner or the next eligible side would apply. If the first seven seasons were anything to judge the new league on, the Alliance Premier League was a resounding failure as not a single team was elected.

1986/87 brought the threat of automatic relegation to Division Four.  A one-up, one-down system, a relegation that only occurred when the Conference winners passed the League’s more stringent ground grading, later became two-up, two-down.  With the number of perennial non-league teams who have got promoted and the number of teams for whom relegation has proved an excellent wake-up call, we could consider the Conference a rare success story in English football.  However, the unexpected consequence, one that in hindsight seemed obvious since Lincoln, is that the national semi-pro division in now mostly professional.

First of all, we need to abandon the pretense.  The Conference National is only a step down in terms of money, amounting to around £550,000 in the first year alone for relegated clubs.  The playing gap between professional League 2 and the semi-professional Conference is negligible.  What we have is a professional league with a handful of semi-pro teams, almost all of whom end up in the bottom half of the table unable to compete. What we have is 18 pro clubs, many of whom are former League clubs, that are being abandoned and treated like second-class citizens as the FA and Football League hold onto this antiquated notion that there’s only 92 professional clubs.

Besides, how can you operate a semi-professional club in a nationwide league?  An away game to Barrow is absolutely ridiculous if you have players with other jobs. It’s either the worst coach journey ever or an expensive overnight stay.  The problem with the design of our leagues is that business models are never taken into account.  The point of the Conference was not to create a league to a business plan but to create a single candidate for election.  As such, I think it’s clear the Conference has outlived its usefulness.

Instead, let’s treat new professional clubs as an opportunity and not be so damned precious about “the  72” in the Football League.  Rejigging the Championship and making it a little less of a marathon would be beneficial, leaving the second tier with less than 24 teams for the first time in a generation.  League 1 can stay a national division but with Conference and League 2 teams all in the same pot, we can finally re-regionalise the lower reaches of the Football League.  Better still, it will feed into an already-regionalised non-league system.

What we need is the  money.  The current television and sponsorship money would be spread too thinly even if only six teams were moved into the Football League.  This idea can’t work unless current clubs keep the same money and, unfortunately, getting money out of those who have it – sponsors, TV, the Premier League – is like prying a coin out of a dead man’s fist and thus everybody’s going to stay where they are; stuck in neutral with faulty brakes.


Written by Michael Farrow

April 17, 2012 at 7:31 am

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