Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Really, It's Nothing To Be Scared Of...

As I noted on here the other day, it's likely that the battle to stay in the Football League will go right to the wire again this season. Of course, we've been here before. As fat back as 1987, a Torquay United player was bitten by a police dog, and a goal deep into the resulting injury time sent Lincoln City down instead. In 1997, Brighton & Hove Albion preserved their League status with a draw on the last day of the season at Hereford, a result that sent their opponents that day through the trapdoor. In 1999, Carlisle United sent their on-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass up for a corner in injury time against Plymouth Argyle and scored a goal that kept them in the Football League. In 2001, Torquay United beat Barnet in a winner-takes-all match at Underhill which sent The Bees down instead. The last day of the football season has developed an almost uncanny knack of doing this sort of thing at the foot of the league, and this season is no exception, with Wrexham playing Boston United at The Racecourse Ground a week on Saturday. The loss of someone's hard earned (or, in Boston's case, hard thieved) status is likely to be at stake.

The Football League resisted automatic promotion and relegation with the Conference for as long as it could, before capitulating in 1987. Since its creation as the Alliance Premier League in 1979, the top division of non-league football had frequently shown the gap in status between its clubs and those a division above them to be a sham. The change was inevitable, but the League's clubs and their supporters have been gripped with what I consider to be a pretty irrational fear of relegation into the mysterious, grubby world of non-league football ever since. Four years ago, the perceived gap between the two divisions when a second relegation place was introduced with play-offs in the Conference, but still the fear remains. When Oxford United went down last season, pictures of St Albans' Clarence Park ground were posted on their supporters' forums with stark warnings about how far they'd fallen. For supporters of clubs that have known nothing other than League football for decades, this step into the unknown sends a rush of fear down their spines. Of course, it would be easy for me to criticise them or mock them, but I don't think that this would be be very fair. There are plenty of reasons to look forward to life in the Conference.

Firstly, the standard of everything isn't as bad as you'd think it would be. The Conference got its fingers burnt a couple of times in the early 1990s, and the ground regulations are pretty strict. Most grounds in the Conference as as good as, if not better than, many in League Two (for several seasons, ground grading regulations were tighter to get into the Conference than they were to get into the League). Crowds average out at about 2,000, and they'll be higher for a visit of a former League club. There isn't much between the two divisions in terms of the quality of football on display (though the teams are the bottom are obviously considerably inferior to the teams at the top of League Two) and, as if that's not enough, it's cheaper too. The average admission price to a Conference match is £12-13, and about £16 to sit down. Rest assured that, unless you're unfortunate enough to get Altrincham away on a cold February night with Manchester United live on the television, your team won't be playing in front of two men and a dog. And they certainly won't be playing on a roped off park pitch.

There will be some people that still won't be sold on this, and will be pointing out further disadvantages, such as having to play in the fourth qualifying round in the FA Cup. Consider it a character building exercise. The fact of the matter is that, unless your club is in the middle of some sort of more general free-fall, they should brush aside whoever they're drawn against. I've said on here before that the real difference in quality is between the Conference and the Conference North & South (almost all clubs in the Conference are professional, whereas almost all in the divisions beneath it are semi-professional). In broader terms, you'll be big fish. How long is it since Wrexham fans could lord it over their opposition? Twenty years? Thirty years? The Conference is packed with clubs whose supporters believe, with their hands on their hearts, that they're "too big" for it. For most, it's an act of self-delusion. For the team that has just been relegated, there may be an element of truth about it.

There is also the distinct possibility that the sudden jolt of relegation out of the League might finally shake the complacency out of your club. Scarborough, whose financial woes are well documented, are the only team relegated from the Football League since the inception of automatic promotion and relegation to currently be playing below the Conference (Newport County went bust at the tail end of the 1980s, but their problems came about well before they went down). It certainly doesn't mean the start of an inevitable tail-spin towards obscurity. Just ask the supporters of Doncaster Rovers or Carlisle United, who followed promotion from the Conference with promotion into League One and their most stable periods on and off the pitch for at least a couple of decades. Torquay United have spent most of the previous twenty years doing just enough to hang onto their League status. For their supporters, they have a season of expectation to look forward to rather than dread, for once.

Finally, there's the small matter of being on the television. I don't have the figures to hand, but I'm pretty certain that clubs in the lower regions of League Two don't exactly make a from the current TV deal with Sky Sports. You may have missed this somewhat crucial piece of information over the last few weeks, but the Conference recently signed a new TV deal with Setanta Sports. It might not be the most lucrative deal in the world, but it's for an almost jaw-dropping eighty matches next season. That's two per week, for the whole of the season. The matches will be available on Setanta's subscription service (which is available to anyone with a Freeview box with a card slot). The cost, for two live matches a week from your team's division (which is likely to feature your team quite heavily), is currently unknown, but their subscription cost was £11.99 a month this season, and will be unlikely to be a considerable amount more than that next year. I put this simple question to all supporters of teams in the bottom half of League Two: how many times over the last two years has your team had a live match broadcast by Sky Sports? Because I guarantee that Setanta will match that number in the first month of next season.

So... more appearances on the television, cheaper football, different (but, by and large, not inferior) away grounds to visit, and a decent chance that your team might get promoted back in a year or two in a considerably better state than they are now. What's not to like? Should you get back into the League, upon resumption of those annual trips to Underhill, London Road and Stag Meadow, you might just find yourselves pining for non-league football and it's very idiosyncratic charms.


Chris said...

Congratulations on a fantastic article.

Sorry I'm a bit late responding to it - I've (a) been very busy working on 'Some People Are On The Pitch' and (b) been on honeymoon in Bilbao for a few days.

I printed off a number of your recent articles and took them with me as something interesting to read in my quieter moments. I thought this one in particular was very well written. Well done!

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