The issue of promotion is a hotbed for debate. Talk to any fan, of any club, from any league outside the English top flight and they will almost certainly embark on nothing short of a rant, attempting to convince you just why ‘their’ division is the hardest of all to escape.
The Coca-Cola Championship is widely regarded as the toughest, due to the vast amount of so-called ‘big clubs’ who reside there. Whilst those concerned with League 1 assert that it too is becoming more and more populated with sleeping giants and former high-flyers.
However, when examined with a little more scrutiny, it is those supporters of clubs from the Football Conference (Blue Square Bet Premier), whose arguments seemingly have the most substance. The English fifth-tier is home to the likes of Luton Town, Wrexham, Darlington, Kidderminster Harriers and a host of other former Football League sides, all bidding to rise from such depths. But the difficulty of this task is much greater than the often assumed ‘stroll in the park’.
From a total of 24 competing clubs, just two have the chance to gain promotion to the league above. Not three, like in the Championship or League 1 and certainly not four, as is the way in League 2. Just one via automatic promotion and one via the play-offs. So with the current system in place, theoretically, a team could finish second for five years running yet still be confined to Non-League Football.
Many fans maintain that the Football League Committee simply look to protect their own members and prevent supposed ‘Non-League clubs’, with ‘Non-League support ‘ from entering its lowest division; for fear of inferior attendances and poorer credibility. However, to realise this is not an entirely fair assumption, one has to look back at years gone by to appreciate that the Football League has in actual fact, taken a considerably progressive stance on the matter of promotion into its league.
Between 1987 and 2003 just one team could achieve promotion each year, yet even this was dependant on the club meeting specified stadium criteria set by the Football League. Consequently, the Conference champions, for three successive seasons in the mid-90s were denied promotion after failing to meet these requirements. But believe it or not, this system was actually considered a momentous improvement from that which was in place before the reform in 1987.
A mention of the term ‘Football League Annual Election’ will be met with a very frosty reception by most lower league fans, certainly those whose clubs’ failed in their bids for promotion. The system required that the most enterprising and promising Non-League sides apply for election to the Football League as a means for promotion, whilst the bottom four teams from the League’s lowest division were obliged to stand against them. Existing Football League members (clubs) would then vote on four teams from all those applying, based on club finances, sustainability, stadia, fan-base, history, tradition and supposedly performances on the pitch.
However, the process came in for huge criticism over the years. Non-League clubs bluntly disapproved, claiming the League was a ‘closed shop’ and the statistics certainly backed this up. Between 1950 and 1979 just 7 Non-League clubs won election to the Football League. Furthermore, Non-League clubs actually gained more votes than League clubs up for re-election every year from 1973 to 1976, but were still denied promotion.
Today’s situation is something of a dreamland in comparison to the evidently repressive scheme of the past, but it is time the Football League revise the issue of promotion once more.
The Conference is a far stronger league than it was 7 years ago, when it was granted a second promotion place. More than 10 clubs currently plying their trade in the Blue Square Bet Premier have played in the Football League, whilst exactly 10 have had attendances higher than 3,000 this season. Clubs such as Luton Town, Wrexham, Cambridge United, Kidderminster Harriers and Grimsby Town are certainly not ‘Non-League clubs’ with ‘Non-League support’.
Anyhow, the division is not only rich in teams with League pedigree, alongside them are a hungry breed of established Non-League clubs with clear aspirations; promotion to the Football League. These are no longer the amateur ‘pub teams’ of old. AFC Wimbledon – the outfit formed by disillusioned fans of Wimbledon FC before its relocation to Milton Keynes – gained 4 promotions in 7 seasons since being created in 2002. Whilst Crawley Town spent £500,000 during last summer’s transfer window, a figure believed to be more than the total spend of League 2 clubs combined.
But, it is precisely the dealings of Crawley Town which perhaps present the Football League with reason to refrain from consenting to another promotion place in the Blue Square Bet Premier. The League Committee is seeking to govern club finances more responsibly and may fear that offering a higher chance of promotion within the Conference could tempt more clubs into spending beyond their means to move up the football pyramid. Further down the line – possibly when in League Football – these sides could run into financial difficulties and become unable to meet running costs and/or service debts. Thus sending yet another club into administration, which the Football League could certainly do without.
With all that said, these fears could be alleviated by simply implementing a set financial criteria – similar in some ways to UEFA’s ‘Financial Fair-Play’ rule – which would have to be met by promotion hopefuls. Unsustainable or financially irresponsible clubs could then be denied entry to the Football League if found to fail on these ground. This would set a precedent to all Non-League clubs and the problem of over-spending to achieve promotion should rapidly diminish.
Non-League Football can no long be disregarded in the same way it has throughout times past. Such is the improved quality in the Blue Square Bet Premier nowadays, that no less than 10 clubs have the potential to compete in League 2, not only in matters on the pitch, but also off it (stadia, fan base, resources). Therefore, the Football League Committee needs to show that it is a modern, forward-thinking and liberal body, by offering Conference clubs 3 promotion spots rather than 2. Otherwise, the step-up to League Football will continue to be tougher than any other, as always has been.
By Matthew Aquino – Luton Town fan – @ElevenAgainst11