Promotion to the Football League is a massive task for non league clubs and each season getting out of the Conference is even tougher.
Yes, it was hard enough prior the eighties when clubs were elected (until 1987) and yes the amount of teams promoted to the promise land has increased but times have changed.
The restructuring of the non league pyramid and the tough financial restrictions imposed on clubs competing at steps five and six, to safeguard the future of teams, have all played a part in an ever improving scene.
Fleetwood Town take the Conference title
Take last season, Fleetwood Town did a ‘Crawley’ and won the league in style amassing an incredible 103 points. In the runners up spot were Wrexham with an astonishing 98 points. To put that in perspective the Welsh club not only set a new record for accruing the most points as runners up they would have won the Conference Premier title on 22 out of the 26 seasons since 1987.
It is the quality of the sides at the top making the step up to the Football League so difficult. Hardly surprising when the majority of these clubs are former Football League sides. Since the restructuring and the introduction of the Conference North and South a dozen clubs have fallen through the trapdoor into the non league abyss and have yet to escape. Only Torquay United and Oxford United have been relegated from the Football League since 2004 and returned, it took The Gulls two seasons and The U’s four.
Quite often you witness clubs bounce back at the first attempt in the professional game between the Premiership and League Two but this is rare further down the ladder. Only Ebbsfleet United and Northwich Victoria have managed to win promotion after suffering relegation since the change in non league landscape eight years ago.
Fifteen clubs competing in non league over the last eight years, including Fleetwood Town and York City are now playing their football in League One and Two and are handling life outside non league. The implications of this may be a call to increase the clubs promoted, after all four teams are promoted in League Two. To counteract this argument is it viable to increase the amount of places up for grabs if teams still can’t get their financial house in order.
On one hand you have a host of experience league clubs strong enough to cope with a return. On the other hand, many sides still struggle to make ends meet in the Conference Premier, North and South. In the last eight seasons 205 points have been deducted for clubs entering administration, failing to pay creditors, breaching some kind of financial regulation or exceeding the player budget.
Before Crawley Town made it in the big time they had been deducted points on four occasions, the Sussex club lost ten points for entering administration, six for failing to pay creditors and three for exceeding the player budget. Northwhich Victoria have entered administration twice, Farnborough suffered the same fate once and last season had five points taken away for financial reasons. In fact just over a third of the points deductions are caused by clubs entering administration.
In recent seasons clubs have fallen by the way side some in dramatic fashion others painfully sliding over a number of years. Kettering Town have experience financial difficulties for a couple of seasons now leading to a lack of stability on and off the field. The Poppies were relegated and demoted to the Southern League.
At the same time the demise of Darlington has been more dramatic and excruciating over a number of seasons. George Reynolds moved the club to an oversized stadium in League Two to match his oversized ambitions, the chairman resigned in 2004 after the club entered administration. Eight years of financial hardship and The Quakers finally succumbed to the inevitable this summer
"Is that all you bring at home?" - Darlington's oversized stadium
and will compete as a new club in the Northern League.
Other falls from grace happen as quick as the clubs rise notably Grays Athletic. Back to back promotions is 2004 and 2005 saw the Essex club rise to the Conference Premier, a third place finish in their début season and a F.A Trophy victory to add to the previous seasons triumph in the same competition set out their stall. Four years later the club were relegated and ordered to play in the Isthmian Division One North for financial reasons.
Clubs are either pushing on and overspending to reach the Football League or just struggling to make ends meet. A number of teams rise from the ashes of football travesty and in recent years sticking acronyms in your clubs name has become more common. Okay AFC Wimbledon are an exception because of their relocation from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, however there is AFC Telford, FC Halifax Town, Newport County AFC and to add to that albeit ‘acronymless’ Nuneaton. It is clear that no matter what circumstances clubs get into its identity is hugely important enough to keep most of its name.
To complicate things you still get the odd name change in an attempt to generate income. Most famously Gravesend and Northfleet to Ebbsfleet United and just across the River Thames, Purfleet to Thurrock. Understandably supporters oppose such moves but surely survival is paramount. Take mergers as an example, most successfully Dagenham and Redbridge but also there has been Hayes and Yeading United. Neither option is usually popular with the fans but these examples show what clubs may have to do to survive.
Budgets are stretched for the majority of clubs and so consider the expenditure for clubs at either ends of the country. Travelling North to South or East to West certainly eats up the coffers, maybe a stay in accommodation will be necessary but a budget will only allow so many nights in a hotel chain. These scenarios are even more problematic for the part time footballers who have to arrange time off work and for the managers of the semi professional clubs who have to recruit more locally thus reducing the pool of players to choose from. When Bishop Stortford switched from the Conference South to North last season that must have had a considerable impact to the clubs plans. All of which becomes tougher if average attendances are low.
Here the surface has only just been scratched and there are many other stories you can include. Whether it’s a Premier League star having his head turned by ludicrous wages or a chairman of an amateur club chasing the dream we all know money chatters. Of course fans anticipate a quality signing, a new season of glory, a dream of reaching the Football League but sometimes it pays to be patient.
It is a tough world below League Two but for every Crawley and Fleetwood there is a Stevenage and maybe one day it will be Dartford’s turn.