Non-League Clubs Are Closing The Gap...

With many non-League clubs now working on a professional level, Daniel Storey argues that the Blue Square Premier is surely deserving of an extra promotion place...

Last Updated: 09/05/12 at 12:52 Post Comment

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Below the Championship this season, two clubs have stood out more than any others. The first is Crawley who, after gaining promotion from the Blue Square Premier with the odious Steve Evans at the helm, overcame a significant stutter (and the departure of their manager and two top goalscorers) to clinch a double automatic promotion on the final day. The second is Stevenage who, despite only finishing sixth in the final League One reckoning, are still on course to complete an unprecedented triple promotion. In 2010 they were playing non-League, and in 2012 they may be just one division below the Premier League.

The successes of Stevenage and Crawley were achieved through markedly different approaches, but lead to the same self-evident conclusion - the gap between the Football League and Blue Square Premier has narrowed, and is increasingly continuing to do so.

It was not always the case. Established in 1979, for the first eight years of the Conference's lifespan no promotion existed. Instead, clubs had to be elected as Football League members, and none of the first eight Conference champions were promoted. When elevation from non-League was established in 1987, with the rebranding of the Alliance Premier League as the GM Vauxhall Conference, the clubs relegated from the Football League saw their demotion as nothing more than a temporary measure. Lincoln City were the first club relegated from Division Four and they bounced back at the first opportunity. Darlington and Colchester did exactly the same in following years. Because many of the Conference clubs were operating on a semi-professional basis, the Conference was almost viewed as a naughty step for League clubs, forcing them to spend a season or two 'thinking about what they have done', before the inevitable regrouping and reinstatement.

However during the last fifteen years, in an attempt to reach the Promised Land of the Football League many non-league clubs have elected to turn professional, and the relegated clubs from above have no longer had a guarantee that reinstatement could be done either easily or hastily. Extra competition has been invigorated, and yet it was not until 2002 that the Football Association finally allocated an extra promotion spot. A hugely overdue measure, the restriction of two promotion places was out-dated almost as soon as it had been introduced.

The aim of a league system is to have the better teams playing at a higher level than weaker teams, on that fact I think we can all agree. However, such measly provisions for advancement to the Football League dictate that there is a significant bottleneck towards the top of the Blue Square Premier with well-run and ambitious clubs unable to escape. Meanwhile, perennial underachievers remain in League Two. This season there were fourteen former League clubs in the Blue Square Premier. Two promotion places simply is not enough reward.

This season Wrexham gained 98 points from their 46 games. Only Charlton obtained more points in the Football League (and their 98 is nine more points than Championship winners Reading), and no Football League team won more than Wrexham's 30 games. And yet Wrexham will not be promoted. Despite being so dominant, the Dragons were beaten to the single automatic promotion spot by Fleetwood Town before losing to Luton in the playoffs.

Fleetwood only went professional at the beginning of last season, but with the huge investment from local businessman Andy Pilley they gained promotion with ease. Pilley has funded the full transformation of the club from their previous semi-professional status, including wages, transfers and ground redevelopment (including £4.5million on a new all-seater stand). In short, no other club stood a chance. Last season too, Crawley gained the top position in similar circumstances, backed by Bruce Winfield and the two players bought for six figure sums during their promotion campaign. Again, everyone else was playing for a playoff spot.

So whilst Wrexham have regrouped after relegation in 2007/8 and revamped the club following the inevitable financial difficulties, their path to success was blocked through the effect of a sugar daddy and insufficient recognition for league success. It may be hard to bear for their supporters, but Plymouth (albeit with points deduction) and Barnet failed to achieve more than a point per game in League Two this season and survived. Have Wrexham not earned their chance?

In the last three years six different teams have been promoted from the Conference. Aside from Crawley and Stevenage, Torquay United have had consecutive playoff finishes in League two, and Oxford twice finished in the top half. In fact, none of the six teams have finished in the bottom five places in League Two since their elevation. To further extend the point, in this season's FA Cup alone Fleetwood (twice), Luton, Grimsby and Wrexham all beat league opposition. Depth of quality is evidently not an excuse against the expansion.

It would only be those footballingly-uneducated (and that's a phrase now) souls that described the Blue Square Premier as truly non-League, and it has far more in common with League Two than it does with the leagues below or the Vauxhall Conference of the late eighties. A television deal is in place with (the admittedly narrow financial clout of) Premier Sports, which broadcasted thirty live games this season. There are eleven grounds that hold 7,000 or more spectators (League Two has fourteen grounds above the same number) and the vast majority of clubs now employ full-time professional players.

League Two is actually closer in nature to the Blue Square Premier than it is to League One. Whilst promoted Conference clubs have thrived at the level above, of the four teams relegated this season from League One, all were promoted from League Two in the last three years, with Chesterfield and Wycombe going down at the first time of asking. And yet, conversely, four teams are permitted to leave through the ceiling of League Two, despite only two facing demotion.

Such inequalities have provided a breeding ground for stagnation for Blue Square Premier clubs, their promotion challenge made incredibly difficult by the financially-backed teams taking the only automatic ticket to success. We can all empathise with football clubs and fans suffering unfair treatment, but solutions often seem rare. It may not be high on the agenda of the Premier League fan but, in this case, a viable and apparent resolution exists.

Daniel Storey - Twitterise him @danielstorey85

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