Conference Calling

The rich tapestry of football has been crafted over many years, and has many different alluring components. Stories of yesteryear, of legendary players and monumental games, of controversy and opinion. Oh, and myths. The modern game has a huge store of practically indestructible myths, from the FA Cup being “romantic” (the romance at Kettering was almost tangible, wasn’t it?) to the one about Matt Le Tissier being lazy. Oh yeah, a professional football club would really pay a lazy player £20,000 a week, wouldn’t they? Honestly.

But surely one of the more enduring (and therefore irritating) myths of modern day football is that the Nationwide Conference is somehow far stronger than the division above it. But examine things closely, and the myth withers under the spotlight of facts.

Of course, like all myths and legends, there is some basis to it, however misplaced. That Macclesfield, Conference champions of 1997, achieved promotion from Division Three at their first attempt, following the examples of Barnet and Wycombe, was indeed very impressive. However, Barnet have since slid back in the basement, as have Macclesfield, both now struggling on puny crowds in shoddy stadia.

Only Wycombe now continue to impress, currently mid-table in Division Two, but still with small crowds. The more recent additions to the Football League, Cheltenham and Kidderminster, have made decent starts.

Cheltenham narrowly missed out on last season’s playoffs, and look like going one better this time around, while Kidderminster are currently in a comfortable mid-field berth. But so they should be. They were the champions last time around, and you would expect divisional champions do well the following season.

More credence to the pro-Conference argument comes from the failure of the sides tumbling into it from above to do well. Okay then, let’s look at them. Halifax are already back in the league. Hereford, after a few indifferent seasons, are in the hunt for promotion this season. Doncaster did flirt with relegation from the Conference, but they were a broken club at the time.
Having sorted themselves out, they are now chasing promotion. Scarborough, a non-league outfit if ever there was one, have stabilised themselves, and are midtable. Chester, relegated in dismal style last season, are eighth, but should be higher. The Conference certainly doesn’t appear to be the insurmountable challenge its proponents would have us believe.

Let’s look at the bottom end of the Conference – those teams who would narrowly survive in the Football League, so the story goes. The bottom three currently comprises Hednesford, Kingstonian and Kettering. Err, who? Hednesford, after the glory of their D. Laws-sponsored victory at Boothferry Park have slumped horribly (and amusingly), and are in desperate trouble. Kingstonian have neither the players, money or set-up to survive in the League, and probably not even the Conference for much longer. Kettering might have beaten City, but that wasn’t hard, any self-respecting pub team would have beaten us that night.

They are a club with massive problems, thanks mostly to the ineptitude of their chairman and manager. While one may sympathise with their plight, they are still light-years away from league standard, although incredibly their ground IS considered satisfactory. Bizarre. The rest of the lower Conference clubs are barely worth mentioning. None could hack it in the Football League, whatever they and their supporters might think.

The exciting dynamism of lower league teams that is supposedly there just does not exist. Rushden have a new stadium, rich owner, and a good team. And? They are still in the Conference, the stadium is positively Glanfordian in scale and crowds are nothing to write home about. Yeovil are looking good on the pitch, but again they have only very limited room for growth – mid-table Division Three, being generous. The middle-to-lower end of the division is just a motley collection of small clubs with no potential, largish clubs dying a lingering death and mediocrities who’ve been in the Conference forever, and will no doubt stay there forever – and worse still, are perfectly happy to.

However, because the Conference is thought to be some sort of shining beacon of light stuffed full of ambitious clubs coming forth to sweep the League’s deadwood away, the argument goes that there should be more promotion places into Division Three. Correct – there should be.

In fact, there soon will be. From next season, two Conference clubs will have the opportunity to join the Football League, with two sides departing Division Three. Good.

While they’re at it, why not make it three-up three-down? That will finally put the Conference’s credentials to the test. That pleasing side-effect aside though, it is right in principle. The League have been incredibly insular throughout their entire history. Their intransigent refusal to even admit the Conference champions until the mid-eighties was a disgrace, and they only reluctantly allowed one team per season to enter.

If they League see sense on this issue, English football would at least be truly open, where any non-league side can reasonably dream of playing in the professional divisions. Whether they’d sink or swim is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the point, for the moment.

In fact, our neighbours North Ferriby United should make a push towards this. They have a bit of potential – they should be looking to exploit it. Why not try harder to attract those fans disillusioned with City? They have plenty to offer – beer in the ground, cheap admission, tasty grub, a welcoming feel, decent football and a rapidly improving stadium. East Yorkshire could easily support a Conference team in addition to Hull City.

But I digress. The likely outcome of three-up three-down would be similar to that of Divisions Two and Three, where relegated Division Two sides usually fare quite well, and promoted Division Three sides often struggle. The same would happen – clubs like Hereford, Doncaster, Chester et al, with a considerable league history, would probably return after a while, and cement their position in the league once more. The gap between the Conference and Division Three is just the same as the gap between the other divisions.

What about Hull City? What if Warren Joyce had not kept us in the league? (Which, by the way, was an incredible feat, and one for which certain individuals still do not give proper credit, instead carping on about last season. Shame on you.) Would City have gone under? Off-field, who knows, since this lot are clearly loath to reveal any financial details, whether they incur fines as a result or not. Perhaps, perhaps not, it’s difficult to say. But as far as on-field matters go, our team of 1999 would likely have finished in the top ten of the Conference at the first attempt, probably even higher.

It’s all well and good saying that the Conference clubs would have been determined to cut the “big boys down to size” – that’s no good if the big boys are better at football than you, though. Gates would probably have remained about the same 4-6,000 level – perversely, they may have even risen with the advent of a winning team. Focusing just on the footballing dimension, it is hard to see that City would have remained a non-league team for too long. We might even be half-way through a promotion season now, but for the heroics of a thoroughly under appreciated gentleman currently working in Leeds.

Back again to the Conference. Under a three-up three down system, many small Conference clubs will find themselves in the League, particularly if play-offs were introduced. Those who gain promotion and have no league experience would mostly struggle. Many have no real fan-base to call upon, and would lack the financial clout to survive once the honeymoon period was over. Life in the League without money can be desperately grim. In time some might succeed against the odds, and follow Wycombe’s splendid example. However, most would flail about in the lower reaches of the division, and plenty would return from whence they came. And with them, hopefully the myth would finally die.

Andy Dalton