One of our occasional blogs on an issue affecting non-league football in general………

The problem: Promotion from/relegation to the Conference.   Admittedly this is not a new campaign, but here is a summary of the argument, a refresher to remind us.

It is not fair that in the Championship, Division 1 and Division 2, the 2nd placed team get promoted automatically. Indeed in Division 2, the third placed team go up automatically too, whereas in the Vanarama Conference, sorry its being rebranded, but you know…the National non-league league (eh?) anyway…., only the Champions are guaranteed promotion. That has not changed.

Anyway, over the last 13 seasons, the playoff winners have been decided on Penalties 3 times, on Golden Goal once, and After Extra Time once.   So 5 out of 13 play-off finals were NOT decided after 90 minutes. Suggests a very fine line between up and not up.  Just ask Jon Paul Pittman, James McKeown, the whole GTFC squad to be fair, and ask the now departed Carl Magnay and Lenell John-Lewis.  We all know how close we came on Sunday 17th May 2015.

The play-off losers in the last 13 years have been: Dagenham, Chester, Barnet, Grays, Exeter, Oxford, Burton, Torquay, Histon, Rushden, Fleetwood,  Mansfield, Kidderminster, Gateshead,  FGR and Eastleigh (all once each) and Morecambe, Hereford, Aldershot, Stevenage, Halifax, Cambridge and York (twice each), and GTFC, Luton Town and Wrexham on three separate occasions each. At least Luton have managed to win the title since their playoff appearances, and thus get promoted.  If either GTFC or Wrexham make the play-offs and fail to go up this time around, they will take an unwanted lead in this race of tantalising frustrating failure.

It is frankly odd that each season concludes with 4 teams getting relegated FROM the Conference, but only 2 getting promoted INTO the League. It should be 3 of each.  Presumably the argument is that so long as only 2 go down from the League, only 2 can go up into it. Otherwise the League will get too full?  Plus 4 getting relegated suits the Conference North and Conference South, 2 each. (Although the geography can get a bit weird, that’s a different issue). Fine, just promote 4 to the League then! Three up, four up, just more up please!

(To digress briefly; 4 up 4 down this last season would have seen; GTFC automatically promoted in 3rd, Mansfield and Hartlepool relegated, and quite possibly LJL and Magnay stay and GTFC in the League….., and quite possibly Ollie Palmer to come here rather than be a non-league squad player? Who knows….)

For change to happen the Football League needs to agree that 3 (or 4) should be relegated from League 2. Which actually is quite logical in terms of numbers relegated (3 down from Prem, 3 down from Champ, 4 down from League 1, only 2 down from League 2). Consistency, logic, something closer to a uniform approach to promotion/relegation. But politics comes into play.  This is the point where ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ usually gets mentioned. But turkeys can’t vote. And Christmas is long-established and not set out into divisions. If you think Christmas if unfair, don’t celebrate it. Or volunteer to make it fairer.  Just because League teams won’t vote for change that appears not to favour them doesn’t ruin our argument.

So, forgetting about turkeys; why would any team in League 2 vote for MORE places to go down?  Simply, because it would make League 2 more balanced and competitive.  It would give League 2 a better chance of more teams being involved all season long, much like the play-offs do. And if you do fall out, you have more chance of returning.  We are all aware of the financial rewards of League football, including the increased chances of a tasty cup draw in the  FA or League Cups.

So, its evident why extra promotion appeals to those clubs in the Vanarama; more places could equal more opportunity, more money.   It is about fairness, and also about risk.  If GTFC are good enough to go up next season, will they finish high enough the season after to avoid immediate relegation?   Well, put it this way, who was the last promoted team to come back down? Trying guessing, or thinking back, then look below.*  Surely that tells us something.

Regularly, observers comment that the Premiership isn’t fair as newly promoted teams can’t hope for more than survival. In League 2, that does happen, but somehow, it stays as 2up2down.  It is sort of fair; IF you can get in.  Thanks to 2 up 2 down, we’ll never know how Messrs.Magnay and John-Lewis would have looked in that GTFC shirt in League 2. We probably would have if it had been 3up3down.  I don’t think any team except Bristol Rovers could have ‘defeated’ us at Wembley. Eastleigh? Look at the aggregate score.  FGR? Nah.  Anyone else from last season; no way. After all, we disposed of the Champions easily.

What can be done?

We can lobby the decision makers, we can campaign and we can express how unfair the status quo is.  For football to retain its appeal, in times of greedy individuals at the top, and corruption at international level, surely the relationship between League and Conference is crucial.   Numerous teams depend on the Conference basically keeping them ‘alive’ (life support? limbo?) while they regroup for another stab at League status.   Odd as it may seem, we may feel hard done by with 3 consecutive play-off failures, but look at Lincoln. What hope is there for poor Lincoln, ex-League club, with minimal chance of promotion, as the 2 relegated clubs, plus ourselves, Wrexham, Gateshead, FGR and Eastleigh, and others battle for promotion?  One for the title, 4 for playoffs, how many teams have to underperform for Lincoln to have a chance?   Think  of the good of the competition. #3up3down

( * By my reckoning, Torquay who went up in 08-09, came back down in 2014, are the most recent example.)