Stevenage celebrate promotion
Watching Macclesfield play at Stevenage last weekend I was struck by a couple of things. The first was that it is very difficult to achieve things in a game of football (like attacking) when the ball spends seven minutes of every ten either in the air or out of play. The other was that it was almost universally agreed before kick-off that the sides promoted from the Conference, Stevenage and Oxford, would ‘do well this year’, with the only justification being that ‘promoted teams always do well’.
A 2-2 draw for the Silkmen was received well by most of the Macclesfield faithful. An 89th minute equaliser was hard to swallow, but again, the opinion prevailed that we would have taken a point before the game. Even Gary Simpson, speaking after the match, reckoned that, “We battled hard away from home against a side who I still believe will be one of the front runners this season.”
Up at Burton, Oxford were holding Paul Peschisolido’s side to a goalless draw in their first League fixture in four years. Match reports also suggested they “look in good shape to mount a decent challenge this season”, though it doesn’t say for what. Most publications I’ve read ahead of the league season appear to agree and are at least slightly more specific, rating Stevenage’s playoff chances and plumping for Oxford as comfortable mid-table finishers.
Sides promoted into the Football League’s other divisions aren’t installed as immediate playoff candidates, so why do Conference clubs find it so easy to come up and stay put? It is extremely rare for a club to be relegated from League Two back into the Conference at the first time of asking. In the last decade, three have done exactly the opposite and been promoted up to League One at the first attempt (Doncaster, Carlisle and Exeter). Back in 2000/01, Rushden finished sixth before winning the title in 01/02, while Aldershot finished 15th in their first year (07/08) but reached the playoffs in their second.
On the surface, it’s a case of ‘know your enemy’. The Conference is bursting with former Football League clubs: York, Luton, Mansfield and Wrexham to name but four. They regularly pull in more fans than those struggling at the bottom of League Two and any of them could give a League Two side a run for its money. In a footballing sense, the lines are blurred – the gap in quality between the lower reaches of League Two and the top of the Conference is probably the most miniscule of all the leagues. League Two is not intimidating for the top Conference teams if and when they arrive.
Higher attendances at the top of the Conference draw attention to the financial practicalities. Promoted sides are never the worst off sides in League Two because the Conference is so difficult to escape. The top of the league is like a bottle-neck for these relatively well-supported former Football League clubs, suffering the consequences of one dire season, or well-funded and managed aspirational sides bidding to reach the league for the first time. To win the Conference, you have to be good enough to finish above a host of teams driven by the winning habit. There’s only one automatic promotion spot too, which makes things even more heated.
Joining a league in which the weaker teams are poorly supported and used to looking over their shoulders gives the new boys an immediate psychological advantage. Just getting out of the Conference is a liberating experience, whether renewing old acquaintances with the League or embarking on the adventure for the first time.
The trend seems to be for progressive non-league teams on the up, passing league teams hampered by long-running debts and mismanagement and on whose wage bills, without significant gate receipts, most income makes little impact. Ironically, you don’t get out of the Conference and acquire league status without a bit of cash, while in League Two, small clubs are wary of spending in case it endangers their survival (in the league and as a club). Maybe I should be grateful for Macc’s point at Stevenage after all. Rob MacDonald