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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What if... re-election hadn't ended?

Our series where we take a look back at pivotal moments in Football League history continues as Nobes asks what would have happened had automatic promotion from the Non Leagues not been introduced?

Walls come tumbling down: change was in the air 23 years ago

It's with a huge degree of bias that I say the following: 1987 was a special year. Indeed, there was plenty going on 23 years ago.

Maggie Thatcher was wrapping up a second landslide victory to stay in Number 10 for a third term. She then gave the go ahead for the Channel Tunnel to be constructed.

It was also the year of the Great Storm - Britain's worst for nearly 300 years - that battered parts of south and east England. Famously,
the previous evening BBC weatherman Michael Fish had dismissed the storm happening.

In popular culture, Americans first caught a glimpse of a TV family called The Simpsons.

After far too many years of an ageing Roger Moore
as James Bond getting cosy with much too young lasses we had a new 007, as well, with Timothy Dalton taking over the reins.

Things, it seemed, were changing. Typified by, perhaps, the most famous quote of all 1987 from US President Ronald Reagan who, on a visit to Berlin, demanded: "Mr Gorbachev - tear down this wall!"

That wouldn't happen for another couple of years. However, one barrier was being removed a little closer to home - that between the Football and Non Leagues.

Up until 1987, clubs seeking to gain promotion to the Football League from the Conference had to be elected by current League members.

It was the ultimate 'closed shop' with members able to prevent new clubs joining in favour of keeping the established order in place.

Indeed, the first eight winners of the Conference - established as the outright top division of Non League football in 1979 - failed to win election to the league.

Things had to change - and, in '87, they did. For the first time, the side who finished 92nd in the Football League would drop out of the top four tiers and be replaced by the Conference winners - as long as their ground met regulations.

So, it was probably appropriate that, in May 1987, Starship sat on top of the UK charts with 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.' It was the prevailing mood among the ambitious clubs of the Conference desperate for their chance in the big time.

Neil Warnock and Martin O'Neill both led clubs into the Football League

That feeling was exhibited no more than on the North Sea coast - where the seaside town of Scarborough was celebrating their team having soared to the Conference title under the management of an ambitious Yorkshireman called Neil Warnock.

The Seadogs were to take their place in the Football League - eventually replacing Lincoln City - relegated after a frantic final day scrap also involving Torquay, and former English champions, Burnley.

The Imps became the first club to ever automatically be relegated from the 92 club - although they bounced back at the first attempt. No doubt they were thankful for the same rule they were cursing only 12 months earlier.

It was the beginning of the constant flow between the two divisions which - albeit thrice interrupted in the mid-1990s because of the condition of the grounds of the Conference winners - has become a natural feature of the English game.

In doing so, too, it opened the door to so many clubs previously restricted to try and make their mark in the Football League.

Just imagine, for a minute though, what might have happened had re-election not been scrapped? What if the team who won the Conference had to rely on a vote to gain membership of the Football League?

Without the change to the rules in 1987, what would fate have held for the likes of Wycombe Wanderers - Buckinghamshire's first professional club long before the MK Dons came into existence?

The Chairboys gained entry into the Football League in 1993 under Martin O'Neill and soon established themselves in what is now League One - remaining there for a decade.

In the past 17 years, they've also made it both the League Cup and FA Cup semi finals - memorably giving Chelsea and Liverpool runs for their respective money. Without automatic promotion, it may never have happened.

Yeovil Town, too, finally reached the promised land in 2004 after near misses in elections. After winning promotion in only their second season, they're now in their sixth consecutive season in the third tier.

Two clubs who, until the rules were changed, would never have been able to be the credit to the Football League they have become. Two counties in Buckinghamshire and Somerset that would never have enjoyed 92 club status.

Some could argue that they would have got there eventually. With persistence, a vote would have gone their way.

Altrincham's Moss Lane could have been a Football League ground in the '80s

Possibly, but history also shows that clubs who missed the boat have never got as close again.

Take the example of Enfield. The Hertfordshire outfit won the Conference title in 1983 and 1986 - the final season of re-election. They missed out in the vote on both occasions.

It was to prove their high point. The club spiralled back down the pyramid and financial problems eventually saw them wound up and a new club created in 2007.

Altrincham, too, are another club who seemed to have missed the Football League boat. The Greater Manchester outfit won the first two Conference titles but lost out in the re-election process both times.

That included, in 1980, losing out by just a single vote. Although they are still in the Conference, they are now a small fish competing alongside a plethora of ex-League teams. They may never return to those same heights.

For every Yeovil, Wycombe, or Boston - who lost out on a vote in 1978 before finally winning promotion in 2002 - there are clubs like Wealdstone and Runcorn who drifted into obscurity when they didn't win election as Conference champions.

The Football League landscape could look very different to what it does now - and not just with the teams who could have made it, but those who've dropped down.

This season's Conference has more of a look of a 'League Three' about it than the top division of Non League football. True, there are still Histons and Eastbournes.

However, a division including the likes of Luton, Grimsby, Mansfield, Wrexham, York, Darlington, and Cambridge deserves respect.

The second relegation place - following on from the removal of re-election - has not only opened the door to many Non League outfits, but also seen an increase in the quality and size of clubs in the Conference.

It's also unlikely the likes of Carlisle, Exeter, Shrewsbury, or Oxford - all relegated from League Two before being subsequently re-promoted - would have ever lost a re-election vote.

All four clubs dropped down but returned stronger than when they went down into the Non Leagues. Arguably, it allowed them to start again and get things moving in the right direction.

Would the Crewe and Dario Gradi story have been the same without re-election?

With re-election, they could have survived by the skin of their teeth and never found any forward momentum - continuing instead to toil around the lower reaches of the basement division.

The argument could even be extended further - what if re-election had never existed in the first place? With the bottom club immediately being relegated, things could have been massively different.

For instance, how about that bastion of good football, producing young talent, and punching above their weight? Crewe Alexandra may be a neutral's favourite, but no club has finished bottom of the Football League more often.

On eight occasions, Alex have finished propping everyone else up. Most recently in 1984, when they survived re-election and temporarily denied Maidstone United a place in the Football League.

Had they slipped down in '84 - the first season under the management of one Dario Gradi - what would have happened to the conveyor belt of talent that produced the likes of David Platt, Danny Murphy, and Robbie Savage?

The Cheshire club may never have enjoyed the success they did in competing in the second tier for a number of years had they lost any one of their re-election votes.

It's also unlikely the term the 'Rochdale Division' would ever have entered the footballing lexicon had Dale lost one of a number of re-election votes they had to endure.

Most notably, just one vote saw them survive the drop in 1980 at the expense of the aforementioned Altrincham. Even in 1978, it was Southport who took the drop at their expense when Wigan Athletic entered the Football League.

Dale spent 36 consecutive seasons in the basement division until promotion last term - nobody has spent a longer continuous spell in it.

They also hold the dubious record of having the lowest average position of all the continuous members of the Football League in the past 90 years. Crucially, though, because of their continued election victories, they are continuous.

However, had they slipped down into the Non Leagues, what would have happened to the Spotland outfit? With so many clubs surrounding them in Lancashire, how long would they have taken to return, if ever?

Fortunately, such questions are no longer restricted to the hypothetical. Common sense prevailed back in '87. The closed shop opened its doors - improved immeasurably for it - and has never looked back since.

It was 1987, truly a special year.

1 comment:

  1. Troubled Brighton would definitely have been voted out in 1997. Had they dropped into non-league then, would they have made it back (especially if they had to rely on being elected?) Would they be in the impressive new Amex Stadium now? Food for thought.