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Friday, February 25, 2011

Stuck In A League You Can't Get Out Of

After Grimsby part company with manager Neil Woods, Nobes considers why relegated Football League clubs find it so hard to bounce back quickly and gain promotion from the Conference.

Neil Woods was unable to keep Grimsby up or get them challenging for promotion

Out with the Woods, but not yet out of them. Grimsby's decision to part ways with boss Neil Woods came as little surprise.

However, nor should their struggle to mount any kind of promotion challenge in this year's Conference come as a major shock. The top tier of Non League football is notoriously difficult to escape at the first time of asking.

Indeed, since the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football and Non Leagues 24 years ago, just four teams have managed to achieve that particular feat.

When you consider that two of those instant returns, by Lincoln and Darlington, came in the first three years, and recent statistics are made all the more damning.

It has been the same story after the introduction of a two-up two-down in 2003/4. The first two years saw Shrewsbury and Carlisle win promotion at the first time of asking. Since then though, no club has managed it.

To put that into context, in the last five seasons five sides in the Championship, three in League One, and four in League Two have all done what no relegated team into the Conference has accomplished.

True, the obvious point to make would be all three higher divisions offer at least one more promotion place, and a couple in the case of League Two.

However, when you consider that very few relegated sides even challenge for a place in the Conference play offs, the issue of how many teams get to go up doesn't really figure in the debate.

The stats show that the Conference is the most difficult division to instantly gain promotion from - as Woods and Grimsby have found to their respective cost.

It's been a bumpy ride for the Mariners, who saw the curtain come down on their century in the Football League in May after an horrific season which saw them, at one point, go 25 games without winning.

However, if they thought that life would get easier as a big fish in a small pond, the Lincolnshire outfit have been given a rude awakening. In fact, their results paint a typical picture of a Football League club trying to adjust to life in the Non Leagues.

It's not as though results have been disastrous, they have taken four points off big-spending Crawley and kept two clean sheets in the process. High flying Luton, Wrexham and Newport have also all been seen off at Blundell Park this term.

Contrast that though, with embarrassing defeats to the likes of Tamworth and Hayes & Yeading. Struggling sides Southport, Eastbourne, and Barrow have all returned from a trip to the North Sea coast with a point to show for their efforts.

For fans whose club were, ten years ago, rubbing shoulders with some of England's finest in the Championship, this season they've seen Town fail to record victories at places like Gateshead and Forest Green Rovers.

The feats of Shrewsbury and Carlisle have proved hard for others to match since

Perhaps this is a major part of the problem which holds back relegated sides though. Nowhere else can clubs enter a lower division with such a superiority complex and expectation of success.

Most Football League fans probably couldn't even tell you where Forest Green are from, let alone expect their side to return from a visit to their trip to the Gloucestershire Cotswolds without maximum spoils.

It's part of the culture shock of adapting to life in the Non Leagues. Travelling to small, ramshackle grounds with antiquated facilities and some teams whose home support is the kind taken away from home in the League.

Fans have high hopes and expectations that such sides will be easily swotted aside - and players must undoubtedly learn to cope with the pressure that they are under.

They're also aware that the longer they remain in the Conference, the harder it becomes to escape - making the stakes in that first season all the more higher - and all the more difficult to meet.

Fans must also come to terms with games against their side being treated almost as cup finals. Non League stalwarts enjoy nothing more than taking a big Football League scalp - and cutting some egos down to size in the process.

It's also not uncommon for smaller sides to travel away and park the bus, supporters' coach, as well as their entire team and fan base in front of their goal in an attempt to claim a point.

Trying to break down such defensive tactics is hard enough - and the longer it goes on the more frustrated fans with high expectations come, and soon playing at home becomes more of a hindrance than an advantage.

Grimsby have only lost twice on home soil this term, but the seven draws at Blundell Park have undoubtedly been key in why they find themselves nine points off the play offs in 9th, albeit with a couple of games in hand.

Throw in an early exit in the FA Cup and a going out of the FA Trophy after a humiliating loss at Chasetown last month, and Woods's job always appeared to be hanging by a thread.

Now under-fire chairman, John Fenty, has the opportunity to make the right appointment to guide Town back into the Football League at the earliest opportunity.

He will be well advised to take his time when deciding his next manager though, as a quick look around the Conference Premier shows a whole host of ex-Football League clubs struggling to find their way back.

Mansfield are now in their third season in the Conference, posting finishes of 12th, 9th, and they currently lie in 13th. A fourth try to escape awaits the Stags next season.

Cambridge have spent the majority of this term looking over their shoulders towards the bottom, and will reflect on successive play off final defeats in 2008 and 2009 as hugely missed opportunities.

Last year's play off winners Oxford spent four seasons in the Conference

Same with York. Last season's play off final losers to Oxford are now in their seventh season in the Conference and as well as another play off appearance in 2007, they have also ended up in the bottom half on three occasions.

Wrexham are only now making an impact in the top five in their third season in the fifth tier, and Darlington - relegated alongside the Mariners last term - are only in mid table and finding life much tougher than they did in the '80s.

I must admit, I was someone who expected the Quakers to have performed better than they have with experienced and proven Conference manager Mark Cooper at the helm.

However, it has taken him time to turn around the sinking ship in the North East which fell to relegation with barely a whimper 12 months ago.

It's true to say as well as that, like the Quakers, often relegated Football League clubs enter the Conference in a shambolic state on the pitch and in financial disarray off it.

The loss of revenue relegation can cause inevitably means a turnover in playing squad, which can often mean a slow start as players gel and adapt to a new set-up.

No matter their size and history, they are simply not in a condition to quickly adapt to the rough and tumble and rigours of the great unknown that is the Non League game - and it shows.

And even when they do, the pressure to succeed can get the better of even the most illustrious and big clubs - Oxford took four years to escape the Conference.

Even the Luton side which, barring a 30 point deduction, would have finished in mid table in League Two in 2009 could only hold down a play off place last season - where they failed to progress through the end of season lottery.

Part of their problem had been holding onto a manager, in Mick Harford, who was so woefully incapable of orchestrating a promotion push. The same could probably be said of Woods - who was fortunate to keep his job after presiding over Grimsby's easily avoidable relegation.

Were the ageing Jim Smith and Brian Little really the men to lead Oxford and Wrexham's respective first promotion pushes, too? It was no surprise that the Oxen, when appointing the canny Chris Wilder, finally did escape the Non Leagues.

Even Shrewsbury had the foresight to hire an experienced Non League name in Jimmy Quinn to guide them back to the Football League at the first time of asking in 2004 - before rightly jettisoning him after struggling to make the step up.

Grimsby must now be similarly pragmatic - looking to select someone well versed in coping with the unique demands of the Conference, and winning promotion from it.

Stalybridge's Jim Harvey has an impressive CV at that level, and current Luton assistant Gary Brabin led Cambridge into the top five. Martin Foyle, in charge at York last season, has also been linked with the job and would seem a decent pick.

The wrong choice, and the Mariners risk settling in too comfortably to life in the Conference. Then the only Cod Army on the march to the Football League will be that of ambitious Fleetwood.

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