It is slightly hypocritical of the Conference clubs to argue so hard for extra promotion to the Football League, particularly giving the reason of a lack of competitiveness in the second half of the season due to the "winner takes all" position of a single promotion spot, when clubs have to win their respective feeders to gain promotion to the Conference.
The main reason behind this is of course the existance of three feeders: the Dr Martens Southern League, the Ryman Isthmian League and the Unibond Northern Premier League. The Conference offers a straight promotion place to the champions of each of these competitions and could never envisage a situation where the bottom 6, over a quarter of the teams in the league, could go down to allow 2 up from the feeders.
So are there too many feeders?
Possibly so, but the three leagues all have extensive history, particularly the Southern and Isthmian Leagues, and none of them are in the mood to relinquish feeder status. In any argument though it is likely that the Isthmian, the league where all Dagenham & Redbridge's forebears hail from would lose out, purely because it was the last in and has the "amateur" tradition. The original Alliance Premier League was a joint venture by the "professional" Southern League and Northern Premier League in 1979/80, with the old Dagenham FC and Enfield being invited in from the Isthmian only in 1981/82, and that league becoming a feeder 4 years later.
Geography also needs to be taken into account. The fact is that there are less clubs in the North of England than there are in the South, as well as less people to watch them. Between them, the Doc Martens and the Ryman boast 153 clubs to the Unibond's 46. A removal of the promotion to the Conference from the Isthmian would further narrow the funnel for teams in the South.
It is clear though that all is not rosy in the lower reaches of the Football League either. Several clubs have been bumping around the bottom half of the Third Division for a number of seasons just surviving. Those in this category that have finally fallen through the trap door have hardly shone in the Conference with Scarborough and Chester City currently battling further relegation, and Doncaster Rovers and Hereford United in money trouble. The prospects for the team that loses the fight this season, likely to be one of Carlisle United, Halifax, Torquay United or York City at the moment, will not be filling their fans with hope. Right now Leyton Orient are near the drop zone too, a fact which will put a smile on many Conference fans faces after Barry Hearn's position on 2 up, 2 down.
The Football League boasts 72 clubs arranged in 3 national divisions with promotion between them including play-offs, which they denied to the Conference by blocking the second promotion slot and then backing the FA's ban on the "Champions" play off idea. There is little doubt that most clubs in Division Three are struggling and are desparate to get promoted out, therefore overspend. Few Division Three Chairmen seem to have take Wilkins Micawber's famous lesson regarding income and expenditure to heart.
At the peak of the English game is, of course, the promised land of the Premiership, the land of milk and honey and Sky TV's millions. Again the battle to get there and stay there has led to many top clubs struggling for money. The recent high profile discussion of the Phoenix League was about some of the clubs that feel they should still be in Nirvana, Coventry City and Bradford City for instance, trying to get their snouts back in the trough.
At the same time, the top five or six clubs in the Premiership are looking further afield, to an enhanced Champions League and less domestic fixtures. This is a world where competitions like the Worthington Cup and even the Football Association's jewel in the crown, the FA Cup, are just too much of a distraction to be bothered with despite a place in Europe as a prize. From where we sit now, in the Conference, that all seems a million miles off, but it shows that there is room for an all sweeping review of the whole of the game.
So could this all be arranged differently to everyone's benefit?
At the very top of the game there is no doubt at all that there needs to be a national competition, and it makes sense for this to be the case down to perhaps the current Football League Division Two. Maybe it is time for a two division Premier League with 18 in the top division and 20 or 22 in the next to limit the domestic fixtures for those clubs looking to the Champions League as a priority. At some point below that though, why not regionalise?
Anyone that has sat on the M6 past Birmingham, or tried to take a train to the North West knows that travel in the UK is hardly a pleasure these days. The thought of a midweek date at Morecambe in late February brought an almost audible groan on the Daggers discussion boards and it is unlikely that more than a few hardy souls will make the trip despite the fixture's importance.
Should the Daggers win promotion it all becomes even worse. In the current Division Three there are 24 clubs from all over England, 46 games to schedule. This means a number of additional full midweek fixture lists, and potentially a lot of midweek away days. Carlisle on a Tuesday night anyone?
The answer may be to regionalise Division Three again, as it was up to 1957/58. Reforming Division Three South and North would allow the Conference to merge with Division Three and would be an ideal place for the already very blurred line between semi-pro and professional football to come. The benefits of more local derbies and therefore hopefully more away support and less travel could be realised as well.
Based on the current makeup of the Conference and Division 3, imagine a Division Three South that read something like: Barnet, Bristol Rovers, Cheltenham Town, Dagenham & Redbridge, Dover, Exeter City, Farnborough Town, Forest Green Rovers, Hayes, Hereford United, Kidderminster Harriers, Leyton Orient, Luton Town, Margate, Plymouth Argyle, Oxford United, Rushden & Diamonds, Southend United, Stevenage Borough, Swansea City, Torquay United, Woking and Yeovil Town (23 clubs).
Obviously with 4 or 6 clubs coming down the structure from the reduction in size of the top two divisions this is not a valid situation, and I am a club short, but we could end up with something close to this. For Dagenham & Redbridge there are still some significant journeys as anyone that went down to Exeter for the FA Cup game could tell you, but look at the number of games within 100 miles: Barnet, Dover, Farnborough, Hayes, Orient, Luton, Margate, Oxford, Southend, Stevenage, Woking.
Below the regionalised Division Three, then what?
My idea would be further regionalisation, into four leagues, South East, South West, Midlands and North and below that County Senior Leagues. The Isthmian would form the core of the South East feeder, the Southern League the South West and Midland feeders, and the Northern Premier the North feeder.
In an ideal world, each of these would have two promotion spots in to the regional Division Three's, but whether the Football League is ready to move to what is effectively 8 up 8 down yet is doubtful so it may have to be another level down before we get to four feeders, or it could be that the top of the four regional divisions is where suddenly it becomes winner take all again.
It is clear that the position where a team needs to win a highly competitive league in order to get promoted is wrong and all leagues at all levels should be offered at least two promotion places to the next step up the ladder with the option of offering the additional spot in some kind of play-off if that is what the clubs agree. The structure of football needs to take this into account and hopefully it will be a major goal of the upcoming restructure.