This is the 25th season since automatic promotion and relegation was introduced between Division 4 and the Conference for the 1986-87 season (for the sake of consistency and clarity, that’s how I’ll be referring to the divisions throughout this article, Division three, League two, random sponsors, bite me!). So this seems like a good time to take a closer look at how this has altered football at this level, and the difference in the success of relegated and promoted teams, and how that’s changed over the 25 years. For part 1, looking at the changes at conference level, click here. In this second instalment, I focus on the promoted sides, and how Division 4 has changed over the years.
From 1958 when Divisions 3 and 4 were created out of the old Division 3 North and South until 1986, Division 4 was a fairly sleepy stagnant division with many perennially bad teams, where the worst of the ultimate closed shop old mens club could comfortably and unambitiously relax. Relegation existed, but the re-election process made sure it was a very rare threat, with the bottom 4 teams future decided by a vote among the other Football league clubs. Much mutual back scratching made sure that only 6 teams were ever replaced by non-League teams, and one of those, Accrington Stanley, actually resigned due to financial hardships rather than being voted out.
Depending on where a team was situated geographically, it could be as bad as it wanted and not really have to worry, Bradford Park Avenue for example had to finish bottom three times in a row before finally geting voted out, whereas in 1972, Barrow, all the way up there in the North-West were voted out a mere two years after being relegated to Division 4 and despite finishing 8 points ahead of Crewe Alexandra who finished botttom that year.
What this meant was that for a lot of teams, there was no real incentive to improve and they could trundle along, just get by really, with no real threat to their existence. It doesn't come as a surprise that the few teams that were elected into the league all had very early success, 4 of the 6 teams making it to the second division within their first 8 years. Now, with two teams relegated every year, the worst clubs can't continue being bad. Relegation has often been a wake up call, with teams coming back more competitive and in better financial health. There are currently 20 teams in the Football League that have come up via promotion since 1987, 14 in the old Division 4, 5 in Division 3 and 1 in Division 2. As in part 1, this can be broken down into 4 seperate phases.
Seven teams were lost to Division 4 in this period, unfortunately three of them went out of business all together, but of the others, three won promotion back almost immediately, Lincoln City and Darlington at the first attempt, Colchester United in their second season, and they all seemed much better for the experience and the chance to regroup. Including those 3, 6 of the 7 promoted teams adapted comfortably to Division 4, all finishing their first season in the top half of the table, and 3 out of the 7 won promotion to Division 3 by their second season. The other promoted team, Maidstone United, made the playoffs in their first year, but soon became one of the three bankrupt teams, so only 3 brand new members were left at the end of this period.
No-one was promoted during these three years due to the Conference champions' grounds not being up to Football League standards, and this period of calm, with Division 4 not losing any of it's weaker teams, and the Conference retaining it's stronger teams set the stage for the next period.
During this period, only one of the promoted teams was a returnee, Halifax Town who were relegated again after 3 years, and the relative weakness of the Conference teams promoted saw three of the five relegated back, though they all lasted 5 years, and Rushden and Diamonds did get promoted to Division 3 for one season. The two other teams promoted in this period, Macclesfield and Cheltenham Town are both still going strong, and have both had spells in division 3 as well.
Of the six teams relegated during this time, none of them won promotion back, meaning that for the first time, there was a now a good number of "big" clubs in the Conference fighting for promotion, creating the competition that would lead to the success we'd see from the promoted teams in the next few years.
2002-03 saw the promotion/relegation spots increased to 2, and the results since have been a real testament to the success of this 25 year experiment. Out of the 16 promoted teams, 9 were returning after relegation with 7 teams making their Football League bow, but almost all of them have been very succesful. Only Chester City have returned to Non-League status, mainly due to financial issues that dated back to the 1990's.
If Chester were the exception to the rule, Doncaster Rovers are perhaps the best ambassadors for how a club can be turned around. They had been relegated to the Conference in 1998 after finances had got so bad the Chariman tried to burn the main stand down for the insurance money in 1995. Under new ownership, they settled and returned to the Football League in 2003, immediately won Division 4, moved to a new stadium in 2006, won the Johnstone's Paint trophy in 2007 and won promotion to the second tier in 2008 where they have remained since.
Carlisle United and Exeter City are other clubs who have come back stronger and currently reside in Division 3, accompanied by traditional Conference clubs Yeovil Town and Dagenham & Redbridge. Hereford United also had a year at that level, three other clubs made the Division 4 playoffs and the rest have settled nicely into life at this level.
The Conference is proving the ideal place for troubled clubs to rehabilitate themselves. Though the number of former Football League clubs is increasing, it is still below half the division, so all but the worst off clubs have been able to consolidate, and then when more stable take advantage of their infrastructure and fanbase to outmuscle smaller traditionally non-league clubs, as the Conference table stands right now, the 9 teams with recent Football League experience are all in the top 14. That there are now 9 teams competing for the two promotion spots, along with non-league teams enjoying their best days, like Fleetwood Town or Crawley means there are no weak teams coming up. Though I wouldn't call for the Conference to be converted into a Division 5, there are still too many smaller clubs for who that would be a step too far, either financially or due to ground regulations, It could be time to look at expanding those two promotion spots to three.
Part 3: I get all "Soccernomics" with a more stats based look at how promoted and relegated teams have done.