Despite its name, The Football Conference is not a discussion group. It is, in fact, the twilight zone of English football. It's the portal between the professional game and the much larger, but less glamorous, world of part-time and amateur football. It's a competition consisting of three divisions, each containing 22 teams - all of them chasing the prize of promotion to the professional Football League.1
The top division of the Conference involves teams from all over England. For the first 25 years of the Conference's existence, this one national division was all that there was to the Conference. Then, in 2004, two regional divisions - the Football Conference North and the Football Conference South - were added at the level immediately below the national Conference.
At the end of each season, the champion clubs of the Conference North and the Conference South are promoted to the top division of the Football Conference. The clubs finishing from second to fifth in Conference North and Conference South enter a series of play-offs, from which one more club eventually wins a place in the top division of the Conference. The bottom three clubs from the top division are relegated to either Conference North or Conference South.
The Conference's origins
The Football Conference began in 1979 under the name of 'The Alliance Premier League'. It was the first national league for the semi-professional2 football clubs of England and Wales, and it was formed largely as a result of the frustration felt by many leading non-League clubs over the lack of opportunities for advancement available to them.
At that time, clubs could only gain admission to the Football League by being elected to it at the annual general meeting of the League. The clubs finishing in the bottom four positions in the League were required to apply for re-election, and clubs from outside the League could stand for election in a bid to take the struggling clubs' places.
In practice, however, the Football League committee tended to be highly conservative, and to favour existing League clubs over rivals with a much stronger claim to League status. Bradford Park Avenue had to finish in the bottom four positions in the League for four consecutive seasons, from 1967 to 1970, before the League finally lost patience with them and gave their place to Cambridge United.
The formation of a national semi-professional football competition meant that each year, that competition's champions would have a strong case for elevation to League status. Before the 1986-7 football season, that principle was recognised by the Football League. It was announced that from then on the Conference champions would automatically be promoted to the Football League, with the League's bottom club making the opposite journey. The first beneficiaries of this new regime were Scarborough, who replaced Lincoln City in 1987.3
Grounds for complaint
However, the new arrangement brought some problems. Clubs winning promotion to the Football League invariably became fully professional, since part-time players would be unlikely to match the fitness levels of full-time footballers.
Maidstone United won promotion to the League in 1989, but found the financial strain of turning professional too much to bear. Their economic problems largely stemmed from the fact that their ground wasn't good enough to stage League football.
They entered into a ground-sharing arrangement under which they played their home games at the ground of Dartford, a non- league club with superior facilities. But this meant that some of their fans had to travel relatively long distances to see the team, and Maidstone's support dwindled as they struggled in the League. After only three seasons in the League, the club was forced to close down.
The Maidstone experience understandably made the League a little more wary about who would be admitted into their ranks. The regulations were tightened so that the Conference champions would only be promoted if their ground met some fairly stringent criteria. Macclesfield Town were refused admission to the League when they won the Conference in 1995, 4 despite the fact that League football had already been played at their Moss Rose ground in the recent past, when Chester City had a ground-sharing arrangement with Macclesfield.
Clubs relegated from the League to the Conference met a variety of fates. Some spent only a single season in the Conference, winning the championship at the first attempt to regain their League status. Lincoln City bounced back after one Conference season in 1988, and Darlington did the same the following year. Other relegated clubs coped far less successfully. Newport County went out of business midway through their first Conference season after being relegated in 1988, although the club has since been successfully relaunched.
However, confidence in the Conference grew in the late 1990s as sponsorship money, regular television coverage and higher crowds brought more money into Conference football. In 2002, it was announced that henceforth two teams would be promoted from the Football Conference each season. The Conference champions would still gain automatic promotion to the Football League, and the teams finishing second, third, fourth and fifth in the Conference would play off at the end of each season, with the play-off winners claiming the second promotion place.
Beyond the valley of the Football Conference
Below the Conferences North and South are three more regional leagues. The traditional names of these leagues are The Isthmian League, The Northern Premier League and The Southern League, but all three have recently gone by a confusing variety of sponsors' names. At the start of the 2004 - 5 season, the Isthmian and Northern Premier leagues were calling themselves The Ryman League and The UniBond League respectively. In a remarkable break with conventional modern sporting practice, the Southern League was doing without a name sponsor and actually calling itself 'The Southern Football League'.5
The Ryman (or Isthmian) League involves clubs from greater London and the counties surrounding it, and the Southern League covers the rest of the southern half of England. The UniBond (Northern Premier) League features clubs from northern England.
There is promotion and relegation between these three leagues and a network of smaller local leagues. It is therefore theoretically possible for a club to rise up through the regional leagues, through the Conference North or South, on to the national division of the Football Conference and finally to the Football League. In practice, however, any club trying to do this would almost certainly need to spend a huge amount of money on ground improvements in order to meet the requirements of the bigger leagues. This system of interlinked leagues is known as The English Football Pyramid.
Most of the leading Welsh semi-professional clubs compete in the Football League of Wales. However, some prefer to play in the predominantly English semi-professional leagues. Newport County became founder members of the new Conference South in 2004. Merthyr Tydfil compete in the Southern League, while Colwyn Bay take part in the UniBond League.
The Conference today
The Football Conference is now a thriving competition, generally regarded as a de facto extension of the Football League. Its status has grown as some Conference clubs have opted to operate on a full-time professional basis.
The Conference's increased financial stability means that is now relatively unlikely that a club relegated to the Conference will suffer the sad fate of the original Newport County FC. Former League clubs such as Hereford United and Halifax Town have been able to survive extended stays in the Conference.
Meanwhile, the teams that have moved up from the Conference to the League in recent seasons appear to have made the transition fairly comfortably. After winning promotion via the play-offs in 2003, Doncaster Rovers became the champions of the Football League Division Three6 a year later.
The Conference's reputation has often been enhanced by the FA Cup giant-killing acts of present and former Conference clubs. The Cup has brought fame to clubs such as Dagenham & Redbridge and Woking. Yeovil Town and Rushden & Diamonds gained fame as Cup giant-killers in their Conference days before going on to win League status.
Sadly, arguably the greatest Conference's greatest FA Cup giant-killing club went out of business during the 2004 close season. Telford United reached the Fourth Round of the FA Cup and finished in mid-table in the Conference in the 2003-4 season, but were nevertheless forced to go into liquidation due to the withdrawal of their main financial backer. However, a group of Telford supporters quickly formed a new club, AFC Telford United, which was invited to join the UniBond League Division One for the 2004 - 5 season.