Non-League game alive and still kicking up a fuss

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The Independent Online

It used to be the tradition in Fleet Street that dog did not eat dog.

It used to be the tradition in Fleet Street that dog did not eat dog.

This apparently no longer applies in the realm of middle- market tabloids and their gossip columnists, but I am not sure whether one organ should warmly welcome a sprightly newcomer on the national scene. Whatever the custom, the arrival of the Non-League Paper last season, published on Sundays throughout the year, provides an excellent service for those keenest of football nuts, the non-League fans who avidly follow so called non-League football where rigid crowd segregation is unnecessary and the atmosphere invariably warm and friendly.

I say invariably because football at this level mirrors its bigger counterparts in most respects and on the rare occasions that hooliganism has broken out in non-League it has been particularly nasty, not least because the perpetrators have enjoyed the element of surprise over unprepared hosts unaccustomed to having their hospitality abused soviolently.

The money problems which afflict the lower reaches of the Football League are as nothing compared to those lower down in the pecking order. From central sponsorship contracts and broadcasting arrangements the Football League still manages to subsidise Third Division clubs to the tune of many thousands of pounds per week, revenue which is not available to clubs outside the Football League.

The Conference celebrated its 21st birthday with Saturday's kick-off. It started life as the Alliance. Two widely vilified figures of the football establishment, Peter Swales, later of Manchester City, who was instrumental at Altrincham in setting up the Northern Premier (now Unibond) League and Burnley's Bob Lord, who gave succour to those who envisaged a fifth national division, were both influential in the corridors of power during the discussions leading to the birth of the Alliance.

Lord, with his fingers in a plethora of pies, was many things, but he knew his football and ensured that the new league had the shelter of the Football League administration in its early days. Hence the Conference clubs competed for the Bob Lord Challenge Trophy until last year.

The Alliance gave rise to one of the corniest-ever football jokes about the then Third Division manager who fainted in the high street, was revived in the nearby building society office and on being told he was in the Alliance exclaimed "Jesus, what happened to the Fourth Division?" Admission prices in the Conference, are generally reasonable, all seats £10 or lower.

Before the advent of the Alliance there was no limit to the number of Southern League and Northern Premier League clubs who could, to each other's detriment, apply to join the Football League every year. It was commonplace for Football League chairmen to sit scratching their heads over a ballot paper containing a dozen or so new applicants and so invariably the bottom clubs were successful in their quest for re-election.

It was Halifax Town and Rochdale who unselfishly proposed automatic promotion and relegation, and perhaps, now that many Conference clubs have achieved the required standards and stability, a similarly forward-thinking proposal in the wider interests of the game would extend the system at least to two-up and two down.

All is not sweetness and light. George Borg, the manager of Ryman League Aldershot Town, writes a column in the Non-League Paper. He is non-League's Ken Bates and Sir Alex Ferguson all rolled into one. Last week he was attacking the freeloaders who latch on to clubs expecting free tickets, the Football Association for not giving enough money to that level of the game, the fact that he has never been invited to manage a representative side despite success with Chesham and Enfield and cheap foreign imports who prevent non-League players being given a chance with a League club. All that before getting on to the Home Office and greedy players.

Having on one memorable schoolboy occasion played there, I was interested to read the story of Barrow's Holker Street ground. There's a three-way legal battle between a former chairman, a finance company and other creditors over the ownership of Holker Street and thus the club will kick off a second season in liquidation, having miraculously finished mid-table in the Unibond League last season following a belated start with only four players on the books.

And there are ructions between the Southern League and the Ryman League over a plan to restructure the senior pyramid by removing the link between the Ryman League and the Conference. Feelings are running high.

Nevertheless, congratulations to the Conference on its milestone and good luck to all who support lower level football.

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