Outside the Box: Conference curse awaits as Stockport count cost of failure

Almost 25 years after automatic promotion and relegation was introduced between the Football League and what is still generally known as the Conference, the signs are that regaining League status is becoming harder.

Of those demoted in the first 15 seasons from 1987 to 2001, only Scarborough (no longer in existence) and Newport County (wound up and re-formed) have never returned. Once the system changed to two-up and two-down in 2003, however, it paradoxically seemed to become more difficult.

Halifax, York, Kidderminster, Cambridge United, Rushden & Diamonds, Boston, Mansfield, Wrexham, Chester, Grimsby and Darlington have failed to make it since then; Luton will join the list if they fail in the play-offs for the second successive season.

John Moules, who was chief executive of the Conference for eight years, believes the reason is that standards between the two levels have narrowed. "The key thing is that there are now more full-time clubs in the Conference than ever before, about 75 per cent of them," he told OTB.

"It's noticeable this season that all those in the relegation area are the part-timers. Also, as squads in the Football League have diminished in size, there are more players dropping down a level, many of whom have been in academies as professionals for four or five years."

This is all depressing news for Stockport County, whose League membership ends next month after 106 years. And if Northampton Town (elected in 1920) are also relegated, they will join Luton and Oxford United as teams who played in the top flight within the last 50 years, only to drop into non-League football.

Sterling to show his worth

It is rare enough for England to be defending a major title, so it ought to be recorded that the nation's Under-17s go into this week's European Championship in Serbia as holders, taking on France on Tuesday and Denmark on Friday.

The majority of the winning squad have moved up to the Under-18s but last year's coach, John Peacock, remains in charge. The group he has selected appears to confirm Kenny Dalglish's belief that Liverpool have some outstanding young prospects again; there are four, including the much touted Raheem Sterling, who was snatched from Queens Park Rangers aged 15 and scored five goals against Southend in the FA Youth Cup earlier this season.

Pleasingly, the next highest representation is from the production line of talent that is Crewe Alexandra, with three.

Howard's way is a weird one

One of the coaches of the England Under-19s, Bobby Davison, has recounted a story in the Derby County programme that illustrates the idiosyncratic methods of Howard Wilkinson, himself once heavily involved with England (as Under-21 manager, then taking charge of the senior team for one game in Finland after Kevin Keegan had resigned four days earlier).

On the last day of the 1989-90 season, Wilkinson's Leeds, needing victory for promotion back to the top flight, were away to Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth, who had to win to stay up. The day is more widely remembered for what Rothmans Yearbook noted as "rioting, looting and assaults" by Leeds supporters.

Davison recalls that he was carrying a knee injury. "There was no way I could play, but Howard didn't want to tell anyone," he says.

"He thought Carl Shutt would be too nervous if he knew beforehand so he made me start the game. Two minutes in, I collapsed in a heap. Shutty came on and helped make the winner for Lee Chapman so we won promotion."

Seniors await their moment

There is a fine balance between an experienced squad and an ageing one, and Tunstall Town of the Staffordshire County Senior League have probably erred on the wrong side.

The "Senior" is supposed to refer to the League's status, not players' ages, which in Tunstall's case include three septuagenarians and one 60-year-old. That may have contributed to the team not having managed a point for three seasons; the record this campaign, which includes two 19-0 away defeats, is now 24 straight losses, five goals scored and 235 conceded.

It is surely time for an injection of youth. A couple of 40-year-olds, maybe?

s.tongue@independent.co.uk

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