Paul Newman: Doncaster and Dagenham rise to dizzying heights after League learns to love social climbers

For those established League clubs that fall through the trapdoor, the Conference offers a route back. Under the old system there was no guarantee of return

There was a time when newspapers never used to publish tables after the first weekend of the season on the grounds that they were meaningless. Some still follow that convention, but Doncaster Rovers supporters poring over today's sports pages will no doubt have a thrill if their eyes alight upon an embryonic Championship table. After their 2-0 opening day victory at Preston North End, Rovers are fifth. But for the alphabet, they might be fourth instead of Coventry City.

The only table that matters, of course, will be that appearing on Monday, 9 May next year, but today's does have some historical significance. Doncaster's fifth place is the highest position achieved by any club to have come up from the Conference since automatic promotion to the Football League was introduced 23 years ago.

While some Grimsby Town supporters may not appreciate the fact – the Mariners play their first match outside the Football League for 99 years when they travel to Crawley Town for their opening Conference fixture on Saturday – automatic promotion has done wonders for the health of the game at lower levels. Twenty current members of the Football League have been in the Conference, including 10 who had never played above that level until their promotion.

For those established League clubs that fall through the trapdoor, the Conference offers a route back. Under the old system, whereby League clubs voted either to keep in the team finishing bottom of the League or to elect a replacement, there was never any guarantee of a return.

The re-election system had been introduced in 1898, six years after the Football League had expanded to two divisions. Initially, there had been end-of-season play-offs, in which the bottom two in the First Division played the top two in the Second, but a new system was introduced after Burnley and Stoke colluded to draw their final match 0-0 in an attempt to ensure both clubs played in the First Division the next season.

Opponents of the re-election system argued for decades that it was unfair and that the League had become an old boys' network.

The Conference, the first national league to be formed outside the Football League, was established in 1979 with the aim of strengthening the case for automatic promotion and relegation, which finally came about eight years later.

Since then, Conference attendances have blossomed as former League clubs take the chance to regroup and rebuild, though competition is fierce. Conference players used to all be part-time, but most clubs with realistic ambitions of promotion now operate full-time squads.

Doncaster offer a perfect illustration of the recovery route. Having spent five years in the Conference following relegation in 1998, they won immediate promotion to League One on their return and took another step up to the Championship two years ago.

They have a new ground, spent £1m on a player for the first time when they signed Billy Sharp in the summer and, in Sean O'Driscoll, have one of the country's brightest young managers. Last season, Rovers finished 12th, their highest finish in the League for more than half a century, and their fans will no doubt be hoping Saturday's win at Preston will herald an even better run this year.

Of the other former Conference clubs, five are in League Two, including Dagenham and Redbridge, who not so long ago would only have dreamed of a League fixture like Saturday's visit to Sheffield Wednesday. Fourteen more are in League One, including Accrington Stanley and Aldershot, clubs with long-standing Football League traditions who fell on hard times but rose again from the ashes.

The latest arrivals from the Conference are Stevenage, who have dropped "Borough" from their name but in all other respects are looking only to add to their CV. Stevenage were languishing in the United Counties League 30 years ago and were controversially denied promotion to the Football League in 1996 because their facilities were deemed inadequate but now boast a well-equipped stadium with a capacity of more than 7,000.

Broadhall Way was only half-full for Stevenage's League debut on Saturday, but the crowd of 3,553 witnessed a thrilling finish as Charlie Griffin's 89th-minute goal earned a 2-2 draw at home to Macclesfield Town, another former Conference club. Until now, the Hertfordshire town's main claim to fame has come through motor racing and golf – Lewis Hamilton and Ian Poulter are both local boys-made-good – but Graham Westley's team will be hoping to change that in the years ahead.