When you’re beaten it’s annoying, but when it’s done by a team that have artificially accelerated their progress through excessive spending, it’s difficult to care too much.
It’s been a funny weekend in football. Luton, the non-league team that aren’t non-league, beat Norwich, Milton Keynes Dons, the strange Frankenstein club, beat QPR and Fleetwood, the non-league team that are now, according to Mickey Lewis, one of the big teams in the league, beat us.
When I was young, football was split in two; there were league teams and there were non-league teams. Non-league teams were amateurs; blue collar workers who hacked around at the weekend and only raised themselves above obscurity on FA Cup days. The Football League was an impenetrable cartel. There was a system of ‘re-election’ whereby the last placed team in the league had to ‘reapply’ for their position. It was a self-serving and ineffectual process, owners of other league clubs were unlikely to replace the worst performing team with a team on the up. That would threaten the hegemony, so the process of re-electing the bottom club provided a buffer preventing others from being sucked into the abyss. When I was young, it was Crewe who were forever in the bottom slot. It was as predictable as Liverpool winning the league. Hartlepool United, however, were the ultimate survivalists, being re-elected on no fewer than 14 occasions between 1924 and 1984. In fact, only 13 clubs were ever voted in over the century the system was in place. Our introduction to the football league only happened because Accrington resigned and the league needed someone to fill the vacant slot.
In 1987 the Football League introduced a much more satisfactory relegation and promotion system. I approved, in my mind you should be able to walk onto an park and know your watching a game from the 273rd Division and that it will be 272 promotions before either team hit the top flight.
The first season with the new system seemed to reinforce the implication behind the callously withering phrase ‘non-league’; that the teams were non-football, a nonentity. Lincoln, the first team relegated in 1987, jumped straight back in 1988. Darlington did the same two years later. Colchester also jumped back quickly. Only Newport failed to return within 2 years, because they went bust. For a while it seemed that relegation to the Conference was embarrassing but not fatal. In fact, received wisdom had it that it was an opportunity to cleanse yourself of the sins of the past and return in a better shape.
In the early 90’s there was a new type of non-league club emerging. The increased competition from old football league clubs helped drag up standards. Teams with good managers were getting promoted; Martin O’Neill (Wycombe), Sammy McIlroy (Macclesfield) and Steve Cotterill (Cheltenham) all gained promotion with their clubs and then went onto better things. Suddenly relegation from the football league was altogether less appetising, there was a real chance that you wouldn’t come back.
By the mid-2000s the Conference was beginning to stockpile ex-football league clubs that it wouldn’t let out of its grasp. These were clubs that had been poorly run and probably viewed the Conference as a place that happened to other people. Teams like Oxford and Luton tried to spend their way out of trouble, only to find that life in the Conference was more complicated than that. There were good teams to compete against and an archaic administration to tackle. The oversimplistic idea of overspending just sent you into more of a downward spiral.
The actual champions of the Conference became characterised by their slow, considered growth. Accrington made solid progress up to the point that they replaced us in 2006. Dagenham and Redbridge built slowly taking the title from us in 2007. Aldershot, Burton and Stevenage were all established, well-run, progressive clubs. It wasn’t a surprise, to me at least, that Wimbledon were promoted in 2011 as they fitted the pattern. It seemed that, although we were prime victims of it, that the promotion from the Conference had hit a good place; badly run teams were being replaced by well run teams. Which is exactly how the system should work.
Things changed the season after we’d escaped. Crawley Town were a new type of Conference champion; a project. During our own Conference years Crawley were a basket case, apparently on the verge of collapse at any given moment. Suddenly they were awash with money. They weren’t the first, Rushden and Diamonds had been rich man’s plaything that got promoted in 2001, Boston were promoted in 2002 by dubious financial means, others like Telford, Histon and Forest Green tried and failed. All tried to buy their way to success with catastrophic consequences.
By 2010, however, the Conference was being clogged up with a number of sizeable ex-football league clubs; Oxford and Luton were the two biggest; but also Wrexham, York, Mansfield, Torquay, Exeter had all polarised the division between the haves and the have-nots. Although they were all in various states of disrepair, with only 2 clubs a year getting promoted, it was fairly certain that at least 1 of the bigger teams were going to be competing for promotion, perhaps two, shutting off everyone else. Teams needed to do something to give themselves a chance. Crawley decided it was time to spend big.
They blasted their way out of the Conference with sheer financial firepower. Their riches caused envy and anger, which was exacerbated by Crawley’s choice of manager; Steve Evans. The results was a club which looked like a plucky minnow, acting like a beligerant bully. Even reaction to their cup run in 2011, where they shook Manchester United at Old Trafford, was muted. This wasn’t the plucky small-timers that battled their way to a result, it was literally and figuratively a petty thief who had won the lottery.
Fleetwood haven’t been tainted with the Evans stench, but the success is the same, a project being bankrolled by Andy Pilley. The question is; what’s the point? I’m sure there’s a satisfaction for Pilley personally investing in a club and seeing that effort rewarded. And if you’re a long-standing Fleetwood fan or local, then it must be good to see your team cutting through all in front of you. But, the problem with these artificially accelerated projects is that you succeed too quickly. And, if there’s no sense of struggle, then you don’t take people with you. What they are left with is rather hollow.
Which kind of makes it difficult for me to really engage with Fleetwood’s success. They’re not the brave non-leaguers of years gone by, they’ve not succeeded through admiral financial prudence; they’re just another team who have artificially skewed the competition. You feel you just want to wave them through so we can get on with being a proper football club. In all likelihood, like all the others, they will implode eventually. I think this is why I struggle to be that bothered about losing on Saturday.