The great Conference injustice

This past Wednesday night, promotion-chasing Wrexham beat rivals Luton in a 2nd vs. 3rd match in the Blue Square Premier league. The 2-0 score-line put them on 80 points, five behind Fleetwood Town, on whom they have a game in hand. It was the latest result of a run of two defeats in 23 games which has included 18 victories. Wrexham will go up if they win their eleven remaining fixtures, including a date with Fleetwood on April 10th, but it is perfectly feasible, by winning the other ten games, they will amass 110 points and still witness the heartbreak of missing out on promotion to the football league, as the single automatic place looks likely to go to Fleetwood, with Wrexham having to settle for the lottery of the play-offs.

This possible conclusion to a season in which they have stretched every bone and sinew to go on such a remarkable run, would be a travesty when it is considered, in the league above, Barnet were busy being beaten 3-1 away at Gillingham, with a deplorably-slender travelling support of 84, to mark seven matches without a win for the Bees. Yet, they lie in 20th position, three points clear of the relegation spots with league survival well within their grasp. Barnet have not yet arranged a place to play their home games next season after the council jettisoned them from their Underhill home, but it is increasingly possible that they will be a league club next season whilst Wrexham, a club that averages an attendance of just under 4,000 and have forged a run that has summoned an unbelievable resilience against the departure of manager Dean Saunders to Doncaster mid-way through the season, will not.

The folly of the two promotion place, 2 up 2 down system is being heavily exposed here as it could be Luton, a full 15 points behind Wrexham after Wednesday’s defeat, or Mansfield and York, both a further four points behind on 61, who could sneak in ahead of the deserving Dragons in the random madness of the play-offs. In unique circumstances, the financially strong Crawley Town, who are now being replicated by the big spenders at Fleetwood, have gone straight on to challenge for promotion in League Two having won the conference at a 15 point canter last season. Runners-up AFC Wimbledon have also done well in their debut season in the Football League, sitting seven points clear of the relegation spots. There is easily enough evidence to suggest that Wrexham will make a more substantial effort at League Two football, having taken Championship promotion contenders Brighton all the way in an FA Cup third round tie, than Dagenham and Redbridge, who suffered their 21st defeat of the season on Tuesday night by a 4-0 score at Swindon Town.

With four teams being separated by a point at the foot of tier four however, Dagenham may still fancy their chances of squeezing ahead of Plymouth, Hereford and Northampton despite only not tasting defeat in just 13 games this season. They are only one win away from Macclesfield Town who lie level on points with Barnet in 19th, so it is effectively six teams, all having lost 17 games this season, in with a shout of dropping through the two-spot relegation trap-door with Fleetwood and one other team, coming the other way. It is unfortunate to think that the one other, with a record of just 5 defeats in 35 matches, might not be Andy Morrell’s Wrexham.

Just as six into two don’t go at the bottom end of League Two, five into two don’t go at the upper end of the Conference. It is an injustice on the team who has to miss out, especially when it is considered that the English league system inhabits a four promotion and four relegation spot transition between leagues One and Two, with League Two possessing three automatic places and four play-off spots all the way down to seventh position, it is highly unlikely the injustice of a team putting a Wrexham style run together would be ignored at the expense of a team who have limped through a campaign in the tier above.

As it is, League One is unforgiving and that is the precedent that must be adopted in the Blue Square Premier League as it increases in competitiveness, some even higher than League Two, year on year. Last year’s relegated duo, Lincoln City and Stockport County are both 18th and 16th respectively in this year’s Conference, while you have to trace all the way back to 2005 for the last team, Carlisle United now of League One, to gain promotion back into the league system at the first attempt. Since the two up, two down system was put in place in 2002, 18 teams have been promoted from the Blue Square Premier division and all apart from the now defunct Chester City, currently reside in the Football League, the highest being Doncaster Rovers, now fighting relegation in the Championship. Stevenage are probably the most successful example, now fighting for promotion from League One, having embarked on two successive promotions, whilst Doncaster, Carlisle, Exeter and Yeovil all steamrollered the fourth tier upon elevation into the League.

The Football Conference had petitioned the Football League for a reversion to a three team swap back in 2010 but still no progress has been made and it looks like Wrexham may be the ruling’s, described by Lincoln boss David Holdsworth as “mad” and “bonkers”, most high-profile victim yet. If gaining 110 points with it still not being a sufficient total for promotion is not a damning indictment into the flaws of the system enough to implement change, then it would be difficult to envisage what will be. Even if the play-offs are the necessary method, let’s hope for meritocratic reasons, the cream will eventually rise to the top.

Written by Adam Gray; @AdamGray1250