Author Archives: Ian King

About Ian King

responsible for the football blog 200percent, and writes for Pitch Invasion about non-league football.

Joined At The Hip in Essex

Canvey Island
Chelmsford City were one of Essex’s biggest non-league clubs but had fallen on hard times. Canvey Island were former county league upstarts that had propelled themselves up to the Football Conference. Off the pitch, their paths would cross in 2006.

Essex is a big county by English standards, and considering its size you could argue that it is under-represented in football terms. This is partly due to its location. The southern and eastern parts of Essex are largely populated by London’s overspill to the extent that it can be difficult to work out where London ends and Essex begins.

The county currently has three Football League clubs. Colchester United are in the ascendancy right now, though their promotion to the Championship two years ago was a surprise, and they are currently in the relegation places. Southend United are traditionally a bigger club, and are currently in League One, though they could turn up in any one of the three divisions of the Football League at any time. Dagenham & Redbridge were promoted into the Football League at the end of last season, and are finding life in League Two to be a struggle. They are currently sitting one place above the relegation places, but both of the clubs below them have games in hand, and they could be facing a quick return to the non-league game.

With considerable amounts of money having moved out of London to Essex with the people that did the moving, it is perhaps no surprise that Essex clubs have an occasional tendency to get very rich, very quickly. Grays Athletic, for example, were a middling Isthmian League side for many years until a local businessman poured money into them and took them into the Football Conference. Their ambitions on the pitch have been somewhat tempered over the last couple of years, but they retain a lofty ambition to build themselves a new ground.

The flip-side is that the county also has more than its fair share of “boom & bust” clubs. Hornchurch FC, for example, were bankrolled by a company called Carthium Ltd, but folded when on the point of promotion into the Conference in 2005. A new club, AFC Hornchurch, has since risen from the Essex Senior League to the Ryman League Premier Division.

The nearest that Essex has to a team of “traditional” giants is Chelmsford City. Founded in 1938, they won the Southern League Championship in 1946 under the managership of Arthur Rowe (who would go on to manage the Spurs “push and run” team to the Football League Championship in 1951), and again in 1968 and 1972. By the 1990s, though, the club had fallen on hard times and by 1997 had slipped into receivership. When the official receivers sold their New Writtle Street stadium, they had to spend a decade playing ten miles from Chelmsford, at nearby Maldon and Billericay, before returning to the town at the Melbourne Park athletics track.

Canvey Island, by contrast, came from nowhere in the late 1990s. Bankrolled by the mobile home supremo Jeff King, they shot up through the non-league ranks from the Essex Senior League to reach the Conference in 2005. They also earned a reputation as a great cup team. They won the FA Trophy in 2001 and reached the final again the following year, and their FA Cup run in 2002, when they beat Northampton Town in front of live “Match Of The Day” cameras and Wigan Athletic at the JJB Stadium,– earned them national fame.

In their first season in the Conference, they finished in eighteenth place, but with crowds not living up to expectations, the costs of running what was effectively a full-time team started to take their toll. On the pitch, the following season was a little better, with the team climbing to fourteenth place, but crowds by now had dwindled to a few hundred, and King’s patience had worn out. He announced at the end of the 2005/06 team that he would be resigning as manager and withdrawing all financial support. Canvey resigned their place in the Conference and accepted a voluntary relegation of three divisions to the Ryman League Division One North.

Jeff King wasn’t out of football for long. He pitched up immediately at Chelmsford City, bringing most of his expensively assembled squad with him. Last season they finished in fourth place in the Ryman League Premier Division before losing in the play-off semi-finals to local rivals Billericay Town. They have been absolutely unstoppable this season and are currently nine points clear of AFC Wimbledon at the top of the Ryman League, whilst drawing average crowds of 1,200:– a remarkable achievement, when you consider that they are as far from the Conference as, say, Swansea City are from the Premier League. Should they be promoted at the end of this season, they will probably join next season’s Conference South as favourites for a second successive promotion.

Canvey Island, meanwhile, have stabilised themselves financially and still have a decent chance of making the play-offs in the Ryman League Division One North. It may not be the Football Conference, but at least their supporters have a team to watch.

Chelmsford City supporters, giddy with the success that this season has brought them, might want to take a moment to consider that, whilst Chelmsford have (somewhat humorously) claimed that King is at Melbourne Park purely as a football manager, the sugar daddy financial model has winners as well as losers, and that Canvey are an example of what can happen when things don’t go according to plan.

Jeff King’s patience wore out at Canvey, and who’s to say that it won’t happen again? Canvey Island, meanwhile, provide a cautionary tale for all football supporters. They had become solely reliant on the ongoing financial input of one man, and when that man upped sticks and left, the club almost collapsed completely. The fact that he took the team that he had paid for with him might have been an insult to their supporters, but it was hardly surprising. Mass desertions of players following a manager are not uncommon in non-league football, and when that manager is the man that is literally paying the wages, such a desertion becomes little more than a fait accompli. One would like to think, though, that at least Chelmsford City’s older supporters will recall the dark days of 1997, when their club sailed so close to extinction itself, and that they will at least be wary of putting all of their eggs in one basket. After all, they should know better than anyone that Jeff King has got form for moving on when things aren’t going his way.

Photo credit: DBullock on Flickr

Enfield FC and Lincoln City, Crossing Paths

FA TrophyIn 1986, the Football League and the Conference created a small piece of football history, and introduced automatic promotion and relegation. Since the beginning of the Football League, entrance to British sport’s most exclusive club had been strictly by invitation only. At the end of each season, the League’s ninety-two members voted for who they wanted to be members again the following season, and the bottom four clubs in Division Four (now known as League Two) had to apply to be voted back in, along with any senior non-league teams that fancied their chances.

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, exceptionally hard for newcomers difficult to get in. Every five to ten years or so, someone would get lucky (and there were considerably murkier rumours surrounding some clubs’ applications), but it was largely seen as a sop to upward mobility whilst maintaining the status quo very effectively.

The beginning of automatic promotion and relegation would change the face of lower and non-league football in England forever, and one match would come to symbolise the changing of the times.

The move towards automatic promotion began in 1979, when a group of clubs, frustrated at the lack of opportunity for non-league clubs to join the League, left the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues to form the Alliance Premier League. Two years later, they invited two clubs from the London-based Isthmian League to join them and, by 1985, the non-league game had taken the pyramid shape that it still holds to this day. One of the two clubs invited to join the APL in 1981, Enfield, were immediately and spectacularly successful, winning the FA Trophy in 1982 and the league championship the following season. They won the title again in 1986, but times were changing, and Enfield were about to be left behind. In the summer of 1986, the Alliance Premier League talked the Football League into allowing one automatic promotion and relegation place per season. Crowds in the Football League had been plummeting for years, with the creeping belief that there was nothing for a lot of clubs at the foot of Division Four to play for. Something had to be done.

The first team to go up, Scarborough, were a surprise package who had finished in mid-table to the season before. At the foot of Division Four, it went to the wire. On the last day of the 1986/87 season, one point separated three teams – Torquay United, Burnley and Lincoln City at the bottom of the table, with Torquay playing at home against Crewe Alexandra. Crewe raced to a 2-0 lead before Torquay pulled a goal back. In the chaos of a match being played in front of a huge crowd, a police dog called Bryn bit Torquay’s Jim McNichol, who had to receive medical attention at the side of the pitch. In the injury time brought about by the dog incident, McNichol scored again to level things up and relegate Lincoln City in their place on goal difference. Bryn was given a lifetime season ticket at Plainmoor, and is still there to this day, stuffed and on display in the club’s boardroom.

That it was Lincoln City that fell through the trapdoor would be one of the more understated tragedies of the 1980s. Lincoln had been the opponents of Bradford City on May 13th 1985, the day of the Bradford Fire. They lost two supporters to the fire that day and, whilst it’s impossible to say completely what the psychological effects of their involvement in it were, it hardly seems a stretch to say that two successive relegations following on from such a trauma was a coincidence.

At the end of the 1986/87 season, the Alliance Premier League renamed itself the Football Conference. A number of clubs, scenting the possibility of League football, turned professional. Crowds leapt up as the reality of automatic promotion and relegation between the League and non-league football started to hit home. Lincoln took a gamble and stayed professional. After two relegations, their crowds grew and they settled in near the top of the table.

It was, in all honesty, a transitional moment when Enfield played Lincoln City in the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy in March 1988. Enfield had stayed semi-professional, their crowds of around 800 making them unable to sustain a full-time team. The champions of two years before had already lost the majority of their best players and had slipped towards the lower end of mid-table. On the day, though, the old guard had one more big performance in them. Lincoln had the majority of possession but couldn’t score, and then midway through the second half their goalkeeper fumbled a corner, allowing Nicky Francis to poke home the only goal of the match. Enfield went on to win the FA Trophy Final, in which they beat Telford United 3-2 in a replay at The Hawthorns after drawing 0-0 at Wembley Stadium. The defeat was Lincoln’s only ever FA Trophy defeat – they were promoted at the end of the season, and their last match of the season against Wycombe Wanderers attracted a crowd of 9,432, a record for a non-league match until Oxford United attracted a crowd of over 11,000 for a Conference match against Woking last season.

For Enfield, it was the last hurrah as a major force in non-league football. They were relegated to the Isthmian League in 1990, and were unable to get promoted back despite finishing in the top three for seven successive seasons following their relegation. The warning signs for their long-term future came in 1995, when they won the Isthmian League but were barred from promotion because of Conference concerns over their financial situation. Worse was to follow, though, with the sale of their Southbury Road stadium in 1999, without a new one to move into. Matters came to a head in the summer of 2001, when the club’s supporters voted overwhelmingly to break away from the old club, and form a new club called Enfield Town FC. To this extent, they were the fore-runners of the Supporters Trust movement, which has given birth to the likes of FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon, as well as giving the supporters of smaller clubs that have folded to start over under the ownership of their own supporters. They currently play in the Isthmian League Division One North, three divisions below what is now known as the Blue Square Premier.

The last hurrah for Enfield was also one of the last hurrahs for the semi-professional and amateur clubs in the non-league game. Twenty of the twenty-four clubs in the Blue Square Premier (as the Conference renamed itself last season after a sponsorship deal) now are fully professional, and the ones that aren’t are the ones near the bottom of the table. Many people say that the non-League game is in a terminal decline, strangled by the all-pervasive influence of the Premier League, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The League itself now has two automatic promotion and relegation places, with lucrative play-off matches at the end of the season, culminating in a final at Wembley. Crowds have risen from an average of a few hundred in the mid-1980s to over 2,000 last season. Matches are shown live on the television, on the digital channel, Setanta.

There have been plenty of non-league clubs that fallen victim to gold-diggers, misplaced ambition and conservatism that has bordered on the plain stubborn, but this season the Conference, Southern, Isthmian and Northern Premier Leagues seem likely to get to the end of the season with no-one folding. This might not sound like much to be proud of until you consider that we’re talking about 272 clubs, many of them surviving off crowds of a couple of hundred people and largely administrated by volunteers and supporters.

Lincoln integrated themselves back in the Football League fairly quickly. Since their promotion back in 1988, they have managed just the one season in League One (in 1999) before getting themselves relegated. The rest of their last twenty years has been spent in the Football League’s basement. In spite of a ropey start to this season, they have stabilised back into mid-table again and don’t look like going anywhere very far soon. Should they come to celebrate their twentieth year back in the Football League this summer, one would hope that their supporters will take a moment to remember and raise a toast to the only team to knock them out of the FA Trophy.

Haves and Havants in the F.A. Cup

Havant & Waterlooville“Let’s go for a little walk,” is Havant & Waterlooville’s terrace victory tune, as your editor discovered when they played Lewes recently in a Conference South clash. Our resident non-league expert, Ian King, thinks they’ll be singing that tune either way after they head to Anfield this weekend, explaining the past and present of the potential giant-killers.

This Satuday’s FA Cup Fourth Round match against Conference South side Havant & Waterlooville is probably the very last thing in the world that Liverpool want right now. With growing concerns about their financial woes, the unwelcome prospect of a no-win match is looming large on their horizon.

Havant & Waterlooville, a semi-professional team who play their trade six divisions below The Reds, will be rolling into town on Saturday afternoon complete with four and a half thousand or so very noisy supporters. The Hawks were only formed in 1998 (eight years after Liverpool last won the Football League Championship), but they’ve packed a lot into their ten years.

Formations & Merger

The club was formed from the merger of two failing, smaller clubs. Havant FC were formed in 1883 on the outskirts of Portsmouth, and played in the Portsmouth Football League for much of the next century, merging with Sunday League club Leigh Park in 1969. Their growth as a club was hampered by Front Lawn, their home ground, which had such spartan facilities that the club were unable to move up the ladder. In 1980, they acquired the site of West Leigh Park, their home ground and under the new name of Havant Town moved in 1982. The hoped-for promotions soon followed: to the Wessex League in 1986, and then into the Southern League in 1991.

Waterlooville FC were founded in 1905, joining the Southern League in 1971. They spent much of the next twenty years in the Southern League Premier and Southern Divisions, before financial difficulties led them into the merger to form Havant & Waterlooville FC in 1998.

Havant & Waterlooville Fans against Millwall
Havant and Waterlooville 1, Millwall 2. FA Cup 1st Round, 13h November 2006, Fratton Park

Success was more or less instant. They won the Southern League Southern Division in 1999, and came close to winning the Southern League Premier League championship (which would have promoted them into the Conference) in 2002, before eventually finishing in third place. The following season, they reached the semi-final of the FA Trophy before losing to Tamworth.

In the summer of 2004, non-league football was restructured to fit in two regional divisions below the Conference, called the Conference North and Conference South, and Havant’s twelfth place finish in the Southern League in 2004 was enough for them to squeeze into the Conference South. Their first season in the Conference South saw them at the bottom of the table at Christmas, before they managed to pull themselves to safety. In 2006, they finished just outside of the play-off places, and last season they were beaten in a play-off semi-final after drawing 3-3 on aggregate with Braintree Town. At the time of writing, they are in twelfth place in the Conference South, although they could somersault into the play-off places if they win all the games in hand they have over the teams above them in the table.

Who’s who

So, who’s who at West Leigh Park? Manager Shaun Gale started his career at Portsmouth, and he went on to play for Barnet and Exeter City before finishing his career at Havant & Waterlooville. His assistant manager, Anthony Philip David Terry Frank Donald Stanley Gerry Gordon Stephen James Oatway was named by his father after the Queens Park Rangers team that was promoted into the First Division in 1973. He’s better known as Charlie Oatway: –the nickname Charlie comes from an aunt who remarked, upon hearing that he was being named after an entire football team, “that he’ll sound like a proper charlie”. He played in the Football League for eight years for Brighton & Hove Albion before retiring through injury last summer.

Equaliser: Havant and Waterlooville 1, Millwall 2. FA Cup 1st Round, 13h November 2006, Fratton Park
Havant and Waterlooville 1, Millwall 2. FA Cup 1st Round, 13h November 2006, Fratton Park

Having tried bringing in former star players such as Dean Holdsworth, Fitzroy Simpson and David Howells only to see it fail, there are few household names in the current Havant team. Midfielder Gary Hart was a stalwart in the Brighton & Hove Albion midfield for almost ten years, but the rest of the players (including Rocky Baptiste, whose goal earned them a replay against Swansea City and who then scored in said replay as well) are non-league journeymen, part-time players with full-time jobs.

A Giant-Killing?

How difficult, then, will Havant & Waterlooville’s job be at Anfield on Saturday? Well, there were eighty-three league places between Havant and Swansea, the team that they beat in the Third Round recently. There are one hundred and twenty-three places between Havant & Liverpool. Nobody making the long trip north will seriously be expecting them to get a result there and, in some respects, they have already won. They’re expecting to make between £600,000 and £800,000 out of Saturday’s match: enough to pay their wage bill for months and months, as well as paying off any debts that they may have laying around. For a club of the size of Havant & Waterooville, this is a life-changing amount of money.

But the dream of glory also remains. Sutton United, of the Conference, beat Coventry City in 1989. Exeter City and Burton Albion, both of the Conference, held Manchester United to draws in the last few seasons, and Exeter did it at Old Trafford. Havant & Waterlooville are a division below them, but Liverpool FC is a mess of in-fighting and mud-slinging at the moment. It’d be nice if they could at least give The Reds one hell of a scare.

Highlights of their Third Win against Swansea City are available here.

Photo credit: JonHall

Ten Things You Should Know About Non-League Football

Pitch Invasion’s recent series on non-league football attracted a lot of positive feedback, as we explored the strengths and weaknesses of the foundation of the English game below the Premier League and the Football League. Ian King, from the blog 200%, will be writing regularly for us on the non-league game and kicks things off by telling us what you need to know about non-league.

Old boys at non-league football1. Walk Like An Egyptian — You’ll often hear non-league football in England referred to as “the non-league pyramid” or just “the pyramid”. This is, unsurprisingly, because it’s arranged into a pyramid shape with the national Blue Square Premier (renamed for sponsorships reasons, formerly the Conference National) at the top, down to the County Leagues at the bottom. It fans out like this because crowds generally get smaller as you go down through the leagues, from the 4,500-odd that turn out to see the likes of Oxford United to the crowds of 20 or so at, say, Sussex County League also-rans Southwick. You can find out which divisions feed to in this illustrated map.

2. Conference Rules — The Blue Square Premier rules everything. Just as the Premier League broke away in 1992, so a select group of clubs from the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues broke away to form the Alliance Premier League in 1979. After allowing teams in from the Isthmian League in 1982, it renamed itself the Football Conference in 1986 (and you’ll usually hear me refer to it as the Conference), when automatic promotion and relegation was introduced with the Football League. Since then it has become more and more like the Football League. The stadium regulations are stringent and nowadays the vast majority of clubs in it are fully professional (I’d go so far as to say that the big step up in quality is between the Conference and its two feeder leagues, the Conference North & South, than between the Conference and League Two). There are now two promotion and relegation places, with the champions promoted automatically and the next four clubs playing out tense play-offs at the end of each season.

3. Faded Glamour –– Non-league football is stuffed full of former League clubs that, due to a mixture of bad luck, bad administration and long-term neglect, have fallen through the trapdoor and can’t get back up. A good number of their supporters are insufferably arrogant, referring to non-league clubs that haven’t been in the Football League as “tinpot” and, more often than not, the very competitions that they are in as “tinpot”. This overlooks one crucial fact: if non-league clubs and the Conference is “tinpot”, then their clubs are now “tinpot” too. One of the small pleasures that can be taken at the end of every season is the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those that simply can’t adjust to their new, reduced circumstances, as their (often expensively-assembled) teams fail yet again. There are currently eight former Football League clubs in the Conference (plus current leaders Aldershot Town, whose predecessors, Aldershot FC, were league members before folding in 1992 and reforming).

Non league football
Non-league football in the 1980s

4. Up For The Cups — There are two cup competitions, as well as the FA Cup. The FA Trophy is played out by the “senior” clubs — clubs from the Conference and Conference North & South, as well as the regional Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. The FA Vase is played by the clubs at a lower level than this. With play-offs occupying many clubs’ minds nowadays, the cups are considered less important than they used to be, although last year’s final between Kidderminster Harriers and Stevenage Borough (the first cup final to be played at the new Wembley Stadium) drew a crowd of over 53,000. These competitions suffered immeasurably when Wembley was demolished in 2001 — the finals were played at the likes of Villa Park and White Hart Lane, but crowds fell massively. It’s hoped that the lure of a final at the rebuilt Wembley will continue to be a pull for supporters.

5. The Non-League Experience — Especially below the Conference, it’s vastly different to the Premier League and Football League. Entrance fees range for £3-4 at the very bottom to £13-15 in the Conference, and crowds are often unsegregated, meaning that supporters will “change ends” at half-time to stand behind the goal that their teams are attacking. The vast majority of grounds will have seating on one side only, and many lack covered terracing behind the goals. The clubhouse is also very important. Usually situated next to the ground, one can drink until five minutes before kick-off, half-time and after the match (and at some grounds, such as Conference South club Lewes, during the match — their clubhouse overlooks the pitch). A sizeable number of people go to non-league football for the social side of it as much as anything else.

6. Money’s Too Tight To Mention — Non-league clubs perennially struggle for money. There is precious little sponsorship, so most revenue comes on match days from gate receipts, bar takings, food and raffle tickets. One or two teams seem to fall by the wayside every season, yet there always seem to be more to take their place. Some boom and bust — they get taken over by a local made good who over-stretches their finances buying in players that their budget can’t afford, leaving them to flounder when the going gets tough. It is a far from ideal model for ownership or stewardship and it fails far more than it succeeds, but the short-sightedness of most non-league football supporters means that if you asked most of them what they’d like more than anything, they’d answer “a millionaire benefactor” without even thinking it. There are trust-run clubs which run on a more even financial keel, but these are still comparatively thin on the ground.

Mangotsfield v Taunton
Mangotsfield vs. Taunton, F.A. Cup, 2007

7. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow — There’s certainly a case to be made that, at least partly due to the flakier nature of their finances, non-league clubs often don’t have the same stability and durability as Football League clubs. If they get in trouble, banks will be more wary of propping them up and a small, poor club which owns its own ground is always at risk of the unwelcome attentions of asset-strippers and property developers. The collapse of a chairman’s business can result in a brush with closure. Some of the biggest non-league names of the last fifty years, such as Hendon, Enfield and Dulwich Hamlet (and it’s no coincidence that all three of these clubs are from London, where land values are amongst the highest in Europe) have all endured ongoing crises (culminating, in the case of Enfield, in the ground being sold, and the supporters breaking away to form their own club). Still, non-league clubs can be durable and adaptable. Mergers are often preferred to two clubs near each other closing — this week’s FA Cup heroes, Havant & Waterlooville, are a merged club.

8. Over The Hill — Now that the average Premier League player can make enough money in five years to retire, it’s less common to see former stars seeing out their last days, but there are still a few knocking about. The former Blackburn player Jeff Kenna (a Premier League winner in 1995), for example, still plies his trade in the Conference for Kidderminster Harriers, whilst former Wimbledon FC hero Marcus Gayle made an emotional return to AFC Wimbledon last summer, making him the only player to play for the old club in both the Premier League and the new club in the Isthmian League.

9. Watch Out For Gimmicks — The chairman of the Conference, John Moules, said weekend he would like to end 0-0 draws with penalty shoot-outs, believing it would bring people back to non-league football. If this had been suggested at a higher level, it would have provoked an outcry, but most people that know non-league football merely rolled their eyes and sighed. Non-league football has always been used for experiments, going back to the late 1940s, when the first floodlit matches in Britain were hosted there. In the 1980s, the Conference experimented with two points for a home win and three points for an away win. In the early 1990s, the Isthmian League allowed FIFA to run a year long experiment replacing throw-ins with kick-ins (half of the teams refused to take part, and carrying on throwing the ball on, the other half used every kick-in as an experiment to boot the ball as far down the pitch as possible). As we speak, the Conference is the only English league to have a salary cap, meaning that clubs can spend no more than 60% of their previous two years’ turnover on wages.

10. Father Knows Best — Parochialism rules the roost in non-league football. Having been fairly closely involved in it over the years, I know that a large number of the people involved are conservative to the point of paralysis, that some are utterly incompetent at their jobs and that there many people in senior positions at numerous clubs who are only interested in protecting their little fiefdoms. The irony is that non-league football is in an ideal position to capitalise on the malaise surrounding professional football. It has the potential to be able to offer a more competitive, cheaper, community-focussed alternative to “big” football. Whether the people running it have the wherewithal to seize that particular nettle, however, is a highly intractable question, as Dave recently explored on this site.

Photo credits: crouchy_crouch; Running in Suffolk; mo davies

Leeds Leeds Leeds

Editor’s note: Ian King, author of the exceptional 200percent football blog, will be writing periodically on English lower league football for pitchinvasion.net. Here he addresses the latest twists in Leeds’ increasingly problematic plight, and urges Leeds supporters to take matters into their own hands.

I’ve heard it said before that choosing the football team that you will support is one of the most important relationship decisions that you will make in your life. Considering that the divorce rate in the UK at the moment is so high, there’s a persuasive argument for saying that the team that you pick is more likely to stay with you for life than any spouse ever will.

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