In 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.