All’s fair in love and war, but evidently not in the world of non-league football given today’s announcement that Bishop’s Stortford will receive a £12,000 sweetener for playing in the Conference North.
This is apparently to cover the extra costs needed for transport and overnight stops in the North, despite the fact that they do not have the highest mileage (hello Workington and Blyth) and are only around 0.050 degrees further south than Gloucester, who were not given so much as a penny when they were promoted into the Conference North three years ago – when the ground (Cirencester) they were playing at was geographically further south than Braintree, Chelmsford, Worcester and, um, Bishop’s Stortford.
So will this set a precedent for other clubs (Weston, Chelmsford) who could find themselves pushed into the Northern half of Step 2 if relegations / promotions are skewed again.
Conference chairman Brian Lee told the Non-League Paper that this won’t be the case.
“It’s not a precedent for any other club,” he said. “Every case will be treated on its merits. Bishop’s Stortford have accepted the place in the North and out gesture to help them with the costs. They didn’t ask for anything.”
Presumably the ‘anything’ doesn’t cover the move back to the Conference South which Bishop’s Stortford demanded, via their local paper, because it was only right that they should be able to play in a league close to other teams. Or the appeal that they quietly dropped this week on legal advice.
Now lets rewind a bit here and remind ourselves of some key points.
Firstly – Bishop’s Stortford are not a ‘Conference South’ club, they are simply the 22nd most northern side at Step 2, there is no god-given right to be in either league in Step 2, just ask Worcester City, they’ve played in both.
Secondly – Although it wasn’t until the AGM last month that Bishop’s Stortford were “transferred from Conference South to Conference North on a geographical basis,” due to Rushden and Diamonds being booted out of the Conference Premier (appeal pending) – its not like the problems at Rushden came out of the blue, they were struggling to pay player last December. Anyone with a bit of common sense could have seen that there was a chance, albeit a slim one, of Bishop’s Stortford heading north. After the season had finished it was even clearer (Thurrock having the most points-per-game for a potential reprieve etc) – so Bishop’s Stortford have probably had as much time as anyone else to prepare a team. Gloucester, the 23rd most Northern side at Step 2 have a largely Bristol-based squad, most players travel 45 mins minimum to get to Gloucester (then another 10mins to Cheltenham for each home game)- so the ‘oh but the players will have to travel more’ argument doesn’t wash. I’d imagine the movement of players between Harrogate and Blyth this summer would suggest many of them aren’t based entirely in the local area either. Travel is part of football – if a player wants to play at the highest level possible they have to travel.
Thirdly – Bishop’s Stortford’s handout covers costs for overnight stops for three games, good for them, but how many overnight stops did Blyth, Workington and the other big travellers do last season?
Workington travelled on the day of the game to Gloucester, five long hours through the Lake District then down the M6/M5, and lost. Gloucester set off at 5am to Blyth and won. Redditch had to rely on the kindness of a stranger to be able to afford to travel to Blyth on a Tuesday night. Brian Lee feels overnight stops are needed so is he going to pay for other clubs?
What business does the Conference have in effectively supporting the budget of one team over another – Workington and Gloucester both had to forgo an overnight stop late in the season due to a shortfall in revenue across the whole of the season, albeit with differing results. Bishop’s Stortford don’t have to worry about fewer people coming through the gate or a curtailed cup run affecting their travel plans because of their pocket money handout from the Conference – it hardly makes it a level playing field, to pardon the pun.
As a letter writer in this week’s NLP points out:
“In hard economic times it is important we keep our clubs viable”
Quite, but when the league bosses are giving kindly ‘gestures’ to some and not others it makes it that bit more difficult.
Fourthly – the danger of ‘precedent’ or the lack of it. The Conference have done this before – with Worcester. Shifted from North to South in 2008 caused them to lose players, after complaining to the Conference they were given a two season agreement that they wouldn’t be moved again. If these ‘gestures’ are given to some teams and not others it is almost a return to the old days of election to the leagues, based on who is in favour and penalising those who aren’t. Bishop’s Stortford clearly shouted louder than Gloucester did a few years ago because they’ve got £12K – so does that mean Gloucester can claim the same amount three times over, backdated to their ‘surprise’ inclusion in the North, or get an agreement not to be moved again? I very much doubt it.
To hand £12K to one team alone, when all the teams at Step 2 have to travel significant distances (thanks to Truro being promotion all of the Southern teams have at least one big trip) is a farce – the Conference should be focussing their efforts on trying to work out a way to fix the division of Step 2, rather than creating tension and trouble with a one-off payment. A more sensible idea would be having each club pay into a central pot, covering the cost of the league’s average mileage – that pot is then dished out according to a team’s actual mileage meaning everyone pays the same for travel. It’s not like this situation is a new, unique problem – the unbalance number of ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ promotions and relegations has been causing problems up and down the pyramid for some time now.
Finally – the question of the ‘poor’ fans, the Bishop’s Stortford fans would do well to speak to their counter parts in Workington and Blyth about traveling 150 miles to their nearest game, or to Gloucester and Worcester fans about what its like to pass each other going in opposite directions on the motorway due to being in different leagues. Yes its a pain to travel, but its part of the game, sorry it takes you out of your London/South East comfort zone but if Bishop’s Stortford ended up in the Conference Premier would they be kicking off about going to Gateshead and the like?
It’s about time Bishop’s Stortford took the advice of the just to the Blyth chairman who, when Gloucester complained about being put in the North three years, told the NLP that they should stop moaning do their talking on the pitch.
Last season, without the need for an overnight stop, Gloucester travelled the length of the country and beat Blyth (for the second) year running in their own back yard.