Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Rise Of Non League

If you look into the Championship, League One & League Two you would be astounded at just how far some of the former Conference clubs have come since the Millenium and that is testament to the Conference and just what a tough league it has been to get out of in the last 10 years or so. With the possibility of AFC Wimbledon coming up today we'll take a look at the fortunes of other clubs that have come up from the top tier of the non league pyramid.

Yeovil Town, promoted as Champions, 2002/2003 season.
A real success story is Yeovil Town, in their conference winning season they romped to the league title, 17 points ahead of 2nd placed Morecambe who went into the first ever Conference Play Offs in 2003. They maintained an unblemished home record throughout the season with rousing wins against Southport & Burton Albion helping them along the way. That squad also had a number of players that went on to play in the Premier League such as Gavin Williams & Lee Johnson.
 Their first season in the football league culminated in them finishing a very respectable 8th and getting to the 4th round of the FA Cup, where they were knocked out against Liverpool. Just one season later they finished as League Two winners, clinching promotion to League One on the final day courtesy of a 3-0 win at Huish Park at Lincoln City to see them mixing it with the likes of Nottingham Forest the next season. With their first season in the 3rd tier they finished in 15th place, avoiding relegation by a margin of 6 points, a good run in April which saw wins against Doncaster, Huddersfield & Gillingham making sure of safety. The next season resulted in yet another great season, reaching the League One play offs after two wins in the last two games against Doncaster once more & Rotherham United, where they would face favourites Nottingham Forest. The first leg did not go to plan, losing 2-0 at Huish Park, but an astonishing comeback at the City Ground ended in a 5-2 aggregate win that shocked everyone, they went to face Blackpool in the final. A brave performance in front of 59,000 at the Wembley Stadium saw them lose 2-0 to the Seasiders who went on to bigger and better things. It was a season to be proud of for the Glovers and the 30,000 that made the London trip.

Since then they've had various tiffs with relegation, the following season they finished a lowly 18th and then they came even closer to the trap door with 17th place finish in 08/09 season, where they finished 2 points above the drop. Russell Slade vacated the Huish Park hot seat in February of that season and was replaced with player manager Terry Skiverton who led them to safety. This season they once again flirted with relegation but a strong finish ensured them no final day nightmares and they secured their status once more, where they will face teams such as Sheffield United next season.

I won't add Doncaster in as they had been members of the football league previously, but their remarkable rise from Conference Play Off winners in 2002/2003 to now being a Championship club is something to be very proud of, especially as their manager has been wanted by various clubs. If they get into the play offs next season it wouldn't surprise me, a good honest club who deserve anything they get.

Accrington Stanley, Conference Champions, 2005/2006
Accrington Stanley, who are they? Well in this Conference season they were heard by not perhaps the world but English football. Stanley finished the 2005-2006 Conference season as runaway champions, ending up 11th points clear of Hereford United, winning the league at a canter. John Coleman had led Stanley from the Northern Premier Division One to the Football League, another reason why stability is ever so important at every club, Coleman is currently the the 3rd longest serving manager in England, having joined the Crown Ground outfit in 1999. They have seen numerous players come through their ranks, the most notable possibly current Blackpool striker Brett Ormerod who signed for the Seasiders from Accrington for £50,000 in 1997. Since going back into the league, Stanley have not dropped out since, although they have had various scrapes with relegation and the odd flirt with promotion.

In their very first football league season, then finished a very respectable 20th, avoiding relegation by an impressive 14 points, albeit Boston had been deducted 10 points, but no one likes Boston so I couldn't care less. Season on season they have steadily progressed up the table, with 17th, 16th & 15th placed finishes, maintaining league status season on season is the main aim for teams such as Accrington and this season has been a special one for them. A bit of a slow start to the season with two successive draws, but their season really kicked off with a 7-4 victory over Gillingham in October. The forte of their success however was their impressive home form towards the end of the season, winning their last 10 home games, scoring 3 or more in 9 of them. Simply amazing form which led the side to an astonishing place in the play offs where they went out to Stevenage. However it was an amazing effort this season, one that everyone inside the club was proud of and even outside of the club, Accrington are a club that go against all the odds to achieve, and they're testament to what stable management can do.

Dagenham & Redbridge, Conference Champions, 2006/2007

Danny Shipp (back)

My club, Dagenham & Redbridge formed in 1992 because of a merger from Redbridge Forest & Dagenham FC have come right up the non league pyramid. The meteoric rise has seen us go from the Ismithian League up to League One & eventually back to League Two. The Conference winning year was a special one, with Oxford United expecting to stroll the league, outsiders Dagenham gave them a shock and a half to eventually romp to victory by 14 points. The Boston fiasco in 2002 denied the Daggers promotion and then a season later they were left to rue what might have been once more after losing the Conference Play Off Final to Doncaster Rovers 3-2, with the infamous golden goal, possibly the worst thing ever invented in football. A few mid table finishes saw the end of Gary Hill reign, even more so after Hereford embarrassed us live on Sky, losing 0-9 at home to the Edgar Street outfit in 2004.

 In came John Still, a former manager who was hoping to lead the club back to more top half pushes and after a magnificent 2006/2007 season that's exactly what we got, a 2-2 draw at Oxford in late March effectively confirmed the inevitable. It was confirmed after a 2-1 victory over Aldershot Town in front of 4044 spectators, a Dave Rainford penalty being the difference. We ended the Conference on a win as well, a 2-1 win against Gravesend & Northfleet. That season showed the emergence of Paul Benson as a top quality striker, the formidable partnership of Benson & Mackail Smith had been broken up following CMS's move to Peterborough for £200,000 in January, but Benson continued to shine and took the Conference golden boot.

The first football league season was a nervy one, only preserving our status on the penultimate game, a 3-2 win at Darlington after being 2-0 down, a magnificent achievement which condemned Mansfield to the trap door, ironically we would play eachother on the final day. A couple of the major games in that season other than Darlo was of course, the first win, a 1-0 victory against Lincoln City which got the football league ball rolling! However the highlights for me were, the 4-1 win against Blundell Park against Grimsby Town, the Mariners never ever looked the same to me and of course the 2-0 victory away at Bradford, to see thousands of Bradford fans leaving early has never looked so sweet! Sandwiched in was the 6-0 victory at home to Chester which was another amazing day.
The following season we missed out on the play offs by a single point to Shrewsbury Town following a final day defeat, but it was a season to be tremendously proud of. A team expected to be fighting for their lives had once more punched far above their weight and had been unlucky at the final hurdle, this followed with a mass exodus with players leaving for higher up clubs.

The following season saw the best there has ever been for a Dagger. The arrival of Danny Green, Josh Scott, Scott Doe & Abu Ogogo to name just a few saw the Daggers have a new look about them. A great start at Crewe set the standard for the season, with great wins and consistent form leading to us grabbing a play off place on the last day at Darlington, a 2-0 victory with goals from Jon Nurse & Josh Scott. Step forward Morecambe in the Semi Finals, a club who we had always shared fortunes with, beating them in the 2003 play off Semi & coming up with them.

 The first leg was phenominal, a 6-0 win which shocked everyone and sent the Daggers into overdrive, book those Wembley tickets! We lost the second leg, but got to Wembley where we beat Rotherham United 3-2 to advance into League One, a pulsating much that had everyone in tears at the end, an unbelievable achievement for a club that was odds on to go down at the start of the season. Just being in League One was unbelievable for everyone concerned and taking it down to the final day was another reason to be immensely proud, a terrific season that ended in relegation at the last, but wins against Charlton & Swindon just showed how far a little non league team can come. Just how far you can challenge and with the right management and players and belief you can actually do.

Morecambe, Conference Play Off Winners, 2006/2007
Morecambe enjoyed a good season in 2006/2007, reaching the play off finals after finishing 3rd in the league with a last day victory against Grays Athletic. In the semi final Sammy McIlroy led them to a 2-1 aggregate win over York City, both goals coming in the 2nd leg at Christie Park in front of an amazing 5567 spectators. This led them to the final where they were to face Exeter City at Wembley Stadium. It didn't all go to plan, Exeter taking the lead in the first 10 minutes, but the Shrimps fought  back to win the game 2-1 and march on into the Football League, cue unbridled joy from their supporters, football league for the first time. In their first season, it was relatively comfortable, not near the relegation zone, a good run in November 2007 saw them only 3 points outside of the play off places, an extraordinary feat.

 They did continue on and finished slap bang in the middle of everything, 18 points from a play off place and 18 points from the relegation zone, a very successful first Football League season, finishing in 11th place, a top half position. The following season was once again a mid table one, ending up once more in 11th place but with an improvement of 3 points on last season to make it 63 points from 46 games. They were establishing themselves as a league club very well, proving to be a stern test, particularly at home.
The following season would be the best in their history. A slow start didn't help them, with just 3 wins in the opening three months of the season, things looked bleak, by the end of October they were just 4 points from the drop zone. However unlike a lot of teams would do, the Shrimps kept faith with the man at the helm and McIlroy repaid them with a strong second half to the season. They went unbeaten at home from the start of February through to the end of the season which was a vital reason as to why they secured a play off place and their highest ever finish of 4th, missing out on automatic promotion by 9 points and getting into the play offs by 3 points, a very tight season.

They would face Dagenham & Redbridge in a tricky tie of two old foes with a lot of mutual respect. As I said previously the Daggers won 6-0 at Victoria Road, but credit to the Morecambe fans they kept on singing after every goal that went in. Back at the final ever game at Christie Park, Morecambe restored some of their pride, winning 2-1 with a David Artell winner in the 91st minute. A fitting end to Chrsitie Park as both teams invaded the pitch celebrating come the final whistle, great scenes. The true reflection of their fabulous season was their finishing position, an amazing achievement and one that they can be immensely proud of.

The following season however was not so good, a poor start once more, but this time they did not generally pick up, the highlight of their season possibly the win against runaway leaders Chesterfield. The Globe Arena wasn't as much of a fortress as some thought it may have been and it culminated in Sammy McIlroy being sacked at the end of the season and Jim Bentley being appointed.

These clubs all have made a relative name for themselves in the league, and they all have something in common, they have generally stuck with their manager. It shows what sticking with your manager and consistency can do.

It also shows the consistency of the Conference, the clubs that are now coming through it, other clubs have come up for the first time and made a name for themselves. Look at Wycombe Wanderers previously and Stevenage now, testament to how good the non league is these days. For example, take a look at how many formerly established league teams go into the non league now, plenty. This season, Lincoln City & Stockport County, although County isn't a prime example. Kidderminster Harriers, Rushden & Diamonds, York City, Cambridge United, Grimsby Town, Mansfield Town & Wrexham, all former league teams that have been unable to come back up.

I hope you've enjoyed this as I sit down and watch the penalties from the City Of Manchester Stadium, I say thank you for reading and I'll be back with an interview tomorrow. They've just won, add AFC Wimbledon, the biggest fairytale of all time to your book.
What an achievement, what a team, and well done to Terry Browns men.


  1. You kind of forgot Doncaster, they are in the Championship and only went up from the Conference in 2003.

  2. If you read it though you'll see that I haven't forgotten them, they used to be a league club, hence my reason for not giving them such a big write up. A great achievement by them though, can't knock it

  3. You've missed Macclesfield, Cheltenham and Wycombe who have all got into the football league via conference promotion and had successful periods in the league ie promotion

  4. Otherwise it would be too long and I said the last 10 years as well

  5. Aldershot Town - Formed in 1992, 5 promotions in 16 years.
    Not quite as quick as AFC Wimbledon who did it in 9 years. Remember though that a few years ago only the champions were promoted in some leagues.