From Blue Square Premier to Football League
Over recent months, we have called upon regular followers of non-league football in order to guess at which players might stand a chance of forging a career in the Football League, should they wish to take the opportunity. First up was Michael Hudson; the proprietor of The Accidental Groundhopper website running the rule over the Northern League. Then, Barry from The Cold End highlighted the Isthmian League’s potentialities. Now, regular TTU staffer Scarf analyzes those players operating in the most likely breeding ground of all, while sharing his forthright views following half a season’s Conference watching.
The loss of Football League status for the first time since 1904 was the latest in a series of setbacks for my club, Stockport County, that has continued without much interruption since relegation from the Championship at the end of the 2001-2 season. BBC1’s The Football League Show has now been replaced by BBC London’s Non-League Football Show in my itinerary, whilst we are now considered too insignificant to merit a column in the Manchester Evening News, Greater Manchester’s premier newspaper; such a privilege only being afforded to League clubs.
Macclesfield Town, who were in the same division as our reserves a generation ago, are now in the division above us, whilst sides such as Stalybridge, Hyde and Altrincham, who we would only previously have ever played in pre-season friendlies, are now looming increasingly large over our shoulders. Battling relegation yet again (this time to a regional league!) and facing off-field uncertainty yet again, it really is a gloomy world outside the Football League. As numerous ex-league clubs like York, Darlington, Mansfield and Luton have discovered in recent years, a relatively illustrious history means nothing when you’re 2-0 down and being completely outplayed by a part-time side whose crowd is in three figures. In football, at whatever level, there is no room for sentiment.
Over the summer, there was much discussion amongst County supporters about what the quality of football would be like in the Blue Square Premier. Apart from a few who had gone to see the odd Alty game last season, most of us had never seen a game live at that level – it was uncharted territory for the fans as well as the club. We had read in lots of places that the quality was pretty much the same as League 2 — indeed, the clubs who have come up from the Conference (sorry, Blue Square Bet Premier…) in recent years have done very well higher up — Doncaster, Carlisle, Stevenage, Dagenham and Exeter are all good examples. So I expected to be quite familiar with the quality of football on show.
Unfortunately, I have been disappointed. There isn’t much difference in terms of skill, but the fitness of many of the players is much less. Some, in fact, have looked positively overweight. Much of the game is spent with players walking around as the ball is punted forward. There are, of course, some teams who try and play quick, aggressive football — York and Fleetwood are two who have impressed in this respect this season, for example — but many teams are plodding and unimaginative (County very definitely amongst them…)
There is also a much bigger difference between the standard of the top teams and the bottom teams than in League 2 — this is due in part to the fact that some teams are full-time and others are part-time, meaning that part-time teams like Braintree, Ebbsfleet, Hayes & Yeading and Bath simply do not have as much training time as teams like Luton, Wrexham and Fleetwood. The huge gap in infrastructure between clubs in the league above the Conference (League 2) and the ones below it (Conference North and South) also adds to this inequality — while Luton and Wrexham have pretty decent facilities and are able to cope with relatively large crowds, the main entrance to Braintree’s neat ground is down a narrow dirt road. This adds further to the inequality in the division. Whilst certainly a very entertaining and charming league, arguments that the Conference is ‘the fifth division’ of the Football League and is similar to League 2 appear inaccurate, based on my experience. The nature and character of the league is very different, and quite separate to its elder cousin.
This is not to say that the Conference does not contain some good teams — it certainly does. The teams at the top of the Conference are, for the most part, a match for most teams in the division above. Just because the division as a whole does not compare to League 2, it does not mean there are not some sides who could do very well. It is the teams at the bottom of the respective divisions that do not compare — in quality of player, in infrastructure or in support — from those in the division above, rather than those at the top.
Lincoln and Stockport have taken steps back this season and are struggling this time around — this is as much to do with losing Football League funding as having developed a losing habit. Harrow Borough manager Dave Anderson said on the Non-League Football Show recently that he felt the two biggest jumps in English football in terms of quality were Championship to Premiership and Conference North/South to Conference National. Everything I have seen has supported this claim — the Conference is an entertaining, but highly unequal, division.
Unequal as it is, there are undoubtedly some very high quality teams in the league who would do very well in the league above. Fleetwood have spent a lot of money and have a really good and deep squad, whilst Wrexham have a lot of experience. Cambridge have brought through some excellent young players under the guidance of manager (and former head of their Centre of Excellence) Jez George, whilst Wrexham have a good mix of experience and youth and are my tip to eventually finish as Champions. Good teams are made of good players, and players like Bradley Pritchard, Anthony Pilkington, George Boyd and Craig Mackail-Smith have shown that the best Conference players can do very well higher up. Here I look at 5 players who have particularly stood out in the Conference and who I think will go on to enjoy successful careers in the Football League over the next few years:
Fleetwood Town’s 25-year-old striker Jamie Vardy rose to prominence last season by scoring 27 goals for FC Halifax Town as they won the Northern Premier Division championship, finishing 19 points clear of second place. After a summer of transfer speculation, during which time Vardy was linked with Preston and Scunthorpe, amongst others, he eventually signed for Fleetwood for an undisclosed fee. Since then, his record of 18 goals in 20 league games speaks for itself. Celtic, Rangers, Crystal Palace, Blackpool and West Ham are just some of the teams he has been linked to this January. Cash-rich Fleetwood are believed to want £1 million for their leading goalscorer and are also keen to keep him until the end of the season, but, whether he goes or not in the summer, it is very evident that Vardy will soon be plying his trade in the upper reaches of the professional game.
21-year-old midfielder Adrian Cieslewicz of Wrexham came through Manchester City’s academy before his release in 2009. A Polish Under-19 international, he is clearly of some pedigree, and, after playing a bit-part role last year, has really established himself in the Dragons’ first team this season, scoring the equaliser to earn his club an FA Cup third-round replay against Brighton earlier this year. His pace and willingness to take on defenders have been of particular note, and, whilst he still has to fill out a bit physically and gain more consistency to his play, he certainly has a lot of potential. It will be interesting to see how he does in League 2 next season if Wrexham get promoted; he still has some developing to do but, given a couple of years and continued first-team football, should turn into a fine player higher up.
Signed from Alfreton Town in the summer, 26-year-old Liam Hearn has exploded into the Conference with Grimsby Town this season, scoring 23 goals in 29 games, including four hat-tricks. He has been linked with, among others, Reading, Portsmouth and Peterborough – and even Chelsea have sent scouts to watch him. Grimsby’s play-off chances are currently promising rather than probable; even if they fail to move up a division this summer, it seems that Hearn will definitely be playing at a higher level next season.
With 23 goals already this season, it is unsurprising to note that Gateshead’s Jon Shaw is being linked to League clubs, with Plymouth and Carlisle just two that are rumoured to have expressed interest on this occasion. If Shaw does end up in the League, it would not be the first time — a trainee at Sheffield Wednesday, he has also played for Rochdale and Burton without really making much of an impact. Nevertheless, his record in recent campaigns at Conference level cannot be doubted, and Shaw will feel that he has never really been given an opportunityto show what he can do in the League. Aged 28 now, this summer will probably be his last opportunity to get a move higher up. There are sure to be plenty suitors, but, having been bitten before, Shaw will not want to move without the assurance of regular first-team football.
An England C international, 23-year-old goalkeeper Jonathan Hedge signed from FC Halifax Town in the summer and has established himself as Tamworth’s first-choice goalkeeper, as the Staffordshire outfit have stabilised themselves into a solid mid-table team. An ever-improving player in a relatively young side, Hedge will continue to progress over the coming couple of years. Whilst he is not ready for an immediate move into the League, he is a good prospect, particularly considering how young he is by goalkeeping standards, and I expect to see him enjoy a good career in the years to come.