Stevenage and Torquay - continuing a fine tradition?
It was almost universally agreed before the League Two campaign kicked off this season that the sides promoted from the Conference, Stevenage and Oxford United, would ‘do well this year’, writes Rob MacDonald. A prominent and slightly unstable rationale seemed to be that ‘promoted teams always do well’.
But with Stevenage fulfilling this prophecy and facing Torquay, themselves only promoted back into the Football League in 2009, it seems that one of the few recurring predictions in pre-season publications has come true again. Two years ago, this fixture was in the Conference.
It is extremely rare for a club to be relegated from League Two back into the Conference at the first time of asking. In the last decade, three have done exactly the opposite and been promoted up to League One at the first attempt (Doncaster, Carlisle and Exeter). Back in 2000/01, Rushden finished sixth before winning the title in 2001/02, while Aldershot finished 15th in their first year (2007/08) but reached the playoffs in their second. Even my own club, Macclesfield, enjoyed back-to-back promotions in 1997 and 1998 (had to get that in, sorry).
Adding to the trend further, then, are this year’s play-off finalists Stevenage and Torquay. Stevenage were promoted as Conference champions last season and though Torquay finished a lowly 17th in their first season back in League Two, they had consolidated their league position by a fairly significant 13 points. So why does this keep happening?
Firstly, the gap in quality between the lower reaches of League Two and the top of the Conference is probably the most miniscule of all the leagues. The Conference is bursting with former Football League clubs: York, Luton, Mansfield and Wrexham to name but four — all of whom enjoy larger gates than those struggling at the bottom of League Two. Traditionally the border between professional and semi-pro, the Conference is increasingly professional now (all four clubs relegated from the league this season were part-timers) and this combination of factors means that the fourth tier isn’t as intimidating as it once was. More investment projects like Crawley will only cause this attitude to percolate further.
This financial aspect cannot be overlooked. Promoted sides — as we will see with whatever Crawley XI takes the field in their opener in August — are rarely the worst-off sides in League Two, mainly because getting out of the Conference takes some doing. The top of the league is like a bottleneck for the relatively well-supported former Football League clubs, suffering the consequences of one dire season, or well-funded, aspiring sides bidding to reach the league for the first time. One automatic promotion spot only adds to the congestion and pressurises things further.
To win the Conference, you have to finish above a host of teams all driven by the winning habit. Joining a league in which the weaker teams are poorly supported and used to looking over their shoulders gives the new boys an immediate psychological advantage. Just getting out of the Conference is a liberating experience, whether renewing old acquaintances with the League or embarking on the adventure for the first time. What’s more, small League members are wary or incapable of spending in case it endangers their survival (in the league and as a club).
The developing trend seems to be for progressive, promoted teams to overtake long-standing Football League clubs hampered by long-running debts and mismanagement or on whose wage bills, without significant gate receipts, most income makes little impact.
So what does this mean for the finalists, if anything? Stevenage’s winning momentum as Conference champions has remarkably carried them through an entire season and made Broadhall Way something of a fortress — the club only lost three times at home this season. But within these statistics are 11 draws, meaning their home form, points-wise, has been identical to Torquay’s (38pts), who won 10 to Stevenage’s nine, scoring one less, but conceding 22 to Stevenage’s 24.
As the final constitutes a road trip for both clubs, perhaps away form would be more instructive. Stevenage’s superior win ratio (9 to Torquay’s 7) is hampered by the fact they lost 10 to Torquay’s 6 and drew 4 to Torquay’s 10. So their away form is also identical and but for Torquay’s one-point deduction in April, both would have accrued 69 points. Goal difference would in fact have placed Torquay above Stevenage, rather than just edging out Gillingham in 7th.
That point deduction meant Torquay faced Shrewsbury in the play-off semi-finals rather than Accrington Stanley, but the home first legs failed to trouble the eventual finalist as both recorded 2-0 wins. They would certainly have settled for 0-0 draws in the away legs of the semis, but two red cards for Accrington (for Joe Jacobson and Sean McConville) midway through the second half meant Stevenage’s Chris Beardsley was able to snatch a 90th-minute goal to take the tie 3-0 on aggregate.
In short, there is precious little to separate them and even less to hint at a possible winner. Torquay have had the best of the league meetings (winning 2-0 at Plainmoor while the game at Broadhall Way finished goalless), but with their poor form towards the end of the regular season (failing to win in five) even the bookies have refused to pick a favourite.
Perhaps this is indicative of the intense and often underrated competition in League Two. The promotion dream will probably appear further away than ever for the team left behind this season as the Conference’s big boys slowly filter into the Football League and comfortably stay there. What started off as a curious quirk is now becoming the norm and the league as we know it could be virtually unrecognisable in a few years.