Oxford City is a good club that has enjoyed success in recent years. Like most clubs that exist on the periphery of a city dominated by a university – and in their case, the university has never done them any favours – they struggle to win support from a transient population. They also have to compete with Oxford United – and find themselves just one step below their neighbours in 2012-13.
But guess what? Oxford City’s reward for winning promotion from the Southern – get it, Southern? – League is a place in Blue Square North. From regional to national in one foul swoop. And it could be foul, for Oxford, who played in front of an average crowd of 241 in 2011-12, can expect their travel bill to escalate dramatically next season.
They will be faced with a string of 500-plus mile trips – often to play in front of a few hundred people. Does that make sense? Of course not.
They’re not the first club to be severely disadvantaged by geography. Last season, Bishop’s Stortford – equally absurdly – were placed in the Blue Square North. They received financial compensation, but it’s not just about money. It’s also about engaging players who suddenly find themselves playing all over the country when they have been used to regional league travelling. And then there’s the fans – will they be prepared to travel such long distances? I have seen, on more than one occasion, a team playing in the Southern League pass a Conference North team on the motorway going south, so geography is far from perfect in the entire structure.
Oxford will be undertaking the sort of travel itinerary more familiar to full-time clubs. It can only nudge a club towards financial disaster. Although Oxford’s elevation to the North was due to Kettering dropping out after relegation from Blue Square Premier due to financial problems – surely a lesson for the Blue Square League?
The fact is, the Conference (Blue Square Premier) is just not realistic for most non-league clubs and unless there’s a dramatic change, it never will be. At the highest level of non-league football, clubs are full-time, invariably former Football League members and eager to get back to where they came from. That’s why it’s been so tough for Luton Town to return.
By creating the two feeders to the Conference, North and South, the bar was raised substantially in terms of what you need to survive at Step One, but not in the attraction of the game at Step Two. Expenditure has gone up but income probably has not. Unless you are well-run, well patronised and have a dynamic commercial outlook, the move into the Conference can spell disaster. Kettering have a history of financial chaos, so nobody should be too surprised about their fall from grace, but just how much does the structure of Step Two contribute to clubs’ downfall?
Furthermore, by “layering” the competitions currently at Step Three – Southern, Isthmian and Northern Premier – the essence of those leagues has been compromised. The reorganisation didn’t improve the quality, it just shifted it up a level and left behind mediocrity. So as well as financial pressure, it has created dilution and asked – continues to ask – unqualified football clubs to behave as if they belong to a much higher order. We’ve even seen agents – yes, agents, at Step Three! – emerge in club car parks, filling young players’ heads with nonsense. Living beyond your means and not knowing your place can spell disaster for some clubs.