Sunday, 14 July 2013

Promotion from the Conference

Gaining promotion from the Football Conference (formally Blue Square Premier League) is a hard business. No less than 12 former league clubs will be competing in the division next season and on top of this some ambitious clubs with great resources from the Blue Square North & South will be joining the other already established teams in there.

It has always been a very competitive division to get out of, Luton were expected to stroll out of the league and despite having average attendances far and above some of their rivals they have never been able to get over that final hurdle.

But what about the teams that do make it out of the division? As we have seen in the leagues above many teams have a tendency to yo-yo between divisions but this is hard to do when the Conference is so competitive, so it’s imperative that once you’ve been promoted you make a good stab at league football.

I used 20 years’ worth of data from Wikipedia to see how teams did once they’d been promoted from the Conference. The data goes back to 1989/90 but due to no teams being promoted between 1992/93 and 1996/97 and the introduction of 2 teams being promoted in 2002/03 I have data on 30 teams.

Flying High

Crawley celebrate winning a 2nd successive promotion

The first thing I looked at was how teams fared soon after being promoted

Very interesting that 14 of the 30 teams had been promoted to League One within 3 years of promotion from the Conference, with 8 of these going straight up through 2 divisions (Crawley Town the best recent example). Fleetwood are strong favourites to mount a promotion challenge this season just 1 season after promotion from the Conference and Mansfield are also expected to at least trouble the play-off spots.

So there is relatively little difference in standard between League Two and the top half of the Conference. Although the sample size is small the results are quite stark.

Unfortunately it does seem like League One is a step too far for most teams with 8 of the 14 teams coming back down within 3 years of promotion. This gap is reducing with Stevenage & Crawley both having a seasons and Yeovil Town – by now out of the range of our 5 years data mining by being promoted from the Conference in 2002/03 – surpassing themselves by being promoted to the Championship in last season’s play-off final.

Tough at the bottom

Macclesfield suffered the heartbreak of relegation in 2012

Unfortunately at the wrong end of League Two times are incredibly hard. The recent example of Aldershot, just 5 years after promotion to into the League and having already gone out of existence once in the late 80’s and now in administration again shows how tough any level of football is. If you aren’t pulling in big crowds you have to cut your cloth accordingly. The number of teams relegated from League Two who entered administration or went out of business is too high.

12 of the 30 teams promoted in the past 20 years have had some kind of major financial difficulty. Many of these have occurred when they have been relegated back to fifth tier level.

6 of these teams either went into administration or out of business completely and had to be reformed. Thankfully a lot of these historic teams are now on their way back up with the reformed teams of Chester City (originally promoted in 2003/04 and relegated in their 5th season) and Halifax Town (originally promoted in 1997/98 and relegated in their 4th season) both now promoted back into the Conference and Darlington winning the league in their first season.

With the level of professionalism now brought to the Conference, should it effectively be renamed Division Five (League Three??) The league is national, many teams are well back and professional standard, giant killings in the FA cup are less prominent and not as shocking as they used to be. The standard has definitely evened out in recent years.

What do the Stats show?

The final chart below shows the average positions for all teams competing in League Two in the years after their promotion for the conference (the average position of teams who were promoted into higher divisions has been removed).

The chart shows that the average position is around 11th -12th in the first season, quite a respectable finish and this improves in the 2nd season and only drops marginally in the 3rd. It is in the 4th & 5th seasons after promotion that the drop comes (a pretty steady average of 16th in both seasons) and this matches up with the findings that no team has been promoted in the 4th & 5th season after promotion.

So if you are a Mansfield Town or Newport County fan you have plenty to be positive about, if you’re an AFC Wimbledon fan you’re in the last chance saloon for promotion and if you are a fan of Oxford United, Burton Albion or Torquay United you might just have missed the boat already.

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