New Beginnings.

The old chapter finished at about 4.50, on Saturday 2nd May. The ball was passed to Jamal Lawrence, and the referee blew the whistle for full time. Hence, Lawrence with 16 minutes of League football to his name became the last player to play the ball while Cheltenham Town were members of the Football League.

There has been much on social media, blogs and newspaper columns to try and work out where it went wrong. All the serious analysis comes to the same conclusions – there were many faults both on and off the field.

In the end, it does not matter where we lay the faults, as we cannot turn back and must look forward, and forward means the Conference, renamed as the Vanarama National League for next season. Having given the sponsors their obligatory mention, I will now refer to our new home as the National League, but in this article, the word Conference is used historically. It is a very different league to the Conference we left 16 years ago, and so using a different name seems appropriate.

When we were promoted in 1999, we were, along with all our rivals, a semi-professional team. There are still semi-professional teams at this level, but for the main part, the National League is England’s fifth level of fully professional football. Nineteen of the 24 clubs averaged over 1000 in attendances in 2014-15, although the majority dropped to three figure crowds on occasion. The costs of watching the games will be barely changed. Cheltenham Town have announced that the prices will be the same as last season. I think seven of the 24 in the Conference last season had a lowest price that was more than the £16 for adults at Cheltenham last season. Of those that were cheaper, most were only a pound or two in difference. Eastleigh appear to have been the cheapest at £12 to stand, followed by Southport at £13.50.

Tranmere Rovers have announced that ticket prices for 2015-16 will be more expensive than us, but have promised their playing budget will be in the top four, (a dangerous promise, when you do not know what the other budgets are). They have also stated that this is sustainable (but they may have a less than text book definition of the word).

As a subject, Budgets now create a lot of discussion among football supporters. Sadly, most of it is ill informed with a very wide discrepancy between the amounts some clubs are said to be paying and the budgets they are paying them from. Some of this is pure guesswork, some is generated by agents who state their players are being paid more than is true, in order to squeeze more out of the next club. Despite all the hype, there is still a clear factor that the majority of clubs in the Conference (and for that matter, the Football League) are living beyond their incomes. This generally means that they are relying on the generosity of a small group of people who own the clubs to subsidise the game. Cheltenham is no different to other clubs in this regard, Paul Baker (and to a smaller extent, other directors) funded our entrance into the league in 1999, and we have leaked money ever since – posting a loss more often than not. There have been a few exceptions, and I do not have all the figures, but I would estimate that we have taken a total subsidy averaging at least £100,000 per season over our 16 league seasons. More to the point, we need to carry on this type of “investment”, if we wish to be competitive in the National League.

Looking at the National League for next season, the first thing one notices is the number of ex-football league clubs at this level. There will be 10 clubs who we have played during our league stay. As well as Tranmere, taking the drop with us, we will again meet Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town, Macclesfield Town, FC Halifax Town, Wrexham, Chester, Torquay United, Lincoln City, Kidderminster Harriers and Aldershot Town.

This is not strictly true, as two of the clubs, FC Halifax Town and Chester are reformed clubs. FC Halifax Town were started in 2008, and commenced life three divisions below the Conference. They had dropped to the Conference in 2002 and just avoided relegation, despite having a ten point deduction when they entered administration. The new club were promoted in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Chester FC replaced Chester City. The earlier club had dropped to the Conference in 2009, but did not complete the first season at the level. They were also started three divisions lower, winning the championships three seasons in a row. They did finish in a relegation position in 2013-14, but with Hereford and Salisbury expelled from the Conference, they got through the AGM cup.

Perhaps the most interesting case is the one we will not meet. Barnet won their third promotion to the Football League, all as champions of the lower division. Originally promoted in 1991, Barnet spent four seasons below the league (2001-5) and are now Champions again after a two season spell. This time around, there was potential that their plans would be thwarted after leaving Underhill. A lot of fans were unhappy at moving out of the borough, with the chairman Anthony Kleanthous being considered as much to blame as the council by many. As a result, crowds dropped by 30% in the initial season at the Hive. The successes in 2014-15 have moved the figures upwards again, but still not to those reached in the league. Meanwhile, they have managed to fight off complaints from the local council over the size of the stand, which was greater than originally planned for.

There are also plenty of clubs who we have faced before in non-League circles.

Forest Green (5th in 2014-15), finished 12th in 1999. They reached the FA Trophy final in that year, and again in 2001 – both times losing 1-0 and hence not adding to their 1982 Vase triumph. They moved to the New Lawn, just up the hill from the old one in 2006. I have seen Cheltenham play there at reserve level. In 2010, they should have been relegated, but were reprieved when Salisbury were demoted for breaking financial rules (that is the same Salisbury who suffered a similar fate 4 years later – some never learn). At the time, FGR were reported in dire straits financially, but the takeover by Dale Vince that summer has breathed a new lease of life into the club and they are now on the up and up, with reported budgets far outstripping ours (despite a much smaller income).

Woking (7th in 2014-15) finished 9th in 1999. They were relegated to Conference South in 2009, and returned as champions in 2012. We have faced Woking twice since joining the league. The meetings were in the Football League Trophy (I think it may have been under LDV sponsorship at the time) in 2005. We played twice as the first game was abandoned due to fog, winning the second game 5-1. In the same season as playing us, Woking reached the FA Trophy final, beaten by Grays Athletic at West Ham (during the Wembley rebuilding).

Dover Athletic (8th in 20014-15, 11th in 1999). When Cheltenham Town returned to the Conference in 1997, they lost their first game, at Dover Athletic’s Crabble Athletic ground in front of 982 spectators. I was not there, but thought it was the omen of a difficult season ahead. When I did get back to Dover, on the 4th April 1998, it spelt out possibly the greatest point in Cheltenham’s history up to 1998 – a match against Southport at Wembley. While we went upwards, Dover headed in another direction. They were relegated to the Southern League in 2002 and switched to the Isthmian two years later after restructuring removed Kent from the Southern league remit. In 2005, they were relegated again and with re-organisations, needed three promotions to regain Conference Football. The first two of these were achieved in successive seasons, 2008 and 2009, they then stayed in Conference South until the 2014, winning promotion through the play-offs despite finishing fifth in division. As I think is well known to us, Dover Athletic reached the third round of the cup for the first time in their history this season, losing to Crystal Palace.

Gateshead (10th in 2014-15, 5th in Northern Premier League 1999). My only visit to the ground was way back in 1987 when we drew 1-1. Our goalscorer was Mark Boyland and the crowd was 233. That was a single season stop at the level. They returned to the Conference in 1990, meaning we played twice more before relegation. On that occasion Gateshead stayed up until 1998, so we met again when we got back to the Conference, 0-0 at the International Stadium, and a 2-0 win at home (Eaton and Victory). Gateshead dropped back to the Northern Premier League in 1998, and dropped another division in 2003. In 2004, they returned to the Northern Premier’s Premier Division, but the introduction of the Conference North (and South) meant this was still the third level. Gateshead came up to Conference North in 2008 and moved back to the National division a year later, after play off wins over Southport and AFC Telford United. They have since established themselves at this level, participating in play offs for the Football League place in 2014.

Altrincham (17th in 2014-15, Northern Premier Champions in 1999). Altrincham were the Conference (or Alliance Premier League if you prefer) champions in the first two years of competition, and regular opposition in our first spell at the level. However, when we returned to the Conference in 1997, they dropped down for two seasons in the Northern Premier League. 1999-2000 was a singular year at Conference level, and they have split the 16 seasons we have been in the League between the top two levels of non-League, playing 8 seasons at each, with two relegations and two promotions. The last promotion was through the 2014 play offs.

Southport (19th in 2014-15, 18th in 1999), and of course our opponents at Wembley in 1998. For that point alone, we will be pleased to welcome the Sandgrounders back to Whaddon Road. In 1977, the non-League teams reached an agreement that only one Southern League, and one Northern Premier League team would be put up for election to the League. This achieved a dramatic effect with Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic getting the nod for promotion. Southport finished 91st in the league in both seasons, and while Wimbledon replaced Workington (92nd), Rochdale did not go down the following year, but Southport exited the league instead. The football map today would look a lot different if the league had not shut up shop after this. Meanwhile Southport played on in the Northern Premier League until winning promotion to the Conference in 1993. Southport have spent more time at the top level of non-League than the second while we have been away, but they were relegated to the Northern Premier in 2003, and re-allocated to the Conference North on its formation, becoming first champions. They won Conference North again in 2010.

Welling United (20th in 2014-15, 20th in 1999). With the similarity of Welling’s positions, one should remember that in 1999, there were 22 teams in the Conference, and three relegation places, so when we drew at home to Welling on the last day of the season in 1999, we thought we had consigned them to relegation. As it happened, financial problems at Barrow meant Welling were reprieved on that occasion, but not after finishing 20th again a year later. They have played below the National level, in the Southern Premier, and then Conference South when it started in 2004. In 2013, they were Conference South champions, and returned to National level football.

Barrow (Conference North Champions, 19th in 1999). Barrow were members of the Football League from the founding of Division 3 (North) in 1921, until 1972. Then despite finishing above Stockport County and Crewe Alexandra, Barrow were dumped from the league in favour of Hereford. They played in the Northern Premier League and became founder members of the Conference, and then switched quite frequently, with relegation in 1983, 1986 and 1992, and NPL Championships in 1984, 1989 and 1998. This means we met four times in our first Conference spell, year one and the final three years, with Barrow the only team below Cheltenham when we dropped down in 1992. Barrow were an early visitor to Cheltenham in 1998-9, with our 4-1 win (Walker (2), Brough and Eaton) witnessed by 2005. We travelled to Holker Street in early March with Knight scoring in a 1-1 draw. As already mentioned, Barrow finished above Welling in 1999, but were forced out of the division due to financial problems. With no play offs, second and third places in the NPL in 2003 and 2004 did not earn anything, other than a place as founder members of Conference North. In 2008, Barrow finished fifth, and beat second place AFC Telford United (home and away), and the third placed Stalybridge Celtic to take a place in the National division. Relegated again in 2013, Barrow return as champions and looking better than they have done in the recent past.

The final group of teams are the new friends, teams we have not faced in league competition before.

Top of this list are Eastleigh – a team playing in the Hampshire League when I first watched them. They could attract over 100 spectators even then, which was more than par for the course. This season the average has been around 1750 – mid table in the attendance list, the record of 4216 was set during the season, for the visit of Bristol Rovers. When I visited, the ground was known as Ten Acres, but it has now been rebranded as the Silverlake Stadium – and I am reminded as I go to work by the sign promising that when my car gives up the ghost, Silverlake will pay a scrap value for it! Eastleigh were formed in 1946 and went by the names of Swaythling Athletic and Swaythling before 1980. In 1986, they were founder members of the Wessex League, which now operates as a Step 5/6 League (equivalent to the Hellenic). The remained at this level until 2003, when they won the title and took promotion to the Southern league. This was a good time to join, as re-organisation a year later moved them from the Southern League (East) to the Isthmian League (Premier), two steps below the Conference. They only spent one year in the Isthmian, finishing third and defeating Braintree and Leyton in the play offs to join Conference South. In 2011, a takeover by the Oxfordshire insurance brokers Bridle Insurance gave them the finances to progress further, they lost to Dover Athletic in the Conference South play offs of 2013, and then went up as champions the following season. The plan when Bridle took over was to reach the Football League in five years. With play-offs this season (even if beaten), it is possible to say they remain on track.

Braintree Town started life as the works club, Manor Works in 1898. The works were part of the Crittall Window Company, and gave the club the nickname the Iron. They took the name Crittall Athletic in 1921, and became founder members of the Eastern Counties League in 1935, and the Essex County League in 1937. They switched league’s frequently, dropping back to the local league when money was tight, but playing semi-professional football in the Eastern and various London leagues when they could. In 1968, they added the town name to become Braintree and Crittall Athletic, in 1981 they dropped the works name and played as Braintree for two seasons, before adding a Town. This change brought with it successes, with the club immediately winning the Eastern League title twice in a row, with four runners-up positions before joining the Southern League in 1991. They played five seasons in the Southern League (Southern Division). Playing in a division with Braintree at one extreme, Weymouth, Poole and Weston-super-Mare at the other was proving difficult, and Braintree successfully petitioned the FA for a switch to the Isthmian in 1996, although this meant starting in division 3, an effective drop of two levels. This gave them several Essex matches, and no journeys further than Camberley – two successive promotions did not extend the travelling distance beyond Hungerford. Braintree spent three seasons in the Isthmian first division before being promoted to the Premier in 2001. In 2005, they lost to Eastleigh in the play-offs, but the following season went up to the Conference South as Isthmian champions. After five years at that level, Braintree claimed the title again and promotion to the national level for the first time

Bromley come into the National League as Conference South champions. The ground is Hayes Lane, although not improved when rebuilt after a fire in 1993 remains a classic – the sort of ground that a non-league ground should be. It is not surprising that Bromley have spent most of their existence in the old Amateur leagues around London. They were members of the Southern League’s second division for two seasons in the 1890s, but soon moved on. They joined the Isthmian League in 1908 and were champions in their first season, repeating the fete in 1910, 1954 and 1961. They have also won the Athenian League on three occasions. Bromley have twice won the Amateur Cup, in 1911 (they beat Bishop Auckland 1-0 at Herne Hill) and 1949 (Romford, 1-0 at Wembley). In 1999, Bromley were relegated to the Isthmian First Division, then the third level of below the league. Re-organisation in the Isthmian area placed them in Division One (South) in 2002, but this returned to Division One in 2004, although this was now Step 4. In 2005, Bromley were promoted to the Isthmian Premier through play offs, and in 2007 they moved up to Conference South in the same way. Bromley finished as runners-up that season, and beat 5th placed AFC Wimbledon in the semi-finals, and then Billericay (on penalties) in the final. Having missed out in the play offs last season, (they lost to Ebbsfleet, who in turn fell to Dover), Bromley took the title this time around.

Having mentioned ealier that we will play one ex-league team, either Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town, depending on the result at Wembley on May 17th, the last two of our opponents will be decided by next week’s promotion play-offs, with Chorley playing Guisley, Boreham Wood against Whitehawk for the honour of playing us next season. Chorley have played two seasons, 1988-90 in the Conference, meeting us both times, while for those with very long memories, we also played them twice in the FA Trophy, 1978-9.

Guisley have never been this high before, but reached the semi-final of the FA Trophy in 1994, beating Cheltenham in a third round replay. Boreham Wood played us in the FA Cup in 1997, with Cheltenham winning at Meadow Park 2-0, after a home draw. That leaves the rapidly rising (and reportedly heavily backed) Whitehawk. They were Sussex League as recently as 2010, winning promotion in that year, and also in 2012 and 2013 (all as Champions of the division).

A few more things about Conference life. We will start the FA Cup in the final qualifying round. This season that took place two weeks before the first round proper with 32 matches. There are 24 exempt teams in the round, and hence 40 come through from the third qualifying round. There is no seeding, and a semi-national draw in the round. We will start the FA Trophy at the First Round. Again we will be one of 64 teams playing, with the 24 National League teams meeting 40 qualifiers, no seeding and a semi-national draw. This season, the matches were scheduled on December 13th. The second round was four weeks after the first, but then the fixtures were close together, with matches every two weeks, and the semi-finals on successive weeks at the end of February. This is a recent change to allow the final to take place at the end of March, and avoid a potential clash of priorities with the play offs.

Since I wrote this, it has been announced that the FA Trophy and FA Vase (for Step 5/6 level clubs – Hellenic and equivalent) will share the day and play both Wembley finals on May 22, hence the round dates may well be more spread out over the second half of the season. There are no league cups for the Conference, so apart from the FA Competitions, the only other cup we will play in is the Gloucestershire Senior Cup, where we tend not to field the first team

With the Play offs for promotion completed, we now know we are playing Guiseley and Boreham Wood. Guiseley beat us during their run to the 1994 Trophy semi-finals. AT the time, two Wembley appearances in the FA Vase were still fresh in their memories. Both the 1991 and 1992 finals were packed with goals, eight in each. In 1991, they were shared evenly with Gresley Rovers, requiring a replay at Sheffield United’s ground, where Guiseley took the honours. A year later they returned to Wembley, but were defeated by Wimborne, 5-3. In 1999, Guiseley were one division below us in the top division of the Northern Premier League, but were relegated a year later. They returned to the Premier division in 2004, as part of the realignment caused by the creation of Conference North/South. They won the title and promotion to Conference North in 2010. In five seasons of Conference North Football, they have reached the play offs on every occasion, and this is the third time they have reached the final. Last season they fell to an extra time defeat to Altincham. For this year’s final, they claim over 900 supporters made the journey across the pennies to Chorley, where they were outnumbered in a crowd of 3418, and found themselves 2-0 down at the break. The comeback took place between the 60th and 80th minutes, with Chorley appealing unsuccessfully for a last minute equaliser when the ball came off the underside of the crossbar.

For visitors heading to Yorkshire next season, Guiseley is well known as the location of the original Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chips Restaurant.

Like Guiseley, Boreham Wood were a division below Cheltenham in 1999. In their case this was the Isthmian League’s premier division. Also like Guiseley, they were relegated a year later. Here the comparison ends, as Boreham Wood returned as division champions a year later. They were relegated again in 2003, and after the re-organisation of the divisions a year later, they found themselves in the Southern League’s Eastern Division. The opposition in this division were still based around North and East London, so it was not a big change. When Boreham Wood won the title in 2006, they were placed in the Isthmian Premier again. Four years later they moved up to the Conference South thanks to play off wins against Aveley and Kingstonian

Boreham Wood is more famous for its neighbour, the Elstree studios. (Studios is plural, as there are several film and TV studios around). One of the studios is well known for both Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but by all accounts the final started like a dull night on Eastenders (filmed at another Elstree studio). Boreham Wood finally broke through on 67 minutes, Lee Angol curling a free kick around the wall. Sam Deering levelled from the penalty spot, but Whitehawk despite having the best of the final minutes could not make it count, and the game went into extra time. Junior Morais scored the winner for the Wood within minutes of the start of extra time, and this time there was no comeback.