Professional Conference an extension of the Football League

by Adam Lord

When Crawley knocked Bury out of the FA Cup last weekend it was deemed an upset, as a League 2 side eliminating a team from the division above usually would be.

But to many, the Red Devils knocking out the Greater Manchester side was always the more likely outcome.

As has been mentioned on this blog, Steve Evans’ big-spending side look destined for back-to-back promotions having only come up as champions of the Blue Square Bet Premier last season.

For several years now, there’s been little difference between the non-league’s top tier and the football league’s bottom.

The Conference went from being semi-professional to now having around three-quarters of its clubs professional, meaning unlike higher up, the sides promoted from non-league’s pinnacle are not automatically favourites for relegation having realised their football league dream.

With Crawley’s march towards League 1, the gap to non-league football appears to be getting smaller and smaller.

To further underline that, another result that stuck out from Saturday’s FA Cup first round was Fleetwood, of the Blue Square Bet Premier, knocking out League 1 Wycombe, by the same scoreline Crawley were victorious, 2-0.

It was one of the ties of the round and arguably the biggest upset of the weekend.

But to those in the North West, it was not that much of a surprise.

The Cod Army’s budget is reportedly bigger than most in League 2 and they have players such as Jamie Vardy, an exciting forward signed for a reported six-figure fee from FC Halifax Town, who are destined for a higher level.

With Wycombe struggling in League 1, it was a brilliant draw for the Lancashire side to make a statement about their football league intentions.

And they have a chance to do the same in the second round as having knocked out Wanderers, 23rd in League 1, they have a chance to knock out the side rooted to the bottom of the table, Yeovil, who travel to Highbury on Friday, December 2.

Granted the two case studies so far are clubs where money has been one of the deciding factors of success.

But even sides with smaller budgets have made this rapid ascension.

Take the example of Dagenham and Redbridge. Having won the Conference in 2007, they were one of the smaller clubs in League 2 when they won promotion to League 1 via the play-offs in 2010.

However, John Still’s side found it tough going and lasted just one season before being relegated at the end of last season.

The problem smaller clubs will have with League 1 is that it has become something of a graveyard for fallen Premier League clubs, Charlton and the two Sheffield clubs following in the footsteps of Norwich, Southampton and Nottingham Forest.

Perhaps with their financial clout, Crawley and perhaps shortly Fleetwood, will be hoping that rise doesn’t have to end.

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