In 1986 the Football League was approaching its century and so took the opportunity to undertake a certain degree of navel-gazing. The era of big money from television was still a few years away but the writing was on the wall with clubs that made up the so-called ‘Big Five’ cartel particularly keen on gaining more control, and thus, money.
These five clubs -Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Everton – were instrumental in demanding changes whilst holding the thinly-veiled threat of a Super League breakaway against the Football League.
As a result, the League instigated some changes. One of which was a planned reduction in the size of the top flight from 22 teams to 20. This reduction was due to take place over the course of two seasons and would be made operational by the introduction of a playoff system.
Initially, the bottom three sides of the First Division would be automatically relegated, while the top two teams from the Second Division would go up directly. The side finishing fourth from bottom in the First Division would then join the sides finishing third to sixth in the Second Division in the playoffs. The ultimate winner of the playoffs would then take up the final spot in the next season’s top flight.
The initial idea was for the playoffs to be in place for two seasons only while the league was reorganised, but they ultimately proved so popular that the Football League decided to keep them in place even after the league’s reorganisation was complete.
The playoffs were introduced throughout the Football League from the Second Division to the Fourth.
At the same time as reorganizing the divisions, it was decided to finally open up entry to the Football League to non-league clubs by way of automatic promotion. Prior to the 1986-87 season, entry to the Football League had only been possible via a convoluted election process.
Now, however, it was decided that one promotion spot, and one spot only, would be provided for the winner of the Alliance Premier League (soon to be renamed the Football Conference) who would, subject to ground and financial requirements, be admitted into the Football League in place of whichever side finished rock bottom of the Fourth Division.
This decision, unsurprisingly, was welcomed with open arms by the non-league community which had long complained of the ‘old pals act’ that saw the same sides being re-elected to the league despite consistently finishing in the bottom four. This was often at the expense of non-league sides that were better-run, better-supported and better on the field.
From the time the Fourth Division was inaugurated in 1958, to when automatic promotion was introduced in the 1986-87 season, only five clubs were elected from the non-league ranks. These were Peterborough United (1960), Cambridge United (1970), Hereford United (1972), Wimbledon (1977), and Wigan Athletic (1978), replacing Gateshead, Bradford Park Avenue, Barrow, Workington and Southport, respectively.
Under this voting system, the bottom four sides of the Fourth Division stood for re-election against any non-league side wishing to stand for election. Until 1977 it was not necessary for a non-league team wishing to stand for election to also have won their division in order to stand for election. This meant that each year there would invariably be a number of non-league sides standing for election
The method of voting fluctuated, but basically, the clubs who were Full Members of the Football League (those in the top two divisions) got more voting rights than those who were Associate Members.
Sides standing for election or re-election would lobby for votes in advance of the League’s AGM and chairmen of the clubs involved would call in favours. This would usually result in the status quo being maintained and the non-league clubs remaining shut out.
The most important non-league organisations were traditionally the Southern League and the Isthmian League. Also in existence was the Northern League which retained its amateur status and so did not put forward many sides for election to the league. The majority of applicants to the Football League in the 1960s came from the Isthmian and Southern Leagues where the competition was fierce.
The 1960s and 1970s saw strong Southern-based sides regularly applying. Sides such as Chelmsford City, Cambridge United, Kettering Town, Yeovil Town, Hereford United, Romford, and Wimbledon would regularly apply at the same time as each other and so split the non-league vote. Each one of these sides had good infrastructure and higher attendances with better facilities than a number of league clubs, but by all applying at the same time, they ended up doing themselves no favours.
In the 1970s Kettering Town came close to being elected three times but each time a combination of the ‘old pals act’ and a split non-league vote saw their election denied, with Workington being the beneficiaries on every occasion.
In 1974, Workington finished bottom of the Fourth Division and only received 21 votes for re-election. Either Kettering Town or Yeovil Town looked certain to replace them but neither side would agree to stand down from the election process in favour of the other and so they ended up splitting the vote with 16 and 14 votes respectively. That season a further 18 votes were also cast in favour of non-league teams Wigan and Chelmsford City.
On the rare occasion that a club did lose its place under the re-election process, almost always non-football factors such as location played their part. Each one of the five sides to lose the league place under this process was replaced by a side further south.
With no automatic promotion and relegation being in place, sides were completely at the mercy of the voting system and this meant that teams who hadn’t finished bottom could get voted out while those who hadn’t won their (non)league could get voted in. Gateshead, for example, were voted out in 1970 despite finishing third from bottom, as were Barrow in 1972. While Southport finished second from bottom in 1978 and still lost their league status.
In 1972 Hereford United were elected in place of Barrow despite not winning the Southern League that year.
In 1977 it was decided that only the champions of the Southern League and the Northern Premier League could apply for election to the league. Not that it made it any difference, with only Wigan Athletic consequently winning election.
Altrincham came closest in 1980 when they gained 25 votes compared to the 26 gained by Rochdale. Supposedly they were promised the votes of the chairmen of Luton Town and Grimsby Town only for both men to fail to deliver. That both Grimsby and Luton were eventually to lose their league status many years later may be seen by some Altrincham fans as delayed karma.
So to 1987 and the new rule of automatic promotion and relegation. The change was welcomed by the non-league ranks who saw it as long overdue, while, unsurprisingly, the league sides were not so keen. The impact of the rule change could be seen immediately due to the identity of the clubs involved in the escape to avoid the drop out of the football league that inaugural season.
As the final day of the league season approached, Football League founding members and two-times champions, Burnley were in grave danger of finishing bottom and thus losing their league place. Just twenty-eight years after winning the league Burnley were saved from the ignominy of relegation from the league courtesy of a 2-1 home win over Leyton Orient on the last day of the season.
Lincoln City, who had been relegated from the Third Division the year before, finished bottom of the table and so became the first side to be automatically relegated from the Football League.
Had the old system of election and re-election been in place in 1987, it is highly unlikely that either Lincoln or Burnley would have lost their place in favour of non-league champions, Scarborough.
Now that membership of the Football League was a realistic possibility, non-league football received a shot in the arm. Ambitious clubs could see a way forward at last, and so more interest and investment came into the non-league game. While the league clubs were perhaps not quite so enamoured by the idea, they realised there was at least a realistic chance of any relegated side regaining its place in the future.
In fact, of the first four sides to be relegated from the league under the new system, three (Lincoln City, Darlington and Colchester Unite) were to regain their league status within two years.
New sides such as Scarborough, Barnet, and Maidstone made their league bow and the new system seemed to be working well. Promotion to the league was contingent on sides being financially sound and having grounds which were deemed up to scratch. These rules meant that no side was promoted from 1994 to 1996, as Kidderminster Harriers, Macclesfield Town and Stevenage Borough, all failed to meet these requirements. However, all three clubs were to achieve league status in subsequent years.
In 2002 it was announced that two teams would henceforward be promoted and relegated between the bottom flight of league football and the Football Conference. The Conference champions would be promoted along with the winners of the playoffs set up for sides finishing between second and fifth.
Opening up the doors in such a way now saw the concept really start to take off. Long established league sides who would have been very unlikely to be voted out under the old system now found their league existence under threat, while non-league teams who perhaps could never have realistically held out hope of election success now started to dream big.
Sides such as Luton Town and Oxford United had played reasonably recently in the top flight and yet found themselves stranded in non-league competition, while teams such as Burton Albion and Yeovil Town not only gained league status but made it all the way up to Championship level. Meanwhile, Wycombe Wanderers, another new team, made it to an FA Cup Semi-final appearance at Villa Park against Liverpool just eight years after entry into the league.
While certain clubs have become yo-yo clubs, no side promoted from the Conference (now renamed the National League) has ever been relegated directly the next season.
On the face of it, then, the decisions to introduce automatic promotion and relegation in 1987 and extend it to two sides in 2002 were good ones.
However, perhaps a word of caution should also be extended.
There have been a number of clubs who have crashed and burnt over the past three decades either chasing the dream of league football or trying desperately to hang on to it.
Sides have been bankrolled and then lost their investment and so plummeted into either extinction or phoenix-club status. These include ‘traditional’ non-league clubs such as Maidstone, Rushden & Diamonds and Scarborough, who both came into the league and shone brightly for a while before crashing out and disbanding, as well as established league sides such as Halifax, Chester and Hereford.
The most recent National League Play-off final took place at Wembley in May and was contested by Salford City and AFC Fylde. Three promotions in four seasons had seen Salford move to the brink of the football league since being bankrolled by Peter Lim and most of the ‘Class of ‘92’, while Fylde had seen a similar rise with similar investment from the Northern Premier League Division One.
Attended by only 8,000 people the final was won 3-0 by Salford who will now take the place of the oldest league club in existence, Notts County, in the 2019-20 season.
The contention of whether or not a club should be allowed to ‘buy its way’ into the Football League, as it has been contended Salford City have done, is a valid point that perhaps needs exploring further.
For now, however, the majority of people seem to agree that at least the current system allowing for movement between the league and non-league ranks is preferable to that which went before.