It’s hard to believe, but 2015 is almost upon us. I can’t be the only one asking ‘Where did the last year go?’ Yet time rests for no man, and no doubt many football fans will now see this time of year as an apt time to assess their club’s stock thus far this season. The Conference is no exception. Some fans will be rejoicing, some will not. Followers of Barnet will surely be sipping their port counting down the days until their seemingly inevitable promotion back to the Football League. They may be counting their chickens, and stranger things have happened, but I find it hard to believe that any side below them will overhaul their seven point lead at the top of the table. We shall see.
Other clubs meanwhile will hardly be able to believe their eyes at their standing in the table, both in the good and bad sense. Take Surrey side Woking for instance. Who would have believed that come the half way point of the season The Cards would be sitting pretty in fifth place? Not me that’s for sure. A great deal of credit must go to Gary Hill and his side for a job well done so far.
On the other side of the coin you arguably have four sides who for different reasons have cause for concern. The first pair, Forest Green and Eastleigh, despite having millions at their disposal (and thus able to attract considerable talent such as James Norwood and James Constable respectively) are not sitting pretty as you might expect. Forest Green despite trying for a number of seasons to throw money at the title, find themselves toiling in 11th, whilst Eastleigh are just two points better off in 8th, 3 points off the playoffs, albeit with two or three games in hand and this being their first crack in the division. Thus, whilst things certainly aren’t desperate for these two, it does a least show that having millions doesn’t make promotion out of this league a foregone conclusion.
If Forest Green and Eastleigh might expect to be doing better, fans of Dartford and Nuneaton might consider themselves lucky to even be playing at this level this term. Had it not been for the financial mismanagement of better placed sides Hereford United and Salisbury City last season, The Darts and Boro would not be here this. Yet, barring more financial tomfoolery this season both sides placed 21st and 23rd in the table might not be around in the division much longer.
If the above serves as a brief summary, let me now elaborate on a more general observation. Whilst many have remarked (perhaps with good reason) that ‘anyone can beat anyone’ in this division, (see my side Lincoln City’s rather surprising 2-1 away win and table topping Barnet for example) a definite trend has emerged regarding who has tended to do well. That is, sides in the top 12 tend to be full time outfits whilst part time operations often predominate the lower 12. Indeed, only the aforementioned Woking and Halifax buck the trend in the top half, whilst only Lincoln City and Aldershot in the bottom half ply their trade on a whole-time basis.
The question remains though – why is this is the case? It is one thing to say there is a correlation between league position and full/part time status, but quite another to imply a directly causal relationship. After all, (hypothetically) most of the teams in the top 12 could wear red and white stripes but it would be silly to suggest this is a key factor in their table position. On the other hand, there are many plausible reasons why being full or part time could make a difference to a table placing.
Firstly and perhaps most obviously, full time squads have longer training periods during the week, meaning they arguably have greater scope to develop attributes such as match fitness, set piece ability, and so on. Secondly, the prospect of full time full football may attract higher quality players both from part time leagues below, and loanees, free agents, ‘up and comers’ and those ‘on the way down’ from the Football League. This could be due to the more financially lucrative packages on offer to the prospect of the training time and facilities a full time club can provide. This isn’t absolute however, with a handful of part time clubs being more financially attractive for footballers than some full time outfits. Some players for instance take a ‘second wage’ at a Part Time outfit in addition to a relatively paid full time career in another profession.
Thirdly and finally, given the national nature of the Conference from clubs as far north as Gateshead and south as Torquay, being part time could be a serious constraint in terms of preparation time, match sharpness and so on. Players who finish work, travel to a mid-week evening match, arrive back home at 3am,only to be up again at 6am for work face a different reality to full time players who can spend the day training, travelling to a match in good time and then have time off the following day.
In summary, half way into the Conference season we can see a definite full time/part time split emerging and it’ll be interesting to see if this trend is as pronounced come April. As far as the teams themselves are concerned, Barnet are out on their own at the top with Bristol Rovers, Macclesfield, Woking and Grimsby making up the play-off spots. Telford occupy bottom place, some 12 points away from safety, whilst Nuneaton, Dartford and Alfreton occupy the other relegation berths. Whilst I wouldn’t be surprised to see the teams in 1st and 24th places remain as they are, there is still much to be played for elsewhere, albeit with the top twelve and bottom twelve effectively competing in separate ‘mini-leagues’.