Another season of Conference football has come to an end and now Max Smithson reflects on a drama-packed finale to the Blue Square Premier League and gives us his opinion on why it is a league worth getting involved with:
I know not a lot of people care but after the weekend’s events I feel people need to be informed of a much under-appreciated level of football. Before this season I had only watched one Blue Square Premier game (or more commonly known as the Conference) but this season I have really come to appreciate football at this level and feel it is given nowhere near the credit it deserves. Being a big football fan and being at university in Newcastle I felt the need to adopt a local team up here to follow as well as my beloved Leeds United. I tried to support Newcastle but having had many good battles with the Geordies in the past as a Leeds fan, I could not get excited about them. Then, after a successful game on Football Manager, and their real-life promotion to the Blue Square Premier, I decided to go watch Gateshead F.C. when I wasn’t watching Leeds.
Gateshead survived relegation by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the Conference season at the weekend which could lay the foundations for their return to The Football League after a 50 year absence. However, the dramatic fashion in which they did so shows the competitiveness and talent on offer in the league. After an unlucky 1-0 loss to champions Stevenage in mid-week, Gateshead needed to beat a top 8 A.F.C Wimbledon side and hope that one of Eastbourne Borough (at home to runner’s up Oxford United), Forest Green Rovers (away at rock bottom Grays Athletic)or Histon (at home to in-form Barrow) lost. Ebbsfleet could also have stayed up if they beat Tamworth, Gateshead failed to win and Eastbourne lost. So on the final day, with Chester expelled from the League in February, and Julian Dicks’ Grays relegated some weeks ago, any of 5 others could have filled the remaining two relegation spots.
Gateshead got off to the best possible start with a bundled effort from Daryl Clare opening the scoring at the International Stadium after 3 minutes, and at half time, their fate was still in the balance with everywhere goalless except at the Lamb Ground where Tamworth and Ebbsfleet were level at 2-2 and Histon were leading Barrow by a goal to nil. The second half across the country proved to be a real rollercoaster for fans of all the teams. Barrow quickly turned round their game against Histon to lead 2-1, Tamworth went 3-2 up to seemingly doom Ebbsfleet and Forest Green grabbed an inevitable lead against a poor Grays side. This meant Ebbsfleet and Histon would be going down if things stayed the same. With ten minutes left Grays equalised and Ebbsfleet defied the odds to turn the tables in a thriller against Tamworth to lead 4-3. If Gateshead conceded now, Ebbsfleet would pull off a miracle survival. Then, yet more drama. Eastbourne scored an unlikely 84th minute winner against one-time runaway league leaders Oxford. This meant Histon were down unless Wimbledon or Grays scored. That goal also ensured relegation for a brave Ebbsfleet side who had battled to the death. Then with less than 5 minutes remaining, Grays scored a dramatic winner and managed to pull off an unforeseen victory against Forest Green. Gateshead managed to hold on and Histon scored an injury time equaliser to share the spoils at Bridge Road to guarantee Conference football for another season. This meant Forest Green went down and Gateshead stayed up due to having a goal difference of -23 compared to the Rovers -26. Great drama in a great league.
This will do wonders for Gatehead’s future. With the move to becoming a full-time club in the summer, better players will be attracted to a club steeped in history and with a new ground being built in the next few seasons, the future is pointing upwards for the Heeds Army.
After my experience of the Blue Square Premier, I would urge readers to take a greater interest in lower league football. The perception that the conference is full of part-timers is an old fashioned attitude. Only 6 of the 24 teams in the league this year were part-time, showing the level of professionalism within the division. As well as the many players poached from non-league football to have successfully graced the Football League, promoted teams have achieved unprecedented success since promotion. Since 2003, of the 14 teams that have been promoted from the Conference, only Chester City have found themselves back in non-league football and that can be accredited to severe financial problems which eventually led to them being wound up in February of this year. Yeovil, Exeter and Carlisle are now holding their own in League One and Doncaster Rovers are a respected Championship outfit. If readers find the big clubs around them too expensive or inaccessible, why not try a team in the Conference or perhaps further down the pyramid? It will be much friendlier and significantly cheaper than watching most other teams.
For me personally, I have watched a huge amount of live football in my time, estimated at around 500 games. Having seen some great games, players and goals, one of the best goals I have ever seen live came from the left boot of Gateshead winger Peter Winn. A scorching, dipping volley from 25 yards across the keeper into the far top corner sent the 485 fans into sheer amazement after the quality of the strike. Go to 3 minutes 50 on the video link below and you will see what I mean.
If you saw Steven Gerrard do this at Anfield you wouldn’t be too surprised but if you saw Johnny Conference Player do this at your local ground you would never forget it.
Thoughts, comments and opinions please...