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Years In The Football League – Post-1987 Relegation Versus Pre-1987 Longevity


Of the 21 clubs that were in the Football League in 1987 when automatic promotion and relegation with non-league was introduced, and were subsequently relegated to non-league (ignoring that some of them have been re-formed):

  • 11 clubs were not in the Football League when the Third Divisions North & South were formed in 1921, and first played in the Football League after 1921 – Aldershot, Cambridge United, Carlisle United, Chester City, Colchester United, Hereford United, Mansfield Town, Oxford United, Shrewsbury Town, Torquay United, York City.
  • 6 clubs that were in the Football League as at or before 1921 lost and regained their place in the Football League prior to 1987 (whether before or after 1921) – Doncaster Rovers, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Luton Town, Newport County, Stockport County.

Only 4 of the 21 clubs – Darlington, Exeter City, Halifax Town, Wrexham – don’t fall into either category. Exeter City first joined the Football League in 1920, while Darlington, Halifax Town and Wrexham first joined the Football League in 1921.

S/N CLUB PERIOD(S) IN THE LEAGUE
1. Aldershot 1932 to 1992. 2008 to date
2. Carlisle
Utd
1928 to 2004, 2005 to date
3. Cambridge United 1970 to 2005
4. ChesterCity 1931 to 2000, 2004 to 2009
5. Colchester
United
1950 to 1990, 1992 to date
6. Darlington 1921 to 1989, 1990 to 2010
7. Doncaster
Rovers
1901 to 1903, 1904 to 1905,
1923 to 1998, 2003 to date
8. ExeterCity 1920 to 2003, 2008 to date
9. GrimsbyTown 1892 to 1910, 1911 to 2010
10. HalifaxTown 1921 to 1993, 1998 to 2002
11. Hereford United 1972 to 1997, 2006 to 2012
12. LincolnCity 1892 to 1908, 1909 to 1911,
1912 to 20, 1921 to 87, 1988 to 2011
13. LutonTown 1897 to 1900, 1920 to 2009
14. MansfieldTown 1931 to 2008
15. Newport 1920 to 1931, 1932 to 1988
16. Oxford United 1962 to 2006, 2010 to date
17. ShrewsburyTown 1950 to 2003, 2004 to date
18. StockportCounty 1900 to 1904, 1905 to 2011
19. Torquay United 1927 to 2007, 2009 to date
20. Wimbledon 1977 to 2002, 2011
21. Wrexham 1921 to 2008
21. YorkCity 1929 to 2004, 2012 to date

It suggests that past longevity in the Football League improves the chances of future survival in the Football League, or conversely, having lost Football League status in the past, or having a shorter history in the Football League, increases the risk of losing Football League status in the future.

To expand upon the matter, and perhaps to crystallise the points better, I’d say:

  • Without automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and non-league prior to 1987, clubs that had been in the Football League by 1921, and remaining until 1987 were able to “entrench” their position in the Football League, and thus have been less vulnerable to relegation post-1987. Only 39 clubs lost their place in the Football League in the 87 seasons between 1889 and 1987, with 14 of them subsequently regaining their place before 1987. Of the 71 clubs that were in the Football League/Premier League continuously in the 59 seasons from 1921 to 1987 (86 clubs in 1921, less 15 that subsequently lost their place), only 8 have been automatically relegated since 1987 (Darlington, Exeter City, Grimsby Town, Halifax Town, Lincoln City (twice), Luton Town, Stockport County, Wrexham). Even if you exclude the top 40 clubs in the country, that’s still only 8 out of 31 clubs. Contrast this with 15 clubs that first reached the Football League after 1987 – although it only covers a period of 24 seasons, 6 (Barnet, Boston United, Kidderminster Harriers, Maidstone, Rushden & Diamond, Scarborough) subsequently lost their place. The remaining 9 are Burton Albion, Cheltenham Town, Crawley Town, Dagenham & Redbridge, Macclesfield, Morecame, Stevenage, Wycombe Wanderers and Yeovil Town. Barnet subsequently regained a place in the Football League.
  • On the other hand, a club having lost and regained its place prior to 1987 makes it more vulnerable to relegation post-1987, almost as if a prior loss of its place, no matter how long ago it was, and how long ago the club regained its place, weakens the “entrenchment”. Of the 8 clubs referred to above, 4 (Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Luton Town, Stockport County) had lost and regained their place prior to 1921. Doncaster Rovers and Newport County can be added to this category, having lost their places prior to 1921, and regaining their places by 1932 (albeit after 1921). This is the first category in my first post above. That makes it 6 out of only 14 clubs that lost and regained their place in the Football League before 1987. Other than Gillingham that lost its place in 1938, the remaining 13 had lost their place before 1921, and 11 had regained their place by 1921.
  • Clubs that first joined the Football League after 1921 but before 1987 are also not as strongly “entrenched”, and are thus more vulnerable. The clubs in the second category in my first post above (Aldershot, Cambridge United, Carlisle United, Chester City, Colchester United, Hereford United, Mansfield Town, Oxford United, Shrewsbury Town, Torquay United, York City) are 11 out of only 20 clubs that first joined the Football League after 1921 but before 1987. 3 (New Brighton, Thames, Workington) lost their place before 1987 without regaining it, while only 5 (Bournemouth, Ipswich Town, Peterborough United, Scunthorpe United, Wigan Athletic) have remained in the Football League/Premier League continuously since they were first admitted. “Wimbledon” is the remaining club, and having moved to Milton Keynes in 2003, and having been renamed Milton Keynes Dons in 2004, for current purposes, I won’t take a position on whether they should be added to the first 11 or the last 5.  Doncaster Rovers and Newport County can be added to the 11, in that they were re-admitted to the Football League post-1921, albeit they had spells in the Football League prior to 1921.Even if you add Gillingham (which lost its place post-1921 but regained it pre-1987), that’s 13 out of 23. If you exclude the 3 clubs that lost their place before 1987, that’s 13 out of the 20 clubs that joined or re-joined the Football League after 1921 and remained in the Football League until at least 1987.

It is interesting to look again at the following categories of clubs relegated post-1987:

  • The 6 clubs that lost and regained their place in the Football League prior to 1987 – Doncaster Rovers, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Luton Town, Newport County, Stockport County.
  • The 13 clubs that first joined or re-joined the Football League after 1921 but before 1987 – Aldershot, Cambridge United, Carlisle United, Chester City, Colchester United, Doncaster Rovers, Hereford United, Mansfield Town, Newport County, Oxford United, Shrewsbury Town, Torquay United, York City.
  • The remaining 4 clubs that were in the Football League continuously from 1921 to 1987 – Darlington, Exeter City, Halifax Town, Wrexham.

A total of 21 clubs, with Doncaster Rovers and Newport County falling in both the first and second categories. It is remarkable how many of them played or reached the first tier (4 – Grimsby Town, Luton Town, Carlisle United, Oxford United) or second tier (10 – Doncaster Rovers, Lincoln City, Newport County, Stockport County, Cambridge United, Hereford United, Mansfield Town, Shrewsbury Town, York City, Wrexham) prior to suffering automatic relegation post-1987 – a total of 14! Colchester United reached the second tier after regaining its place in the Football League. The remainig 6 clubs are Aldershot, Chester City, Torquay United, Darlington, Exeter, Halifax Town.

The higher they climb, the further they fall. In some cases, once the club fell out of the second tier, it seemed to get caught in a downward spiral which took it right out of the Football League. I guess this is especially the case where the club overreached itself to reach the top two tiers in the first place.

There are only two clubs that were in the Football League continuously from 1921 to 1987, have not been relegated from the Football League since 1987, but have never played in the top two tiers – Hartlepool United and Rochdale. Both clubs applied for re-election many times under the pre-1987 system (Hartlepool 14 times, Rochdale 10 times). I can’t imagine any other club having had to apply more often than these two, and I believe they have spent a greater proportion of time since 1958 (when the Third Divisions North & South were re-organized into the Third and Fourth Divisions) in the fourth tier (42 out of 54 for Hartlepool United, including next season, 46 out of 54 for Rochdale) than any other club, despite both currently playing in the third tier. Only 3 other clubs that were in the Football League continuously from 1921 to 1987 have never reached the top two tiers – Darlington, Exeter City, Halifax Town.

It would appear that prolonged periods of struggling in the fourth tier builds up a certain degree of resilience, so that a club that was able to survive in the past is better able to survive in the future. I suppose the same has been said about clubs that survived in the top flight for prolonged periods despite regularly struggling against relegation – Coventry City prior to 2001 and Charlton Athletic prior to 2007 come to mind. For Rochdale and Hartlepool United in the fourth tier, there was the added protection of the re-election system with its in-built bias.

That past entrenchment strengthens future entrenchment probably has broader sociological application, akin to the incumbency advantage, the justification for protectionism, or the continuation of class structures.

To summarize:

I am looking at two key seasons:

  • 1921-22, when the Football League first came to comprise of 4 divisions.
  • 1986-87, when automatic promotion and relegation between the Football Legue and non-league was first introduced.

21 clubs that were in the Football League as at 1986-87 have suffered relegation from the Football League since. Of the 21, 17 (81%) fall into one of the following two categories.

  • 11 first joined the Football League after 1921 (Category A).
  • Of the remaining 10 that first joined the Football League in 1921 or earlier, 6 had lost their place in the Football League sometime prior to 1921, before regaining their place (Category B). 4 of the 6 regained their place before 1921, the remaining 2 regained their place by 1932.

Only 4 of the 21 were in the Football League continuously from 1921 to 1987 without having previously lost their place.

I looked at the figures further:

  • The 11 clubs in Category A are out of 17 clubs that first joined the Football League after 1921 and remained in the Football League until 1987 (65%). (3 other clubs that first joined the Football League after 1921 lost their place before 1987. 3 other clubs that re-joined the Football League after 1921 had had a previous spell in the Football League).
  • The 6 clubs in Category B are out of 14 clubs that had previously lost and regained their place in the Football League before 1987 (43%). (All 14 lost their place before 1921 and regained their place by 1938).

It struck me that that the above percentages are high, especially when you consider that out of the 71 clubs that remained in the Football League continuously from 1921 to 1987, only 8 (11%) have since suffered automatic relegation from the Football League. Even if you exclude the top 40 clubs in the country, you get 8 out of 31 (26%), significantly lower that the earlier percentages.

Also, of the 15 clubs that first played in the Football League after earning promotion post-1987, 6 have subsequently suffered relegation back to non-league (40%).

It suggests that clubs that survived longer in the past without interruption survive better in the future. Past survival was of course aided by the inherent bias of the re-election system. However, any past interruption undermines survivability, even if the interruption took place a long time ago.

Also:

  • 14 of the 21 clubs (67%) reached the top two tiers before suffering post-1987 relegation from the Football League.
  • Only 5 of the 71 clubs that were continuously in the Football League from 1921 to 1987 have never climbed above the third tier. 2 of those 5 (40%) have not suffered post-1987 relegation from the Football League. All the more remarkable that the two clubs are Hartlepool United and Rochdale, the two clubs that had to apply for re-election most often under the old system, and that have spent the greatest proportion of their seasons in the Football League post-1958 in the fourth tier.

The above would suggest that reaching high levels in the Football League/Premier League affords no protection against a subsequent relegation from the Football League to non-league, and that in fact, clubs that struggle in the fourth tier for long periods are better equipped to survive relegation from the Football League.

For this season, it looks like the two relegation places will be filled from Macclesfield Town, Hereford United and Barnet, which would support the above contentions.

(Combination of several posts on the Non League Matters Forum).

Background:

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