In 1987 Scarborough United became the first non-league side to win automatic promotion to the Football League when, as champions of the Alliance Premier League, they replaced Lincoln City who had finished rock bottom of the Football League.
Prior to 1987, the Football League operated pretty much as a closed-shop with election to the league via an archaic voting system being the only way in for ambitious clubs. I have written previously on this facade and the fact that only five clubs were voted into the league between the inauguration of the old Fourth Division in 1957-58, when the number of league clubs was increased by four to 92, and some three decades later it was clear that it was time for a change.
If we look at the progress of the five clubs who did in fact make it past the Old Boys Network, we can see that the move to automatic promotion and relegation to and from the Football League was well overdue.
In 1960, Peterborough United were elected to the league at the 21st attempt. Perhaps the Football League members simply got tired of finding reasons and excuses to knock “The Posh” back, but their election at the expense of Gateshead did seem to be at least partially politically motivated.
Gateshead, of course, is in the seemingly bleak and cold northeast of England and winters can be particularly cruel in that region. Thus, when the side finished third from bottom of the Fourth Division in 1960 and was forced to seek re-election, Chairman of clubs with one eye on petrol and accommodation costs were perhaps more inclined to favour the much more southerly and persistent Peterborough United when it came down to voting. This was despite Gateshead finishing three places off the bottom of the 1960 Fourth Division table and not having to seek re-election since 1937.
Finally taking their place in the league system, Peterborough United enjoyed a successful start to life as a league club. The Fourth Division title was secured at the first time of asking and the FA Cup quarter-finals were reached in 1965. In subsequent years, Peterborough would bounce around between the bottom two divisions before finally making it to the Championship and second-tier football under the astute management of Darren Ferguson.
Meanwhile, poor old Gateshead pretty much disappeared into oblivion. After a few half-hearted attempts to gain re-election to the league, the club continued to suffer on and off the field. Despite doing reasonably well in regional leagues in the north of England, a move to the Northern Premier League in 1968 was not successful and after a few sideways moves in part-time football, the club finally disbanded in 1973.
Since then, two further clubs have been formed under the Gateshead mantle with the current club, Gateshead FC, plying their trade in the National League North.
No side would be elected to the league for another decade after Peterborough in 1960, but in 1962 Accrington Stanley were forced to resign from the league due to financial difficulties. They were replaced in the league by Oxford United who had changed their name from Headington United a couple of years earlier in an attempt to raise the club’s profile. Despite winning the Southern League for the second successive season in 1962, Oxford United still had to submit themselves to the election process as promotion was not automatic.
Oxford United settled quickly to life in the Football League and were playing Second Division football in 1968, just six seasons after their election. Captained by record appearance holder Ron Atkinson, Oxford also became the first Fourth Division club to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 1964.
A roller coaster ride over the next decades then followed after relegation back to the Third Division. Jim Smith led the team back up the divisions all the way to the top flight in 1985, and his successor, Maurice Evans, secured the League Cup at Wembley a year later, before financial difficulties and a decline set in that saw four subsequent relegations and a return to the non-league ranks in 2006, twenty years after the Milk Cup success. Incidentally, as they were returning to non-league football, one of the sides replacing them were none other than Accrington Stanley, the club whose resignation from the league had paved the way for league football to come to Oxford some 44 years earlier.
Onto 1970 and in the non-league game the Southern League, in particular, was in fine shape. The competition was fierce with a number of clubs sporting well-run sides, fine stadiums, and healthy crowds. Sides such as Wimbledon, Kettering Town, Romford, Chelmsford City, and the two Cambridge sides City and United, all boasted strong claims for league membership. Indeed it was their individual rather than collective strength that actually prevented sides from being elected to the Football League during this period as any member club of the FA was permitted to stand for election to the league and not simply the non-league champions. This meant that the vote from league chairmen often got spoilt amongst the non-league sides standing for election and so league clubs would survive when they often didn’t really deserve to do so.
In 1970, however, Cambridge United were voted into the league at the expense of Bradford Park Avenue. Actually the smaller of the two Cambridge sides in terms of ground capacity, United settled into life as a Football League club and gained promotion in only their third season in the Fourth Division.
Although instant relegation was suffered, Cambridge regrouped and in 1977 and 1978 gained successive promotions to find themselves in the second flight just eight years after joining the league. Instrumental in this rise was none other than Ron Atkinson who had played a major part in the rise of Oxford United a decade or so earlier.
Six years of consolidation in the Second Division followed before successive relegations in 1984 and 1985 saw United plonked back in the Fourth Division and a bottom-four finish in 1986 meant that re-election had to be sought in order to prevent a return to the non-league ranks. When this was successful, Cambridge United once again embarked upon a period of prosperity with two more promotions back to the second flight following in 1990 and 1991 under the rather unconventional methods of John Beck. As well as successive promotions., the quarter-finals of the FA Cup were also reached in each of these seasons and in 1992 the club finished 5th in the Second Division and so qualified for the play-offs and a chance to compete in the inaugural Premier League.
Failure in the play-offs, unfortunately, set Cambridge back once again and further relegations followed. In 2005, the club finished in the bottom two of the entire Football League and was demoted back to the non-league ranks. Despite staying full-time, it was to be nine long years before league status was once more restored.
As for Bradford Park Avenue, their post-league history was both short and sad. Four years of struggle in the Northern Premier League followed before liquidation in 1974. The club was later revived, firstly as a Sunday League side, and then as a Saturday club. The current BPA now plays in the National League North.
In 1972, something happened in the FA Cup, evidently. Some guy called Ronnie Radford scored a goal for Southern League side Hereford United against Newcastle United in a replay and on the back of that goal Hereford were elected to the league in place of Barrow. It was perhaps one of the worst cases of ‘votes for favours’ in the history of the reelection process, as not only had Barrow not finished bottom in the Fourth Division (both Stockport and Crewe had finished lower), but Hereford hadn’t even won the Southern League that season, finishing two points behind Chelmsford City who did not stand for election to the league.
However, once in the league Hereford did themselves proud, and like Oxford, Peterborough and Cambridge before them soon found themselves playing in the Second Division. In 1976, just four years after joining the league, the second flight was reached and although only one season was spent in the second, it was enough for them to feature in a famous televised match against Fulham in which George Best and Rodney Marsh starred.
Like some of the other former non-league clubs who initially overachieved, Hereford United then suffered successive relegations to return to the Fourth Division where the club spent the next two decades before finishing bottom of the league in 1997 and once more finding themselves back in non-league football.
Although promotion back to the league was achieved nine years later, along with further elevation to League Two in 2008, such successes were fleeting and in 2012 the club was once again demoted to the Conference. In 2014, the club was expelled from the Conference for financial irregularities and was eventually wound up. A phoenix club, Hereford, was formed the same year and now operates in the National League North.
As for Barrow, the side that was very unfortunate to lose its place in the Football league in 1972, 48 years of non-league football then followed before league status was finally regained in 2020.
As we come to the end of our first look at the fortunes of clubs promoted and relegated to and from the Football League since 1960, a couple of trends seem to recur. The first of which is that a number of sides coming into the league seemed to prosper, initially at least, before crashing spectacularly. Cambridge United, Oxford United, and Hereford United all climbed rapidly to the second tier before suffering relegations back down the league system and back to non-league football.
The second trend relates to sides relegated out of the league and their miserable fortunes henceforward. As we have seen, Bradford Park Avenue and Gateshead ceased to exist altogether just a few years after losing their league status. On the other hand, however, Barrow bucked the trend and finally won their league place back almost half a century later.
In the next and final instalment of this short series, we will look at the fortunes of the last two clubs to gain access to the Football League through the election process: Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic.