|Country||England (66 Clubs)|
|Other club(s) from||Wales (2 Clubs)|
2004 (North & South)
|Number of teams||24 Conference
22 North & 22 South
|Level on pyramid||5 (Conference)
6 (North and South)
|Promotion to||Football League Two|
|Relegation to||Northern Premier League Premier Division
Isthmian League Premier Division
Southern League Premier Division
|Domestic cup(s)||FA Cup
Conference League Cup (defunct)
|Current champions||Barnet (Conference)
|TV partners||BT Sport
NLTV (since 2015)
|2015–16 National League|
The Football Conference is an association football league in England consisting of three divisions, the Conference Premier, Conference North and Conference South. Around half the Conference Premier clubs are fully professional, whilst most Conference North and Conference South clubs are semi-professional. The professional clubs are usually clubs which have been in the Football League in the past, as opposed to those who have always been 'Non-League'. The Conference Premier is the lowest of the five nationwide football divisions in England, below the Premier League and the three divisions of the Football League, and is the top tier of the National League System of non-League football. The Conference North and Conference South form the sixth tier of English football. The Football Conference consisted of only one division until 2004, but expanded as part of an extensive restructuring of the National League System which took effect beginning with the 2004–05 season.
As part of a new sponsorship deal announced in July 2014 with Vanarama, after seven seasons of being known as the Conference Premier it reverted to its original title and is now known as the Vanarama Conference, and the tiers below as the Vanarama Conference North and the Vanarama Conference South. Beginning with the 2015–16 season, the league will be renamed as the National League.
- 1 Organisation
- 2 History
- 3 Conference clubs, 2015–16
- 4 Former Football League clubs now in the Conference
- 5 Past Conference winners
- 6 Conference League Cup
- 7 Former Conference clubs now in The Football League
- 8 Media coverage
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
The Football Conference stands at the top of the National League System (NLS), a comprehensive structure linking together over 50 different leagues under the auspices of The Football Association (FA). The Conference is at Step 1 of the NLS, and Conference North and Conference South make up Step 2. Above the Conference are the 92 clubs which together make up the highest levels of English football, the Premier League and The Football League; below the Conference are the Step 3 and lower leagues of the NLS.
The Conference has 24 clubs and the North and South divisions have 22 clubs each. Each club plays the others in its division twice during a season, once at home and once away. Clubs earn three points for a win, one for a draw, and none for a defeat.
At the end of each season two clubs are promoted from Conference to Football League Two and two teams from League Two are relegated to Conference to take their place. The two promotion places are awarded to the Conference champions and to the winners of the Vanarama Conference Promotion Final from home and away semi finals between those clubs finishing second to fifth in the standings.
At the other end of the table, the bottom four clubs in Conference are relegated to either Conference North or Conference South. The decision as to which division the relegated club joins is made by the FA's NLS Committee, but is largely determined by geography. The four relegated teams are replaced by four promoted teams, two from Conference North and two from Conference South. For each of these two leagues this will be the champions and the winners of their respective Promotion Finals between their second to fifth place clubs in those divisions.
At the bottom of Conference North and Conference South, three clubs from each division are relegated and these six clubs are divided among the Step 3 leagues of the NLS, the Northern Premier League, the Southern League, and the Isthmian League. Each of these Step 3 leagues promotes their respective champions and second to fifth place playoff winners. The NLS Committee determines which Step 3 leagues the relegated clubs will join, and whether the promoted clubs will join Conference North or Conference South.
The clubs relegated from the national division are not always geographically balanced. Thus should it be deemed necessary, the NLS Committee will order one or more Midlands or East Anglian-based clubs in the sixth tier to switch divisions (to move "horizontally" between the leagues, so to speak) so as to maintain numerical balance between North and South.
Due to financial constraints at this level of football, some clubs have escaped relegation despite finishing in a relegation position, due to the misfortune of others. For promotion to proceed, whether from The Football Conference to The Football League, within the Conference, or between the various leagues of the NLS, certain conditions concerning finances and facilities must be met. Failure to meet the requirements of the league concerned will prevent the eligible club from being promoted.
At the end of the 2013–14 season both Hereford United and Salisbury City were expelled from the Football Conference after each failed to meet financial criteria set. In the case of Salisbury City, due to the timescale around their expulsion and appeal, the Football Association ruled that no further movement of clubs under the NLS would be permitted, hence the Conference South operated with only 21 clubs in 2014–15.
The Football Conference was formed in 1979 from leading teams in the Northern Premier League and Southern League and was originally known as the Alliance Premier Football League. The founding members were:
Barrow and Northwich had previously been members of The Football League. Barrow failed re-election in 1972, while Northwich resigned from the league in 1894. Yeovil are currently members of the Football League, while Scarborough, Maidstone (both now in new incarnations), Boston and Barnet have also tasted league football since the formation of the Football Conference, but are now back in non-league football.
Of the 20 founding members, the last to leave the fifth level were Northwich. They were relegated in 2005, a year after the demise of Telford. Barnet are the only founding member who have remained in the top five levels continuously since 1979.
Bangor City has since moved to the Welsh football league system, while AP Leamington, Maidstone, Nuneaton, Scarborough and Telford later collapsed and were reconstituted in lower English leagues. Gravesend & Northfleet changed its name to Ebbsfleet United in 2007.
Since 1984, the Conference has been publicly known by the names of a succession of official title sponsors. The name was officially changed from Alliance Premier to the Football Conference in 1986. Below is a list of sponsors and what they chose to call the league:
- 1984–1986: Gola (Gola League)
- 1986–1998: General Motors (GM Vauxhall Conference)
- 1998–2007: Nationwide Building Society (Nationwide Conference, and from 2004 additionally Nationwide Conference North / Nationwide Conference South)
- 2007–2010: Blue Square (Blue Square Premier / Blue Square North / Blue Square South)
- 2010–2013: Blue Square Bet (Blue Square Bet Premier / Blue Square Bet North / Blue Square Bet South)
- 2013–2014: Skrill (Skrill Premier/ Skrill North/ Skrill South)
- 2014–2015: Vanarama (Vanarama Conference/ Vanarama Conference North/ Vanarama Conference South)
- 2015– :Vanarama (Vanarama National League / Vanarama National League North / Vanarama National League South)
The Football Conference had a single division for the first 25 years of its existence, but since the 2004–05 season has consisted of three divisions. The original division was renamed Conference National (currently Conference ) and two new regional divisions one level down were introduced, Conference North and Conference South. The new clubs to form this larger competition were drawn from the Northern Premier League, Southern League, and Isthmian League according to guidelines developed by the NLS Committee.
Only one team has won the Conference three times: Barnet (1991, 2005, 2015). Prior to Barnet's third title win, six other clubs had also become champions twice: Altrincham (1980, 1981), Enfield (1983, 1986), Kidderminster Harriers (1994, 2000), Macclesfield Town (1995, 1997), Maidstone United, (1984, 1989) and Stevenage Borough (1996, 2010). Kidderminster also finished second in 1997 and 2013. Of these sides, only Barnet was promoted to the Football League on the first two occasions; Maidstone's first title came before the era of automatic promotion, while Kidderminster Harriers, Macclesfield Town and Stevenage Borough were denied promotion because their grounds were not up to the required standard at the time of their first win. However, all three were promoted when they took their second title. Altrincham are the only team in history to retain the title, as at the time there was no automatic promotion to the Football League.
No former Conference club has yet reached the Premier League, although four such clubs did compete in its predecessor, the Football League First Division: Carlisle United, Oxford United, Luton Town and Grimsby Town. Carlisle and Oxford have since returned to the League, by winning their respective Promotion Final. Luton returned to the Football League in 2014 after a five-year exile by winning the Conference title, having been defeated in the playoffs in their first three seasons in the Conference. Additionally Luton and Oxford are the only clubs to have played league matches against each other in all top five tiers of English football.
Promotion and relegation
Prior to 1987, in order for Conference clubs to enter The Football League, they had to be elected by League members. As a consequence, there was no guarantee that winning the Football Conference would result in promotion, and none of the league's first eight champions were promoted. This changed in 1987, when automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League Fourth Division and the Conference was agreed. The first clubs to be affected by the new system were Lincoln City, who were relegated and replaced by Scarborough. However, although the champions of the Conference were entitled to a place in the Football League, this was dependent on their stadium meeting the set criteria for membership. This meant that Northampton Town, Exeter City and Torquay United all avoided relegation from the Football League, although Exeter and Torquay were both relegated to the Conference at a later date.
For three successive years in the mid-1990s, the Conference champions had been denied promotion to the Football League on these grounds. Since 1997, when Macclesfield Town won the title for the second time in three years, every champion has been promoted.
Since 2003, the Conference has been awarded a second promotion place, which has been decided by a play-off system similar to that of the Football League. The four teams below the Conference champions play against each other in semi-finals over two legs, with second playing fifth and third playing fourth. The winners of these ties then play a single final game known as the Promotion Final, with the winner gaining the second promotion place. Doncaster Rovers were the first team to win the Conference Promotion Final.
Prior to 2004, relegation from the Conference meant dropping to one of the three feeder leagues below. After Chester City failed to avoid expulsion in 2010, 3 teams were relegated instead of 4, to either the Northern Premier League, Southern League or Isthmian League, based on geographical criteria. In turn, the champions of these three leagues would be promoted to the Conference. The closure of Chester City during the later stages of the 2009–10 season was the first mid-season closure of a club in the division since Newport County in the second half of the 1988–89 season; on both occasions, the records of both clubs were expunged.
In 2004, a restructuring of the National Football Pyramid saw the creation of a new level immediately below the Football Conference; two regional divisions named Conference North and Conference South were created, with the feeder leagues dropping below them. There are two promotion places to the Conference from each regional division – the champions are promoted automatically, while the remaining place is again decided by semi final play-offs as in the Conference division and a Promotion Final. The four teams relegated from the Conference are then allocated to one or other of the regional divisions dependent on their geographical location.
Conference clubs, 2015–16
Note: The Conference South had 21 teams (one less than usual) for the 2014–15 season, due to the expulsion of Salisbury City from the division before the start of the season.
Former Football League clubs now in the Conference
|Club||Years in the Football League||Number of seasons|
|Aldershot Town||2008–2013; 1932–1992 (as a previous incarnation)||5; 53|
|Bradford Park Avenue||1908–1970 (as a previous incarnation)||51|
|Chester||1931–2000; 2004–2009 (both as a previous incarnation)||67|
|FC Halifax Town||1921–1993; 1998–2002 (both as a previous incarnation)||69|
|Gateshead||1930–1960 (as a previous incarnation)||23|
|Grimsby Town||1892–1910; 1911–2010||106|
|Lincoln City||1892–1908; 1909–1911; 1912–1920; 1921–1987; 1988–2011||104|
|Stockport County||1900–1904, 1905–2011||99|
|Torquay United||1927–2007; 2009–2014||78|
Past Conference winners
|Season||Conference champions||Promotion Final winners|
|1988–89||Maidstone United* (2)|
|1996–97||Macclesfield Town* (2)|
|1999–00||Kidderminster Harriers* (2)|
|2000–01||Rushden & Diamonds*|
|2002–03||Yeovil Town*||Doncaster Rovers* (Match Report)|
|2003–04||Chester City*||Shrewsbury Town* (Match Report)|
|2004–05||Barnet* (2)||Carlisle United* (Match Report)|
|2005–06||Accrington Stanley*||Hereford United* (Match Report)|
|2006–07||Dagenham & Redbridge*||Morecambe* (Match Report)|
|2007–08||Aldershot Town*||Exeter City* (Match Report)|
|2008–09||Burton Albion*||Torquay United* (Match Report)|
|2009–10||Stevenage Borough* (2)||Oxford United* (Match Report)|
|2010–11||Crawley Town*||AFC Wimbledon* (Match Report)|
|2011–12||Fleetwood Town*||York City* (Match Report)|
|2012–13||Mansfield Town*||Newport County* (Match Report)|
|2013–14||Luton Town*||Cambridge United* (Match Report)|
|2014–15||Barnet* (3)||Bristol Rovers*|
|Season||Conference North champions||Promotion Final winners|
|2005–06||Northwich Victoria||Stafford Rangers|
|2009–10||Southport (2)||Fleetwood Town|
|2010–11||Alfreton Town||A.F.C. Telford United|
|2012–13||Chester||F.C. Halifax Town|
|2013–14||A.F.C. Telford United||Altrincham|
|Season||Conference South champions||Promotion Final winners|
|2004–05||Grays Athletic||Eastbourne Borough **|
|2005–06||Weymouth||St Albans City|
|2008–09||AFC Wimbledon||Hayes & Yeading United|
|2009–10||Newport County||Bath City|
|2010–11||Braintree Town||Ebbsfleet United|
|2012–13||Welling United||Salisbury City|
** Not promoted. In 2004–05 only three promotion places were available to the Conference Premier. The third place was decided in a Promotion Final at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium, which Eastbourne Borough lost 2–1 to the Conference North Playoff winners, Altrincham.
Conference League Cup
The Conference has organised a cup competition for its teams throughout its history, with occasional breaks when sponsors were not available. Known initially as the Bob Lord Trophy and then the Spalding Cup from 1995–96 until 2000–01, the League cup competition was reinstated in 2007–08 as the Conference League Cup, sponsored by Setanta Sports. Very much like the Football League Cup and Football League Trophy at the professional levels, it has not always proved popular with fans and is generally viewed as of secondary importance to the FA Trophy. It has not been held since 2009.
|1988–89||Yeovil Town||Kidderminster Harriers|
|1992–93||Northwich Victoria||Wycombe Wanderers|
|1993–94||Macclesfield Town||Yeovil Town|
|1994–95||Bromsgrove Rovers||Kettering Town|
|1995–96||Bromsgrove Rovers||Macclesfield Town|
|1996–97||Kidderminster Harriers||Macclesfield Town|
|1998–99||Doncaster Rovers||Farnborough Town|
|2007–08||Aldershot Town||Rushden & Diamonds|
|2008–09||AFC Telford United||Forest Green Rovers|
|2009–10 onwards||not held|
Former Conference clubs now in The Football League
|Club||Years in the Conference||Currently play in (2015–16)|
|Accrington Stanley||2003–2006||League Two|
|AFC Wimbledon||2009–2011||League Two|
|Barnet||1979–1991; 2001–2005; 2013–2015||League Two|
|Bristol Rovers||2014–2015||League Two|
|Burton Albion||2002–2009||League One|
|Cambridge United||2005–2014||League Two|
|Carlisle United||2004–2005||League Two|
|Colchester United||1990–1992||League One|
|Crawley Town||2004–2011||League Two|
|Dagenham & Redbridge||1992–1996; 2000–2007||League Two|
|Doncaster Rovers||1998–2003||League One|
|Exeter City||2003–2008||League Two|
|Fleetwood Town||2010–2012||League One|
|Luton Town||2009–2014||League Two|
|Mansfield Town||2008–2013||League Two|
|Newport County||2010–2013||League Two|
|Oxford United||2006–2010||League Two|
|Shrewsbury Town||2003–2004||League One|
|Wycombe Wanderers||1985–1986; 1987–1993||League Two|
|Yeovil Town||1979–1985; 1988–1995; 1997–2003||League Two|
|York City||2004–2012||League Two|
The Football Conference was available on Setanta Sports. The channel showed 79 matches each season. It also showed the Conference League Cup. The FA Trophy Final was also shown on Setanta Sports (after being shown on Sky Sports until 2008).
On 19 August 2010, Premier Sports announced that it had bought the live and exclusive UK television rights to thirty matches per season from the Conference Premier for a total of three seasons. The thirty matches selected for broadcast included all five Conference Premier matches culminating in the Promotion Final itself. The deal with the Football Conference is a revenue sharing arrangement whereby clubs receive 50% of revenue from subscriptions, on top of the normal rights fee paid by the broadcaster, once the costs of production have been met. The Conference will also earn 50% from all internet revenue associated with the deal and allow them to retain advertising rights allied to those adverts shown with their matches. During the 2010–11 season, Premier Sports failed to attract enough viewers to its Conference football broadcasts to share any revenue with the clubs beyond the £5,000 broadcast fee paid to home clubs and £1,000 to away clubs. BT Sport are now one of the television broadcast partners and commenced a contract in 2013/14 to cover again up to 30 Conference matches including the end of season semi finals and the Promotion Final.The deal worth £300,000, sees the fee to each home clubs as £7,000 and the away club £1000. The National League launched its own channel called NLTV which focuses on all 68 member clubs across the three divisions.
- List of attendance figures at domestic professional sports leagues — the Conference's attendance in a worldwide context
- "BT Sport 'signs £300k Football Conference broadcasting deal'". Cable.co.uk. 2013-05-23. Retrieved 2013-07-03.
- "Vanarama announced as new Football Conference sponsor". Non-League Bets. 30 July 2014.
- "Football Conference to be renamed as National League", BBC Sport, 6 April 2015
- "Premier Sports Secure Conference TV Rights". Vital Football. 19 August 2010.
- "Football Conference Signs Unique TV Deal". Blue Square Bet Premier. 20 August 2010.