Blue Square Premier
It is now more than three decades since a Wimbledon team was last at the pinnacle of the non-League game. Back then there was no guaranteed promotion: successful sides had to put themselves up for election to the Football League alongside the four lowest-placed clubs in Division Four, at the League’s AGM. With many of them fearing that they might one day be facing re-election themselves, the 92 League clubs operated what seemed like a closed shop, normally voting the bottom four back in at the expense of aspiring non-League outsiders.
The Dons managed to break through the glass ceiling in the summer of 1977 only by having made an unanswerable case: three successive Southern Premier League titles and national recognition for their exploits in the FA Cup. However, since the early 1960s just two clubs – Cambridge United and Hereford United – had been elected to the League at the expense of one of the sitting members.
The leading semi-professional clubs realised that their campaign for a fairer system would be boosted if there were just one feeder league, and in 1979 the Football Conference was formed from the top teams in the Northern Premier League and the Southern Premier League. Originally known as the Alliance Premier League, it has subsequently been known as the Gola League, the GM Vauxhall Conference, the Nationwide Conference and, since 2007, the Blue Square Conference.
In 1987, after eight more years of lobbying, the Conference champions became eligible for automatic promotion, and Scarborough joined the League. However, although the Conference winners were entitled to a place in Division Four, this was made subject to their stadium meeting various criteria, for example on tenure, capacity and floodlighting. For three successive years in the mid 1990s, the top Conference side was denied promotion on these grounds.
A two-up, two-down system of promotion and relegation between the Conference and the League was introduced in the 2002/03 season, the second Conference promotion place going to the winners of playoffs between the teams finishing second to fifth. Also from that season, if the Conference champions or playoff winners lacked the facilities required by the League, the promotion place went to the next highest club meeting the League’s criteria. There have since been further adjustments to the regulations governing entry to the League, including allowing promoted clubs a fixed period of time to meet certain entry criteria after promotion.
The Football Conference was a single league for the first 25 years of its existence, but from the 2004/05 season it has consisted of three divisions. The original division was renamed the Conference National, and two new regional sections one level down were introduced: the Conference North and Conference South. The member clubs of these new divisions were drawn from the Northern Premier League, the Southern League and the Isthmian League, whose top divisions now found themselves one level lower in the non-League pyramid, and there was also much reshuffling in tiers further down.
The Blue Square South and Blue Square North champions are automatically promoted to the national division, now known as the Blue Square Premier. In each regional division a second promotion place goes to the winners of playoffs between the teams finishing second to fifth. Last season AFC Wimbledon and Tamworth won the Blue Square South and North titles, with Hayes & Yeading and Gateshead joining them in the Blue Square Premier as playoff winners.
AFC Wimbledon, having won four promotions in the seven seasons of their existence, now find themselves on the threshold of emulating their illustrious predecessors and taking a place in the Football League.