THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE COLUMN
There was a time when newspapers never used to publish tables after the first weekend of the season on the grounds that they were meaningless. Some still follow that convention, but Doncaster Rovers supporters poring over today's sports pages will no doubt have a thrill if their eyes alight upon an embryonic Championship table. After their 2-0 opening day victory at Preston North End, Rovers are fifth. But for the alphabet, they might be fourth instead of Coventry City.
The only table that matters, of course, will be that appearing on Monday, 9 May next year, but today's does have some historical significance. Doncaster's fifth place is the highest position achieved by any club to have come up from the Conference since automatic promotion to the Football League was introduced 23 years ago.
While some Grimsby Town supporters may not appreciate the fact - the Mariners play their first match outside the Football League for 99 years when they travel to Crawley Town for their opening Conference fixture on Saturday - automatic promotion has done wonders for the health of the game at lower levels. Twenty current members of the Football League have been in the Conference, including 10 who had never played above that level until their promotion.
For those established League clubs that fall through the trapdoor, the Conference offers a route back. Under the old system, whereby League clubs voted either to keep in the team finishing bottom of the League or to elect a replacement, there was never any guarantee of a return.
The re-election system had been introduced in 1898, six years after the Football League had expanded to two divisions. Initially, there had been end-of-season play-offs, in which the bottom two in the First Division played the top two in the Second, but a new system was introduced after Burnley and Stoke colluded to draw their final match 0-0 in an attempt to ensure both clubs played in the First Division the next season.
Opponents of the re-election system argued for decades that it was unfair and that the League had become an old boys' network.
The Conference, the first national league to be formed outside the Football League, was established in 1979 with the aim of strengthening the case for automatic promotion and relegation, which finally came about eight years later. …