As last season drew to a close, my belief was that the Conference Premier was starting to return to its traditional order with a majority of part-time clubs. I was wrong.
For 2013-14, there will still be 14 fully professional sides training every day – usually with Wednesday off – in Non-League’s top-flight.
They are Aldershot, Barnet, Cambridge United, Forest Green, Gateshead, Grimsby, Hereford, Kidderminster, Lincoln City, Luton, Macclesfield, Salisbury, Tamworth and Wrexham.
Eight sides are two-nights-a-week semi-professional outfits: Alfreton, Braintree, Chester, Dartford, FC Halifax, Hyde, Nuneaton and Woking (although the Cards will be doing a Monday morning rather than Tuesday night).
The other two teams are the ‘Inbetweeners’ doing three sessions a week; Southport doing a Monday morning with Tuesday and Thursday nights, and newly-promoted Conference South champions Welling working three mornings.
You’ll read elsewhere in today’s paper about the Managers’ Brains Trust that Alan Alger – my fellow columnist and former PR man for ex-league sponsors Blue Square Bet – and I had with four Conference gaffers at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry in midweek.
There were some fascinating views shared, not least on the full-time v part-time debate, by Kiddy’s Steve Burr, Tamworth’s Dale Belford, Nuneaton’s Kevin Wilkin and AFC Telford’s new boss Liam Watson, who has been manager of Southport for the past four years in the top-flight.
Burr, who has experienced part-time football throughout his career until taking over at Aggborough three years ago, believes the preparation factor is a big hindrance to part-time clubs in a national league.
“To expect some of the part-time lads to do some of the travelling they have to, when they have full-time jobs, is unfair,” says the ex-Nuneaton, Hucknall, Northwich and Stalybridge Celtic boss.
“Preparation is a major part of it, but say you’re up at Gateshead on a Tuesday night and a lad’s maybe got to get an afternoon or day off work, then he’s not getting home until 3am and he’s having to get up at six to go to work, they don’t get time to recover either.”
Watson – who has always managed part-time clubs at Runcorn, Southport (twice) and Burscough but is hopeful of eventually going full-time with the Bucks – sees pre-season as the key stage when part-time clubs suffer.
“Some clubs will do double sessions every day, then another on Saturday,” he says. “That’s 11 sessions a week, and 66 over a six-week pre-season. We’ll do a Tuesday night, Thursday night and a Saturday morning, so we’re 48 behind before the season’s even started.
“Also, the full-time clubs’ sessions are quality, but a lot of the time ours are coming straight from work. It is a big disadvantage.”
Many clubs’ status comes down to finance, with Belford’s Tamworth – having gone full-time last year – and Wilkin’s Boro competing in the same area for players.
“It’s individual choice for a club,” said Belford. “We took the decision to get the extra session on a Friday and it gives us more time to work with them and give ourselves an edge in terms of coaching them, organisation, fitness and tactics.
“We’re in the same budget range as Nuneaton and I’m only paying players the same as Kev. But we get a different type – lads who have been full-time and want to stay professional.
“While he can get lads like Andy Brown (pictured below), for example, who would have had offers because he scored 20-odd goals, but combining his salary as a schoolteacher with his football money, you’d need nigh on £1,000-a-week to get him to go full-time, which puts him out of ours and a lot of clubs’ wage structures.
“Kev is able to use that two-wage thing to his advantage, while we wanted the extra sessions for the same money.”
Wilkin adds: “We’ve discussed going full-time, but what money could we offer them to bring in any sort of quality? As a chairman, you’re thinking ‘Hang on a minute, I know what that guy can achieve for me on X, Y and Z, keep his job, two nights a week – that’s the way I’m going to go’.
“We aren’t going to get a 20-goal a season man for £250-a-week, so why would you entertain it?”
All agreed that every club has to do what suits them and their budget best.
But there are grey areas over arguments like whether three-times a week clubs – who do just one day less than full-time – should be classed as semi-pro, and also full-time clubs who only pay 44-week contracts. They’re part-year, if not part-time.
One fact that no-one can deny, however, is that other than Burton Albion – who trained three times a week during 2008-09 – no side with a status of anything less than genuine full-time has won promotion from the Conference since two-up, two-down was introduced in 2002-03.
And none of those present could see that changing in 2013-14.