The Football Conference is a football league at the top of the National League System of so-called non-league football in England. Conference National is the highest of the three divisions within The Football Conference, and Conference North and Conference South serve as regional feeders one step down. The Football Conference consisted of only one division up until 2004, but expanded as part of an extensive restructuring of the National League System which took effect beginning with the 2004–05 season.
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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). Conference National 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 FA Premier League and The Football League; below the Conference are the Step 3 and lower leagues of the NLS.
Each division in The Football Conference has 22 clubs. Each club plays the others in its division twice during a season, once at home and once away, for a total of 42 games played. Clubs earn three points for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss.
At the end of each season two clubs are promoted from Conference National to the Football League Two and two teams from League Two are relegated to Conference National to take their place. The two promotion places are awarded to the Conference National champions and to the winners of a playoff between those clubs finishing second to fifth in the standings. At the other end of the table, the bottom three clubs in Conference National 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 three relegated clubs are replaced by clubs from Conference North and Conference South. These clubs are the champions of their respective divisions, plus the winner of a match between the winners of a playoff between the second to fifth place clubs in Conference North and their counterparts in Conference South. At the bottom, 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.
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.
The Football Conference was formed in 1979 from teams in the Northern Premier League and Southern League and was originally known as the Alliance Premier League. Since 1984 it has been publicly known by the names of a succession of official title sponsors. The name was officially changed 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)
Automatic promotion and relegation between the Conference and The Football League was first introduced for one club in 1987, and increased to two in 2003.
The Football Conference had a single division for the first 25 years of its existence, but beginning with the 2004–05 season expanded to three divisions. The original division was renamed Conference National and two new regional divisions one level down were introduced, Conference North and Conference South. The new clubs were drawn from the Northern Premier League, Southern League, and Isthmian League according to guidelines developed by the NLS Committee.
Conference clubs, 2004–2005
Past Conference winners
|Season||Conference National||Conference North||Conference South|
|2000-01||Rushden & Diamonds*|
|* Promoted to The Football League (Fourth Division until 1991, Third Division from 1992 until 2003 and League Two since)|
Former Conference clubs now in The Football League
|Club||Years in the Conference|
|Boston United||1979–1993; 2000–2002|
|Cheltenham Town||1985–1992; 1997–1999|
|Rushden & Diamonds||1996–2001|
|Wycombe Wanderers||1985–1986; 1987–1993|
|Yeovil Town||1979–1985; 1988–1995; 1997–2003|
|Conference National 2004/05|
Accrington Stanley | Aldershot Town | Barnet * | Burton Albion | Canvey Island | Carlisle United * | Crawley Town | Dagenham & Redbridge | Exeter City | Farnborough Town | Forest Green Rovers | Gravesend & Northfleet | Halifax Town | Hereford United | Leigh RMI | Morecambe | Northwich Victoria | Scarborough | Stevenage Borough | Tamworth | Woking | York City
* – Promoted to League Two for season 2005/06.
|FA Premier League||FA Cup|
|The Football League (Champ, 1, 2)||England|
|Football Conference (Nat, N, S)||FA Community Shield|
|Northern Premier League (Prem, 1)||List of|
|Football League Trophy|
|Southern League (Prem, 1W, 1E)||FA Trophy|
|Isthmian League (Prem, 1, 2)||Records||FA Vase|
|English football league system||FA NLS Cup|