Introduction to the Vanarama Conference Premier
The Vanarama Football Conference Premier League is the commercial title given to the Conference National division in English football, owing to it’s sponsorship by transport company Canarama. It is the highest level of non-league football in England, where ‘non-league’ refers to the fact that it is below the four full-time professional leagues in the country: The Premier League, The Championship, League One, and League Two.
That is not to say however, that there aren’t professional players or fully professional clubs that participate in the league. Top players can expect to earn approximately £700-800 per week and are free to have other jobs once they fulfil their training and matchday commitments.
Conference National Format and History
The Conference came into being in 1979 under the moniker of the ‘Alliance Premier League’ in an attempt to create a nationwide league below the traditional football league structure. It was made up of clubs from the then Northern Premier League and the Southern League. 1987 saw the Conference become part of the football league’s promotion and relegation structure, where the top team from the Conference would be promoted to the old Fourth Division, with the worst team from the Fourth Division being relegated to the Conference.
These days 24 teams play in the Conference National and at the end of the season, the top two teams are promoted to what is now called League Two, the lowest division in League football while the bottom four teams are relegated to the Conference North and the Conference South, the two regional divisions lying beneath the Conference National in the English football pyramid. Assignment to either the North or South regions is based on the current geographic spread of each league.
The Conference North and South were formed at the beginning of the 2004-2005 season. The winner of the Conference is promoted automatically and the second promotion place is determined by a playoff contested by the teams that finish in second to fifth places. The playoff consists of a two legged, home and away tie (away goals rule applies) between second place and fifth place and between third place and fourth place, with the winners meeting in the playoff final, a one leg match which is decided on the day with extra time and penalties if necessary.
Should a team that wins promotion to League Two not meet the FA’s stadium requirements for league football, they are replaced with the next team in the conference rankings that do meet the requirements.
The Conference season runs from August to May with each team playing every other team twice; once at home and once away, for a total of 46 games. 3 points are awarded for a win, with 1 for a draw and no points being awarded for a loss. Should two teams finish level on points at the end of the season, their finishing position is determined by who has the better goal difference (goals scored – goals allowed) and if this doesn’t separate them, then by goals scored.
Sponsorship and Media Coverage
Older football fans will remember the Vanarama Conference as the Vauxhall Conference due to its long standing sponsorship agreement with the car manufacturer throughout the 80’s and 90’s, after sporting equipment manufacturer Gola ended their two year sponsorship in 1986. Following Vauxhall’s withdrawal in 1998, Nationwide Building Society (who also sponsored the English national team) agreed on a deal that would see them remain as sponsors until the end of the 2006 – 2007 season. Online betting company Blue Square took over sponsorship of the Conference National and Conference North and South in 2007, a deal which ended in 2011 making way for Skrill.
A number of Conference matches are shown live on TV in the UK via Premier Sports who bought the rights in 2010 to show 30 matches per season and the promotion playoffs. The channel is only available to Sky subscribers and can be found at channel 433.
Conference Teams in the FA Cup
Most fans of the English Premier League or The Championship will know little about the conference or its teams, though the two leagues do cross paths with the Conference on occasion in the FA Cup. Conference National teams enter the competition at the fourth qualifying round, two rounds before the Championship and three rounds before Premier League teams, but occasionally Conference teams will survive long enough to be drawn against one of the big guns in the second or third round proper.
The ‘giant killing’ element of the FA Cup where a Conference team has a chance to overturn one of the big teams is one of the most attractive things about the competition, and typically matches between two teams which are several divisions apart will be shown on live TV each year.