Lowestoft Town are getting to grips with their Conference mission
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Lowestoft Town's switch to Conference North threatened to derail the Trawlerboys but MARK ARMSTRONG looks at how the Blues management have steadied the ship.
Adversity only strengthened Lowestoft Town's resolve last season.
The achievement of finally securing promotion following a season of financial cutbacks, player exits and a boardroom reshuffle, is undoubtedly the greatest in the club's history.
However, they will have to better it next season if they are to cope with life in Conference North.
The switch from the southern division caught everyone at the club off guard. As far as they were aware they had been awarded a place in the southern section pending an appeal by Hayes & Yeading against their relegation. When that appeal failed Lowestoft went about building a squad for life in Step Two of the English non-league pyramid.
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However, Hereford's expulsion set in motion a reshuffling of teams that saw much of Lowestoft's summer rebuilding put at risk. With a couple of clicks of a mouse on his spreadsheet, a football administrator had dramatically altered the Blues' path next season.
Only time will tell how the butterfly effect of Hereford's demotion impacts upon Craig Fleming's men.
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The news threatened to render Lowestoft's victory parade earlier this month a damp squib as the players, so desperate to prove themselves at a higher level, re-evaluated what they wanted to do.
Lowestoft's 'derby' next season will be against Boston – a 200-mile round trip. With the majority of the squad holding down full-time jobs outside Crown Meadow, discussions would need to be had with understanding bosses and family members.
A Saturday away-day could quite conceivably see the coach pulling out of Crown Meadow at 6am and not returning until after the credits roll for Match of the Day.
Midweek games are obviously another issue for players to consider.
Several took to Twitter to voice their concerns, admitting they may struggle to commit the time and effort required to compete in the northern section.
Suddenly, the feelgood factor around the Blues' play-off final win was evaporating. The fact that last season's top goalscorer, Jake Reed, jumped ship to join AFC Sudbury didn't help the morale of supporters.
Fortunately, the parade offered the Lowestoft management team the chance to talk to the majority of their squad, particularly those out of contract and free to move on.
They would have their work cut out – news travels fast on the local football scene and there were numerous suitors for players who've been part of a promotion-winning squad.
This meeting would shape the Blues' season.
After the supporters had got another chance to congratulate their heroes on the streets of Lowestoft, four players committed their futures to the Crown Meadow outfit – Robert Eagle, Rossi Jarvis, Adam Smith and Andrew Fisk all signed two-year deals.
It paved the way for others to follow – Shaun Bammant, Ashlee Jones and Sam Gaughran also put pen-to-paper. Hornchurch defender Rickie Hayles also signed, adding to the London contingent of Jefferson Louis, Bradley Woods-Garness and Jones. Let's hope they've got a big enough car for them all to fit in.
The spine of the squad is now in place – the only doubts that remain are over Dan Gleeson and Chris Henderson. Both have asked the club for more time to decide their futures. The good news for the Blues is that they are both under contract and wouldn't be able to leave without fees being agreed with other clubs.
However, the feeling is the pair will succumb to the challenge of showing they can compete at Step Two level.
So it looks like the Lowestoft management team will at least be able to undertake the biggest challenge they have faced with the majority of the squad that got them there.
There will be a few bumps in the road, literally at certain points, and no-one can realistically expect them to be challenging for promotion next season. That will be hard for some fans to stomach after being brought up on a diet of success at the Meadow.
But the club must relish the underdog tag given to them by virtue of their geographical limitations. If this adversity bonds the players and management as it did last season then the club's upward curve need not stop here.
'Summer so far'
New deals: Sam Gaughran, Ashlee Jones, Adam Smith, Rossi Jarvis, Andrew Fisk
New signings: Jefferson Louis (free agent), Shaun Bammant (Dereham), Rickie Hayles (AFC Hornchurch)
Departures: Curtley Williams (Luton Town), Jake Reed (AFC Sudbury), Michael Frew (King's Lynn Town), Stuart Ainsley (Unattached)
'Teams must be told earlier what league they will be placed in'
The premise of a north/south divide underneath the Conference Premier is to save clubs money.
Something has therefore got very lost as this will obviously not be the case for Lowestoft Town next season.
Trips to Barrow and Colwyn Bay are likely to involve overnight stays for players paid for by the club – money that could be better directed towards the playing budget.
However, it is not the first time the Conference has attracted controversy over the allocation of clubs to the north and south sections.
They infamously placed Bishop's Stortford in the north in 2011, much to the Hertfordshire club's mirth.
By their own admission it almost crippled them.
Suddenly, a club just a half-hour train ride from London would be facing up to trips to the likes of Workington and Colwyn Bay.
Stortford were given a grant of £14,000 in their first year by the Conference to help them with travel costs and it's understood Lowestoft have enquired about receiving the same.
However, the situation differs slightly in that Bishop's Stortford had been an established Conference South club for a number of years. Lowestoft, on the other hand, had never had their membership of the southern section properly authorised.
They were placed in south pending an appeal, which was understood to be by Hayes & Yeading. Hereford's failure to pay their football creditors and subsequent expulsion blindsided everyone at Crown Meadow.
Lowestoft therefore won't be counting on seeing that money any time soon.
But this latest turmoil is nothing new for clubs at this time of year where allocations to leagues are pending appeals from X, Y and Z.
Surely it is time for the FA to issue deadlines to clubs like Hereford before the National League Systems committee allocate teams to certain leagues.
In the current situation clubs like Lowestoft, who are perennially going to be switched from north to south and vice versa due to their geographical location, aren't afforded the time necessary to build a squad.
After the effort clubs like Lowestoft have put in to get in their league surely the Conference should give them as much chance as possible to build a squad capable of competing in it.