IAN BEDFORD recalls some of his favourite Conference memories and anticipates returning to familiar haunts.
NON-league football can't be that much different to the Football League, can it? It must have been a question hundreds of Chester supporters asked themselves as the first Conference season loomed.
Well, actually, yes, it is, but not necessarily in a bad way. For instance, nothing prepares you for Forest Green Rovers when you have been used to navigating your way around towns and cities looking for the likes of Spotland, Roots Hall and Brisbane Road.
You could be forgiven for thinking you were on your way to a polo match or country fair as you wind your way through leafy Gloucester-shire to Nailsworth. Where? Nailsworth is the home of Forest Green Rovers, but you would miss it if you blinked.
Turn right in the middle of town (village?), up the hill past quaint houses of honey-coloured stone and you think you couldn't possibly be on the way to a football ground.
Suddenly, The Lawn - even that doesn't sound like a football ground - appears, tucked away on a hill with a sublime view of Royal country. It is almost surreal. Even the local bobby looks like Dixon of Dock Green. Welcome to the world of non-league football.
Okay, it's not all like Forest Green, more's the pity, but when you have been to Nuneaton Borough, Hednesford, Solihull and Radcliffe Borough you begin to realise that this is a far cry from the third division.
It was easy to sneer at grounds like this until it dawned on you that Chester City was also non-league club just like them and we had better get used to it.
Well, we had four years to get used to it, but of course, we didn't. After 70 years in the Football League it was difficult to accept that we were second-class citizens in the world of football.
Sounds like a grim experience, but it wasn't. Folk are friendlier in the Conference. Sometimes we didn't even need a press ticket to get in. They seemed glad to see us and provided tea and biscuits or, like Dagenham & Redbridge, a full buffet at half-time.
Blimey, they even gave us a programme. So do Chester City, I hasten to add, but something has to be done about the press-box at the Deva now we are back in the big time.
Well, at least we have a press enclosure. Some so-called press boxes at non-league grounds, are more like telephone booths, but that's being picky.
Nevertheless, I am sure the more comfortable surroundings of the third division stadia will be appreciated by supporters and journalists and, no doubt, the players' dressing rooms will reflect the elevation in status.
Will our opponents roll out the red carpet to welcome us back next season? I doubt it. These non-league upstarts need putting in their place.
Upstarts, indeed. Yes, Chester City fell on hard times, but now they are back. Mind you, I wouldn't mind returning to Forest Green in the Cup.
Oh, yes, and they also sell great pies. Can't be bad.