There’s so little gap between the top of the National League and bottom of League Two that it’s high time to extend the climb
This new market of movement both in the leagues and up raises questions about what “league” and “non-league” actually mean. Technically, the terms correspond to the standard definitions. League Two is the lowest tier of the EFL – under one jurisdiction – and the National League is the top tier of a separate body with a separate jurisdiction.
In 2021, the lines between the lowest tier of league football and the highest tier of non-league football were blurring more than ever. Phil Parkinson, whose previous two jobs had been in League One, has been appointed from Wrexham. Dave Challinor, who had just been promoted to the Second Division with Hartlepool, joined Stockport for the job of manager. Paul Mullin, League Two’s top scorer in Cambridge United’s promotion, fell two divisions down. So did Ben Tozer and Paddy Madden.
But at almost every other measure, the gap is practically non-existent. There’s clearly no longer a stigma about dropping into the National League. It’s an excellent environment for the development of young players. In terms of attendances, eight clubs in the second division have averaged more than 5,000 spectators this season, compared to six in the National League.
In the FA Cup alone last season, 12 different league clubs were knocked out by non-league teams. Of the last 10 clubs promoted from the National League, many of them (Lincoln City) are now in the Premier League having returned to the non-League (Macclesfield) and the current top 4 are in the Second League contain three recent ex-National League clubs (Forest Green, Tranmere Rovers, Sutton United). In Macclesfield’s case, their demise was due to financial mismanagement, which eventually led to liquidation.
The same applies to the clubs relegated from the EFL. The last time a club was promoted straight away was at Cheltenham in 2015-16. Last season’s relegated Southend United and Grimsby Town sit 18th and 10th in the National League respectively, despite their EFL parachute payments.
But the division has changed dramatically since Cheltenham’s 101-point title fight. Standards have improved. More clubs are now fully professional. The average age of players in the division has gone down. Likewise the average age of the coaches. Eleven of the 23 managers in the National League are aged 41 or younger. For players like Ian Burchnall of Notts County, James Rowe of Chesterfield and Luke Garrard of Borehamwood, the National League provides the perfect stage to prove you can succeed in the higher leagues.
This year’s National League promotion race is like no other. It has a mix of former EFL clubs (Notts County, Chesterfield, Dagenham & Redbridge) who have taken the time to get back on their feet, non-league stars (Borehamwood, Bromley), a Phoenix club ( Halifax Town FC) and clubs including new owners with sizeable budgets (Wrexham, Stockport). The competition is insane: the current top 6 have lost one of their last 30 combined games. This fight will be exacerbated by the salary cap that will be introduced starting next season.
But then this bottleneck was always inevitable. While there are four promotion spots from League Two to League One, there are only two from the National League, although the gaps between the two divisions are measurably narrower. This second promotion spot was also not secured until 2002/03, when the first National League playoff final was played.
Not surprisingly, most in the National League believe this is an archaic system that encourages mediocrity in the Second Division and does not adequately reward sustained improvement in the National League. But as Chesterfield manager Rowe pointed out I Last week EFL clubs would have to agree that extra promotion spots would be created and that will require the turkeys to vote for Christmas. And so a dead end is reached.
But should EFL clubs vote against changes so quickly then? Part of the reason for clubs’ woes after being relegated to non-League is that the lower reaches of the second tier allow clubs to sway dangerously as they acquiesce to slowly falling standards, safe in the knowledge that there is plenty there can be two teams worse off than them, or their owners becoming careless or disinterested.
And under current rules, if they end up being relegated, they’ll be doubly damned because they’ll be pushed into a league with clubs of at least as high a level and with only one automatic promotion spot to fight for. So they’re stuck in limbo, waiting for a new dream to emerge. Eleven of the league’s 23 clubs are former league sides.
It is time for something to change, whether it is persuaded clubs to vote or if it is forced upon them for the sake of the game. There is simply no good reason why twice as many clubs are promoted from the second division as they are relegated. The rise in standards, professionalism, coaching and budgets at the top end of the non-league deserves a change in the rules. Both League Two and the National League would be better suited for this, and so would English football as a whole.