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Looking Ahead: Can Mansfield & Newport County Compete?

Thursday 6th June 2013
Bruce Halling looks ahead to next season, discussing the chances of success for Football League newcomers Mansfield Town and Newport County.

With every summer break comes the prospect of a new season after it. With every new season comes the arrival two new teams into the Football League. After witnessing the departure of Aldershot Town and Barnet at the end of last season, we can now look forward to welcoming Mansfield Town and Newport County into the League. But what can we expect from the two new arrivals onto the scene?

Mansfield know all about the Football League, having spent a large part of their history as part of it. To find the last time that Mansfield were a new arrival in the league, you have to go all the way back to 1931, when they won election into the Football League – something that is a completely alien concept to modern day football. Until their relegation in 2008, they were a permanent fixture in the league, so their return in many respects marks a return to business as usual for the Stags, and a look at their playing squad wouldn't suggest that this is a team that will have much adjusting to do when August comes around – they have a lot of players with Football League experience, which is certainly never a bad place to start from.

For Newport County, this is – technically speaking at least – a new experience. For the AFC incarnation of the club, this marks the first time they have reached the Football League - although the previous Newport County were Football League mainstays from the 1930's right up until the decline in the late 1980's which ultimately culminated in the club's bankruptcy. It is also the first time that Justin Edinburgh has reached this level in his young managerial career. A look at Newport's current playing staff reveals a similar pattern, with many of the players on their books having played in the Football League for some part of their careers, perhaps suggesting there really is no substitute for experience in football.

Both teams will be looking to arrive in League Two next season and compete, and to be fair, history is on their side. Since direct promotion and relegation between the Football League and the top tier of the non-league football system was introduced in 1987, no team has been relegated from League Two (or Division Three/Four when the division was under those different respective names) in their first season in the division following promotion. In fact, not only does history lend itself to teams being promoted and then surviving in the Football League, but it lends itself to newly promoted teams then going on to winning promotion, with this particular feat having been achieved on eight separate occasions, including three times in the last five years (by Exeter, Stevenage and Crawley in 2008-09, 2010-11 and 2011-12 respectively).

To explain why this is the case, you actually need to pay just as much attention to the top tier of non-league, now known as the Blue Square Bet Premier (BSP for short), which is what I'll refer to it from here on in even though it has gone under several different names in the time period I have been discussing. With just a single automatic promotion place on offer – and until 2002, this was just a single promotion place, as there were no playoffs until the 2002-03 season – it essentially meant that it was that much harder to win promotion because to go up, you had to win the league. It was that simple. But over the years, it has become an increasingly difficult to league to get out of, even for teams coming down from the Football League – this point evidenced by the fact that the team most recently relegated from League Two that has been able to win back their place in the Football League is in fact Mansfield, and they were relegated some five years ago.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, it is a tremendously competitive league. Many of the teams competing in the league have had spells in their history where they have been Football League clubs and in several cases, their history as a Football League club far outweighs the length of time they have spent as a non-league side. These clubs find themselves unable to break out of the division for a whole host of different reasons – in fact, I'd go as far as to say it's almost a completely unique set of circumstances for each club. In each case, however, the general trend revolves around poor management both on and off the field, a number of ownership changes, fragile finances and plain and simple bad luck. Fans of Luton Town in particular will be able to relate to the latter of these, with their club having a cataclysmically horrendous record in the playoffs of this division which includes two playoff final defeats in successive years. The competitiveness of the league ultimately means that clubs often have to build a promotion-winning side over a number of seasons and a result often end up with just as good a side as many teams already competing in League Two, if not better in some cases.

The second reason teams struggle to bounce back is because it's just not financially viable for clubs to be able to bounce straight back. Relegation from the Football League brings about a significant drop in funding for teams in question which means they have to make drastic cutbacks behind the scenes. It will often mean that the playing squad has to be entirely overhauled, as the wage budget has to be slashed to ensure financial stability in the short-term. This makes it very difficult for these clubs to compete against sides who have been in the division for a number of years and slowly building season upon season to get to where they want to be and it means more often than not that even a good adjustment to playing at non-league level often only ends in a mid-table finish. Indeed, we've seen that a poor adjustment can result in further relegation – Darlington and Stockport suffered relegation from the BSP two seasons after dropping out of the Football League – or even the club going to the wall completely, something which has happened on six occasions, with Newport County, Aldershot (although they folded and reformed immediately upon being relegated from the Football League), Halifax Town, Rushden & Diamonds, Chester City and Darlington all suffering this fate.

As you will notice, both clubs are coming into the Football League having previously dropped out of the league, but have rebuilt in different ways. Mansfield were able to regroup, restructure and rebuild steadily to get to where they are today, whereas Newport County folded and quite literally went back to square one. Both clubs will have learnt from their experiences and will be determined to come back bigger and better than they were before. As I've already alluded to, history smiles favourably upon them as far as their chances of success in this division is concerned, but this will be no time to be complacent.

For our two new Football League clubs, the hard work starts now.
Bruce Halling
Bruce is a 24-year-old self-confessed Football League addict and author of the 'Road To The Promised Land' column. He is a passionate Southend United fan who has witnessed the Shrimpers' rise to the Championship as well as their more recent fall back to their current position in League Two. Though he doesn’t get to many games as a spectator, he has worked at Southend, Colchester United and now Queens Park Rangers as a steward, so is never too far away from the action on a matchday. Away from football, he is a Politics graduate and currently jobhunting. Follow Bruce on Twitter @brucehalling

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