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Why Getting Out of the National League Will Only Get Harder.

Friday 4th March 2016
Getting a side promoted from The National League (still known as the Conference to most) is one of the hardest jobs in football. One solitary automatic promotion spot is available to the Champions, with the rest of the top five thrown into the playoffs.

Compare that to League Two where the top three all get promoted and the team finishing seventh have done enough to secure a playoff spot, and the difficulty of the task is made clearer.
First and foremost the standard of the National League is higher than many people believe, of the last 20 teams to go down only seven of them have returned to the football league. Bristol Rovers were the only team to return at the first time of asking, although current leaders Cheltenham look like they may this season. Torquay and Barnet both returned within two years, whilst Luton, Oxford, Mansfield and Cambridge all took four or more years.

In the opposite direction, only three of the last 20 teams to win promotion from the fifth tier have been relegated back down since. All of those teams (Torquay, Hereford and Aldershot) had lengthy stays back in the football league before their relegations, and all of them have had financial struggles of some respect.

So why is it so difficult to get out of the league?

The one automatic promotion spot is the obvious reason. You may expect a side coming down from the Football League with a slightly bigger budget and better players to make that spot their own, but this doesn't happen. Often the team have made drastic changes to their playing staff and don't even make the playoffs.

2005-2010 saw a period in which the National League champions were all new to the football league (Accrington Stanley and Aldershot had been before, but not in their current guise.) Dagenham, Burton and Stevenage all knew what it took to get out of the Conference, they'd been in the league long enough and had managers with experience. The only way any ex-football league clubs were able to get out of the league in this period was through the playoffs.

Then we saw the rise of teams such as Crawley and Fleetwood. Clubs who thanks to huge amounts of money have been able to catapult themselves from non-league obscurity to the top of the conference and beyond. The year Fleetwood won the league, Wrexham finished second with 98 points. That would be enough to win most leagues let alone earn promotion, but it was only enough for a playoff spot and Wrexham failed to even make the final and have never challenged since.

The last three champions have all been ex-league clubs and Cheltenham look like continuing that trend this year. Mansfield and Luton finally got it right after five years of trying, whilst Barnet took advantage of a particularly poor league last year and limited their time to just two years.

Of the ex-football league clubs currently in the National League, Grimsby and Tranmere are perhaps the biggest. Grimsby have reached the playoffs in each of the last three seasons including losing at Wembley on penalties to Bristol Rovers last May. It is likely the Mariners fans will have to deal with the playoffs once again this year, with Tranmere battling for a spot as well. And if they're not successful then, it's only going to get harder next year.

From the start of the 2016/2017 season relegated clubs will receive double the amount they currently do from the Football League. In the past they have received 50% of the Basic Award Payment that all League Two sides get; at the beginning of next season they will receive 100% of that. Added to that if they fail to win promotion at the first time of asking, they will receive 50% in their second season.

When the Football League released this news in November, Chief Executive Shaun Harvey said this move was due to clubs (such as Darlington, Hereford and Chester) suffering financial trauma when relegated. The problem is these clubs suffered because of poor ownership, not just because they were relegated. The majority of clubs have survived when relegated, and although finances may have been tight they are no different to other clubs at that level. All this move will do is ensure that the same teams will interchange between the National League and League Two over the next few years, in a similar manner to the Premier League and the Championship.

There is almost no chance that a third promotion spot will open up in the National League with Football League clubs not wanting to increase the chance of their relegation, and unless clubs such as Grimsby, Wrexham, Lincoln and Tranmere are successful in the play-off lottery it may be a long while before we see them back where they belong.
Matthew Storey
Luton Town season ticket holder and Portsmouth journalism student. Mostly interested in the lower leagues, follow me on twitter @storeymatt

Total articles: 10

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