By Jeff Brazier
The conversation needs to be had. The top half of the National league is arguably as strong as the bottom half of League 2, yet you get the impression that the burning issue is very quietly being swept under the carpet by the EFL.
In 1987, Scarborough were the first non-league side to earn the right to play in the Football League via promotion. Non-league football then had to wait a further 16 years for a second promotion place to be made available in 2003 via a play-off competition. If these things are being reviewed and implemented every 16 years, we should have seen a third spot introduced three years ago. In my opinion, it’s long overdue.
I’ve heard it many times: ‘Yeah but turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’. I’m slightly offended by the lack of foresight and competitive spirit that clearly restricts this third spot being opened up. What about how Sutton have gone straight to competing at the top of the division following promotion without adding more than a few additional players to the squad?
But for Macclesfield for financial reasons, we haven’t seen a promoted team return to the 5th tier since Grimsby, who spent 5 seasons in League 2 before coming back down. Was there ever a logic in questioning the point of bringing a third side up because they’ll likely just come straight back down again? Taking a glance at the League 2 table today suggests that the recently promoted ex-National League clubs who occupy three of the top five places won’t be fulfilling that assumption anytime soon.
Once upon a time it was assumed that getting promoted meant you would have a tough season ahead because there was always a step up in class. I imagine that the outlook of many of the big clubs in the Vanarama vying for league football will feel they have the squads and the finances to be able to compete at the top of League 2 right away. It wasn’t necessarily expected of Sutton but certainly if Stockport, Wrexham, Chesterfield or Notts County were promoted you would almost expect it of them, so what does that say about the difference between the two tiers?
Let’s look from another angle. Teams that are relegated into the 5th tier find it difficult to find their way back out again. The last 6 sides to come down are all still with us. It took Orient two years to bounce back and that first season they very nearly flirted with a further relegation. Hartlepool took 4 seasons and a certain Dave Challinor to find their way back and York City have ended up in the National League North.
You have to go back to 2016 to find the last club to return at the first time of asking, Gary Johnson’s Cheltenham. With only five relegated teams earning promotion in the last ten seasons, it’s evidently a lot harder to do well following relegation than it is to succeed in League 2 following a promotion.
The EFL know this and so do the clubs. There are a number of affluent, well supported, well run sides waiting to get through the bottleneck and likewise a number of cash strapped strugglers all waiting in line to confirm the inevitable. Each year, two National League sides go and consolidate their Football League status which forces down another two clubs into the relegation battle.
I’d like to see a return to the feeling that the levels were weighted fairly and appropriately, like the teams in the league above were superior in quality to those in the league below and that’s simply not the case. Because of BT Sport’s coverage, relegated sides might actually be better off spending a few seasons in the 5th tier, a few seasons of TV money and fans returning because their side is more competitive. Why are the EFL holding on to them?