This year’s League Two relegation battle is quite remarkable. Not just for the closeness of the fight, but for the teams involved. All bar one have recently spent time in the Conference and all bar one have gained promotion to the League since two-up two-down was introduced from non-league’s top tier. Does this mean the gap between the two divisions is decreasing? Or getting further apart?
Relegation battles in League Two have followed a similar pattern in previous seasons. There would inevitably be one financial basket case of a club, plus a few of the smaller league teams and others who’d suffered protracted years of underinvestment and decline both on and off the pitch. This season has been different.
The recovering basket case, in the shape of the administration-scarred Plymouth Argyle, is present and correct. The other teams, though, are former Conference escapees. Accrington, Aldershot and AFC Wimbledon have all come up through the lower leagues, York and Torquay are former Football League teams who have bounced back after a spell in non-league and Barnet are possibly the nearest thing non-league has to a yo-yo club.
This in itself could be somewhat of an anomaly, a one-off (after all, Bristol Rovers looked like relegation fodder at one point), but the top of the Conference tells a similar story. Of the teams pushing for promotion, all bar Forest Green – who are this season’s Fleetwood Town with wind turbines – and Newport County have tumbled out of the League in recent seasons and are fighting for a return. The number of traditional non-league sides in the mix is decreasing every year.
When play-offs were introduced to the Conference National for the first time in 2003, Doncaster Rovers were the first beneficiaries, following title winners Yeovil into the Football League. Since then these two sides have been comfortably ensconced in League One and the Championship. Various other clubs, some well-known, others less so, have moved up and down, giving the league tables a markedly different feel from even ten years ago.
A decade on from two-up two-down, six of the 20 promoted teams sit in League One, with Doncaster having spent time in the Championship. A further three – Exeter City, Dagenham and Redbridge and Hereford – have spent time in League One before getting relegated. Hereford are currently the only side of the promoted 20 to be playing in the Conference, although Chester City were also relegated in 2009 before being liquidated 18 months later. The reformed Chester FC are currently leading the Conference North and are on course for a return to non-league’s top flight this summer. The remaining ten all figure in this year’s League Two.
There used to be a general feeling that the top teams in the Conference equated to top half League Two teams, such was the closeness in quality between the divisions, and that has largely been born out by the relative success of some of the promoted teams. By limiting the number of promotion places to just one up until 2003 – and before 1987, leaving promotion from non-league to the whims of the re-election committee, the authorities had created a bottleneck that often created a false position of some of the clubs involved.
Teams such as Yeovil had been one of non-league’s strongest names for many years before two-up two-down, regularly hitting the headlines for giant killing exploits in the FA Cup. Their setup, finances and ambition was probably some way in advance of many struggling league clubs and it was no surprise to see them thrive following promotion.
Other promotion winners included teams with large fanbases for the Conference, such as Aldershot and Hereford, teams with an off-the-field setup that was ready for League football, such as Stevenage and Burton (albeit with a little help from Manchester United), and former League teams such as Shrewsbury and Carlisle, who had licked their wounds, regrouped and were ready to regain their League status.
It has now been ten years since the easing of that bottleneck and the results are starting to tell. The Conference is full of former League clubs, all desperate for promotion back to their perceived rightful place. Some, such as Lincoln, Stockport and Cambridge, have even flirted with relegation to the tier below. And in the 92, there are signs that this artificially created bottleneck is finally shaking itself out and restoring some form of natural order to the bottom division as some of those promoted sides suddenly find that they too are being replaced with bigger, hungrier clubs.
The two most recent Conference winners – Crawley and Fleetwood – took the title in a very un-non-league fashion. Sure, some teams always had bigger budgets, but it was rare, even to the point of being considered unclassy, to splash the cash and spend your way to promotion with a budget far in excess of your rivals. The Red Devils and Cod Army are thriving in the League. The two teams who followed them up through the play-offs – York and AFC Wimbledon – are not, and that in itself tells a story.
Traditionally, thanks to the bottleneck, promoted sides carried momentum and stability with them and it wasn’t uncommon to see sides challenging for back-to-back promotions, with sides such as Yeovil, Exeter and Stevenage achieving this. Burton had struggled a little in their first season, largely due to the managerial uncertainty as they limped over the finish line, but AFC Wimbledon have been the first side of the two-up two-down era to reach the finish line and then stall completely. York have followed and both are fighting for survival this season.
Meanwhile, this season’s Conference title race is closer than ever with any one of six sides still in contention. Of these, Forest Green are the archetypal moneybags club, while Newport County are a reformed league club with a fan base to match. Wrexham, Mansfield, Kidderminster and Grimsby are all former league sides, while the biggest name of all in non-league, Luton Town, are unlikely to even make the playoffs.
Luton, unsurprisingly, are one of the leading advocates for a third promotion slot and they have a strong case. No longer do you have an artificial situation with non-league clubs held back by just one promotion space.
The gap between the top of the Conference and bottom of League Two has narrowed. Clubs with small crowds, such as Accrington Stanley, Aldershot and Barnet, are finding themselves closer to the division they’d hoped to leave behind than the ones they aspired to join. Just as there are a group of teams who can’t decide if their natural level is League One or League Two, or the Championship and League One, so a prolonged exposure to level four is washing out some of the smaller clubs.
Non-League is no longer the death knell it was once considered for lower league clubs. And neither can those who fall through the trapdoor expect to challenge for an immediate return – both Hereford and Macclesfield are both mired in mid-table following last season’s relegation. The Conference is now unofficially a fifth professional tier of football in England, with the part-timers of Ebbsfleet, Barrow and others struggling to make an impression anywhere but the drop zone. Perhaps it’s time for the promotion spots to reflect the changing face of the non-league game.