Struggling to find a way back
While the gulf between the elite of the Premier League and the rest of the 92 is huge, the gulf between the Football League’s basement division, League Two, and the National League (formerly, the Conference) is nowhere near as great. But as many clubs can attest, the drop-down from Football League to Non-League is massive in terms of finances, attracting transfers and attendances. For some, it’s the depths of these nether regions that can destroy a club, while for others, the plight back is sweet and well-worth the troubles.
For every Luton Town, who spent five long seasons in the Conference to work their way back up to Championship football and Lincoln City, who under the helm of the Cowley brothers (who have since joined Championship side, Huddersfield Town) gained two promotions in three seasons, there are clubs with history who have fallen. The likes of Hereford United, who were made defunct in 2014, but now ply their trade in the National League North (as Hereford FC); or Darlington, who were founded in 1883 but were wound-up in High Court in 2012, changed their name to Darlington 1883, before going back to their original guise. They too have bounced back to the sixth-tier.
The Oldest Club
But for Notts County, relegation last season was a sorry tale. As the oldest founded football club in the world and one of the twelve founding members of the Football League in 1888, their demise into Non-League would have been a bitter pill to swallow – and they have thus far struggled to adapt to life in the National League. For those looking to bet with the best odds on football, you’ll find the Magpies a mediocre 20/1 to bounce straight back this season – and with good reason, teams rarely bounce back immediately.
As these five clubs can attest, it’s easy to stay in the 92, but it’s difficult to return to it from the mire. With only one automatic place and one play-off place up for grabs in the National League, it’s quite often a battle, where only the best will gain promotion back to the promised land and the 92. The division is vastly underestimated with many that go down a sufferer of ‘big fish in small pond’ syndrome, but in reality, there isn’t that much between the two divisions.
Others who have lost their way
A former Division Two side and one that participated in eight European Cup Winners' Cup competitions between the decades of 1970 and 1990, Wrexham were relegated from League Two at the end of the 2007-08 season, having finished rock bottom of the Football League and in the process, lost their 87-year-old league status. The Red Dragons go into their twelfth season of Non-League football, with mixed fortunes of their time in the division to date. The closest they came to bouncing back came in the 2012-13 season, when they finished fifth, stealing the final play-off place – but lost in the final to Newport County. Last season, again, they made the play-offs.
The Hatters were ever-present in the Football League between 1905 and 2011, before their administration issues and demise saw them drop out of the Football League to the Conference, and then the Conference North. After five seasons in the sixth tier of English football, Stockport gained promotion back to the National League, finishing as champions last campaign – just one point ahead of Chorley. With Jim Gannon at the helm for the third time at Edgeley Park, the glory days will surely return for the Greater Manchester club.
Another club to drop from the Football League to the sixth tier of English football, Torquay United won the National League South last season and make their return to the National League this year. The Gulls have spent the previous two decades yo-yoing between League Two and the Conference. The Gulls finished 22 and in the National League in 2017-18, before immediately bouncing back last season when they were promoted as champions, with three games to spare.
In the early noughties, Hartlepool were playing as high as League One, with a sixth-place finish in the 2004-05 season, enough to see them reach the play-offs. Unfortunately, it was not enough for promotion, as the Pool lost to Sheffield Wednesday in the Millennium Stadium final. Fast forward a decade and the club found themselves in disarray, narrowly avoiding liquidation, but not avoiding relegation to the National League. The depths of Non-League football have not been kind to the north-east outfit, with two mid-to-lower tables finishes in successive seasons.
Famed for their ‘Great Escapes’ in the Football League’s basement division and their vast turnover of managers, Barnet were most recently relegated to the National League in 2017-18 and were unable to join the elite of teams able to bounce-back at the first time of asking. Over the past decade, the club has yo-yoed between League Two and the National League, with relegation in 2013, followed by promotion in 2015, before their most recent return to Non-League football. However, they do lay claim to winning the Conference title the most times (three) and under former player, Darren Currie, will look to make it a fourth this season.