The National League, or, due to sponsorship reasons, the Vanarama National League is the Fifth tier in English football and the top tier of the non-league football pyramid. The league is made up of 23 teams from all over England (Wrexham AFC are from Wales). At the end of each season four teams are relegated; two into the National League South and two into the National League North. At the other end of the table it is a far different story, only two teams can gain the coveted promotion spot into the football league. The team who finishes top of the league gain the privilege automatically, for places second to seventh a play-off competition decides the second team to be promoted.
The methods of how teams from the National League or top tier of non-league football have been able to gain promotion has varied throughout the history of the league and is most likely to change and adapt sometime soon.
The Alliance Premier League
The year 1979 saw the formation of the Alliance Premier League, then the top league of the non-league system. The league was established with the sole aim to improve the standard of non-league football as well as boosting the financials of the clubs that competed in the league. However, the league had no opportunity for progression. Alike the structure of the football league, the non-league system had a cap at the highest level. The team who won the Alliance League would compete in the same league the following year.
Promotion was impossible and there was a huge disconnect between the Football league and the non-league pyramid.
Conference League 1986-1987
Almost a whole decade on from the Alliance League’s formation the non-league system was adapted to allow for progression and the formation of a relationship between professional, and semi-professional football.
All changed upon the decision of the Fourth Division (today’s League Two) to accept direct promotion and relegation to and from the Conference League.
Upon this revision Scarborough were promoted into the football league at the end of the 1987 campaign, becoming first to make the leap from non-league to the football league. On the contrary Lincoln City made the drop, although disappointment was short lived. Lincoln won the division the following season to regain their league status. The ability to bounce back and forth from the Football League an early foreshadowing of a problem that plagues the league today.
While promotion opportunities where a massive improvement from the years of the Alliance League, the opportunities for non-league clubs remained limited, clubs felt that a second promotion place was essential to improving the league.
The season of 2002/03 was to be the first to allow a second team to win promotion into the Third Division (replacing the fourth division in 1992). This a consequence of Wycombe wanderers missing out on promotion to Colchester United in the 1991/92 season, both finishing on 94 points, yet United had a better goal difference by +9 subsequently gaining promotion.
Whilst first place secured automatic promotion as they had done since 1987, the second promotion place was to be decided by a newly founded play off system. Effectively meaning any team from second to seventh could gain promotion alongside the winners.
Barriers still existed however, any team with inadequate facilities to participate in the Football League was replaced in the play off system by the next highest place club that housed adequate facilities. The consequence of such a decision was that high achieving, so called ‘smaller’ clubs had to make way for the more established clubs, despite a superior league finish.
Doncaster Rovers became the first play-off winners in 2003 beating Dagenham and Redbridge. Surprisingly the club gained back-to-back promotion, winning division three the following year. Doncaster have not dropped out of the football league since.
Introduction of the North and South
The National League North and National League South were introduced as feeder divisions the National League in 2004. Two teams from the North and South respectively would be promoted into the National League, if successful in gaining a promotion place. For the National League this meant increasing the league from 22 to 24 teams and relegating four rather than two from the division come the end of the league campaign.
Where are we now?
Since the changes in 2002/03 nothing has changed in terms of promotion opportunities for teams in the National League. It remains an extremely difficult task to gain Football League status.
It has become increasingly difficult to for teams who have been in the National league for a prolonged period of time. Wrexham AFC for example have been playing in the league form 13 successive seasons, failing five times to gain promotion in the play-offs. This stat best demonstrates the level of quality and luck it takes to secure one of the two promotion places up for grabs.
As a result of the league being so difficult to be promoted from, the quality of teams increases as teams fall from the football league and fail to regain their place back into the football league.
Whilst the quality of football is unquestionable reason for the promotion of teams from the National League, it is also without doubt that, in times of late, money is an integral part of gaining promotion.
Recent examples of clubs to race through the leagues with huge funding behind them include:
2019 – Salford City – The Project 92 Limited
Founded in 1940 as Salford Central, Salford City have a long non-league history, playing the majority of football in the lower leagues of Northern football until a huge takeover in 2014 would re-shape the football club. Former Manchester United legends Phil and Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and later David Beckham took over the club and made it their mission to gain promotion into the football league. They named the ownership ‘project 92’ a nod to both their own personal story but so too their target of becoming one of the 92 football league clubs.
After gaining promotion to the National League in 2018, they succeeded in a direct promotion into the football league in 2019 after defeating Eastleigh at Wembley in the play-off final.
It is without doubt that the financial backing of Project 92 Limited was the main reason that the club could escape the National League in their debut season.
2020 – Harrogate Town A.F.C – Irving Weaver
Harrogate were formed in 1919, similarly to Salford, Harrogate played there football in the lower leagues of Northern football until gaining promotion into the National League in 2018.
Irving Weaver, father of manager Simon Weaver saved the club from ruin in 2011. Under his control and leadership Harrogate turned Professional in 2017, a huge move that ultimately earned them promotion to the National League in 2018.
After they fell short in their first season due to a play-off loss against Fylde, they became members of the football league the year after earning promotion in the ‘Covid Season’, beating Notts County in the play-off final 3-1.
Without Weaver saving the club and turning them professional their rapid acceleration into the Football League would be impossible, so to their existence.
2022/23 as Champions – Wrexham AFC – RR McReynolds Company LLC
Wrexham AFC are vastly different from the previous examples, yet share some similarities none the less. The Red Dragons are one of the oldest football clubs in the world and have a rich Football League history, that ultimately collapsed due to mismanagement and neglect.
On the near point of ruin Northern American, Celebrity duo Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds took over the club in 2020, vowing to return the club to their former glory.
Signing a plethora of big signings, including ex-football league manager Phil Parkinson and former Premier League goalkeeper Ben Foster, Wrexham are set to gain promotion at the new investors third time of asking.
Proving that the play-offs are unpredictable and challenging Wrexham lost in the semi-final of the 2021/22 competition to Grimsby Town who went on to win the final and gain promotion. Wrexham finished in second place that league campaign, recording a ridiculous 88 points.
However, this season Wrexham won the league, sealing the automatic spot ahead of giants Notts County. They have only lost on three occasions, are unbeaten at home, and tallied over 110 points, breaking the former record of 105 held by Crawley Town.
Wrexham still have one game to play.
What can we conclude?
The National League cannot continue with only having two promotion places. It does not allow for a fair progression for successful teams.
Money gives teams the best opportunity to gain promotion from the League, but even high levels of financial backing can be scuppered by the play-off system.