The National League North: The Store Where The Creatures Meet
It has become one of the truisms of recent times to suggest that relegation doesn’t mean automatic promotion back the following season. Repeatedly over the course of the last couple of decades, big clubs have fallen from grace and simply not been able to get back to where they were before. The three divisions of the Football League are littered with clubs who have at least sampled life in the Premier League, for example, whilst half of the clubs – if we allow for phoenix clubs and the like – in the National League have some memory or other of being a Football League club.
It is one level below this, however, that we arrive at one of football’s great intersections. Two divisions below the promised land that is the Football League sits the National League North, in which nine of the member clubs can lay claim to some form of Football League experience or other. As such, this is a division which has the air of a haunted house about it. It’s a league table that lends itself to looking at and thinking, “Oh, I wondered what had happened to them”, and with only two promotion places available at the end of each season, it may well some considerable time before some of them even find themselves playing National League football.
I should probably point out that the definition that I’ve used to define these clubs is as generous as I can give. It includes, for example, Bradford Park Avenue. The original club was voted out of the Football League at the end of the 1969/70 season and struggled on for four seasons before folding in 1974. The club which currently carries that name now shares the green and white colours of the old club, but it was formed in 1988 and otherwise none of its infrastructure was taken from the original club. However, because there were (perhaps still even are) supporters of the current incarnation of the club who followed the original incarnation, I’m allowing it, this once.
None of these clubs currently occupy top place in the division. That is currently taken by Chorley, who have won nine and drawn two of their opening eleven matches of the the season and currently sit five points clear at the top of the table. As summer turns to autumn, it is already starting to feel as though they will be the team to catch this season, and they’ve even bagged themselves a live television spot this season, in the form of last weekend’s FA Cup Third Qualifying Round match at Peterborough Sports, which they won with ease in front of the cameras of the BBC’s red button.
There are very familiar names amongst the rest, though. In second place in the table sit Kidderminster Harriers, who won the Football Conference in 2000 and enjoyed five years in the Football League before getting relegated back in in 2005. Tucked in behind them are the aforementioned Bradford Park Avenue, whilst fifth-placed Chester are the successors to Chester City, who folded during the 2009/10 season. Just below the play-off places are Boston United, who won the Football Conference in 2002 but were relegated and the immediately demoted down to the Conference North in 2007 on account of their well-documented financial issues, York City, who played in the Second Division – the equivalent of the Championship – for two seasons in the mid-1970s and who knocked Manchester United out of the League Cup over two legs in 1996, and Stockport County, who were playing in the second tier as recently as 2005.
There are also familiar names near the wrong end of the table at present, too. Hereford and Darlington are the phoenix clubs for long-established former Football League clubs who collapsed after relegation from the Football League and have had to fight their way upwards – as Chester did – from lower divisions than this. Finally, there’s Southport, who became members of the Football League in 1921 and retained this status until becoming the last club to be voted out of the Football League in 1978, when they were replaced by Wigan Athletic. They’ve spent much of the last quarter of a century bouncing towards this level and the National League, one division above this, but are currently in danger of slipping down another division.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a former Football League club to have a storied past. AFC Telford United is the phoenix club for the club that beat four Football League clubs before losing to Everton in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup in 1985, whilst Blyth Spartans came within a whisker of reaching that stage of the competition themselves in 1978. And for some considerable time, Altrincham was one of the most recognisable names in non-league football throughout the late 1970s and through to the middle of the following decade. In 1980, they lost the vote for a place in the Football League by one solitary vote to incumbents Rochdale, with two Football League club representatives who had already pledged to vote for them failing to vote, one because he was in the wrong part of the building in which the Football League’s AGM was being else, the other because he got the time of the meeting wrong and turned up hopelessly late.
One curiosity of this list of familiar names is that isn’t repeated in the National League South. Of the twenty-two teams in this division, only one – Torquay United – has played in the Football League before and, whilst there others such as Slough Town (long-time occasional FA Cup giant-killers), Woking (who reached the FA Cup Fifth Round in 1991) and Wealdstone (who became the first club to complete the non-league “double” of winning the FA Trophy and the Alliance Premier League in 1985) amongst them, the list of clubs in the National League South feels as though it carries fewer established “names” than its northern counterpart.
So what might be the reason for this? Well, it’s possible that greater affluence across much of the south of England makes it more likely that clubs in the south of the country will be bought out and financially doped (although this is far from exclusive to the south, as may be evinced by the recent exploits of last year’s National League North winners, Salford City), giving the southern division a more transitory feel than its northern equivalent. Similarly, clubs in the south – and in particular in London – have been assaulted over the last three or four decades by the inherent issue in the fact that many of them are very small clubs in possession of grounds with staggering value, should they be levelled and replaced with housing. This is both historical – as seen at Wimbledon, Hendon, Enfield, Wealdstone, Barnet… there are few London clubs left that haven’t been affected or threatened by this to some extent or another – and, as been seen over the last couple of seasons at Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton, current.
It might also be argued that the relative financial prosperity of the south (though this, again, is somewhat simplistic – West Wales & the Valleys, Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly rank amongst the five poorest regions Europe, whilst North & North-East London also makes the top ten) allows clubs a greater degree of financial stability at this level, although this is again far from universal. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the very origins of professional football in England are rooted in the Midlands and the the north, rather than London and the south. This may not matter a great deal in the modern world, but it may go some way towards explaining why the non-league football landscape feels different in the north of England to that of the south, as well as the fact that historical origins of clubs in the south tend to rest in the amateur game rather than the professional game.
All of this, however, only tells a small part of a broader story. In truth, despite possible underlying trends such as those mentioned above, the most likely explanation for the make-up of these divisions being what it is most likely can be found in the individual stories of each club. The story of each football club is an ongoing narrative. Every one has a cast of heroes, and in many cases a cast of villains as well. Some might feel as though their clubs are playing at a higher level than they feel they should be. A considerably greater number, however, will likely feel that they are playing below the level at which they currently find themselves or that perhaps, in the case of clubs that have plodded along at roughly the same level for a very long time, there must come a point at which it will be their turn for something bigger. In other words, it’s complicated, and that, we can say with a degree of certainty as we survey not just the National League North but the entire myriad of leagues and divisions that make up the non-league pyramid, seems to be just the way we like it.