“Ultimately, relegation to non-league was our worst fear as a club but when it happened we realised it wasn’t all that bad and it actually brought us all together.”
That’s the view of Bristol Rovers fan Richard Beech, which may be a crumb of comfort for Leyton Orient supporters facing up to the fact that the London side’s 112-year stay in the Football League is over. Supporters of Hartlepool and Newport County may well take note as well, as it is almost certain one of those clubs will also be in the National League next season.
What are the prospects for a club leaving the league? There is the initial glass-half-full appeal of any relegation: getting to visit new grounds and being, in theory, a bigger fish in a smaller pool. But realistically the main question for any supporter whose club leaves the Football League is: “Will we ever come back up? Or are we consigned to non-league football forever?”
An analysis of clubs who have been relegated from the League since the bottom division was rebranded as League Two 12 seasons ago shows that roughly a third of clubs make it back to the league and a third stay at what used to be called the Conference. And the other third? Well, it is a very mixed bag indeed.
The route back into the League
How long does it take to make it back? It varies considerably. Cheltenham Town spent just one season out before coming back as champions in 2016, although they are not yet mathematically assured of staying up this season. Barnet spent only a couple of years at Conference level.
Luton Town, on the other hand, took five years to regain League status and Grimsby Town needed six seasons. That is the same length of time Lincoln City have taken to rejoin the League, which they will be doing after sealing promotion on Saturday. It was a longer route back for Cambridge United, who spent the best part of a decade out of the League.
Stuck in the National League
The wildly differing fortunes of teams that go down seems typified by the performances of the two sides relegated from League Two last year. Dagenham & Redbridge have secured a play-off place and a shot at waving to near neighbours Leyton Orient as they head in the other direction, whereas York City sit in the bottom four, with a second successive relegation on the cards.
Tranmere, Torquay, Aldershot, Macclesfield and Wrexham are former League teams who seem to have settled into consistent life in the division below, although this season Tranmere and Aldershot are in the play-offs alongside Dagenham. Torquay have managed to get relegated, go back up, and then get relegated to non-league again in the past decade. They could go down from the National League this season.
Slipping further away
“I didn’t choose to be a non-league fan,” says Clare Bridge, who has supported Stockport County all her life. They are one of three teams since the 2004-05 season to be relegated from League Two and then drop down a further level to the National North or National South. The other two are Kidderminster Harriers and Boston United, both of who only enjoyed short stays in the Football League. County, on the other hand, had been League fixtures for more than a century.
“It’s hard to really put my experience of the National League North into words,” said Bridge. “There are plenty of hardworking individuals who keep clubs running; that’s admirable and I respect those who do it. But for me, going from seeing my team play in the Football League, the decline has been upsetting. There are few grounds I’d consider to be ‘decent’, there are some awful ones. Ladies often have to share portaloos with chaps, though it’s good to be able to get a pint pitchside, and to drown your sorrows when you’re losing away at Brackley on a Tuesday night! Hopefully one day we’ll rise again and whilst I can see why people enjoy non-league, it’s just not for me; my love of Stockport County though never fades.”
The phoenix clubs
Since 2004-05, four teams have gone out of business soon after being relegated from the Football League. This may be especially worrying for fans of Leyton Orient, where the club is facing a winding-up petition in court, and players and staff have not been receiving their wages. But there is a ray of light. Rushden & Diamonds, Chester City, Darlington and Hereford United were liquidated but all have spawned phoenix clubs who play in a range of lower-league tiers.
Chester FC have climbed back as far as the National League with a series of back-to-back promotions, and Hereford FC look set for a similar rise, having secured two promotions since rejoining the football pyramid near the bottom.
AFC Rushden and Diamonds haven’t been racing back up the leagues quite so fast, but unlike Chester or Hereford they weren’t able to restart in their existing ground. The club’s vice-chairman, Jon Ward, said: “I had no desire to help run a football club but when someone takes something away that has been a massive part of your life you feel you need to do something. All of us on the board are supporters and weren’t involved in the running of the old club, so we effectively had to pick up the phone and find out how to run a football club.”
Jimmy Wittish had been a fan of the original Rushden & Diamonds since he was four. He has barely missed an AFC Rushden game. “Of course,” he said. “It is not quite the same as turning up to Nene Park on a Saturday and facing the likes of Luton or AFC Wimbledon, but the new club is very sustainable, fan-owned and has a great community feel across the whole club.”
Bounce back and thrive
As any football supporter knows, it’s the hope that kills you, and Bristol Rovers and Oxford United are offering that shining beacon of hope to any team dropping out of the League. They now play in League One.
Rovers have recovered from exiting the League at the end of the 2013-14 season by stringing together back-to-back promotions and are comfortably in the top half of League One. Beech says the dip into non-league has changed the character of the club: “We’ve always been a weird team to watch at home, we tend to get on the players’ backs if we haven’t gone ahead after 30 minutes, but that’s definitely not happening so much any more, I think partly because we appreciate what we’ve got. Going down to non-league strips everything else away. All you’ve got left is the real fans and a set of players willing to work their arses off to get back to League football.”