Here at The Real EFL, we’re more than familiar with the challenges faced in the National League.
It’s a division closely resembles League One, with big clubs dropping down, ambitious smaller clubs spending and a handful fighting to come somewhere in the middle in terms of size and budget. Often, the ‘fairy tales’ are those of big funds or clubs regaining their status in the division above. Look at League One this season: both Coventry and Rotherham were going back where they feel they belong, whilst the play offs boasted Fleetwood, a side who haven’t been shy in spending above their means. However, as with Wycombe’s promotion, the so-called grafters do find their way forward, sometimes.
A look at the sides promoted from the National League in recent years shows a plethora of teams either bouncing back or spending big. Fleetwood, Salford City, Forest Green and Crawley are some who have spent big on promotion, whilst Tranmere, Lincoln City, Bristol Rovers and Luton are teams who perhaps, on history and size alone, should never have to battle back. In between, you have the odd club who have earned their right from nowhere, clubs who haven’t broken the bank but have got promoted on football merit with little previous pedigree. You may have to scour hard for those clubs though; AFC Wimbledon perhaps, or Newport County. However, in recent years, it is almost always former league clubs getting back after recent relegations, or big spenders.
That is why today’s result was refreshing for the division because it capped a season in which two teams were promoted in a manner which encapsulates the beauty of non-league. When Scarborough were the first team to be promoted in 1988, the change to automatic relegation and promotion was meant to offer a lifeline to the hardworking clubs who were constantly slapped in the face when it came to re-election. Back then, a rich benefactor couldn’t dream of spending his way out of the non-league scene thanks to the election process, so instead, it was a level dominated by honest endeavour and hard work.
Barrow’s performances this season were a delight, far more interesting in our mind than the idiotic Premier League with its VAR and constant spending. Barrow didn’t break the bank, they played great football with a good manager getting the best out of honest players. Yes, they were once a Football League side, but not one relegated post-88. No, they were voted out in 1972 to be replaced by Hereford United, mainly due to Hereford United’s FA Cup victory against Newcastle United and the decision of the Barrow board to build a speedway track around the pitch at Holker Street. However, in winning the title this season, they became the first club to lift the trophy having not been in the league in the past 30 years since Fleetwood in 2012 (a side who spent very big).
This afternoon Harrogate Town further cemented the fact that this season has been one of the finest in terms of variety and rewarding hard work, even if it were curtailed early. Their opponents at Wembley were Notts County, a proud side who played in the top flight as recently as the early nineties. In fairness to the Magpies, they would have been a great addition to the Football League once again, but in Harrogate, we’ve got another bona fide story on our hands; a team who have fought their way up legitimately and fairly. Did you know, ten members of their squad were part of the same team that earned a promotion to the National League in 2018? There has been no huge reshaping, no big budget to blow away their rivals, just a great team spirit forged over time. They’ve made some clever loan signings too, Jack Diamond of Sunderland has been a key player throughout his spell there, as has Lincoln City Alex Bradley.
In Simon Weaver, they have a manager with a big future who has been with the club for over a decade. he had a modest playing career with Lincoln City and took over at Harrogate in 2009, and they were only saved from relegation to the seventh tier by Northwich Victoria folding. The following season, they were again close to being relegated, saved only by a 5-0 victory against Corby Town.
Their promotion sees them become the 92nd member of the Football League and rewards years of hard work by Weaver, his staff and the board. They’re also going to reward their fans, freezing season ticket prices despite the elevated status. Next season, they’ll welcome Bolton Wanderers to their 5,000 capacity ground, a fitting reward for their fantastic season.
They might even have to ground share at the beginning of the season as they are having to rip up a 3G pitch and instal grass, which will take ten weeks and won’t be finished before the resumption of league football. We can see the slurs from bigger clubs now, things like ‘tinpot’ might be thrown at them, maybe at Barrow too. The younger, modern-day fan thinks this is a fine insult to levy at a club who has recently come up, but in this instance, it absolutely is not.
Why? Because these are not two little clubs spending their way out of a division. No, they’re both here on merit, and the Football league will be a richer place with both amongst the ranks.