Three Up, Three Down? No Thanks – Opinion

The last twenty years have been a long time in football. In that time, football powerhouses have risen and fallen, with unfancied sides becoming Champions, and some sides that were regulars in the second tier suddenly finding themselves in the sixth tier, whereas minnows have done near enough the opposite journey, writes Kate Jackson.

In that twenty years, my club, Lincoln City, has had one hell of a ride, going from one of the consistent presences in the fourth-tier Playoffs, right down to almost being relegated to the National League North, only avoiding it on the final day of the 2012/13 season thanks to a combination of a 5-1 win at Hyde, and Stockport’s loss at Kidderminster, sending them down instead. The club’s recovery from that position has been remarkable, and three trophies later, the club are arguably in their healthiest ever state, sustaining League One football, and we, along with a few other clubs, have been used as an example for an argument that started twenty years ago.

There were many headlines coming out of the 2002/3 season, but one of the quieter ones was that it was the first ever that featured the Playoffs in the fifth tier of English Football, with Doncaster Rovers winning in extra time against Dagenham and Redbridge at Stoke’s Brittania Stadium to return to the Football League after five years away. They were joined by Champions Yeovil Town, who were going into the Football League for the first time in their history.

Not only did both do well in what was then known as Division Three the following season, but Doncaster actually won the division, which was no mean feat given that the division that year featured Hull City, Huddersfield Town, and Swansea City, all of whom have gone on to play Premier League Football since. Yeovil finished 8th, only finishing outside of the top 7 on goal difference, despite a last-day win at Lincoln.

This was the first time that we heard murmurings of “Why not three up/down?”, mainly because it soon became apparent that losing Football League status could prove the end for some clubs. In recent years, those arguments have only gotten louder, with Lincoln’s exploits in the FA Cup, several teams securing back-to-back promotions in their first season, and other high profile instances making those loud voices practically yell. The 2022/23 season has been used as the latest example by some as to why it should be three up/down, as both Wrexham and Notts County secured over 100 points. Whilst both did go up, many have argued that they should have anyway, with two automatic places and a Playoff spot, rather than just the current one/one system..

There are several arguments both for and against that I have heard over the years, such as the “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas” counter, especially as several clubs have gone bust since they got relegated to the top of the non-league, and whilst the clubs should be better run, if those clubs feel that they’re putting their existence at risk, just to satisfy other clubs, then they’re never going to go for it. 

So now I’m going to go through some of the main arguments that are featured for going three up/down, starting with the most common.

Argument: “It should be three up/three down, just like the rest of the divisions”

So, promotion from the non-league gets you into the Football League, and each has multiple promotion spots, with three up/down between the Premier League and Championship, and again from that level to League One. It does get a little strange as, for some reason, it’s four up/down from League One to League Two, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

Many argue that the National League should follow suit, and often use the “just like the rest of the divisions” argument as the main point, except there is a problem with that, and that is that the vast majority of the divisions in the country are actually just offering two promotion spots, exactly the same as the National League. For example, to get into National League South, you have to win the Isthmian Premier Division, or the Playoffs, and in the North, you have to do the same to get into the National League North.

For the purposes of the debate, I looked into some random divisions in the non-league system, and whilst they all had variations of how the Playoffs worked (for example, some have a Playoff system that includes a team from the division above, who are then fighting to keep their own spot, a system which Lincoln United were just on the wrong result of), every one I looked at (where it was clear whether there was a Playoff system or not, which wasn’t obvious in some) was, at most, two up. Just to prove I looked at various levels, I found out that there was a team in the Devon Football South and West League called Mount Gould, who won all 18 of their matches in 2022/23, scoring 99 goals.

Despite what some may have you believe, only promoting two teams, one automatically and the other via the Playoffs, is the most common method across the country. Whilst it may seem unfair as the divisions above the National League don’t fit the mold, the argument could then stand that if the National League get an extra promotion spot, why don’t others below them?

That leads me neatly onto the next argument…..

 

Argument: Wrexham and Notts’ 2022/23 proved the National League is worthy of it.

The most recent new argument to come into this debate is that Wrexham and Notts County both getting over 100 points was worthy of them both getting automatic promotion, with a further team coming up via the Playoffs, however, whilst those points tallies are indeed correct and impressive, that isn’t the full story.

There have been a lot of false claims about the 2022/3 season, such as some trying to convince others that Wrexham’s 111 point tally was an English League record, and that it was the first time two teams in the same division had gained 100 points, but those making the claims clearly hadn’t looked into it. 

Neither of those “facts” are true, and there was a league in 2017/18 that not only had a higher points total for the Champions, but was also a far more fiercely contested race for promotion.

The Southern League in 2017/18 was remarkable. Whilst Hereford raced away with the title, winning it with a total of 113 points (more than Wrexham’s 111, for those who still claim that they hold they record), and the four sides immediately below them all entered the Playoffs having secured at least 97 points each. Between Weymouth, Kettering, Slough and Kings Lynn (the other team to get 100 points), a total of 393 points were gained that season, and a whopping 435 goals between them.

That season is a far more impressive one than the one we’ve just had in the National League. The Southern League didn’t get an extra promotion place because it had one exceptional season, and neither should the National League. Both the 2022/23 National League and 2017/18 Southern League seasons were freak seasons, probably never to happen again, and you can’t build an argument for an extra promotion space based mainly on that.

To justify an extra promotion space based on one freak season isn’t really enough for me, and it would have to be a consistent occurrence of multiple teams getting an amount that would win you the league in any other season. For example, the 97 points that only secured 5th for Weymouth in 2017/18 would have been enough to win the National League in seven of the last nine seasons, but it hasn’t happened again since. 

To further prove that was a freak season, in recent years, we have also had the winners of the National League getting sub-90 points. For example, in 2018/19 Leyton Orient got 89 points, and Sutton with 84 for 2020/21, and you could also argue for Barrow the 2019/20 season as, based on their PPG, would have ended on 87 (rounded up) points. When three of the last five Champions haven’t/probably wouldn’t have broken the 90-point barrier, it massively counters the one freak season, especially when the “promoted teams always do well” argument doesn’t really stand up when you look at where the promoted teams finished in their first year in the National League……

 

Argument: Promoted teams always do well.

This really depends on your definition of doing well really because, if we’re basing it purely on that no side has ever gone straight back down, yeah, that’s doing “well”, but that only tells half of the story as, whilst they didn’t get relegated in their first year back, Hartlepool will play National League football again next season after being away for just two seasons. Barnet also only lasted three years, not finishing above 15th in that time. Macclesfield also only lasted two years, but their demise was mainly due to the financial issues that eventually saw the club wound up.

Plenty of teams have been relegated within the first five years of being in the Football League, with Grimsby Town being the latest example of that when they went down two years ago, immediately returning. 

Not to forget that teams such as Barrow, Forest Green, Macclesfield, Cheltenham and several others almost got relegated in their first year, and they usually only survive because the two teams that go down were struggling long-term, and were going to get relegated eventually, it was just a case of when.

If we look at the history of the promoted teams (for the sake of ease, I’m simply going to look into the history since it became two up/down) then it paints an interesting picture.

 

Position in First Year in Fourth Tier Times Achieved
Champions 2003/4 – Doncaster Rovers

2005/6 – Carlisle United

2nd/3rd (Promoted) 2008/9 – Exeter City (2nd)

2011/12 – Crawley Town (3rd)

2015/16 – Bristol Rovers (3rd)

Playoff Winners 2010/11 – Stevenage (7th)

2018/19 – Tranmere Rovers (6th)

Playoff Finalist 2022/23 – Stockport County (4th) 
Playoff Semi-Finals 2017/18 – Lincoln City (7th)
8-12 2003/4 – Yeovil Town (8th)

2007/8 – Morecambe (11th)

2010/11 – Oxford United (12th)

2013/14 – Mansfield Town (11th)

2014/15 – Luton Town (8th)

2019/20 – Salford City (11th)

2020/21 – Sutton United (8th)

2022/23 – Grimsby Town (11th)

13-16 2006/7 – Hereford United (16th)

2008/9 – Aldershot (15th)

2009/10 – Burton Albion (13th)

2011/12 – AFC Wimbledon (16th)

2012/13 – Fleetwood Town (13th)

2013/14 – Newport County (14th)

2015/16 – Barnet (15th)

2016/17 – Grimsby Town (14th)

17-20 2004/5 – Chester City (20th) and Shrewsbury Town (21st)

2005/6 – Barnet (18th)

2006/7 – Accrington Stanley (20th)

2007/8 – Dagenham and Redbridge (20th)

2009/10 – Torquay United (17th)

2012/13 – York City (17th)

2014/15 – Cambridge United (19th)

2019/20 – Leyton Orient (17th)

2020/21 – Harrogate Town (17th)

2021/22 – Hartlepool United (17th)

21-22 2016/17 – Cheltenham Town (21st)

2017/18 – Forest Green Rovers (21st)

2018/19 – Macclesfield Town (22nd)

2020/21 – Barrow (21st)

 

From that, if we’re going off of simply surviving being classed as “doing well”, yes, everyone does well, but, that would be a somewhat naive way of looking at it.

You only have to look at the recent fact that four of the teams have barely survived an immediate return to the National League, with Cheltenham, Macclesfield, and Barrow coming close after being the National League Champions the year before, and the simple fact is that the vast majority of the teams getting promoted finished in the lower half of the table, especially in recent years.

In 20 years, only seven teams have gone straight through League Two and onto League One, but the common trend now is that at least one of the promoted teams struggle, with only the money-backed teams doing well. More than half of the teams that have been promoted have finished in the bottom half of league, as opposed to just seven that have gone through the division.

If they are ever to see three up/down agreed, realistically, you can’t have the majority of your recent division winners finishing in the lower reaches of the new division. If both promoted teams were consistently challenging for promotion, then yes, the argument would be different, but the reality is that that isn’t the case, and when your best team from the year before is regularly featuring towards the bottom of the division the year after, it’s not a solid base for a demand of an extra promotion spot.

 

Thought: Teams going down always find out just how tough the National League is

This isn’t necessarily an argument for three up/three down, but a consistent saying you hear when your team enters the National League. It’s a way for people to understand how most only find out about the quality of the division when they’re down there, and can add their thoughts to the argument, and arguably started in the late 2000s when teams went down and were consistently talking about going straight back up, and genuinely believing it was likely.

In the EFL, teams getting promoted in their first year after relegation between the divisions is actually fairly common. Until recently, clubs such as Rotherham United, Fulham, and Norwich had almost made is an art form to bounce straight back after relegation. In 2006/7, the top four in League Two were the teams that had just been relegated from League One, so it’s relatively common, but not so much between League Two/National League recently.

Since 2002/3, teams bouncing back at the first opportunity have been rare. In the early days, when a significant portion of the top of non-league football was still part-time, clubs return soon after relegation was more common, with Shrewsbury Town, one of the first two relegated under the new season, bouncing back at the first attempt, and Carlisle repeating the trick a year later. After that, however, there would have a ten-year wait before Bristol Rovers beat Grimsby Town at Wembley, and the Cods became the last club to do it when they returned to the non-league in 2021, but were promoted back at Wembley twelve months later.

Sides bouncing back have become rare, and now a noticeable trend at the lower end of the National League is the inclusion of sides who were recently in the EFL. Infact, three of the bottom four in 2022/23 were former Football League sides, including, one who fell straight through the leagues.

Whilst not as common, two teams in recent years have fallen straight through to the sixth tier of English football, with York City (2016/17) and Scunthorpe United (2022/23) both being relegated in their first season within the division. Whilst they didn’t fall straight through, Stockport County found themselves relegated to the National League North two years after their relegation to the National League. Torquay have also found themselves a bit of a yo-yo club between the National League South since their relegation from the EFL.

Struggling to adapt to the National League isn’t just on the pitch either, with several clubs being wound up after their relegation from the EFL. Clubs such as Chester City, Hereford United, Darlington, Rushden and Diamonds, Macclesfield Town, and Halifax Town (the last team relegated in the one up/down era) were all relegated to the non-league this century and no longer exist. All have been replaced by phoenix clubs, but if you’re already a poorly run club, you need to adapt fast to life in the non-league, or it will swallow you whole and spit you out.

The National League is a far tougher league than many will give it credit for. As mentioned right at the beginning of the article, I am a Lincoln fan, and our relegation in 2011 was a massive wake-up call. We hadn’t been a well-run club for a few years, and we effectively had to become a club that ran with a skeleton-staff, and a remarkably low budget. I don’t have access to the full numbers, but I am pretty confident in saying that we were close to the brink at numerous points, and could have easily joined that list of clubs above.

MOST clubs should now be able to adapt as the National League is far better funded than it was back then. For example, with BT Sport taking their coverage far more seriously than Premier Sports and Setanta did (admittedly, a very, very low bar), it adds some much-needed money, and whilst the attention will naturally go to the sides doing well (Lincoln were on a LOT during the run in of our title winning year), things such as the highlights package didn’t exist back when all of the above clubs were still in business, and might have helped them have a sound financial footing to base survival on.

Summary

Whilst there are many arguments to be had for increasing the up/down system to three/three, each can be countered by doing a bit of research into them.

The National League, whether the fans like it or not, is in line with the majority of the other leagues in the country when it comes to how many teams get promoted, and the majority of the teams who do go up only become “also-rans”, at best.

Other than the one-off exceptional season of two clubs we’ve just had, the majority of teams promoted from the non-league recently have fit in at the bottom of League Two, rather than thriving, and until there is consistency of the promoted teams in the top half of League Two, an argument can’t really be made for why another relegation spot should be added to put more clubs at risk when those replacing them don’t have a history of success.

I think that it is inevitable that they will add a third spot at some point down the line, but what Wrexham and Notts County have done is the exception, not the rule, and not the record-breaking season that some would have you believe. When another level has had a far more remarkable season, not seeing any long-term benefits of it, the argument for the National League is far more tenuous.

Whilst the risk to most clubs of going out of business if they are relegated has lessened in recent years, the risks associated with relegation, probably won’t see the EFL clubs vote for it any time soon, and ultimately, as the saying goes “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”.

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