Stockport County’s 11-year absence from the Football League came to an end this weekend after a 2-0 win over Halifax Town secured them the National League title, and with it the sole automatic promotion place in tier five.
That means that Hollywood-owned Wrexham had to settle for second spot, and now enter the play-offs that feature six teams. But should they have already been promoted? That’s the view of Stockport County manager Dave Challinor, who thinks it is time the National League was awarded three promotion spots, given the strength of the division.
“Of course it is,” Challinor told The Sportsman ahead of the final day. “But the reality of it is, and I speak honestly, is that if everyone was in the same position and the EFL teams were voting and you were in a league where you could decide to have two relegated or three relegated, you'd vote for two all day.”
Yet, with the likes of Chesterfield, Notts County, Wrexham and Halifax all still in the division, boasting strong attendance and the fact that the likes of Sutton United, Hartlepool United and Forest Green Rovers have flourished at League Two level, all signs point to this being the sensible conclusion.
“Listen, I think there is absolutely a really good argument,” Challinor, who has now achieved promotion from this level in back-to-back seasons, states. “You only have to look at the average attendances in League Two and the National League. I'd suggest that six or seven of the National League clubs are right at the top end, if not above what there is in League Two. I don't envisage that changing in the short term.”
There has been a seismic change in the fifth tier as almost all clubs are now full-time, and the connotations around the term ‘non-league’ are somewhat outdated. That phrase sparks thoughts of plumbers scoring late winners in the FA Cup, not Paddy Madden hitting his 23rd goal of the season in front of 10k fans at Edgeley Park.
“This league is brutal,” Challinor explained. “It always has been brutal. Last season with us, with Hartlepool, it is littered with ex-Football League clubs and clubs with massive infrastructures. We know where we are at, the investment here has been big and it has been big based on getting the club out of this league - just as at Wrexham and other clubs.”
“It gets tougher and tougher. There was a point probably where this league has flitted between part-time and full-time - the majority of the teams are now all full-time. At least a huge proportion of them want to get that golden egg and into the Football League for the first time or back to the EFL for a lot. So of course, it is really difficult and challenging.”
Meanwhile, local journalist Sam Byrne has seen it all at Stockport County and was there as the club scrapped around in the National League North for six years. But he too believes that it makes sense to reward the quality that is now seen at this level.
“I suppose it is difficult to say that now as it looks like sour grapes if ourselves or Wrexham start asking for that promotion place but when you look at the quality of the teams at this level, and when you look at when they go up to League Two, they are in and around the play-off places. Hartlepool were in and around the play-off spots before Challinor left to come here, teams have really kicked on - FGR have gone from strength to strength, Lincoln went up from non-league a few years ago.
“All these teams, not only are they thriving in the National League, they are kicking on and progressing even further. To all intents and purposes, it is a League Three at the moment, it is not non-league football. I think the fact that you can have Paul Mullin dropping down to Wrexham Ollie Palmer, Antoni Sarcevic and Paddy Madden here - Harry Arter at Notts County. These players don't see it as non-league.
“I think that previously there was a feeling that players would fall off the face of the earth if they came to non-league, they'd get forgotten about and never get back. Now they are so confident and comfortable with dropping down because they know either they will get promoted with the club they are at, or there are always clubs looking down into the National League for players.
“I don't think it will happen, but I think that automatic promotion spot is something that really could do with being brought in to help the likes of Stockport, Wrexham, Halifax, Notts County, Chesterfield, all these former Football League clubs that carry on going from strength to strength.”