This season, the fifth tier of English football has found almost 10 teams in the hunt for promotion, and its unpredictability is always on show.
As I explored in February, Why the Championship is the toughest league in world football, the Championship and the National League have many similarities. Historic teams and well-known players are just two things accustomed to this division now, but how has the National League become such a difficult league?
One influence is that many clubs have begun to invest heavily which has caused fierce competition for promotion. Stockport County, Wrexham and Chesterfield are a few in this league who have spent serious money on players from higher divisions.
Wrexham are very ambitious under Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney and have often recruited players from the higher divisions for relatively large sums of money. This is also the same with Stockport and Chesterfield who have budgets that some from higher tiers would be envious of. Despite spending being a common way to get out of the National League, smart management and recruitment is also more astute and inexpensive. This is shown with several teams in the league, with some fighting for a place in the EFL following shrewd recruitment on a smaller budget over the past few campaigns.
I believe there is one major problem in the National League that if resolved, would make the division a lot easier to get out of. There is only one automatic promotion place with one play-off winner and instead of the customary four play-off teams, there are six. This means that second and third place is guaranteed a spot in the play-off semi final while the other four battle it out in the quarter finals. Also, the system that is in place means that for teams in League Two it is easier to maintain their status as an EFL club as only two get relegated.
However, at the top of the fourth tier, three get promoted automatically and one through the play-off places so this emphasises how difficult it is for the promotion-chasing teams in this league. In recent seasons, we have seen some clubs acclimatise to life in League Two quite well including Sutton United this campaign who are pushing for promotion despite still being part-time last season.
As shown with my club Southend United this season, if the recruitment does not go to plan in the summer, the start to the season could be disastrous. Under experienced manager Phil Brown, the Shrimpers opted to go down the route of signing experienced veterans who have earned promotions with previous clubs. Some Blues fans thought that an instant return to the EFL was expected after back-to-back relegations to the fifth tier but that hypothesis was completely wrong.
Brown was soon sacked after a catastrophic start to the season and former club captain Kevin Maher replaced him and he has steadied the ship. Under his stewardship, recruitment has improved drastically and the scouting department has found a handful of gems in the National League North/South which is another clever way to recruit in this division.
In conclusion, I think that the National League is as tough as the Championship in terms of the possibility of getting promoted. Some teams at this level are part-time so are understandably situated in the lower echelons of the league table but surprise wins against the table-topping titans are common.
However, with only two promotion places in this division, do you believe more promotion places should be installed ensure more clubs do not spend long amounts of time in the fifth tier?