LINCOLN CITY’S FA Cup run has raised some controversy over the accuracy of describing the Imps as a genuine “non-league” club. It is true that Lincoln do not have a lengthy non-league pedigree, but they are in the National League on merit – in other words, they were relegated from the Football League in 2011 and they’ve spent the last half dozen years in the non-league pyramid. That’s enough to suggest they are no longer a Football League outfit, although that may well change next season.
But because Lincoln do not have the look and feel of a traditional non-league organisation does not mean they are not worthy of being classified in the same way as any National League club. I would wager that the last thing Lincoln fans want to be called is non-league, but they are where are because they were unable to sustain League football. And given this is their sixth campaign since relegation, there must be some Lincoln fans wondering if the club will actually find its way back.
They may be top of the National League this season, but the past five seasons have hardly been successful: 17th, 16th, 14th, 15th and 13th. You could say, prior to this season, that Lincoln were getting too accustomed to their new surroundings.
The doubters have a point, though. The National League does look like League Three to a certain degree, a rest home for former Football League members and some of the more ambitious clubs from non-league’s lower divisions.
No less than 13 of the National League’s 24 clubs have some form of Football League connection or heritage. The other 11 include rising clubs like Forest Green, Bromley and Eastleigh, as well as old Conference names like Sutton United and Woking.
By all accounts, the National League is virtually all full-time, and this is where non-league fans should have an issue. It is debatable if full-time makes sense at non-league level at all. The average crowd in the National League is just 1,767 – that’s 7% down on 2015-16. Such a small average begs the question – is full-time football viable? Maybe this is where the line has to be drawn in the sand. Shouldn’t non-league, at very best, be just semi-pro?
The National League has effectively become the fifth division, so if full-time has to exist, let’s make it the bottom division of the Football League. Let’s do away with the National League North and South – a ludicrous self-serving concept from the start – and merge them into the three step three premier divisions to create a better geographical spread. There’s already talk of a Midlands League which, if the blazers ever decide who should run it, will solve some of the mileage issues that have prevailed for years. And while we are at it, let’s think about the west of England.
Above all, start the dialogue around eradicating semi-pro football from a defined level. It is nothing short of ridiculous that clubs pay players in the lower reaches of the pyramid. Perhaps then admission prices can be reduced to make non-league better value for money, which in turn would attract more people to attend the games.
In the meantime, good luck to Lincoln City and I am sure you won’t be calling yourself “non-league” for too long…