SOUTHEND UNITED have rehired Phil Brown as their manager with six games to go this season, but whether he fancies a stint in the National League remains to be seen. Southend would appear to have one foot in the non-league structure. They have hordes of unhappy fans, an unpopular target of a chairman and they are unloved by the tax man. In these troubled times, a club with so many problems could find itself victims of a train wreck.
There has been talk of a new stadium for some years, and in November 2020, the club announced a new home would be built at Fossetts Farm with the Roots Hall site developed for housing. They’re still waiting for things to become clearer on when the project will move forward. The last thing they will want is to open up a new era with the club residing outside the Football League. Southend is a town with almost 200,000 people, it should be able to accommodate football at a reasonably high level.
Grimsby Town, another coastal club, are also in the mire and although they currently have a game in hand on Southend, they are still bottom of League Two. They are in the process of being taken over by a consortium, although some doubt was cast on the deal as one of the key members recently resigned. Grimsby have been in the National League before, but they are now approaching the end of their fifth season back in the Football League after winning promotion in 2016.
The other main relegation candidates are Colchester United, Barrow and Walsall. Colchester have hit a bad run at the wrong time, but there are increasing rumours they are about to go into administration, which may affect the relegation battle. The club have denied they are in trouble.
Relegation to the National League does not have to be a death knell, indeed it can act as a springboard for revival and a chance to reset. Clubs who have not been accustomed to winning can suddenly acquire a new habit, crowds can regain their enthusiasm and off the pitch, a club can regroup. However, if the club in question is on a downward spiral and has deep-rooted problems, it can be the start of an extended lost weekend.
There have been a number of clubs who failed to recover from the psychological blow of losing Football League status: Boston United, Halifax Town, Darlington, Chester, Hereford United, Macclesfield and York City. Some have gone to the wall, reforming as phoenix clubs, Macclesfield Town being the latest victim.
It certainly can take time to acclimatise, both on and off the field of play. Since 2000, only four clubs have won promotion at the first attempt: Shrewsbury Town (2004), Carlisle United (2005), Bristol Rovers (2015) and Cheltenham (2016).
There’s been a lot of churn between the EFL and National League over the past 20 years. Of the current League Two constitution, 17 have seen step one of the non-league pyramid and 11 of the National League have tasted life in the Football League in some shape or form. And of the 92 Premier/EFL clubs, 29 have modern non-league experience.
On average, the teams that have won promotion after relegation do it between three to four years. But some find it hard to get back to where they once belonged. A classic case is Wrexham, who have now, surpriisngly, been in the National League for 13 years.
To some, Wrexham are simply too big to be playing outside the EFL. In 2018-19, their average gate at the Racecourse ground was 5,077 – that’s higher than when they were last in the EFL. But go back 40 years and they were drawing over 10,000 – which shows you the potential of the club.
Wrexham were taken over by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney earlier this year and the duo have invested £ 2 million into the club under the terms of the deal. They tried to incentivise the players by promising bonuses if the team wins promotion in 2020-21, but that may be beyond them now. Needless to say, Wrexham may be installed as favourites for 2021-22.
Who will go up this season? Sutton United are currently top, a club that has a rich non-league history, but would be unlikely EFL members. However, it is often a club on a roll that can emerge as surprise winners. Hartlepool, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield, Halifax and Wrexham are all in with a shout at the top end. Sutton is the only town with no Football League heritage among the pack, but its population runs to 200,000. Close proximity to London clubs may be something of a disadvantage.
Sutton have an artificial pitch at their Gander Green Lane home, so if they do win promotion, they will have to take it up and replace it with a natural surface. The question is, can they sustain EFL football and stay solvent? If they win a place but refuse to take it, they will be penalised, but where will the logic be in ripping-up a facility that has clearly played its part in revitalising the club if Sutton United are relegated in season one? A difficult situation, especially in 2021.
Two promotion places (and relegation places) have shown there can be a two-way flow that works reasonably well. It may not be an enjoyable experience for those that fall through the trapdoor, but at least it should make clubs conservatively provision for failure, rather than assuming the status quo will never be challenged. Clubs like Luton Town, Leyton Orient and Cheltenham have all shown it can be done. As the fans of Southend, Grimsby and Colchester make their journeys for the final run-in, they may wish to take some consolation in knowing they can get back. The wheels may come loose, but it is important to ensure they don’t come off the wagon if and when relegation is confirmed. In the uncertain post-covid football environment, prudence and pragmatism will never be more important, as well as calm heads.