The road to step two doesn’t need to be feared

East Thurrock United could be playing at step 2 next season
East Thurrock United could be playing at step 2 next season

THE POPULAR VIEW is that the jump from Southern and Ryman Premier to step two is a big one. Too many supporters wring their hands in anguish at the prospect of their team not being equipped to survive elevation to the executive suite of non-league football. But there’s good news for aspiring play-off candidates. The promoted clubs’ records over the past five years go a long way to disproving the theory that an ordeal awaits the victors.

Take the Ryman League. Over the past half decade, and not including last season’s promoted clubs, just two of the 10 have been relegated at the first attempt – Billericay Town and AFC Hornchurch.

In 2009-10, Dartford and Boreham Wood were both promoted to Conference South. Dartford are now back in that division after relegation from the Conference National last season, and Boreham Wood are enjoying their first campaign at step one.

Some teams have lasted more than one season but eventually suffered relegation. Tonbridge Angels went down after three seasons at step two and are now in the Ryman Premier. But two of the emerging clubs, Whitehawk and Concord Rangers are still in the National South after winning promotion in 2013.

Wealdstone and Lowestoft did enough to stay at step two last season, but both are caught up in [possible] relegation discussions this year. Maidstone and Margate went up in 2014-15 and are enjoying good runs this year. Indeed, Maidstone may yet enjoy a second successive promotion.

It’s a similar story in the Southern League. Not a single team has been relegated at the first attempt over the last five seasons. After winning promotion in 2010, Farnborough had five years at the next level before being relegated back to the Ryman in 2015.

Nuneaton went up and up to the Conference National but are now in National League North. Truro, promoted in 2011, came back down in 2013 but were promoted again in 2015 and are in National League South. Salisbury, after flying close to the sun, are in the Wessex League.

Brackley have not looked back since winning promotion in 2012 and Oxford City are still at step two. Leamington, however, had two seasons at that level before falling back to the Southern Premier in 2015. Gosport are in their third season in National South.

In 2014, Hemel Hempstead Town looked very competent when they went up and they finished ninth in 2014-15 at step two.

The two teams that went up last season, Truro and Corby are experiencing contrasting fortunes. Truro are riding high in National South while Corby could be making a swift return to the Southern League.

The message is clear, however – in most cases, teams with positive momentum adapt well to a higher level. In some cases, promotion is just the first stage of a longer-term programme of progress. There’s every reason to be optimistic if you’re chasing promotion from step three.

And even if you’re not able to compete and do find yourself falling down the snake that is relegation, enjoy the moment. Whatever a club does, it should not bankrupt itself by just trying to survive beyond its financial reach – there are too many clubs that go up and up and slide down just as quickly. Crowds and income are often higher if a club is successful at a lower level. Failure is definitely an orphan!

In the frame at the moment (February 19, 2016)

Southern League Premier
Champions elect: Poole Town
Play-offs: Chippenham v Hungerford; Redditch v Hitchin Town

This weekend’s top matches: Hitchin (4th) v Hungerford (5th);

Isthmian League Premier
Champions elect: East Thurrock United
Play-offs: Hampton v Billericay; Dulwich v Tonbridge

This weekend’s top matches: East Thurrock (1st) v Bognor (6th); Kingstonian (7th) v Tonbridge (4th)

Northern Premier
Champions elect: Blyth Spartans
Play-offs: Workington v Barwell; Darlington v Salford



Mind the gap! First day results can tell a lot

up-down-arrowsThe opening day of the season was a case of déjà vu for the teams promoted from the Championship. For the third consecutive year, a Premier new boy failed to win their first game: Bournemouth went down at home to Villa; Watford drew at Everton; and Norwich were beaten at home by Palace. Ominous signs for a trio of teams that will undoubtedly struggle to keep their heads above the relegation trapdoor.

Over the past five years, only one team, West Ham in 2012, has come up from the second tier and won their opener. That was a 1-0 victory against Aston Villa at Upton Park, by the way.

What’s almost certain is that at least one promoted team will go down at the end of 2015-16. Last season, Burnley and QPR both took the direct train back to the Championship and only once in the past decade has a season gone by without a promoted side finding it too tough at the top – 2011-12 when Norwich, QPR and Swansea all survived.

Over the past decade, the survival rate for promoted clubs averages out at 2.5 years. Of the 27 promotion places between 2006-07 and 2014-15, 11 teams have been relegated at the first time of asking. And only 15% have lasted for than five years. Sunderland (9 years), Stoke (8) and Swansea (5) lead the way.

Does this paint a grim picture for Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford? I’m afraid it does a little, because the gap between the Premier and its less endowed younger brothers shows no sign of getting smaller.

The media love the Bournemouth story, and rightly so. There is scarcely a newspaper that has not had a feature on Eddie Howe and the remarkable rise of this one-time backwater club. But as autumn approaches, it is almost guaranteed that the Cherries will be languishing in the lower reaches. And this year, Norwich and Watford could do likewise.

Bournemouth’s defeat at home to Villa should tell them something. Villa are no heavyweights and you can imagine that Howe’s side will be one of those promoted sides that win friends for their passing style but will lack the cutting edge to terrorise Premier defences.

Norwich will also be popular because of their dynamic manager, Alex Neil, but the Canaries could also be looking at another East Anglian derby next season, and not because Ipswich will come up. As for Watford, it might be a case of “guess the manager” judging by their recent employment record. But again, Hertfordshire’s top club are always welcome, largely because they punch above their weight and they were among the first to adopt a community approach to football.

All three clubs will win their share of the “neutral vote”, but by the end of September, we’ll have a better idea of the type of season they will have to endure. Enjoy the ride, though, lads, and use the Premier money wisely. And remember that the man who got you up doesn’t need to be sacked if you do go down. Keep calm and you will be able to mount another challenge…