Glenn Moore of the FWA, provides his mid-season assessment of the National League’s new boys.
As December bites so reality sinks in for those teams relegated into the Vanarama National League. Hartlepool and Leyton Orient have now played 23 league matches, half the campaign, and there is no avoiding the fact that non-League is proving very tough.
At the weekend Leyton Orient, under new manager Justin Edinburgh, lost at bottom club Solihull Borough. They are now 20th, one place above the relegation zone. Hartlepool, having conceded twice late on to lose at home to Macclesfield, are 13th; which means Jeff Stelling has to wait for the bottom half of the Vanarama table to flash up on Soccer Saturday to see where his team are.
This difficult baptism should come as no surprise. It is often said that relegation can enable struggling clubs to take stock, reform, and come back stronger, but that rarely applies to dropping out of the Football League. Of the 19 clubs relegated from League Two in the last decade (Torquay went down twice) only two bounced back immediately, Bristol Rovers in 2015 and Cheltenham the following year. More worrying for Hartlepool and Orient is that only seven of the 19 have climbed back into the Football League while five fell further, often due to financial problems. Boston, re-formed Darlington, Stockport County and York City are now in Vanarama National League North. A finally resurgent (and re-formed) Hereford are pushing to join them from the Evo-Stik South Premier.
“This is the biggest club in the Vanarama National League,” said Edinburgh after Saturday’s defeat. Therein lies one of the problems. Opposition players are inspired by playing a club with such a long Football League pedigree, and by visiting Brisbane Road. “We have to embrace that and not fear it,” added Edinburgh, who said Orient was the “only job I would have taken in the National League [because of] the pull of the size of the club, the history.”
But if history helps attract fans, players and managers it counts for nothing on the pitch. Stockport are averaging 3,209 at the gate this season, the fifth highest attendance outside the Football League, but are mid-table in the Vanarama National League North. They lost at second-place Brackley Town in front of 585 on Saturday. That was one of the Saints’ best gates of the season – swelled by travelling Hatters fans.
In many respects the Vanarama National League is like the Championship: full of clubs with (relatively) storied histories, big followings, decent stadia – but fiercely competitive and no respecter of reputations. Orient are the Sunderland of non-League. Like the Wearsiders the O’s have put their faith in a new manager, one with a solid pedigree, hoping that unlike a succession of recent bosses this is the one who stops the rot. The current season may be gone with regard to promotion but, as with Chris Coleman at Sunderland, if Edinburgh can turn things around the club will develop momentum, and could take some stopping next season. However, as the likes of Wrexham, Tranmere and Stockport know, with hungry upwardly mobile clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Brackley around there are no guarantees.