The National League: England's toughest league?

Winning a football league in any country at any level is a long arduous task that requires months of hard work, dedication and resilience. It is an extremely hard feat and only a small number of lucky individuals get to enjoy the feeling each season. The top six tiers of English football all have their own nuances and difficulties but what separates one from another?

People often say that the Championship is the hardest league to win, a postulation based on the tight nature of the league with all team’s capable of beating one another and more than just the odd upsets that are commonly seen in the Premier League. Is this assessment correct though? The Championship is undoubtedly tough, with numerous mid-week fixtures, no such thing as an easy game and the huge pressure of trying to reach the Premier League and the huge financial rewards that it provides.

However, the Premier League attracts the best players from all across the globe, meaning the best players and the best teams facing each other week in, week out. Teams looking to win the league will face European fixtures throughout the season, including the infamous Thursday-Sunday Europa League schedule. Long trips to Eastern Europe in mid-week are often followed by tough Premier League assignments on the week-end with teams playing despite fatigue and a disrupted build up.

Whilst the Premier League and Championship now pause for an international break 4 games into their season, non-league teams are already preparing for their 8th fixture of the campaign including two in three days over the August bank holiday week-end. With games coming thick and fast, maintaining momentum is extremely hard as tired limbs hit sides quicker. National League side Forest Green Rovers are the only side in the top two non-league tiers to have a 100% record at the conclusion of the season’s first month, something which shows how hard the top non-league levels are. Bath City won their first six fixtures but drew 1-1 at local rivals Weston Super Mare on bank holiday Monday, the team at the bottom of the table, demonstrating the unpredictability of non-league football. Bath had beaten Havant and Waterlooville, play-off semi-finalists last year, 5-0 two days previously, whilst the Hawks bounced back from that with a 4-0 victory of their own over Eastbourne Borough to end the bank holiday week-end with 3 points and a 5-4 aggregate scoreline.

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The only time during the year that league teams face such a hectic schedule is during the Christmas period, piling extra pressure on threadbare National League squads. The jam packed schedule is common in the National League with midweek fixtures regular occurrences in the non-league scene. Despite the top 6 tiers of English football starting on the same August week-end this year, non-league teams will finish their campaign at the end of April compared to mid-May for the Premier League. Whilst this might not appear too bad on first impressions, the Premier League has just 20 teams compared to the National League’s 24 and the 22 in the National League North and South. This all results in a greater number of fixtures in a smaller amount of time, something that is more likely to cause fatigue to set in, increasing the risk of injuries and raising the chance of more unpredictability in the team’s performances.

Many non-league teams also face the problem of being part time outfits, resulting in difficulties in increasing on field player relationships and implementing new or complex tactics or strategies. Being part time also reduces the ability to study opponents in depth or come up with plans for their key players, let alone trying to pass information on to the team.

A large proportion of non-league players also have other jobs around their football commitments and finding a balance between the two can be extremely difficult. Below the National League (5th tier), leagues are split into parallel regional divisions to try and reduce travelling. However, this is not always a simple solution as National League North sides Gloucester City and Harrogate will testify whilst the National League South’s Truro City face long journeys to face any of the division’s other 21 sides.

Cup runs can add miles and minutes to any team’s playing demands in a particular season. All teams in England enter the FA Cup at some stage, guaranteeing one extra fixture and someone entering in an early preliminary round could easily face as many rounds as a Premier League team who reaches the later stages having only entered in round 3. However, the non-league side do not get the huge publicity, acknowledgement or money that comes with a cup run to the semi-final meaning a heavier fixture schedule but limited rewards. The League Cup is replaced by the FA Trophy, placing the same demands on squad sizes that are experienced higher up the football pyramid. Some teams even face regional cup matches as player resource becomes a major headache for the management.

Therefore, whilst the four main English divisions bring the most publicity and are incredibly tough to succeed in, the Championship notoriously so, non-league divisions also provide many hurdles to overcome, some of which aren’t always considered. The lack of money in non-league football also means players don’t receive the same support and facilities that even the majority of League 2 clubs would enjoy. Whilst Premier League players are pampered following a tough fixture, their non-league counterparts just have to get up and go again. It makes non-league football unpredictable and exciting for those who watch but also incredibly hard for teams to succeed.

Featured image provided by quisnovus.

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