The football pyramid in the UK is arguably one of the biggest in Europe. We have the EFL parachute, which includes the Premier League, Championship and Leagues 1 and 2 where my team finally find themselves residing for the first time in 15 years. But you’ll have seen a lot of light shed on Non-League football over the last few years. The takeover story at Wrexham, clubs like Notts County, Tranmere, Scunthorpe, Stockport, Grimsby and Oldham to name a few being residents in the National and regional leagues that fall within non-league, the grounds, and the fans. British football exists outside of the EFL and this is my how-to guide on how to survive the National League.
I’ll give you some background before you look at this and think who’s this bloke?
Me, I’m Robbie. Life long suffering Wrexham fan. You name it I’ve been there. I’ve watched us in the EFL and been there through the wilderness at every twist and turn. Seeing as we’ve finally done it, and gotten out of it I just thought I’d share my thoughts and tips for surviving the National League especially if you’re an EFL coming down for the first time. I’ll break it down for you, covering the grounds, the fixtures, the travelling, the fans, the league structure, and my favourites so you know what and who to look for when the fixtures soon get released. So, get comfy this could be a long one.
I’ll kick things off with an overview of 15 years of my life spent watching Wrexham in this league. Now, I’m not the number one fan, but I’m regular. It’s very rare that I miss aways and I’ve not missed a home game in about 10 years (covid aside). I’ve been up and down the country, Saturdays, Tuesdays the odd Friday here and there. I’ve seen it all. There’s nothing that bothers me when it comes to football anymore – other than that lot down the road (Ch*ster) doing well. I’ve watched clubs that no longer exist, grounds that have been knocked down and replaced, seen rivals go up and leave us, and seen clubs physically go bust as well mid-season but here we go, here’s my survival guide for you.
League Structure and Cup Competitions and Fixtures
Now, the league is the same as any other league in the country, you play every club home and away. Typically runs from August to May but the real bug bearer I have with this league is if you don’t win it, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed promotion. Far too many times we’ve finished second and not made it out. But anyway, you’ll have fixtures on Bank Holiday Mondays, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and in-between, a Good Friday Easter Monday double which was a favourite of mine. You’ll also play Tuesdays and the occasional Sunday if it’s selected for TV. End of the season you’ll have 1 – I know it’s poor, 1 automatic promotion place and then 1 via the playoffs. The playoffs are where it gets confusing. 2nd and 3rd advance straight to the Semi-Finals. 4th play 7th in game one and 5th play 6th in game 2. The winner of game one plays 2nd and the winner of game 2 plays 3rd and both semi-final winners then go to the final where the promotion place is decided. That’s it that’s the league. Oh, and you have 4 relegation places to watch out for.
Take a quick nose at the cup competitions. You’ll play in two without things like local – I know Stockport and Macclesfield used to play in the Cheshire Seniors but yes, The FA Cup and The FA Trophy. Now the FA Cup as we all know is the best thing in domestic football (UK) puts the minnows on the stage in front of a worldwide audience up against some of the big boys. Take Shrewsbury going to Liverpool or Marine playing Tottenham. Yeah, we’re talking about that kind of level. The FA trophy as a competition is exactly the same, taking the biggest of non-league to the smallest of non-league. (It’s a competition I’ve watched us lose twice and don’t like).
Prepare to Travel. Don’t get it twisted, The National League is a nightmare for travelling. Yes, ok it throws up some absolute gems of away trips but the travelling is a nightmare. I’m talking about a handful of trips to London, the North East, Devon, and beyond and to places before I went there I’d never heard of. To add context, I once did Wrexham – Havant and Waterlooville, Wrexham – Borehamwood and Wrexham to Gateshead in a week. All away, Saturday Tuesday Saturday amounting to 1200 miles in a week or something daft like that…
For once the league isn’t that bad, it’s got some cracking trips in there but I’m sorry I’ll be too busy living an EFL life for the next 9months. But whether by coach, train or car the travelling is a lot in the NL and to anyone that never misses 1 game then hats off to you guys because it’s a slog.
The Grounds and The Fans
AFC Fylde – Mill Farm.
For a new build ground not too bad, in all honesty. Catered for teams with a smaller following because the food and drink outlets are horrendously small. Fans aren’t great. Think they’re owed something because they once had one of the most prolific teams in our time in non-league history but as soon as the money run out and down they went to the regionals. Out of ten, I’d give the ground a 6/10 and the fans a 3/10.
Aldershot Town – The EBB Stadium.
What I’d class as an Old-school ground. Proper away end as well in the shed there, close to the home fans who sing the same annoying song for 90 minutes straight. You need to walk up a massive hill and then through the back end of some park to get to the away end but again, food and drink facilities are enough for small followings not so much the bigger. They also have a lot of Chelsea fans going with them which I never really understood. Ground 5/10 Fans 3/10.
Altrincham – Moss Lane.
Barnet – The Hive
Now then, possibly one of my favourite trips last year, if their keeper hadn’t of been a cheating …. Yeah and nearly cost us the game. But from a ground perspective class. The away end is massive, and has its own bar underneath which is hit-and-miss but overall decent ground gets a 7.5/8 and the fans well they don’t exist until the ref blows the final whistle 2/10.
BorehamWood – Meadow Park.
Awful. Simply the worst ground in the league by a country mile. I’ve been there 4 times I think, and every time I swear I’ll never go back but we always seem to do well before going to their place so I always end up going. It’s just a ground full of Arsenal Fans in White shirts. But yeah Ground 1/10 fans again 2/10.
Bromley – Hayes Lane.
Annoying little fan base. Seem to have some massive rivalry with Wrexham that they’ve formed in their own heads because they beat us at Wembley. Grounds ok when they give you behind the goal poor when they don’t. Overall 5/10 for the ground and 3/10 for the fans (their genuine fans save them there’s a lot of plastic Milwall in there) Forgot to mention it’s a plastic pitch!
Chesterfield – Technique Stadium
Had some good battles with them over the years. Weird fan base, but their old ground Saltergate was class, this is just another modern stadium but they make it noisy and the make it intimidating. Good facilities underneath as well. Overall the ground gets a 6.5/10 and for the fans, I’ll give them a 6/10 as well.
Dagenham and Redbridge – Victoria Road.
Again, another southern club that seems to have a weird obsession with us and an imaginary rivalry with us. Away ends one of them bog standard away ends. Fans are all plastic West Ham. Ground 3/10 Fans 2/10.
Dorking Wanderers – Meadow Bank.
By far THE best trip of last season. What a club. The ground is like going to a Welsh Premier League ground but honestly what a trip that was. Their owner/manager/CEO/comedian/film star put money behind one of the bars in the town for us. Facilities weren’t matched for the bigger followings but honestly, got a lot of time for Dorking. Decent fans as well, loud and proud even at 5-0 down. Ground gets a 4/10 just for the size of it, and fans 7.5/10. Oh yeah, another plastic pitch.
Eastleigh – Silverlake Stadium.
Nothing much to write about, ok ground. Mediocre facilities, used to have good fans but I feel a lot of them have fallen off given they now struggle for midtable. 5/10 for the ground 3/10 for the fans.
Ebbsfleet United – Stonebridge Road.
I can’t express my dislike for this ground and club. One of those teams where I look for on the calendar and try my best to find something else to do but always ended up going. Do not like the ground at all, the facilities are poor but half decent food, fans don’t exist either even though they used to have good numbers. Ground 1/10 fans 1/10.
FC Halifax Town – The Shay.
Now I never used to be a fan of this place. Always put in a dirty side stand that had a poor view, and facilities to match a Sunday league ground. But since they finally put us behind the goal on the big terrace this year the scores upgraded. Facilities are poor, but the overall score of 6/10 Fans are alright to be fair, have good banter with them 6/10.
Gateshead – The International Stadium.
It’s not a football ground. It’s used as one but it’s just not. Miles away from the pitch because of the running track. No atmosphere and their fan base is just so small considering where they are in the country. Maybe they’ll see an increase this season with Newcastle playing in the UEFA Champions League their kick-offs will alter leaving more room for their fans to nip down to watch Gateshead. 2/10 for the ground and 2/10 for the fans.
Hartlepool United – Victoria Park.
One of the teams to come in and do the job we hadn’t been able to do, but sadly couldn’t manage to keep their place in the EFL this year. Grounds ok, one of the better ones I’ve been to in recent years. The facilities are ok, but the fans are next-level good. Loud and proud. Good rivalry with them. Ground 7/10 Fans 8.5/10.
Kidderminster Harriers – Aggborough
Go on an empty belly and I promise you will not be disappointed. The best food in UK football and I won’t be told differently. Ok ground, good away end when it’s packed. Overall 8.5/10 for the ground and 5/10 for the fans.
Maidenhead United – York Road.
Maidenhead? More like MaidenSHED. THE worst ground in the league by a country mile. Staff are more interested in starting fights with visiting fans than anything else. Poor view regardless of where you stand and the facilities are almost none existent. 1/10 for ground and that’s pushing it. 1/10 for the fans (they have a lot of little wanna-bees who tag onto the big games)
Oldham Athletic – Boundary Park.
Now it was my first visit here, and honestly, considering it used to be a Premier League Ground in the 90’s I was quite disappointed. The facilities weren’t great, it was loud and they have ok fans who try but I think the occasion got the better of them and they lost their heads. Ground 6/10 fans 4/10.
Now these two grounds I’ve never been to so I can’t review them. But one’s a typical promotion ground i.e. not big, isn’t going to be great for big followings and probably won’t last long in the league. The other is a typical ex-football league ground. The decent size will be able to accommodate large followings and probably has the facilities to match.
Solihull Moors – Damson Parkway.
Another ground operating well above where it should be. It’s not great even with the stadium upgrades they’ve made. No fans unless Birmingham City isn’t playing, and just an overall poor experience 3/10 for the ground and 1/10 for the fans.
Southend United – Roots Hall.
One of my favourite stops last year. Another ground I consider as Old-school. Ex-football league ground, so decent for big followings – facilities aren’t up to much but what you can say about them is their fanbase is up there with the biggest in the league. They’ve gone through so much over the last couple of years in the battles with their owners. But genuinely do wish them all the best and hope to see them in the league soon. Ground 8/10 Fans 9/10. #WEWANTMARTINOUT
Wealdstone – Grosvenor Vale.
Famous for the social media icon the Raider, that’s about as much as you get from this one. Another fairly recent promotion where the ground just doesn’t match up. Decent pin badges though and some of the loudest fans in the league. Ground 2/10 Fans 7/10
Woking – The Kingfield Stadium.
Good ground to be honest, the food is up there with some of the best, although it is an overly expensive ground for the National League. Class in the summer when it’s hot quite depressing when it’s not. Hope for a late kickoff as well, you can go across the road and get a second game in at Westfield. Ground 7/10 fans 3/10.
York City – LNER Community Stadium
Nothing on the old ground Bootham Crescent. Pray it’s not sunny when you visit because you won’t see anything. The atmosphere doesn’t travel either. Facilities are decent though and the food isn’t bad either. Ground 5/10 Fans 4/10
Fixtures to look out for.
Now we’ve taken a look at all the grounds, in my opinion, there are a select few that you really should be looking forward to and that makes life in the NL a little bit easier. Obviously, your close rivalry fixtures are always at the top of the list but for me, there are some absolute corkers that you can guarantee will end up being on Tuesday nights but feel like a lottery win if they’re on a Saturday.
I’ll list the top 3.
If you’re lucky enough to get Southend away on a Saturday, pray it’s while the weather is still warm. The stadium is about a 15-minute walk from the seafront where there are plenty of bars, cafes, arcades and even a fair.
As I said in the review, it’s a class day out. The ground is basically the town centre which means there are plenty of places for food and drink and hopefully Marc White is still doing what he does best-putting money behind the bar for travelling fans. Absolute Gent.
Woking Away (Late Kick Off)
Now this one, if you’re ever lucky enough to get it and Westfield happens to be playing at home works out an absolute treat. Gives you the chance to get two games in the same day, and they’re right across the road from each other. Honestly, one of the best away trips last year and not because we finally won at a ground I’d never seen us win at before.
There’re a few trips that don’t make it into the top 3 like Oldham Hartlepool and Chesterfield, they’re all decent trips and you’re guaranteed a decent 90 minutes of football without your biased glasses on. But they just don’t do enough for me I’m afraid.
Signing off for a Football League Tour.
I’ve kept you here long enough now, so I’ll sign this off as quickly and as painlessly as possible. There’s no real how-to with the National League, you’ve gotta buckle up and go along with it. You either love it or you hate it. Me I hated it. 15 years was far far too long. But, it takes you to places you’d never normally think of or know of and that’s the beauty of it. Enjoy the smaller grounds, enjoy being the bigger fish. It doesn’t last for long. Anyway, the league for next season is shaping up to be interesting and difficult to call, I’m looking at Chesterfield and Oldham and their recruitment and thinking it might be between those two.
Anyway, hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I’ll leave you with this.