For Leyton Orient last season was quite possibly the worst season in their history. Not only did the abject football on the field see them end 112 years in the Football League bottom of the pile, ten points adrift of fellow relegated side Hartlepool United, but off the field things were even more wretched thanks to owner Francesco Becchetti. He went through 11 managers during his three years in charge, five in the last 12 months, and oversaw a financial meltdown that put the very existence of the club in jeopardy. The Orient fans were put out of their misery when Dunkin Donuts C.E.O., and lifelong Orient fan, Nigel Travis sealed a deal to buy the club from Becchetti. Travis has since appointed former O’s manager Martin Ling as the club’s Director of Football, and ex-Crewe Alexandra boss Steve Davis as manager to take care of things on the pitch as together they rebuild the club on and off the field. Their collective aim will be to bounce straight back up to the Football League at the first attempt, but history shows that isn’t always as straight forward as it seems.
It is now 30 years since promotion and relegation between the Football League and what is now known as the National League began, in that time 20 clubs who could be termed established Football League sides have dropped into the fifth tier of English football. Of those 20 only three have bounced back up at the first time of asking – Lincoln City in 1988, Carlisle United in 2005 and Bristol Rovers exactly ten years later. Cheltenham Town also did so the year after Rovers but having been a non-league team for their entire history prior to first getting into the Football League in 1999 they don’t necessarily fall into the category of an established League side. Colchester United were back after just two years when they were relegated from the then Division Four in 1990 but generally, it takes a while for teams to come back up – if at all in some cases.
Lincoln City rightly gained much praise for their F.A. Cup exploits last season, successfully combining that run with success in the League winning the National League four points ahead of Tranmere Rovers. For The Imps, it was the second time they won the fifth tier but unlike 1988 this time it took them six years to get back up having last been relegated in 2011. Second placed Rovers are also an ex-Football League club, of course, having come down in 2015, they are now facing a third successive season at that level having lost to League newcomers Forest Green Rovers in the play-off final at the end of last season. The Wirral club won’t be alone in the National League next season when it comes to former Football League opponents, the Prenton Park side being one of 12 sides in that division this season who have played at a higher level.
Of those 12 only one – Barrow – fell from grace outside of the last 17 years, the club failing to gain re-election, the old system the Football League used to occasionally allow non-league teams a crack at the League, in 1972. Since then they have yo-yo-ed somewhat in non-league circles, this latest spell in the National League currently at two years. To many, Barrow would traditionally be seen as a non-league club – as would Macclesfield Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and Maidstone United. All three have been in the Football League, albeit Maidstone only for a three-year spell between 1989 and 1992. For the majority of their histories, all three clubs have competed outside of the top four tiers of English football. With the remaining five teams their past was very much a Football League one but a familiar story for them all – to differing degrees – has seen them languish in the fifth tier, or lower in some cases.
That common issue – unsurprisingly in the modern game – is money. All five clubs have seen major financial issues over the last decade and more that have seen them – and other ex-league teams currently at a lower level – struggle to maintain their previous status. F.C. Halifax Town and Chester F.C. were both league stalwarts in their previous guises of Halifax Town A.F.C. and Chester City, both ultimately folding due to money issues and reforming as the phoenix clubs they are today. Both restarted in the Northern Premier League before working their way back to the National League, Chester making it back in three years in 2013, Halifax joining them in the same year having started in the NPL in 2008. For Chester, it is eight years since they were last in the Football League, for Halifax it’s 15. With both clubs now living more within their means than the old clubs did it could be a while before their fans see a return to the fourth tier and above. It is a similar tale at fellow phoenix clubs Darlington F.C. – who were known as Darlington 1883 up until April of this year when the F.A. approved the club’s request to revert to their traditional name – and Hereford F.C., the club that rose out of the ashes of the defunct Hereford United. Darlington, currently in the National League North and denied a place in the play-offs last season due to ground grading issues, were last in the Football League in 2010, Hereford – having gained back-to-back promotions in their first two years’ of existence – sit in the Southern League Premier Division, two levels below the National League, five years after the old club was in League Two.
Money issues don’t always mean clubs will end up going bump – but as the new clubs mentioned have found – those issues do mean that going forward you need to cut your cloth accordingly as the likes of Torquay United and Wrexham have found out. Torquay have bounced between League Two and the National League, rarely having the money to properly compete at the higher level. For Wrexham, and their long suffering fans, it has been a long time away from the comparative glory of their Football League days as the 2017-18 season sees them start their ninth consecutive season in the National League, and again it’s all been about living within their means for the North Wales club.
Wrexham may have been in the fifth tier since 2008 but their issues date back a further four years. It was then that the current owners, Wrexham Supporters Trust, were formed with the club having been put in administration and with the chairman, property developer Alex Hamilton, keen to evict Wales’ oldest club from the ground that they had resided in since their formation for his own development gains. The administration came with the club £2.6 million in debt to various creditors, the Inland Revenue the biggest at £800,000. They were the first club to suffer the ten-point deduction now standard for teams in the same financial situation, a deduction which was enough to see them relegated from League One at the end of the 2004-05 season. That season did actually see them win the Football League Trophy (now the controversial Check-a-Trade Trophy) and signs were looking up for them off the pitch too in October 2005. That was when Birmingham High Court ruled Hamilton, who had ‘inherited’ the club from the equally abhorrent Mark Guterman, had improperly acquired the freehold of the ground. Then, in April 2006, an agreement was reached with local businessmen Neville Dickens and Geoff Moss to take over the club. Had that agreement not been reached the club had been in serious danger of being expelled from the league due to their financial issues.
If the Wrexham supporters thought that was the end of their money woes they were seriously mistaken. By 2011 – already in the Conference as it was then – Moss was to announce the club was out of money, with staff – playing or otherwise – going unpaid as was a £200,000 bill to the taxman. It was at this point the Supporters Trust stepped up and bought the club and are still there, running things, six years later. They ensure the club lives within its means so they don’t end up in trouble again but as a result, they struggle to challenge at the top end of the National League financial restrictions mean a high turnover of players each year as they continue to balance the books. A perfect example showed itself last season when forward John Rooney, brother of Wayne, was loaned out to National League rivals Guiseley, eventually signing permanently for the Yorkshire club. He moved on from North Wales one game short of triggering a clause in his contract that would’ve seen him given a new deal by the club, one Wrexham – it would appear – could not afford. Some pundits are predicting Wrexham to have an outside chance of glory this season after some of the signings manager Dean Keates has made, but the spectre of money still hangs heavy over the club with the Trust having recently started a ‘Build The Budget’ campaign where supporters are asked to fund Keates’ and the club’s ambitions.
It could be worse. Former league sides York City and Stockport County will be facing each other in what will be a difficult National League North this season. For York, it’s their first season at that level having had back to back demotions in recent seasons. They’re no strangers to money issues with an administration back in 2002 before the almost inevitable relegation to the National League two years later. It took them ten years to get back to League Two only to last four years before dropping back down with finances again an issue. At that point chairman Jason McGill put out an appeal for £1 million to cover running costs over the following two seasons given the lost revenue from dropping out of the Football League while they wait for their new community stadium to be completed. The drop into the National League has apparently seen television money drop by £200,000 but parachute payments from the Football League to the tune of £400,000 in the first season and £200,000 in the second would likely have covered much of those running costs. Those figures suggested deeper issues on the back of McGill’s appeal that the local press later revealed when the company accounts showed liabilities outweighing assets by more than £4 million, with interest payments on loans due to the chairman’s company, J.M. Packaging, of £361,000 due to be added.
Stockport’s situation is, or was, arguably worse. The Cheshire club was a Championship side as recently as 2002, but the intervening years have seen financial turmoil at Edgeley Park too – including the sadly familiar spell in administration in 2009 – which has gone hand in hand with them gradually sliding down the leagues. They currently find themselves in the National League North – a place they have resided in since 2013. A once proud Football League club now employs its players part-time and in 2015 set modest aims of being back in the league by 2020 and to put in place a credible plan to buy back their ground from its current owners, Stockport Council. The final aim was to become a club run on a sustainable basis, an acceptance of – like Wrexham – they now need to live more frugally. By doing so it could be well beyond 2020 before County fans get to see their club back in the Football League.
All these tales come back to, as previously stated, money. For too long too many teams in the Football League were living beyond their means just to stay there. Eventually that catches up with you, as many of the relegated sides have found, and when they have gone down they have found the clubs they perceived to be smaller than them to be in a much more stable condition financially, free of the legacy of spending to try and stay in the league and therefore in a better position to move forward than the relegated clubs. You only need to look at the likes of Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town, two clubs who were traditionally non-league sides until relatively recently. Burton went up in 2009 and are about to commence their second season in the Championship, with praise from many how well run they are off the field, as well as on it. Similarly, Fleetwood – a Northern Premier League side as recently as 2008 – made it to the League One play-offs last season and are tipped to do well again this year. Some may argue that their success is down to being bankrolled by owner Andy Pilley, with the kind of money supporters of the likes of Wrexham probably look on enviously at, and they’d be right. Pilley bought a club that was going nowhere until he came in but neither did it have that legacy of debt that many Football League clubs have from the collapse of ITV Digital, the collapse of the transfer market as it was, as well as ever spiralling wage costs. A club like Fleetwood was a much more attractive option to invest into, a blank canvas. Forest Green Rovers are another example of a traditionally non-league, well-run club that has been backed by a wealthy owner to reach the league and will be certain to be followed by the likes of AFC Fylde and Salford City soon. They are part of a new order in football which may mean the likes of Wrexham, Halifax, Chester et al may never return to their previous status.
The secret for Leyton Orient and fellow relegated side Hartlepool United is to have their off-field affairs in order if they do the parachute payments will see them in a strong position to bounce straight back just as Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham Town have done in recent years. Orient having Travis’ backing may well have the best chance, especially with hem bringing in some quality new signings, with Pools it may be a different scenario. It was revealed recently by new chief executive Pam Duxbury that the north-east club was on the brink of financial ruin last season, despite denials both publicly and privately by chairman Gary Coxall. Apparently, the club was very close to going into administration thanks in part to an over inflated wage bill and was saved from three winding up orders for unpaid taxes over the course of the season, with Coxall already admitting there may be ‘some bumps in the road’ this season. Interestingly their new manager this season is Craig Harrison a man whose entire managerial experience has come at non-league level in the Welsh Premier League. Maybe it is a sign that Hartlepool may look down the leagues in future for new players so they can cut their cloth to fit their circumstances for a club that some might say were overdue a drop to this level. Hartlepool hold the record for the most re-election applications under the old system, 14, and have largely struggled over the last four or five years in the league.
For both last season’s relegated sides it will not be an easy ride, with the National League proving to be a strong league year on year, even having your finances in order is no guarantee of getting out of that league – as Tranmere have found. The fact there is still only one club promoted automatically and one other via the play-offs adds to the difficulty in getting into the Football League. There is a stronger argument than ever to increase the number of teams coming up from the National League; in the past it was felt the clubs coming up weren’t strong enough to survive but with the ‘traditional’ non-league clubs that have gone up in a better state than those they replaced that view struggles to stand up these days.
Whatever happens to Leyton Orient this season, we at In The Stand Sports will be keeping an eye on their progress and keep you informed about what is likely to be another intriguing season in the National League whether you’re an ex-league club or not.