I remember that warm day back in 2011 like it was yesterday. I remember driving in to the ground down Nettleham Road and being asked by a garage attended if he thought we’d stay up. I said no, and I really and truly believed that. Of course by the time sixty minutes had been played we were listening to Barnet and Port Vale on the radio, rather than watching our shambolic Lincoln side against Aldershot.
Once the final whistle went and our relegation was confirmed, there seemed to be a general malaise at what we were facing. There was no demonstration and no visible outpouring of anger. Dotted around the ground were grown men in tears, but groups of youths chased TV cameras on the pitch as if we’d just won a cup game. It seemed as a collective we were oblivious to what we were about to face.
Despite saying otherwise, most Imps fans expected us to make a swift return. Steve Tilson was still a manager in which we had (misplaced) faith, and some of the players he signed had to be better than this league, right? Josh Gowling was a League One centre half, and with the likes of Power, Perry, Russell and Jamie Taylor we had picked up the best players from other teams. We were Lincoln City, a proud Football League team that didn’t deserve to be in amongst this godforsaken collection of failed football clubs and aspiring pub teams.
As a fan I confess I had an arrogance about me. My team, Lincoln City, had to face teams like Braintree and Alfreton Town. Five or six years before we’d done battle in the League Two play-offs, and now we were going to play on parks and recreation grounds across the country. I rubbed my hands with glee at the thought of watching us put five or six past teams each week. I knew matches with Grimsby would be tough, and I knew ambitious Fleetwood would probably give us a stern test, but in reality I expected to be in the play-offs at the end of the season.
Braintree beat us 1-0 after a couple of games and that shut me right up.
We weren’t anywhere near the top five, we barely avoided relegation and in the second season we suffered the same fate. I still think there was an expectancy that we were better than the league we were in. I don’t think many people could accept we were a non-league club. Sure, we all paid lip service to those we played against. We all tried to vocally remain humble and accepting of our fate, but when we lost to the likes of Welling did we really feel that was the correct order of things? I didn’t, I felt we were losing to part time teams we shouldn’t even have the indignity of competing against. My hatred for Sutton and Tilson grew as I blamed them for our demise.
Some of the hatred needed to be directed towards myself and some of you reading this. You too will have truly failed to accept that we were at this level. Dwindling attendances paid testament to that, our once loyal hard core of 2,500 dropped to under 1,500. Those that drifted away simply couldn’t handle the harsh truth that we were a non-league club, and an average one at that. Even last season when we lost to Whitehawk it felt like we’d been the victim of a massive giant killing. The harsh reality of who we were was beginning to sink in, but not fully. I was still disrespectful to teams with 300 home fans who were beating us comfortably. I still felt even though our own attendances were awful, we had some sort of god given right to be at the top of the league. Had Liam Hearn not thrown a paddy and had we scraped into the play-offs then maybe my mind wouldn’t have changed.
It was two things that finally helped me make my peace and respect the teams around us. One was Grimsby getting promoted. They’d hovered around the top five or six for a couple of seasons, but when they jumped out of the league we lost the one match that had previously felt like a Football League clash. I had to spend time around Town fans in the days afterwards and seeing their elation and joy really hit a message home. They’d been on the cusp of a return for a while and yet despite having money and crowds they still had to go to Wembley and earn their promotion.
The other thing that made me accept our position in the grand scheme of things was (oddly enough) the emergence of Jamie Vardy. When he pulled on an England shirt he fired a warning shot to anyone that under estimated the quality of the National League set up. Here was a player who had come up from the very bottom, through the National League with one of those so-called small teams and ascended to the very peak of professional football. That had me thinking about George Boyd, Aaron McClean and Craig Mackail-Smith. It was then I realised that this league had always had quality contained within, and it was simply my attitude towards it that had been awry.
We should actually be proud of what we’ve achieved, and not just this season. A team coming down like we did faces an awful lot of challenges. Every side you play raises their game a little bit, certainly those who come up from the National League North and South. Crowds dwindle whether you play well or not, because fans perceived Salisbury at home to be far less prestigious than a visit from Rochdale or Oxford. You income falls but the expectancy rises, and there must be a temptation to overspend to try and get your league status back. Look at the National League North and count the ex-league teams in there. We could have been one of those, and whilst we have scraped the ‘bottom’ over the last five seasons, the danger of falling through it was real and present.
The National League, the Blue Square Premier, whatever you choose to call it, has always had a pedigree and a quality that a lot of the 92 Football League clubs don’t realise. When you’re in League Two your rarely look down and see what is going on through the trapdoor, because step five is nothing more than a nightmare scenario you want to avoid. If you’re afraid of spiders, you don’t go out and buy ‘Spider Weekly’ every Sunday do you? Why would fans of league clubs watch out below, especially those like Orient and Newport that are staring down the barrel of the relegation shotgun this season.
Whether we’re in this league or not next season won’t matter to me when I’m selecting my Sunday reading. I shall still buy the non-league paper even if we’re in League Two because, thanks to Jamie Vardy, Grimsby and of course Danny Cowley, I have a new found respect for the league we are in. This isn’t a collection of failed league clubs and pub teams on a lucky break. This is arguably the most competitive league in Europe, with one automatic spot to aim for and yet four relegation spaces. This is a league that feature ex-league clubs, not failed ones. The ones that have failed have dropped further still, and now they’re on their way back (Kidderminster, Stockport, Halifax, Darlington) better and stronger. Those ‘pub teams’ are actually just clubs who haven’t featured in the league set up, but who have ambitions and facilities that could grace the Football League (Fylde, Salford, FC United). There are the teams with a bit to spend in here as well like Barrow and Eastleigh, there are the teams with a lot to spend like FGR. Nowhere else in this country or across the continent does such a collection of uniquely different aspirational clubs come together in a league structure. We have the crop of the part time teams, often with professional quality players who can earn more money by doing two jobs.
We’ve seen the best side of the National League this season, and whilst I hope for nothing less than promotion and a return to ‘where we belong’, I will no longer take that Football League space for granted. Once the FA come to their senses and realise that the magic of football in this country lays with the little clubs fighting their way through to the upper echelons, then they’ll approved three up and three down. If you need examples of why this needs to happens here are some: Yeovil, Crawley, Fleetwood, Burton Albion, Wimbledon and Oxford. These teams came up, stayed up and now span three of the four top divisions. There are so many talented and able players and teams just waiting to burst up through the trap door, and similarly there are many tired and faltering teams in League Two that need the wake up call we’ve had.
That said of course I will spend the next weeks hoping and praying that we can regain our Football League status so that my continued interest in the non-league set up is as a fan who can say ‘we played there once’, as a fan who can track the progress of AFC Fylde without my team being the ex-league team they beat as they romp to the title. Most of all I just want to be in the first round draw for the EFL Trophy and face Derby’s u16 side, or whoever it is that they make you play these days.
(Feature photo by Graha Burrell)