From National League To The Championship – Who Has Performed Best?

Credit Graham Burrell

It’s been a challenging week to be a City fan, from the elation of getting within touching distance of Portsmouth, to back-to-back defeats, the home record going and a host of other issues. Imagine, this weekend, facing Fleetwood with no O’Connor, Rushworth or Roughan. Ouch.

After this week’s game, I spoke to some people who said you have to consider where we’ve come from. I understand there are those who also say you have to ignore the past, it’s gone, and you should be judged on where you are now. It’s a point I feel is right both ways up; I appreciate where we’ve come from, but at the same time, you can’t say ‘but we were playing North Ferriby a few years ago’ forever, can you? Live in the present, right?

North Ferriby – Credit Graham Burrell

The one caveat here is the experiences of others. How have other teams coped coming out of the National League? What have their fortunes been like? That, for me, is a good indication of whether we’re on the right track or not. After all, if we were fourth from bottom, but every team promoted from the National League since 2003 finished lower, then we’d be having some sort of success, right? I think so.

Therefore, someone needs to go all the way back to, say, 2002/03, and look at how the promoted clubs have got on. That person should then work out an average league position, based on the season those clubs have played back in the Football League and see if we’re above or below average. Well, I’m that someone. Starting with Boston in 2002, I’ve looked at every winner and promoted team from the non-league scene and tracked their finishing positions to give a (rough) average. I’ve worked on there being 24 teams in all divisions, I appreciate the odd season that isn’t the case, so positions may be inaccurate to one placing. It won’t be noticeable over ten seasons, but it could be for those promoted more recently.

Still, the results are interesting. I’ll look at a couple of the interesting aspects, then bring it back around to Lincoln

The Worst Performers

Boston – Credit Graham Burrell

It’s not good reading for Boston fans I’m afraid. I should perhaps have done this from the two up, two down era, which would have spared them the blushes, but even with five years in the Football League, their average finish is the worst of all the teams. Given the constant changing of the numbers in the division, it could be they just scrape an average of bottom of the National League, or top of National League North, but either way, it isn’t pretty.

York, Aldershot and Torquay United are all in a similar boat – they’re the only other clubs who have been promoted from the National League and have an average league placing outside the Football League. Of those, only Aldershot have not been lower than the National League, with York and Torquay both spending time in the regional sections. Barnet, one of only two teams to have come up, been relegated and come back up, average 24th in League Two. Grimsby are the other, and they average 20th in League Two since their first promotion.

Chester City – Courtesy of Graham Burrell

Chester City, Hereford United and Macclesfield Town are the only clubs to have come out of the National League since 2002 and since folded. Yeovil and Dagenham are the only other clubs to earn promotion and yet currently reside lower than the Football League.

Of the current Football League teams with more than three seasons among the 92, Morecambe are the worst performer. They may be in League One now, but their average position since promotion in 2007 is 14th in League Two. Recent arrivals Barrow, Harrogate and Hartlepool are worse than Morecambe but have far fewer seasons on which to be judged.

The Best Performers

Doncaster – Credit Graham Burrell

Despite the fact Luton are flying, the team with the most success since coming out of the National League is Doncaster Rovers. They’ve enjoyed five seasons of Championship football, two promotions and several top-ten finishes in the third tier. Their average position since winning promotion is 8th in League One, and they didn’t even win the National League, they were promoted as play-off winners behind Yeovil.

The next most successful are Luton Town, flying high in the Championship. They have the highest single-season finish of any team that has played Championship football, eighth last season, and they could better that this season. Their average is 12th in League One, mainly due to having four seasons in League Two after coming out of the National League.

The top three performers post-promotion are completed by Fleetwood Town, the bankrolled side from the north-west. Their average placing is 16th in League One, and they’re the highest-placed side to not have experienced Championship football, which points to them perhaps being the most established former National League team in the current League One setup.

Bristol Rovers – Credit Graham Burrell

This is where it gets interesting – the team tied in fourth for the best performances since coming out of the National League are Bristol Rovers and us. Between us, our average finish since promotion is 19th in League One, but Rovers do have two additional years on us. They also have a relegation and promotion. What I think is interesting is that us, Donny and the Gas are similar-sized clubs, along with two of the next three best (Oxford and Carlisle). Luton are an aspirational Premier League side, relegated on the final day of the old First Division and missing out on the riches it would bring, whilst Fleetwood and Burton (average placing of 20th in League One) have, to some degree, been bankrolled to get there.

Five Season Average

I’ve also worked out the best average placings after five seasons of data, which is where we are now. Our average, as you know, is 19th in League One, but are any teams better than that?

Yes, but only three. Bristol Rovers used promotion as a serious springboard and averaged 16th over their first five seasons, just bettering us, whilst Carlisle, promoted in 2005, averaged 12th after their first five seasons. The best-performing side, again, were Doncaster Rovers, who averaged 11th in League One after their first five seasons in the Football League. Just below us, Fleetwood and Yeovil averaged 20th in League One, which I think is a testament to our progress. Think of it this way – Yeovil, who eventually reached the Championship, had a lower average league position than us after their first five seasons in the Football League. Fleetwood, who sold a striker for £1m and were bankrolled towards the top of League One, also perform slightly worse.

Fleetwood – Courtesy Graham Burrell


There’s plenty to be gleaned from this data, in my opinion. Firstly, only two teams in the top 15 have been promoted in the last six years – Tranmere (average of 5th in League 2) and Sutton, with just a single season behind them. It suggests we have been on a great journey and experienced a rapid rise, which is still continuing, and that perhaps the challenge of the step up is getting tougher. Our average position of 19th in League One is likely to be improved upon this season, which is another huge positive.

The problem with football is teams are judged week-by-week, game-by-game, but rarely is the bigger picture seen, or accepted. Of course, it needs to be better than Peterborough, and in terms of entertainment, I would like to see more than we’re getting right now. However, of the 38 teams promoted from the non-league ranks since 2002, 33 have lower average league positions than we do. Teams such as Yeovil, with Championship football behind them, average 9th in League Two. Forest Green, for all their spending power, average the same. Grimsby, who we often get compared to by my Dad (especially after a defeat) were relegated again and struggled to capitalise on their success. We haven’t struggled to do that, and in our sixth season back in the Football League we are still ensuring we stay above average.

Grimsby – Courtesy Graham Burrell

It isn’t easy to have perspective when you think you know the direction a club is going in, but I keep hearing things like Oxford are the benchmark for us –  a decent League One side, trading players and keeping themselves out of relegation trouble (usually) – their average placing for their first five seasons back is 10th in League Two, and their overall average is 22nd in League One. Shrewsbury, a side who have been a staple of this division for a while, and who have bored me senseless on occasion since we’ve been back, are another I think we can look to for inspiration. Their average position since coming back is 2nd in League Two, and their average over their first five seasons is 13th in League Two.

Our rise has been exciting, but people forget that for all the fist-pumping moments of 2016/17, there were plenty of games that were tough to watch – Bromley at home sticks in my mind. Under Danny it wasn’t all fast, free-flowing football and plenty of people were moaning after the 1-1 draw with Oldham. The same can be said for Michael’s reign, and I begin to wonder if that’s a symptom of over-exposure to football. I remember Lincoln games of old, you’ve seen some of them on Crap 90s Football on Twitter no doubt – they were certainly tough to watch, but we look back fondly now on some of the players involved. Sadly, with football on every channel, on your mobile and constantly replayed, we have this view that all matches should be as watchable as the Premier League, or as exciting as everyone else. That isn’t always the case, it never was and it never will be.

Credit Graham Burrell

For me, this little study has proven that we are going in the right direction compared to others who have made the same journey, and surely, if we’ve got here under this chairman, board and club staff, then there’s no reason why we’d suddenly start going backwards. That still stands by the way, even if we lose the next two matches, of which I am a little fearful.

The Whole Table

Year Promoted Average Position
Doncaster 2003 8th L1
Luton 2014 12th L1
Fleetwood 2012 16th L1
Bristol Rovers 2015 19th L1
Lincoln 2017 19th L1
Burton 2009 20th L1
Oxford 2010 22nd L1
Carlisle 2005 1st L2
Shrewsbury 2004 2nd L2
Wimbledon 2011 4th L2
Exeter 2008 5th L2
Tranmere 2018 5th L2
Accrington 2006 7th L2
Crawley 2011 8th L2
Sutton Utd 2021 8th L2
Stevenage 2010 8th L2
Cheltenham 2016 8th L2
Yeovil 2003 9th L2
Forest Green 2017 9th L2
Salford 2019 10th L2
Cambridge 2014 10 L2
Mansfield 2013 13th L2
Newport 2013 13th L2
Leyton Orient 2019 14th L2
Morecambe 2007 14th L2
Hartlepool 2021 17th L2
Harrogate 2020 18th L2
Hereford 2006 19th L2
Grimsby 2016 20th L2
Chester 2004 20th L2
Barrow 2020 22nd L2
Dagenham 2007 22nd L2
Macclesfield 2018 23rd L2
Barnet 2005 24th L2
Torquay 2009 6th NL
Aldershot 2008 6th NL
York 2012 11 NL
Boston 2002 24 NL