Stockport County is back. Eleven years after being relegated from League Two, Dave Challinor’s side have the National League in their rear-view mirror after winning automatic promotion as champions on Sunday with a 2-0 win over FC Halifax Town.
In the end, after six different standout leaders during the league season, County got to see fellow heavy hitters Wrexham as the title race dragged on until the final day. Both had stuttering starts to the season, but their quality – which some would say came courtesy of owners with pockets deep enough to match their ambition – finally showed.
Wrexham of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney will now enter a highly entertaining play-off system as in the National League there is no price for finishing second. The thrilling and slightly bonkers nature of the English fifth tier means a team simply has to be the best in the 44-game season to earn automatic promotion.
And County was, winning 30 games in total. Goals from Paddy Madden and Will Collar on Sunday secured promotion and the first step in their hopes of one day restoring the club to second-tier status for the first time since falling from that tier in 2002.
The Hatters are BACK! 🎩🏆
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 15, 2022
“Great to cross the line, huge achievement,” Challinor said after confirming promotion with a six-point margin following Wrexham’s 3-0 loss to Dagenham & Redbridge.
“But, hopefully the first step of many. I finished this (league) now, I lost a play-off final, won a play-off final and became a champion, so that’s fine with me. It’s much easier (to mount automatically). People say there’s no better way to go up than through the play-offs because it’s a unique game, but to be able to lift that trophy and have a few weeks off where I can watch other people who have to agonize to get to the final is really fun.
“It’s always the hardest part (the last part of the season). You discover the true core of people in environments like this. Winning football games at this level is extremely difficult when there is this added pressure. When there are ten games left, you still have 30 to recover from, but when it’s over, it gets a bit more difficult. They were great and responded to all the criticism they had and won the way we showed it.
Challinor guided Hartlepool United to National League play-off glory last season after beating Torquay United on penalties in the final before coming down to manage Stockport in November. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the league’s other promotion.
It’s a fairer system than the EFL play-offs, although more confusing. Teams that finish second and third are guaranteed a place in the semi-finals against the remaining teams in fourth-seventh who must play an additional game on their way to the final, to be held at the London Stadium in June.
This means fourth-placed Halifax will face seventh-placed Chesterfield, while Notts County and Grimsby, fifth and sixth respectively, will fight first before the semi-finals where Wrexham and Solihull Moors, who finished third, will enter the fold. Unlike the EFL, each play-off is played over a single leg, with a home draw determined by higher league position, which rewards competition to the finish.
But even with such an interesting system, with the division gathering more and more fallen giants – and soon to welcome the first former Premier League side to drop out of the EFL at Oldham Athletic – it seems grossly unfair that the league hasn’t still only two promotion places.
It has become increasingly difficult to be relegated from League Two, which usually happens as a result of serious financial or off-pitch mismanagement, or such poor form that relegation seems like an act. of mercy, while going the other way is more difficult than any other promotion in English football.
Ask Luton, who are now seeking promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs, who couldn’t make it out of the National League over a five-year period. Exeter City were also out for five years but are now returning to Ligue 1 while Lincoln City needed six years before a return. For Stockport it’s been 11 years, including a stint in the National League North, Chesterfield four and Notts County three.
This is why the National League, with 12 former EFL sides in the division plus York City, Boston United and Kidderminster Harriers one tier below, is so feared by struggling League Two clubs.
And it seems the two up-two down system is too lenient for freewheeling teams in League Two, just hoping someone else will be worse than them, when the standard is so high in the lower division . Chesterfield, Notts County, Grimsby, Dagenham and Boreham Wood all spent at least one matchday at the top of the table before Stockport got there in February and hung on to the finish.
Runaway leaders make for a less entertaining show and post-COVID, the sentiment among National League leaders is that healthy competition is good for the brand. But adding an automatic promotion second place and continuing to use the existing play-off system for third-to-eighth teams would be a popular move among clubs and their fans who believe, more than ever, that the league rivals the League. 2 for quality.
Challinor said this season was “the most competitive it’s ever been”, saying earlier in the year that “any team in this league in the top ten would not be comfortable, but would be able to face a Ligue 2 team”.
Achieving that would be a difficult feat with the ruling forcing EFL clubs to vote for an amendment that would run counter to League Two clubs’ interests in preserving their Football League status.
For now, Stockport can take comfort in knowing that their return to the EFL as champions has been confirmed.
“It’s a great city, a city that deserves a Football League club and now they have it,” Challinor said. “It’s the start, the first step, the hardest step. The challenge now becomes competing next year and making sure we’re really competitive because the ambition is the same – we want to be at newly promoted from League Two.
“Those are big statements, but that’s where we want to be.”
(Main image: Antoni Sarcevic shows the National League trophy. Photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)