The Rise of the National League

The success of the English fifth tier is seemingly ever growing as it continues to rise in popularity year by year.

In the 17/18 season there were eight non-professional clubs in the National League, now there are only four non-professional clubs left.

Sutton United turned professional and have since been promoted from the National League to League 2.

On the current state of the National League, Sutton’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Allison said: “It’s certainly the case that even the least professional side in the National League’s top division is probably more professional than it has ever been.

“Without doubt that fluidity up and down the pyramid is ensuring the top ranks of ‘non-professional’ leagues are ever more populated with professionalism and that trend I can’t see reversing anytime soon.”

The league has grown in popularity rapidly in the last few years since Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought Wrexham and created the popular TV show “Welcome to Wrexham”.

The National League had already been growing rapidly even before then, but how?

Since the 17/18 season the clubs who have turned professional include Solihull Moors, Halifax Town, Woking and Sutton.

Sutton have undoubtedly been a huge success story, after reaching the heights of the fourth tier for first time in their history in 2021.

Before promotion they were still non-professional and many of the players still had a full time job.

Allison, who also serves as Club Secretary of Sutton, said:

“The pathway to professionalism started not long after becoming members of the National League following our promotion from National League South.”

On the clubs promotion from the National League, Allison said: “It is fair to say though that the step up from the National league to the EFL was a larger one – and in honesty not one that was expected on the time frame that occurred.

“On the pitch the immediate recognition and additional steps were not so much with players, other than going full time and training during the day and not evenings to fit around the number of players that had dual jobs, but in the area such as medical, fitness etc.”

The COO also spoke on the challenges of becoming professional.

He said: “These were numerous and on the football side after securing a squad anticipated to be competitive enough to stay in the EFL involved professionalising areas such as Medical Care, Fitness etc. “

“The biggest challenge was getting the stadium ready.

“Unlike many clubs being promoted into the EFL this was our first time at that level and the rules of membership required significant changes they wouldn’t be encumbered by.

“Hartlepool for instance that were promoted in the same season (and a few weeks later) merely returned to a previous status quo.

“We needed to rip up a 3G pitch, install new floodlights, introduce ticketing hardware and software to name just three.”

Allison believes that Sutton are in a better state now than they have ever been as a club.

He said: ”I think the answer has to be Yes, but caveated with the reality that the challenges the club faces are also the most difficult.”

With Sutton’s recent success, it seems they are the blueprint for the current national league sides to follow.

Will the success last

The most recent season of the National League was a huge success for the league as a whole.

According to the average attendance improved significantly after 20/21 which happens to coincide when Ryan Reynolds joined Wrexham.

The average attendance has also fallen since Wrexham got promoted showing that they had a huge impact on attendance.

However the big take from these statistics are that even after falling, average attendance is still up significantly since 2021.

The National League is on the up and despite no more Hollywood and TV dramatics, the division is still going strong.

Image Credit: Michael Ripley on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

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