Now, more than ever, the National League is gaining the respect it deserves.
BT Sport’s coverage has of course raised its profile in a big way, but the fact that almost all of the clubs in the league are now full-time, the calibre of managers and players it attracts, and the sheer competitiveness of the three divisions all point towards a ‘League 5’ mentality.
There was a time when dropping into the ‘Non-League’ was seen as terminal, an utter disaster, and yes of course it can be, the likes of Darlington, Chester, and most recently York, will testify.
With only one automatic place available – a rule I strongly disagree with – the National League is extremely difficult to get out of.
This, combined with the fact that parachute funding only lasts for a year and a half if you are relegated from League Two, means there are now so many clubs that have a plan, a vision, and a burning ambition to make an immediate return.
From the age of 35, for the last four years of my career, I absolutely loved my time playing in the National League. Don’t get me wrong, it was stressful at times and two play-off defeats with Oxford and Torquay United were tough to take. These clubs and their fan bases had huge expectations so subsequently gaining promotions with both clubs in the following seasons was a huge achievement and relief.
I was fortunate to be at clubs where we were fighting at the top of the league, but these ‘bonus’ years as a footballer was a privilege, being able to help younger players on and off the pitch, and as a captain being able to help the manager and staff.
The changing room in the week and especially on a matchday was my sanctuary – a place where my three children wouldn’t be asking me what expedition we were going on and where my wife wouldn’t be able to give me any ‘snagging’ jobs.
I would walk into that changing room, put on a pair of shorts and sliders and have a laugh with the boys, trying to both relax and motivate your team-mates in equal measures. We didn’t even look at our phones back then, and it wasn’t that long ago!
Seeing the social distractions for young players now it’s an entirely different pressure. It’s a full-time job now to manage modern players social media accounts, something I still can’t quite get my head around, but when you see careers being made and forged through reality TV shows, or by jumping into a bath of beans on the internet, it’s all about self-promotion. I wouldn’t be surprised at some stage to see players promoting their own Insta accounts on their shorts, shirts, or even on their tattoos!
For the National League, North and South there are so many positives to promote…young players being able to learn their trade to experience Saturday football, where three points is everything. It is such a brilliant platform to show your capabilities.
We have seen so many players either drop down a few leagues to reignite their careers, or carve themselves careers at a higher level by playing consistently well in the National League at a standard so well respected by managers up and down the country.
Or, how about seeing those golden oldies being able to share their wisdom and experiences in the latter stages of their career? Almost every club has ‘veterans’ that have seen it, done it, and got the T-shirt. These lads are still giving everything for their clubs, and they usually win the crowd over.
As a player, you are well aware that the end is near, but you believe you can add huge value to a club and its players. I can speak from experience in that I really do wish I had played for longer, and I was 38 when I finished.
The life you have, at whatever level you play, is fantastic, acknowledging just how fortunate I was to still be doing a job that I loved. I’m sure there were plenty of fans doing the same with their windows and thanking the Lord when I did actually finish, but let’s not go there…
Going to the ‘dark side’ as they call it and becoming a manager or coach, your life completely changes. The roles are all-encompassing, they dominate your life every day, both physically and mentally. Being able to turn off as a player is difficult to do, but as a manager or coach is nearly impossible.
One of the best moments for me in this league is seeing the faces of fans, the players, the staff, and their families, when promotions happen. What it means to the area, the town or the city, it cannot be underestimated. I have had the privilege to see this first hand at Wembley both as a player and a pundit, all of that toil and hard work, and at times tears, to get over that line.
There is something quite unique and special being promoted from the National League. That’s why we are all in football, for those incredible moments.