6 Things We WON'T Miss About The National League
Thankfully, Rovers won't be subject to these non-League irritations in 2018-19
Hello and welcome to the fifth day of our ten-day countdown to the 2018-19 League Two season. If you have followed the countdown to this halfway point, let us extend a sincere 'thank you' for your support. We hope you have enjoyed the series to date. If you haven't yet caught the previous instalments, don't panic — there are links to previous entries in the series at the bottom of each page.
With just six days remaining to Tranmere's hotly anticipated return to the EFL, we must now turn our attention to the National League. It is said you cannot appreciate how far you have travelled until you look behind you, so for one last weekend, we are going to do just that. Today, we will list six frustrations from the Club's time in the National League, whilst tomorrow, we will reveal five non-League habits we will be sad to leave behind.
Without further ado, six things we won't miss about the National League:
1. Being a non-League club
The first, and perhaps most obvious, annoyance of the National League is the acceptance that, as a fan, you support a non-League club. That is not to say there is anything wrong with supporting a non-League team — indeed, tomorrow's list will attest to our enjoyment of certain elements of non-League life. However, supporting a club who had been a member of the Football League for almost a century, it really stings to no longer receive the yearly invitation to the EFL party.
It's hard to describe what the initial drop into the non-League scene feels like as a fan. You look at the sports pages of the majority of newspapers and suddenly realise that, if your league table is printed at all, it's in the top corner of the back page of the sports section in a font even those with 20:20 vision would struggle to decipher. The sports news outlets suddenly act as if you no longer exist, no longer matter without that EFL badge upon the sleeve.
In a nutshell, it's the perception that you have somehow become a lesser entity, both as a club and as a fan. Good riddance.
2. Qualifying for the FA Cup First Round
As recently as 6th January 2001, Rovers automatically entered the third round proper of the FA Cup on account of their second-tier status, defeating Portsmouth 1-2 at Fratton Park to progress to the fourth round proper. Following relegation later that season, there came a further fourteen seasons of guaranteed entry at the first-round-proper stage of the competition.
It was therefore a culture shock to enter the competition at the fourth qualifying round. It was even more disheartening to fail to qualify for the first round proper, not once, but in the first two attempts as a National League club. Defeats to Lincoln City (2015-16) and Barrow (2016-17) meant it would be three years between first round appearances.
It will be a welcome relief to bypass the qualifying stages again in 2018-19.
Even after three seasons in the National League, it was hard to adjust to the difference in scheduling. Whilst there were some positives to the National League schedule (discussed tomorrow), the overall non-League calendar was not especially engaging.
Given the nature of non-League facilities, and the need to slot FA Cup qualifying and FA Trophy matches into the schedule, the National League sees teams play an intense, condensed fixture list in the early part of the campaign. For example, Rovers had played seven league games by the end of August in 2017-18 — 15% of the league campaign within twenty-three days. By comparison, Rovers will play five league matches in August 2018, just 11%.
This difference may not appear huge, but with an absence of midweek league fixtures throughout much of the autumn, the EFL league season strikes a much better balance throughout the entire duration of the year. In non-League, if your club exits the FA Cup and Trophy early, as was the case in 2015-16 for Rovers, then the winter months can see a club go weeks between league matches.
4. Excessive gamesmanship
One look at the World Cup antics of players such as Neymar et al is enough to bring you to the realisation that gamesmanship is now a part of the sport of football at all levels. It has always been the case in some shape or form, with teams such as Wimbledon's 'Crazy Gang' famed for taking every advantage they could against the opposition.
Nonetheless, there seemed to be a definite increase in the frequency of its deployment within the National League. This is not referring to taking the ball into the corner to run down time, or to playing with ten men behind the ball to play for a point, as both are legitimate tactics, albeit annoying when your team faces them.
However, managers hiding the ball at the back of the dugout, players deliberately feigning injury and excessive force both on and off the ball are not courses of action a professional football team should be employing. Thankfully, Rovers' return to the EFL should see these actions becoming less apparent.
Part of the reason for the prevalence of gamesmanship in the National League could come from the influence of the officials. It is not unkind to describe the standard of the officiating in the fifth tier as poor for the majority of games. It is, of course, easy to sit behind a keyboard and pass judgement on the people with the hardest jobs in football, but even the untrained eye can spot a glaring mistake.
Decisions such as the 'penalty' that was awarded against Rovers in the away derby at Chester in 2017, where the tackle was clearly made a yard or two outside the penalty area, can and often did change the momentum of a game. Too often, the ball would go out for a throw-in and the assistant referee would stand still, steadfast in their refusal to give a decision until given the green light by the referee. Clear corners were given as goal kicks, offsides given when players were four or five yards onside.
Naturally, human nature dictates that, over the course of a season, bad decisions will go both for and against the team you support. That's a given. However, the frequency of bad decisions at National League level often meant the good decisions stood out for their infrequency.
Thankfully, Tranmere matches will be overseen by EFL officials again in 2018-19.
The final irritations that Tranmere will be better off without of surround attire. Granted, this is not as serious an issue as a brutal schedule or poor officiating, but it still had a cumulative aggravating effect.
The National League rules dictating all managers and coaching staff wear official league training wear may not seem like a big deal, yet it did have wider implications. Further to stripping clubs of their own identity, they served as a somewhat lowkey initiation to non-League football — “You're one of us now and you WILL dress as one of us”.
Those light blue jackets and sweatshirts will be constant reminders of poor results. Worn in the 1-4 and 0-1 home defeats to rivals Wrexham. Worn in the shambolic display against Welling United during the John King memorial game. Worn in the 2017 play-off final heartache against Forest Green Rovers. Granted, they were also worn in the play-off triumph of 2018, but in the balance of three seasons, there were far more bad memories of that training gear than good.
That shade of blue should be banned from Prenton Park forever, cast into history as a symbol of the non-League years. With Jako signing a ten-year deal to supply the National League in 2015, the remaining items should also be hung up around the Club as a warning of what awaits should Rovers fall back into the abyss!
Oh, and it's nice to be able to wear a black away kit again, even if blue was chosen this term. The mere fact that Tranmere could, if they wanted to, reintroduce a black away kit in the EFL is no doubt music to many an ear.
So that is the list. What are your thoughts? Do you actually like the blue training wear? Has the list been too harsh on the referees? Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and let us know the things you won't miss from the National League.
Remember: Check back tomorrow for day six of our ten-day countdown to the 2018-19 season.« 07 Days 05 Days »