With the excitement of the Football League play-offs, the FA Cup final and England’s pre-Euro 2016 preparations, focus has understandably not been on the National League, English football’s fifth tier.
This season, Cheltenham Town marched to the title, winning 30 of their 46 games, losing only five, and amassing a mighty 101 points to secure promotion back to the Football League at the first time of asking.
Joining them in League Two next season are Grimsby Town who beat Forest Green Rovers 2-1 in the play-off final to return to the Football League for the first time in six years.
This leaves Tranmere Rovers, a club that was for a long time a fixture in the Championship and League One, and featured in the League Cup final as recently as 2000, facing a second successive season in the fifth tier.
Gary Brabin’s men have arguably underachieved this season, with inconsistency denting any hopes of a finish within the play-off places. Despite being joint 5/1 favourites with Grimsby to gain promotion, Brabin’s men finished sixth, one place and two points outside of the play-offs. This does at least represent a decent effort, considering that the club had suffered relegation in the two seasons prior to 2015-16 and they had to almost completely rebuild their squad. Getting a winning mentality back to the club was a tough ask for the new manager and he should be praised for turning the club around after such a poor 24 months.
It should also be noted how difficult teams tend to find bouncing straight back from relegation to the National League. In recent years Bristol Rovers, Barnet and Cheltenham have all managed to go back up quickly but the struggles of clubs such as Grimsby Town, Oxford United, Cambridge United and Luton Town show just how difficult the task of getting out of the division can be – in part due to the small number of teams that can be promoted but also because of the improvement in quality of teams in non-league football.
All that said, Brabin could and should have done better than a sixth-placed finish and Rovers should have at least been able to compete in the playoffs. Considering that Cheltenham came down with Tranmere, the contrast and a feeling of ‘what might have been’ must be strong on the Wirral. Gary Johnson, Cheltenham’s manager, did a great job in rebuilding his squad and getting them to gel quickly into an efficient and impressive unit.
Tranmere will be looking to challenge again next season and really have to take their chances and gain promotion again as soon as possible. The National League next season does not have any huge clubs in it and Tranmere should expect to be challenging for automatic promotion, not just the playoffs. It is always a league in which the old cliche that anything can happen really does apply but Tranmere must learn from this season and use this to put them in good stead for a promotion charge. Consistency is key and they need to add goals to their game in order to properly challenge.
Here is hoping they can escape the bottleneck at the top of the National League next year…