The English Football League is a constantly evolving entity, involving a rotating selection of 72 clubs across three divisions. Adding in the Premier League, 92 sides are a part of the top four tiers of the game. Movement amongst the teams is based on a system of promotion and relegation, but it was not always decided that way, and the current status of some could have been very different.
Currently, the bottom two of League Two are relegated to the National League, with one automatic spot for the National League champion and a play-off place setting up two conference clubs making their way to the Football League. With the sometimes-uncertain nature of non-league football, it makes the League Two relegation battle extremely intense and captivating.
For the National League sides being promoted, several recent examples have shown the abilities that can come from this rise in the ranks. Forest Green Rovers avoided relegation in 2017-18, while Lincoln City finished seventh to earn a play-off place (eventually losing to Exeter City). However, having that opportunity was not always presented.
Until 1986, a re-election process was in place to decide the fate of many clubs throughout the Football League’s history. Those finishing at the bottom would have to re-apply for their spot, while other non-league sides would also apply in the hopes of taking the open place. Ultimately, this ended up being a way to shield some from dropping any further by the Football League.
The process made an impact after only the second recorded season, following Preston North End’s second consecutive top-flight title. While all involved were brought back once again after the first campaign, Stoke City were not so lucky in 1890. The Potters were dropped from the Football League, while Burnley and Notts County were re-elected. Several non-league sides were denied, including Newton Heath (who would later become Manchester United in 1902) and Grimsby Town.
Sunderland made their way to the Football League that year instead, although Stoke would return a year later. As the decades past by, there would be times where the Football League ensured a club’s status simply to keep the status quo. Now with two new sides having an opportunity to join, things seem to change quite often (this season Macclesfield Town and Tranmere Rovers make their return to league football).
However, some current cases would look quite different if the old system was still utilised. Finances and prestige can be modified with each passing year, and it is interesting to imagine what would have changed.
One of the most interesting examples of re-election’s effects can be found in the North East with Hartlepool United, who were saved more times than any other side through the process. On 11 occasions, the Pools were kept in the Football League, featuring a run of 89 consecutive seasons from 1921 until 2017.
The late 1970s saw financial chaos under chairman Vince Barker, from issues with their home grounds to seemingly constant managerial changes. The incredible aspect for Hartlepool is present just before true promotion was added, as the end of the 1983-84 term was nothing short of a disaster. Another poor finish at the bottom of the division, money troubles and dwindling attendance numbers were the signs of a club on the brink.
Remarkably, they would be re-elected for the next season (at the expense of Maidstone United) and kept their place in the Football League. The decades that were to come perhaps never should have taken place if Hartlepool were relegated to the conference all those years ago.
That fate did find them eventually in 2017, after pulling The Great Escape in the previous year. Now competing in the National League, Hartlepool United were sold to Raj Singh and were able to avoid liquidation.
Looking at events going in the other direction brings us to Leyton Orient, who suffered relegation in 2017 due to poor play and instability throughout the club. The O’s spent 112 consecutive seasons in the Football League, but are now taking part in another campaign in the National League.
The root of this downward spiral was former owner Francesco Becchetti, and his time with Orient is as startling as it was unsuccessful. Two relegations in only three years saw a club in the play-offs for a spot in the Championship to setting up for non-league football. Through it all, Becchetti went through managers seemingly on a weekly basis.
Orient played in the top flight during the 1960s and were in the FA Cup semi-finals the following decade. At the beginning of this decade, the club was not afraid to go after the Olympic Stadium as a potential home. But in the blink of an eye, they are now out of the Football League.
If the re-election process had still been in place, it is not unfair to assume that a club like Leyton Orient with such history in the league would be given another chance to right their wrongs.
Traditional Football League clubs can fall far, and it can difficult to re-gain league status quickly. That is the situation facing Stockport County, currently playing in the National League North. The Hatters spent more than a century in the Football League, with their longest stretch beginning in 1905 and ending in 2011.
For County, a new takeover ultimately brought about the drop, as plans made around manager Jim Gannon were complicated as the club’s finances were sorted. A change in ownership can be a difficult course to navigate, and perhaps the re-election process would have afforded Stockport County more time in a crucial moment.
Another National League North side with a unique history in terms of re-elections is York City, and they were fortunate to continue their run in the Football League in some respects. A run of 75 years in the Football League came to an end in 2004, but they were almost relegated sooner than that in the late 1960s.
In three consecutive seasons (1966-67, 1967-68, 1968-69), the Minstermen finished near the bottom of the old Fourth Division and required re-election each time to keep their place. This was a side that forced a replay in the 1955 FA Cup semi-finals against Jackie Milburn’s Newcastle United, and displayed incredible determination in doing so. But all that changed in the next decade, and York could have easily been relegated if not for re-election.
The club was re-elected six times in their history.
Wales has a unique relationship with English football, with the likes of Cardiff City and Swansea playing in the Premier League during recent campaigns. Wrexham are the oldest Welsh club (formed in 1864) and one of the oldest professional sides anywhere in the world.
The Dragons have lifted the Welsh Cup 23 times (more than any other club) and have added an EFL Trophy (2005) and FA Trophy (2013) as well. Their run in the Football League ended in 2005 ultimately due to a ten-point deduction for being placed in administration, much of that coming about from unpaid taxes.
Wrexham had to apply for re-election in the past several times, and it is interesting to consider how their plight may be viewed today if the process was still present. Welsh clubs have a historic place in the English football system, and it would be fascinating to see how that would play out in the current atmosphere.
The timing in which some clubs go down from the Football League can start a frustrating chain of events, and that went into effect for Lincoln City in the 1980s. In 1986, the Imps were relegated to the Fourth Division, where another relegation-bound campaign made them the first club to suffer automatic relegation to the Conference without re-election as a possibility for safety.
Manager Colin Murphy was able to guide Lincoln back the following year, and that habit is one of the true highlights of the club’s history in terms of re-gaining their status. While they hold the record for the most Football League relegations with five, on four occasions Lincoln were able to return the following year.
While those accomplishments are admirable, the re-election process forced several tough scenarios on Lincoln City throughout the years. Now following a strong showing last season, the Imps will look to move up to League One during the current campaign.
It is vital for football clubs to be financially sound, as can be seen throughout recent football history. For Premier League sides, the television revenue that comes in makes staying in the top flight more desirable with each passing year. The likes of Portsmouth, Blackburn, Leeds United and Blackpool have shown that it can take time to get back, and it can be easy to fall further than just the Championship.
Dropping out of the Football League can be devastating and present a difficult path for future success. However, several clubs have shown recently that this can be done, and a large part of that is by being able to play your way up to League Two. The re-election process made for a different world, one where results were not the final bottom line for promotion.