Torquay United manager Gary Johnson believes the National League should now be considered the Football League’s third division - and get another automatic promotion place.
By Steven Oldham
National League needs three up, three down
With the vast majority of Step 1 clubs now playing full time, the 66-year-old thinks the competition should be absorbed into the Football League.
In doing so, he believes that the competition would be more attractive to players who currently see a move into non-league as a step down.
Johnson said: “ I feel that the National League should now be part of the Football League, 100%. In my opinion it is a third division. Everyone wants to play the ex-League teams, including us, even though they don’t like travelling down here.
“Players would rather play in the Football League at a lower end team, than at a better National League team. If we became League Three, I’d also get my opportunity to get to 1,000 games managed in the Football League - I hope to do that before I die!
“I think three up, three down is a great idea. If you’re going to be part of a FL system, it has to be as it is elsewhere in terms of promotion. They have to embrace that because there’s some big teams in this league. It’s such a difficult league to get out because of the strength of it. It’s not just a handful of the teams who can compete - it’s a majority. If our league wasn’t full time, then I wouldn’t support it.”
Outdated system frustrates National League sides
The current system with the champions and a playoff winner gaining promotion to League Two has been in place since 2003.
It remains the only countrywide league to have just one automatic promotion spot, with League Two conversely having three and one more for the playoff winners.
Any changes would need to be voted through by League Two members, who may unsurprisingly be anxious about an increased chance of relegation.
The current system has led to the league being described as a graveyard for ex-League teams, with promoted sides rarely coming back down. Indeed, clubs often flourish and gain further promotion or at the very least remain competitive in League Two.
The bottleneck at the top of the National League has seen many sides fail to regain promotion to the 92. Wrexham have now been part of the division for 13 years and have lost in the playoffs four times.
Bolton Wanderers boss Ian Evatt - a National League title winner with Barrow - also supports more progression from Step 1. He described the current arrangement as ‘daft’ ahead of his side’s FA Cup tie with Stockport County last weekend.
Torquay missing experienced players
Johnson admits his side have been ‘absolutely average’ so far this season, with Torquay 16th in the table ahead of Saturday’s game with Dover Athletic.
As memories of last season’s play-off final defeat to Hartlepool United begin to fade, The Seagulls find themselves in a transitional phase.
Eight players were released in the summer, with Aaron Nemane and Kyle Cameron both moving on to Notts County despite being offered new deals. Ben Whitfield signed for Stockport County and Lucas Covolan joined League Two side Port Vale.
“We’ve had some good games, and some average and some poor results. We’re bedding in a new group of players. We’ve lost a lot of experience recently - Danny Wright, Asa Hall, Tom Lapslie are all out injured. They are the experienced backbone of the side, and we’re missing them.
“We’re 13 games into the season, so there’s plenty of time, but we need to catch up quite quickly now. There’s so many good teams that are going to be up there. Looking at the teams up there at the moment, there’s none that I look at thinking they will drop away.
“We’ve got a good group of lads. I’m still enjoying it and I enjoy working with the players. I know they’re doing their best, and some of them are improving. We just need to get our full squad back fit. If we can do that, we can definitely match anyone in the league. We have to prove that and start winning consecutive games. We need to go on a run of 3-4 games, which is difficult in this league,” he said.
Johnson cautiously optimistic ahead of Dover clash
This weekend sees Johnson’s side take on bottom club Dover Athletic at Plainmoor. Dover have yet to win all season and are still on -9 points, cut adrift at the bottom of the division. They’d still be bottom even without their 12 point deduction for breaking league rules.
Although many will have this down as a home banker, the ex-Bristol City boss is not writing his opponents off.
He hopes confidence is building within his players, who have picked up strong results in their last two games.
“It is a good opportunity for us, but nobody goes through a season without winning a game. Dover still have dangerous players in their team. They’ll be confident at the start of games. If you give your opponents confidence by not starting well, all teams can be dangerous.
“Winning creates confidence. We won against King’s Lynn and got a good draw when Hollywood came to town against Wrexham. We’re on the verge of being confident, and we haven’t lost at home in three games.
“It’s been a tough start with a new group of lads - we’ve played a lot of the top eight to ten teams already,” he said.