Wrexham and Notts County prove the unarguable case for greater EFL meritocracy

Ian King
Ben Foster saves a penalty for Wrexham vs Notts County in the National League

Wrexham beat Notts County, but that so much was resting on this game in the first place has reignited a familiar National League conversation piece.


As denouements go, it was certainly a strikingly dramatic one. Six minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the National League match between Wrexham and Notts County at The Racecourse Ground on Easter Monday and with the home side leading 3-2, a blow of the referee’s whistle brought a late chance at redemption for the visitors for handball.

Cedwyn Scott stepped up to take the kick, only for it to be saved by stand-in goalkeeper Ben Foster.

The result put Wrexham three points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand and three left to play. After the match, manager Phil Parkinson had to try to calm everybody down just a little bit: “We’ve got to keep our feet firmly on the ground because we’ve achieved nothing yet.”

And it’s true. Wrexham have had a couple of false dawns over the last year or so, including an agonisingly close run for promotion at the end of last season which ended with a 5-4 home defeat against Grimsby Town in the semi-finals of the play-offs and an FA Trophy final defeat against Bromley at Wembley. That they should have bounced back from such disappointments to get back to a position in which promotion is within grasp is an achievement in itself.

But this match, which was described as ‘the most important match in the history of non-league football’, has prompted questions as to why there should only be one automatic promotion and relegation place between the National League and League Two in the first place. After all, football is an adjunct of the entertainment business these days, and more promotion and relegation places mean more interest and more at stake for more clubs. And furthermore, there doesn’t even really seem to be much of an argument against it beyond the fact that this is the way it’s always been.

Except, of course, it hasn’t. Automatic promotion and relegation between the EFL and the non-league game has only existed since the 1986/87 season, and until 2003 there wasn’t even a second promotion and relegation place. That only came in with the introduction of the sweeping changes to the non-league game which ushered in the National Leagues North & South, with the second promotion place to be decided through play-offs.

More or less since its formation in 1888 the Football League had effectively been a closed shop, with the only way in coming through a byzantine system called ‘re-election’. At the end of each season, the bottom four clubs in the league would have to reapply for their place for the following season, along with any clubs who wanted to be voted in themselves from outside, and the four clubs with the most votes would be admitted for the following season.

The result of this was decades of relative stasis, with considerable opacity over what clubs needed to do to persuade existing league club chairmen to vote for them. A perception grew that re-election was a means by which existing Football League clubs would exclude those from outside. Changes might only come every five to 10 years, and even when they did they occasionally defied logic. In 1960, for example, Gateshead were voted out and replaced by Peterborough United, despite having only finished third from bottom in the Fourth Division at the end of the previous season and not previously having had to seek re-election since 1937.

This decision, it was darkly muttered, was more about Gateshead’s relative geographical isolation than anything else. Clubs, it was argued, simply didn’t want to travel all the way to the north-east of England any more, and whatever the other merits of Peterborough United may or may not have been, they were certainly geographically more convenient.

This was a theme that reared its head almost every time a club was replaced from here on. In 1972, Barrow were the unwitting victims of Hereford United’s success in the FA Cup. In 1977 and 1978, the relative outposts of Workington and Southport were replaced by Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic.

Gateshead, for the record, went bust in 1973.

By the end of the 1970s, the tide was starting to turn. The clubs of the two top semi-professional leagues of the time, the Southern League and the Northern Premier League, formed a new league called the Alliance Premier League in 1979 with the express intention of securing automatic promotion and relegation, primarily through reducing the non-league pool down to one application per summer, which it was hoped would prevent the watering down of the non-league vote.

But still there was controversy. In 1980, Altrincham were the darlings of the non-league game, having won the inaugural APL and after having taken Spurs to a replay in the FA Cup third round in 1979. They spent £50,000 bringing their stadium up to scratch as well another £10,000 on a campaign to get the support of Football League clubs.

At the Football League’s 1980 AGM they were thwarted, beaten to a place by Rochdale, who’d finished bottom of the league in two of the last three seasons and three times in the previous seven, by a single vote. Altrincham had received support from Grimsby Town and Luton Town for their application, but on the day of the vote one of the representatives was unable to vote because he was in the wrong room while the other got the day of the meeting wrong and hadn’t turned up at all.

The decision to finally allow automatic promotion and relegation finally came about as a result of Super League talk. In September 1985, with the game in crisis and crowds having hit record lows, 10 clubs – including Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Newcastle and Southampton – got together to discuss reforms for the game.

Among their ideas were for the Third and Fourth Divisions to revert to being regional and for them to become part-time, and while this didn’t end up happening the Football League did finally acquiesce to automatic promotion and relegation. In 1987, a Scarborough team managed by a certain Neil Warnock became the first team to earn their place in the league through meritocracy alone.

The second promotion and relegation place was added in 2003. The National League increased its play-off places from four to six to try and instil a little more interest in the end of their season, but allowing more automatic promotion and relegation places has never been their decision to make. That has always been down to the EFL, and just as turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas, so the EFL have consistently rebuffed attempts to get the number of these places increased.

Perhaps the success of automatic promotion and relegation has been an unlikely reason for this stasis. After all, in more than three and a half decades of it, no club has ever been relegated straight back into the non-league game after just one season in the EFL, while the non-league football landscape is littered with the half-breathing cadavers of clubs who fell through that particular trapdoor and were unable to stabilise themselves. Only one of the seven teams relegated to the National League since 2018 – Grimsby Town – have won promotion back. Wrexham themselves have been a non-league club for 16 years.

It’s fair to say that some of the comments made by the new Wrexham owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney since they took over have been somewhat self-serving. Their aggressive advocacy of allowing clubs to stream all of their matches, for example, is surely a belief that would benefit a club owned by people with global reach more than one owned by a local butcher, baker or candlestick-maker. But in the case of promotion and relegation places, it can’t really be considered a matter of being self-serving alone if such a change would benefit the non-league game in a broader sense.

It’s also understandable that EFL club owners might look at what happened to come of their former opponents following relegation and shudder. The financial costs are certainly real. Crowds in the fifth tier have been increasingly healthy in recent years, but commercial revenues drop with relegation, and even if the amount of money that League Two clubs make is just a fraction of that earned by Premier League clubs or the Championship, it’s still substantially more than National League clubs make from theirs. This could be mitigated by a more even distribution of money between these two divisions. It would benefit the whole of the game in this country. This, of course, doesn’t make it any more likely to happen.

There has been talk of increasing that number this season. In December, the Daily Mail reported that EFL chair Rick Parry was prepared to add a third promotion and relegation place as “an acknowledgement at the EFL that they also have a responsibility to assist clubs further down the pyramid”. And it’s time. EFL club owners concerned over an extra relegation place should probably remember that a third promotion place may benefit them, should they fall through the trapdoor themselves. Whether Parry’s comments were influenced by the comments of the Wrexham owners on the matter remains uncertain.

There does come a point at which this state of affairs starts to look slightly silly. The match between Wrexham and Notts County had so much riding on it because these two clubs had pulled so far clear of the rest of the division. The National League will end with two teams having earned more than 100 points. They are both deserving of a place in the EFL next season on merit alone. And the most fundamental perversity of all is that either could yet end up failing to get promoted. After all, there will be five similarly ambitious teams ready to take them down in the play-offs.

Celebrity ownership has been kind to both Wrexham the football club and Wrexham the town. Their money is rejuvenating the club, and the town itself has surely never had a higher public profile. These results can be extremely tangible. When goalkeeper Rob Lainton damaged his knee ligaments in March, they were able to bring in a former Premier League and England goalkeeper as a short-term replacement. But the knock-on effects of this were equally tangible for Notts County. Had they converted that penalty, they would have gone into their last three games with the pressure still very much on their opponents.

Parkinson was right to say that “we’ve achieved nothing yet”, but the truth of the matter is that both Wrexham and Notts County have already done more than enough to merit promotion. If Notts County – or indeed Wrexham – do end up missing out on promotion this season, it will be the outdated rules that are to blame.