English Football's Fairytale Story (And It's Not Leicester)

As I’m writing this, following a 1-1 draw with Manchester United today, Leicester City could be crowned Premier League champions tomorrow if Spurs cannot beat Chelsea. Leicester’s season has been described as a fairytale, but I don’t think it is. While Leicester winning the league will be an incredible achievement, they’re still an extremely wealthy club who are owned by a multi-billionaire. Not really Hans Christian Andersen is it?

The English press are missing a trick, as the real fairytale story in English football may take place four divisions below the Premier League, and has been largely ignored.

English football below the top 4 divisions has a pyramidal structure of 19 levels. You can create a team, enter a league and one day they could play in the Football League or the Premier League, with AFC Wimbledon being an example of a team which worked its way up the pyramid to become a Football League team. Towards the bottom of the pyramid are smaller, regional leagues, and as you work your way up the pyramid, the geographical area covered by league increases.

At the top of the pyramid is the National League, which used to be called the conference. It covers the length and breadth of England and Wales, and every season sends two clubs into League Two, with 2 teams dropping into the National League. The National League champions, which this season was Cheltenham Town, go up automatically; and the next four teams playoff to see who gets the other promotion spot.

To those not familiar with it, the National League causes a bit of confusion. It is the point where part-time and full-time football meets, which means that some people don’t think it is a league to be taken seriously. Earlier this season an article on ESPN described the National League as a competition for “weekend wingers and glorified amateurs”. 

That isn’t the case at all. It may be referred to as ‘non-league’, but the National League is taken very seriously by those in it and is every bit the vibrant, well-organised league that the leagues above it are. 30 games a season get televised, and there is a weekly highlights show on British TV. It’s also a very tough league to get out of. Cheltenham are only the second team to go back up at the first time of asking in the past 11 years. There are some well-known clubs who have been stuck at this level for years.

It is however true that there are some part-time teams in the league. What constitutes a full-time team vs. a part time team is up for debate; but if you were to say that a part-time team trains 3 times a week or fewer, then this season out of the 24 teams in the National League, there were 8 part time teams.

Those teams are at a huge disadvantage to their full-time rivals. As they don’t train as much, they aren’t as fit. They also can’t attract the same calibre of players that their full-time counterparts can. Most of the players will be semi-pro rather than full-time professionals, so have to balance training, which for most part-time clubs takes place in the evenings, with a day job.

It’s not a surprise to see most of those clubs fighting to avoid being one of the four teams that get relegated each season from the National League. For those clubs, avoiding relegation is a good season. Finishing mid-table is brilliant.

However, this season, two clubs have a chance at doing something extraordinary; as Dover Athletic and Braintree Town, both part-time clubs, are in the National League playoffs and have a chance to go up into the Football League.

Both teams have done exceptionally well to make the playoffs. Braintree finished 3rd in the league and Dover finished 5th. Both have made it to the playoffs at the expense of far more famous teams, with far bigger budgets and fanbases, such as Tranmere, Wrexham and Macclesfield.

Dover is on the South-east coast of England. It’s famous for its white cliffs, having the largest castle in England and for being a major ferry port as it is only about 26 miles from Dover to Calais in France.

What Dover isn’t well known for is football. Dover is in a bit of a football hinterland. Dover is in the county of Kent, which has a population of about 1.5m people, but only has one team, for now at least, in the Football League, League One side Gillingham, about 45 miles away from Dover. In fact, the closest league football team to Dover is US Boulogne in the French third tier.

This season is Dover’s best ever league season in terms of league position, beating their previous-best 6th place in the 1999/2000 season and they have built on an excellent last season, where as a promoted club finished 8th under their highly experienced manager Chris Kinnear. Their reward is a 2-legged playoff tie against National League runners-up Forest Green Rovers.

Forest Green are another interesting club. They are based in Nailsworth, which is a tiny village of about 5,000 people in Gloucestershire, which is another part of the country not to have a league club at present, though Cheltenham will change that next season.

Forest Green are owned by Dale Vince, who owns a very successful green energy company. As a result of his influence, Forest Green are Britain’s first, and probably only, vegan club. They don’t serve meat in the stadium, or cow’s milk and even any alcoholic drinks sold are vegan. Their New Lawn stadium is also Carbon-neutral, with the pitch being organic, as in only natural fertilisers being used, there are solar panels on the roofs of the stands, they use solar powered lawnmowers and they do other things like collecting rainwater to recycle and convert cooking oil into biofuel.

Possibly an even less likely story than Dover is Braintree Town. Braintree is in Essex about 50 miles north-east of London. The team have been in the National League since 2011 and came close to the playoffs when they finished 6th two seasons ago.

After a disappointing last season and with manager Alan Devonshire electing not to extend his contract, Braintree appointed 37-year-old Danny Cowley as manager, after he had impressed as manager of Concord Rangers, where he took them up three divisions to the National League South, the level below the National League.

Danny (left) and Nicky Cowley

Danny (left) and Nicky Cowley

As well as having part-time players, Braintree also have a part-time manager as Cowley is a full-time PE (Gym) Teacher, as is his assistant manager, his brother Nicky. Both brothers teach at the same school, and both will need the day off this week as Braintree will travel up to Grimsby, who were beaten in last season’s playoff final.

Braintree have based their performances on an excellent defence; having only conceded 12 goals at home all season and have managed to use the conditions of their home stadium, their pitch has been branded the worst in the league, to their advantage.

Braintree have also had the happy knack of raising their game when they needed to most. On Saturday, Braintree were the televised game against Altrincham. Altrincham had to win to avoid relegation and Braintree could have been overtaken by Tranmere Rovers had they lost. They could have been forgiven for being nervous, but instead they took control of the game early and coasted to a 3-0 win.

That fearless attitude is one that Cowley wants his team to have. He said:

"For us I don't think we've got anything to fear. Certainly there's no pressure of expectation on our shoulders.

"We're just going to go in, making sure that we keep getting the processes right, keep trying to outwork teams and see where it gets us.

"There are some big clubs steeped in history with big fan bases, and we've thoroughly enjoyed going to all the grounds and playing against those teams."

Should either Dover or Braintree win promotion, they would be faced with the dilemma of whether to go full-time or not. Football League rules state a club needs to have full-time admin staff to be eligible, but, as I read it at least, doesn’t seem to disallow teams with part-time playing staff; but you would think they would need to go full-time in order to stand any chance of competing,

Whether they could afford to go full-time, even with the extra income that being in League Two would bring, is another question. Also, the wages they would be able to offer may not be enough to persuade people to leave their jobs in order to become full-time footballers.

The good news for both Dover and Braintree is that their stadiums meet League Two criteria, something which has prevented clubs from being promoted in the past.

It will be difficult for either Dover or Braintree to get promoted. Both Forest Green and Grimsby are far more experienced, full-time clubs, but both Dover and Braintree have exceeded all expectations to get as far as they have, and they will go into those games dreaming of defying the odds once again.

As Danny Cowley said: “What’s bigger than a miracle? A fairytale.