Interview with a Magpie: What Dale can expect from the National League

After 102 years of English Football League membership, Rochdale AFC will, for the first time, participate outside the cosy parameters of the established senior set up.

So, what can we expect from the National League in 2023/24?

I caught up with Notts County fan and National League blogger Tom Williams to find out. I’ve followed Tom’s writing this season after catching one of his analysis pieces by chance. He certainly knows his onions. Give him a follow at @tomhwilliams23 or @AnalystsBar.

Tell me a bit about yourself – what team do you support? How long have you supported them? What got you into writing about the National League?

I’m a Notts County fan currently studying at the University of Reading, so I can empathise with what your fans are going through. I started writing about the National League last summer after my exams, as there was only so much Grey’s Anatomy I could watch with my girlfriend! It started out with quite basic stuff, but has evolved massively over the season.

As a team that has never played outside the EFL since it joined, what can Rochdale expect in terms of the National League standard?

I know everyone says it, but I think you’ll be surprised by the National League! The standard is really high, and not all that dissimilar to League 2, in my opinion. Just look at Stockport; they were a fraction from gaining back-to-back automatic promotions, and they could still go up via the playoffs.

You’ll also be surprised by the style of the teams. Of course, there are sides which play old fashioned non-league football, but there is an increasing amount of sides showing a commitment to playing attractive football. You’ve got teams such as Wealdstone, which are playing possession football using a part-time model, and other sides, such as Altrincham and Gateshead, which play fast, attacking football.

It’s a really diverse division, one with sides possessing a real range of styles. It’s one you’ll grow to love, too; I know I did.

You’ll also be surprised by the style of the teams. You’ve got teams such as Wealdstone, which are playing possession football using a part-time model, and other sides, such as Altrincham and Gateshead, which play fast, attacking football.

Tom Williams

Relegated teams rarely seem to bounce straight back to the EFL. Why do you think this is?

Teams that drop down certainly underestimate the level they’re going to. This certainly plays a factor, but, like you say, it’s quite well documented that sides which go down struggle, so I don’t think a lack of awareness is totally to blame.

Recruitment is a huge issue. Sides tend to bring in players with name value, ones on the way down and sometimes players who haven’t even played at this level before. These mistakes are made time and again, and certainly play a big role in relegated sides struggling.

I also think the structure of League 2, with just two relegation places, directly affects this. To get relegated from League 2, you’ve got to be quite poor (no offence). Usually, it’s sides that are a mess off the field that go down, and, because of the issues behind the scenes, it never gets sorted on the pitch. A combination of all three factors makes navigating life in the National League difficult to begin with.

Usually, it’s sides that are a mess off the field that go down, and, because of the issues behind the scenes, it never gets sorted on the pitch.

Tom Williams

What type of players should Rochdale look to recruit to compete effectively in the National League?

A mixture of National League experience and young, hungry players from the leagues below. While I’m not saying you should avoid EFL players completely, I do believe they should only be to supplement the squad; adding that last bit of quality.

Crucially, it has to be players that are coming for the right reasons. Those coming for one last pay day are never going to put 100% effort in. When the going gets tough, as it often does at this level, you need players you can rely on to get you out of the hole.

Recruiting from the divisions below can be difficult, especially as you don’t have a lot of experience at this level, but you’ve already been recruiting from the National League, which is an encouraging sign. Many fans might not have even heard of some of the players you’ll sign, but, if they are given time, they can provide the quality of this level.

Give me a rundown of the teams in the National League – who do you think will do well next season and why?

The favourite will be whoever loses the play-off final on Saturday. Usually the side who loses in the final struggles; Solihull finished mid table this season after going close last year. But both Notts and Chesterfield are considerably stronger than the rest of the league, so you’d imagine they’ll be clear favourites to win the league.

Oldham are another side who will be heavily tipped, as they had a strong end to the season. Similarly to Rochdale, Oldham dropped out of the Football League last season and, initially, they really struggled. But they’re heavily backed, and made a vast number of signings which eventually got them into contention. They’ve got a really talented squad, so you’d imagine they’ll build on it next year.

The other four sides in the play-offs, Woking, Barnet, Boreham Wood and Bromley, will all be confident of being up there again. All four sides have young managers who have really impressed, and the latter three have all looked defensively solid for the second half of the season. You can add Eastleigh into that mix too. They had a strong campaign, just missing out on the playoffs and, with a rumoured takeover, they could be big spenders this summer too.

I’ve already eluded to it, but the attacking styles of Altrincham (below) and, particularly, Gateshead make them interesting propositions next season. Both will be in with an outside shout of a play-off spot, with their young attacking coaches looking to take their sides one step further.

Who will be the standout players in the National League next season, in your opinion, and why?

My early tip for breakout player is Josh Kelly at Solihull. He took time to adjust to life in the Midlands, but, with Andrew Dallas now gone, he has had the chance to step up and show what he’s all about. A skilful forward with real end product, Kelly is still just 24, so has plenty of time to improve. He’s one to watch next season for sure.

Dominic Poleon scored 35 goals in the National League South this season, and he will be looking to make the step up with Ebbsfleet this time round. The top scorer in the National League this season came from the division below (Langstaff), and Poleon has bags of goal-scoring ability. I’d expect him to hit the ground running regardless of the step up.

If Tyler Cordner stays at Aldershot, I believe he will rise to another level from this season, where he’s already been arguably the best defender in the league. Composed on the ball, Cordner likes to bring it out from the back to start attacks. He’s also excellent defensively; no player made more blocks or interceptions this season.

What is the FA Trophy all about? Something to get excited about or is it a competition that teams don’t take seriously?

I really like the FA Trophy. It’s probably an unwelcome distraction for some sides, especially those at either end of the table, but, for those in the middle, it can turn an average season into a brilliant one. If taken seriously, it can be fairly simple to progress, due to some sides fielding weakened sides, so you can certainly go far.

At the end of the day, it’s a chance of getting to Wembley. Not many sides are able to say that. The final this season is Gateshead v Halifax, both of whom finished mid table. It’ll be a great day out for their fans, and, for whoever wins it, they’ll look back on it as a momentous occasion.

What is the fan experience like in the National League? There will be lots of new grounds for us to visit.

If Notts do go up, and fingers crossed we do, the thing I’ll miss most about the league are the grounds you get to visit. It’s a surreal experience visiting sides like Dorking and Wealdstone, where you are stood right by the pitch! You can interact with the players, almost touch them, and it makes for a truly unique matchday experience.

The atmosphere at some of these grounds is totally unique too. Eastleigh, for example, put us in a covered section where we were able to make ridiculous amounts of noise; it’s probably the best atmosphere I’ve seen this season, bar the play-off semi-final. You also get to experience plenty of brilliant matchday food. Altrincham is a personal favourite of mine, serving an excellent range of food options.

I’ve been quite fortunate this season to get to plenty of away games, and it’s something I would recommend to anyone. The National League has such a variety of grounds, all with something unique to offer. Dorking, for example, had a brilliant selection of pubs, with their owner/manager Marc White putting £300 of his own money behind the bar for away fans.

Altrincham is a personal favourite of mine, serving an excellent range of food options.

Tom Williams

How does the National League look after its member clubs?

I’ll be honest, this one is a bit mixed. They seemed to bow to the pressure Wrexham put on them about streaming, not really considering the impact it would have on other clubs. In fairness, I think the streaming service has had a positive impact overall, and it’s certainly been useful for analysis.

There’s a really fascinating documentary on YouTube called Gate Money: Inside Non-League Football’s Funding Fiasco that shines a prettying damning light on the National League. It’s well worth a watch, and probably gives a better insight than I could here.

In your own opinion, how do you think Rochdale will fair in our first ever season in the National League?

I actually think you’ll surprise a few. I certainly won’t be tipping you to bounce straight back, but the squad you have is actually quite well equipped for the National League already. Toby Mullarkey (below) is an excellent player, and one I don’t think you’ve seen the best of yet. He was, in my opinion, one of, if not the best defender in the league during his time at Altrincham, so he should really step up. Tyrese Sinclair had an amazing time on loan at Altrincham too, so he will be a big asset for you next season.

Tahvon Campbell showed during his limited time with Aldershot that he is more than capable at this level. He will be a good focal point to build round. And even Sam Graham, a player I’ve seen plenty of times for Notts, is good enough for this level. I think who you appoint as manager will be crucial though. If you get that right, you could certainly make a go of having a good maiden season in the National League.