In the last decade, a total of four new Clubs have been welcomed into the EFL fold: Forest Green Rovers, Salford City, Harrogate Town and Sutton United.
With Forest Green and Harrogate currently occupying the top two spots and both vying for promotion to the Sky Bet League One, as those Clubs well know, the first stabilising season is the most important.
After clinching promotion to the League for the first time in Sutton’s 123-year history, what are some of the lessons the Sky Bet League Two newcomers can take from their EFL rivals? We look at some of the key components to sustainable success in the fourth-tier…
A balanced recruitment drive
Ask any promotion-winning manager for their best nugget of advice and they will tell you one thing: keep the nucleus of the squad together. Striking the perfect blend between experienced heads and new and emerging talent is a challenge for any EFL side, but it’s all the more crucial when finding your feet in League Two for the first time.
In their inaugural campaign, Salford City nurtured young talents, including Ibou Touray, who was named in the 2021 League Two Team of the Year after signing for Salford from non-league Nantwich Town, and Manchester United loanee George Tanner, who inked an agreement with Championship side Bristol City in the summer. Alongside the youthful genes, Salford also enlisted experienced professionals Richie Towell and Michael O’Connor to cement their League Two standing.
Sutton comparison: On the surface, Sutton have done just that. The South Londoners poached notable names from the non-league pyramid, including promising youngsters Donovan Wilson and Alistair Smith joining from Bath City and Altrincham respectively, releasing just six members of the squad that were crowned champions of the National League last year in the summer.
However, the fourth-tier Club also boast the oldest outfield EFL debutant, as Craig Dundas made his League Two bow aged 40 years and 207 days at the weekend, whilst Saturday’s matchwinner Richie Bennett also has EFL experience on his CV with Carlisle United, Morecambe and Port Vale.
Sharing the goals
As is the case for the majority of newly promoted teams, a prolific marksman is one of the key ingredients for success. However, it is a lot to ask said super striker to carry the burden alone, hence why newly promoted teams tend not to rely on the one player to provide the goods.
Christian Doidge’s goals played their part in Forest Green’s entry to the EFL and, after managing to keep hold of their prized frontman, the Welshman made the seamless transition from the National League. Hitting double figures once again, Doidge ranked as League Two’s fifth-highest top scorer, just five strikes short of golden boot winner Billy Kee.
Reuben Reid, Dayle Grubb and Omar Bugiel – who, incidentally, is now on the books of Sutton United – all contributed to Forest Green’s overall goals tally, bagging 14 goals between the three of them.
Although Doidge departed The New Lawn for pastures new, Harrogate Town’s promotion-winning top scorer Jack Muldoon is still finding the back of the net for the high flyers, with three goals to his name to date this campaign. And, in Harrogate’s maiden EFL season, 17 different players got in on the act as Simon Weaver’s side finished up in 17th place.
Sutton comparison: Securing the services of Isaac Olaofe on a temporary basis from Millwall for a second season could prove pivotal in Sutton’s bid for survival. The Lions loanee notched 14 goals in 37 appearances as the Club ascended to the EFL and Sutton will be hoping he can replicate that form in League Two.
In addition, midfielders Harry Beautyman and Rob Milsom also chipped in from midfield last season and former loanee Wilson is Sutton’s joint top scorer this season, alongside summer signing Bennett.
The first taste of victory
Nothing beats the feeling of that all-important first League win and there is no questioning the lift it gives newly promoted teams to kick on in their inaugural campaign.
For Harrogate and Salford, fans didn’t have long to wait for that first taste of victory, as the West Yorkshire side vanquished Southend United 4-0 on the opening day of the 2020/21 season, recording just one defeat in their first six fixtures, in the wake of the campaign’s curtain raiser.
And although history demonstrates that there are likely to be peaks and troughs over the course of the campaign, a significant proportion of newly promoted teams have been known to have a post-winter revival, picking up around February to March time, as the EFL heads for the home straight.
On the back of a run of four straight defeats in December 2017, Mark Cooper’s Forest Green side went on to win three of their four League Two matches in February 2018, whilst Salford enjoyed a five-game unbeaten run between January and February 2020, and Harrogate won four out of a possible six February fixtures to give Simon Weaver’s side a glimpse of hope.
Sutton comparison: Not for want of trying, it took Sutton four games to settle into the rhythm of the fourth-tier. At the weekend, the EFL newcomers came from behind against Stevenage as Richie Bennett secured maximum points for Sutton, with two historic second-half strikes rounding off a 2-1 win over Alex Revell’s men. Buoyed by their first League win, Matt Gray's men then followed it up with a 1-0 victory against Hartlepool United in midweek.
The local hero
Lastly, to firmly establish yourselves in the fourth-tier, it goes without saying that local connections are often at the core of the managerial team – whether it be an existing affiliation to the Club or where they first cut their managerial teeth.
Upon his appointment at Forest Green Rovers, owner Dale Vince said boss Mark Cooper had “Forest Green in his veins”, having captained the side between 2001 and 2002 as a player and subsequently claimed Supporters' Player of the Year for his efforts whilst at the Club. The 52-year-old spent five years at the helm before parting company with Forest Green and was ready to do it all over again when he was named as the new Barrow boss in May 2021.
Harrogate Town chairman Irving Weaver, on the other hand, took a chance on his own son, 12 years ago with the West Yorkshire Club on the brink of bankruptcy. And although the Harrogate manager initially admitted he had reservations about the father-son relationship, never did they imagine they’d achieve what seemed like the impossible back when Simon Weaver took up the post in 2009.
Sutton comparison: From one win in 14 and at risk of the chop to National League Manager of the Year, London-born Matt Gray has earned his rightful place in the Sutton United history books.
Working his way up the ranks, from coach to interim boss and finally, Sutton manager, Gray’s initial mission was simply to preserve the Club’s National League status and he had a mountain to climb. But he took it one step further. With all the odds stacked against him, Sutton fans rallied behind their manager, raising money for the squad budget.
Under his stewardship, the South London side have already made history and there’s no doubt Sutton will feel in safe hands under his stewardship.
|Club||Inaugural EFL season||League finish|
|Forest Green Rovers||2017/18||21st|