How many teams are promoted from the National League? How automatic promotion and play-off system works

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Wrexham and Notts County are both vying for a place in the Football League

National League general manager Mark Ives says introducing ‘three up, three down’ promotion to the Football League would be the best way to move English football forward, adding that it is simply the ‘fairest thing’ to do.

The change would provide a huge shake-up in the English Football League pyramid and would offer further incentives to clubs in the fifth tier of football. Last season the likes of Wrexham and Notts County both smashed the record points tally of over 100 points as they competed in one of the most exciting promotion races in recent history.

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This year’s season was dominated by champions Chesterfield, while the likes of Barnet and Bromley are waiting to discover their opponents in the play-off.

The topic of adding additional automatic promotion places has been something that fans have demanded for years, but how does the current automatic promotion system work in the fifth tier and how does the play-off format work in the National League? Here is everything you need to know.

How does the National League promotion system work?

As it stands there is only one automatic promotion place available for team’s in the fifth-tier of English football. This season’s winners were Paul Cook’s Chesterfield who have led the way virtually all season to bounce back perfectly from last term’s play-off final loss to Notts County.

How does the National League play-off system work?

Up until the 2001/2002 season there was only one promotion place available for teams in the fifth-tier with the league champions earning a spot in League Two. This changed in 2003 when Doncaster Rovers became the first side in history to earn a place in the Football League via the play-offs and they did so in style with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge in the final at the Britannia Stadium.

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Doncaster Rovers were the first team from the National League to get promoted through the play-offs. (Getty Images)Doncaster Rovers were the first team from the National League to get promoted through the play-offs. (Getty Images)
Doncaster Rovers were the first team from the National League to get promoted through the play-offs. (Getty Images) | Getty Images

Since 2003 there have been two promotion places available for teams in the fifth tier of English football and two sides have subsequently been relegated from League Two each year. The play-offs have played a decisive role in the promotion battle at the end of the season. Prior to their promotion last term, Wrexham suffered the heartbreak of defeat in the play-offs on five different occasions between 2008 and 2023 before ending their 15-year wait to return to the Football League.

The current play-off format, which was revamped in 2017/18 sees the six teams ranked 2nd to 7th compete for a final promotion spot. The teams placed 2nd and 3rd in the league join the play-offs at the semi-final stage while the teams ranked 4th to 7th battle begin at the quarter-final phase. In recent years the likes of Grimsby Town, Hartlepool United, Harrogate Town and Notts County have all secured a place in League Two through the play-offs.

Will the National League get an extra promotion place?

The National League is viewed as one of the most difficult divisions to be promoted from in English football and many clubs struggle to win promotion at the first time of asking.

Last year a report in the Daily Mail revealed that an extra one could be up for grabs in the near future. The report stated that the EFL were ready to offer three promotion places to teams in the National League as part of their financial reset being demanded by chairman Rick Parry. However, as of yet no change has been offically announced.

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The rules regarding the ELF’s promotion and relegation system would need to be approved via votes from a majority of clubs and it would not be introduced until next season at the very earliest. This means that the runner-up in this season’s National League will be forced to battle their way to promotion via the play-offs.

Last season, Wrexham owner Ryan Reynolds said it is “insane” that only one club is guaranteed an automatic promotion spot.

Speaking after his side’s crucial 3-2 victory against Notts County last April, he said: “It’s just insane to me in this league that only one goes up automatically. If it were different - and I think it should be - both of these clubs would be celebrating together right now.”

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