With the relegation of Hartlepool United from League One, three of the four clubs that have spent the most number of seasons in the fourth tier of English professional football are back there.
The club with the most number of seasons in the fourth tier, Rochdale, are also only recently returned, having been relegated from League One the season before. Rochdale also hold the record for the longest continuous spell for any club in the fourth tier – 36 years from 1974 to 2010, which was brought to an end by their promotion in 2010 followed by two seasons in the third tier.
Below is a list of clubs that have spend 20 or more seasons in the fourth tier since it was formed in 1958:
- Darlington were re-formed in 2012 as Darlington 1883 after relegation from the Conference Premier and failing to exit administration via a creditors’ voluntary arrangement. In their first season, Darlington 1883 won promotion from the Northern Football League Division One to the Northern Premier League Division One North.
- Torquay United returned to the fourth tier in 2009, winning promotion from the Conference Premier via the play-offs.
Darlington remain the club which has spent the highest proportion of their time in the Football League since 1958 in the fourth tier – 47 out of 51 seasons, or 92.16%.
Other recent “returnees” amongst the 25 clubs listed above:
- Scunthorpe United at joint seventh, relegated from the third tier this season. In the eight seasons they spent out of the fourth tier after their promotion in 2005, they spent three (2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11) in the second tier.
- Exeter City, also at joint seventh, relegated from the third tier last season (2011-12). Having lost their place in the Football League between 2003 and 2008, promotion from the Conference to the Football League in 2008 was followed by promotion from the fourth tier to the third tier in 2009.
- York City, promoted from the Conference Premier last season.
- Mansfield Town, promoted from the Conference Premier as champions this season, after five seasons in the Conference Premier.
- Newport County, promoted from the Conference Premier this season via the play-offs Newport County were reformed in 1989 as Newport, after the former club was wound up, a year after being relegated from the Football League to the Conference. The The club changed its name back to Newport County in 1999.
Going the other way are another re-formed club, Aldershot Town, 10th on the list. The old club, Aldershot, resigned from the Football League before the end of the 1991-92 season due to mounting debts. Apart from being relegated to the Conference at the end of this season, Aldershot Town also entered administration on 2 May 2013.
Two other clubs on the list have been re-formed since they last played in the Football League – Chester City (in 2010) and Halifax Town (in 2008). As in several other cases, the re-formed club has risen through non-league. Both Chester and Halifax Town are back in the Conference Premier for next season – Chester as Conference North champions and Halifax from the Conference North via the play-offs.
Lincoln City, in fifth place, and Stockport County, in eleventh, were both relegated to the Conference Premier in 2011. Stockport County finished this season in the Conference Premier in a relegation spot.
Northampton Town in sixth place remain in the fourth tier having missed out on promotion to the third tier this season, losing in the play-off final. Crewe Alexandra in seventh place were promoted from the third tier via the play-offs the season before.
Northampton Town are one of four clubs in the list to have played in the top flight – back in 1965-66. On the other hand, they have only spent four seasons in their entire history outside the third and fourth tiers, having been in the second tier only in 1964-65, 1966-67 and 1967-68. In fact, they were promoted from the fourth tier in 1961 and returned to the fourth tier in 1969 – a quick rise and fall through the divisions.
Carlisle (at No. 25) likewise only spent one season in the top flight – 1974-75. They have also spent 15 years in the second tier -1965 to 1974, 1975 to 1977 and 1982 to 1986. The remaining two clubs:
- Bury (at No. 23), with 22 seasons in the top flight – 1895 to 1912, 1924 to 1929. All the 22 seasons were before the formation of the fourth tier in 1958.
- Bradford City (at No. 22), with 12 seasons in the top flight – 1908 to 1922 (7 year interruption due to World War II) and 1999 to 2001. Only two of those seasons have been since the formation of the fourth tier.
Doncaster Rovers, the remaining club in the first sixteen on the list (at No. 13), spent five seasons in the Conference Premier, from 1998 to 2003. After gaining promotion to the fourth tier in 2003 via the play-offs, the first time two clubs came up from the Conference, they followed up in 2004 by promotion to the third tier as champions in the fourth tier. Since then, they have bounced between the third and second tiers, avoiding a return to the fourth tier:
- 2004 to 2008 (4 seasons) in the third tier
- 2008 to 2012 (4 seasons) in the second tier
- 2012-13 in the third tier.
As champions in the third tier this season, they return to the second tier next season.
Other clubs on the list that have played in the second tier:
- Lincoln City, 34 – 1892 to 1908, 1909 to 1911, 1912 to 1920 (4 year interruption due to World War I), 1932 to 1934, 1948 to 1949, 1952 to 1961, 31 before 1958, 3 since 1958
- Stockport County, 26 – 1900 to 1904, 1905 to 1921 (4 year interruption due to World War I), 1922 to 1926, 1937 to 1938, 1997 to 2002, 21 before 1958, 5 since 1958
- Chesterfield, 20 – 1899 to 1909, 1931 to 1933, 1936 to 1951 (7 year interruption due to World War II), all before 1958
- Crewe Alexandra, 12 – 1892 to 1896, 1997 to 2002, 2003 to 2006, 4 before 1958, 8 since 1958
- Scunthorpe United, 9 seasons – 1958 to 1964, 2007 to 2008, 2009 to 2011, all since 1958
- Southend United, 7 seasons – 1991 to 1997, 2006 to 2007, all since 1958
- Gillingham, 5 – 2000 to 2005, all since 1958
- Peterborough United, 5 – 1992 to 1994, 2009 to 2010, 2011 to 2013, all since 1958
- Wrexham, 4 – 1978 to 1982, all since 1958
- Colchester United, 2 – 2006 to 2008, all since 1958
- York City, 2 – 1974 to 1976, all since 1958
- Darlington, 2 – 1925 to 1927, all before 1958
- Mansfield Town, 1 – 1977 to 1978, since 1958
- Hereford United, 1 – 1976 to 1977, since 1958
- Newport County, 1 – 1946-47, since 1958
The relegation this season of Barnet and Aldershot Town from the fourth tier to the Conference further supports the contentions in my earlier article Years In The Football League – Post-1987 Relegation Versus Pre-1987 Longevity. Clubs that have been in the Football League continuously since 1921 or earlier are less likely to be relegated to the Conference than clubs who first played in the Football League after 1921 or have previously lost their place in the Football League, no matter how many years they spend in the fourth tier.