It feels strange to say this now, but early in my playing career I would look down on the National League. It was known as the Conference then, and there was a perception that it bore no comparison to the standard in the Football League. Few people would voluntarily take a step down to that level.
Now everything has changed. I would go as far as saying that the top flight of the National League is of a higher standard than League Two. The final weekend of the season looks tantalising: Stockport will be guaranteed to go up if they draw with FC Halifax Town and, whether they or Wrexham take top spot, you would fancy whichever side miss out to do well in the playoffs. There are massive clubs looking for a return to the league – Notts County, Grimsby and Chesterfield too – and you would not bet against any of them getting successive promotions if they make it.
It is the same at our level, the division below. At Hereford we fell short of the playoffs, despite giving it a good go in the second half of the season, but teams such as York have got there and it is easy to imagine them getting the momentum to progress through the divisions.
The National League is so competitive now but, at the same time, it has the hierarchies you see everywhere above it in the pyramid. It is getting more financially stratified: there are clubs operating with huge budgets and I know of sides in our division who, although they finished below us, have three times my budget. There are some who have at least £1m to spend on paying players and I would bite your hand off for even half of that.
We are seeing businessmen take over clubs with the understanding that, if they put wealth in and run them well, they can quickly take them several levels higher and make a healthy return. Some are able offer two- or three-year deals and, again, that is unfathomable at Hereford currently. The disparities are growing but it just adds to the challenge: we have always known we need to work smarter and faster than others, and we hope the data analysis model we installed last year will continue to bear fruit.
In non-league, though, clubs that do not have big resources are constantly vulnerable. Before I worked at his level, I barely knew what a non-contract player was: now it is a reality of the job that we cannot take many chances so, if there is someone we want to develop who seems like a risk, we often have to employ them on that basis. Often these are hungry, talented players who had fallen between the cracks or out of the game for some reason. With a bit of development you often find they do very well, but that leaves you open to seeing them poached by clubs who can afford to offer them concrete deals.
That happened to us recently when Maziar Kouhyar, who I mentioned in a Guardian column in February, joined York; we received nothing, even though we had worked hard to turn his prospects around. No complaints: we know the rules. But it is striking that clubs can derail one another’s seasons by signing their key players so easily, and it becomes more pronounced when the gap between rich and poor widens. It makes you feel a bit insecure as a manager, at times: if a player starts performing, the vultures begin to hover.
In general, I think the financial structure within which we work in non-league needs a rethink. One specific example is the lack of recourse we have when it comes to compensation for academy players. We cannot sign a youth player until they reach professional age but if a 16-year-old is doing brilliantly for us he can go to a league club with no compensation. Early in my tenure we lost a talented kid to Bristol City for nothing; we could have a gifted 14-year-old keeper now and Liverpool, for example, would not owe us a thing. At a time when even a five-figure sum can transform the prospects of a less well-off club at our level, that does not seem right. If we cannot balance out the inequalities within our own division, it seems important that we find a healthier relationship with the extraordinarily wealthy clubs far above us. Non-league clubs are now more productive than ever and should be rewarded appropriately.
This pre-season I will be casting my eye around for the players who can take Hereford to the next level, even if again we will have to defy the odds. While we have lost key individuals – including our entire front three – during the season, the upside is that we have a reputation for helping players to get better and kick on. It is an important part of our sales pitch to them and, of course, just as we see other clubs take our players it is inevitable that we look to take talent from lower down too. That is the food chain: we just aim to improve our position in it and hope that, a year from now, we are looking at the end of the season with that buzz of anticipation too.