BT Sport’s National League presenter Matt Smith believes the gap between non-league’s top tier and the Football League is decreasing every year.
In recent years a number of clubs have built upon promotion from the National League and had successful first seasons in the Football League.
Last season Darrell Clarke’s Bristol Rovers achieved consecutive promotions and just fifteen months after securing a Football League return, they will ply their trade in SkyBet League One this season.
With more and more clubs in the National League operating on a full-time, professional basis Smith believes that the gap will continue to shrink as more clubs apply methods seen at the top end of the game on a regular basis.
He said “From what I have seen, and I will see a lot more this season, but what I have seen in FA Cup coverage of National League clubs in the last season or two is that the gap between the National League and League Two and perhaps even League One is decreasing.
“Obviously some clubs in the league are semi-professional but you could almost apply that to some Football League clubs.
“There are some subtle changes that have been made with things like advanced fitness regimes and the application of sports science.
That has spread throughout the National League and that allows them to thrive and to compete at a higher level”
However, Smith believes that there is one major difference between the National League and those that feature at the top end of the game.
With the lucrative player contracts and multi-million pound transfer fees thrashed out on an all too regular basis, Smith admits that he can see why many supporters have turned to the non-league game, with supporters finding it easier to related to players and managers.
“What you get in the National League is an honesty” he said, “it’s still the game that I think we, as fans, can relate to easily.
“It’s not from another galaxy as the Champions League or Premier League can seem at times but it is a standard of football we are relate to.
“Obviously I will endeavour to maintain the connection between clubs and supporters.
“For me, as a supporter, I have feared for the way the game has gone in recent years.
“The connection between club and fan, certainly between fan and player, has stretched because of the rewards on offer at the top end of the game.
“It has become a bit Hollywood, these guys exist on a different planet almost, that’s how we feel as fans.
“I would like to think at National League level that bond is still strong and I hope we can bring that across on BT Sport, we want the fan at home to feel that bond.
“There is less craftiness, it’s give and take and the game is allowed to flow and I think it’s the honesty that we want to bring across in our coverage because that is what will attract supporters and viewers”
During his broadcasting career Smith has covered matches in the World Cup, European Championships, Champions League and the Premier League.
But he revealed that despite taking in games at the top level, he does maintain a connection with two of the clubs BT Sport will be covering in the National League throughout the coming season.
He said “I have a connection to two clubs in the National League.
“One is Tranmere Rovers because I grew up in the Wirral as a schoolboy and my cousin was kitman there for many years, so that connection has always been there.
“They have a proud league history and are desperate to get back in there and I look forward to going back there in the coming weeks.
“Hopefully that can attract big crowds and have a successful season under Gary Brabin(pictured left).
“The other is Macclesfield Town because I live just outside Macclesfield.
“They’re another club with a proud league tradition and I look forward to seeing how they get on this season”
Smith will make his debut as a BT Sport National League presenter on Saturday afternoon.
The channel’s National League coverage kicks off with a lunchtime fixture between two clubs new to the top tier of non-league football.
Recently promoted Maidstone United will play host to York City, a club relegated out of the
Football League last season and Smith believes that the fixture encapsulates exactly what the National League has to offer.
“The Maidstone United v York City fixture sums up the league and encapsulates what the league is about, the hopes and fears of the clubs.
“In Maidstone United they are coming up from the National League South with hopes that they can cut it at a higher level.
“Then you have York City, coming down from League Two and they will hope they can get back into the Football League at the first time of asking.
“They will hope they can avoid defeat against a club that played two divisions below them last season.
“So it is such a meeting point for clubs with different backgrounds, it really is the National League isn’t it?”
This looks to be one of the most competitive National League seasons for a long time, with a number of clubs being tipped for promotion via the play-offs or by following in the footsteps of reigning champions Cheltenham Town.
Smith pinpointed two clubs as his tips for promotion, Tranmere Rovers and Forest Green Rovers, although he conceded that as many as five or six clubs will be expecting to have successful seasons at the top end of the table.
“I will learn as I go along for sure but from what I know of them I think Tranmere Rovers will be there or thereabouts because they seem to have stabilised under the management of Gary Brabin and the ownership of the Palios family.
“I would imagine Forest Green will be right up there too and they seem to be growing every year under Dale Vince’s ownership.
“I went there five years ago to cover an FA Cup tie not long after they moved to the New Lawn and I was impressed with the setup.
“It’s very professional and it’s a forward looking club so there are interesting aspects and they have a very decent squad.
“However, there are a number of clubs that finished in and around the play-offs last season so I would imagine there are five or six clubs that will be expected to be competing for the top spots of the division”
BT Sport’s National League coverage will be the start point for, what Smith described as, a “smorgasbord” of soccer on Saturday afternoons.
The live lunchtime National League game will be followed by a new results service ‘Score, with the afternoon rounded off with coverage of a teatime game in the Premier League.
And Smith is excited about what lies ahead for supporters over the coming season as he explained what BT Sport will offer.
“I think we will have comprehensive coverage every Saturday.
“We start most weekends with midday live coverage of a National League game, then that goes into our new sports service ‘Score’.
“That finishes and it is straight into a live Premier League game at tea-time.
“I’d like to think we are offering supporters a smorgasbord of soccer on a Saturday afternoon.
“It certainly is going to be exciting for everyone involved”
Matt Smith is a BT Sport presenter. BT Sport is the home of the Vanarama National League and will kick-off it’s 2016-17 exclusively live coverage with Maidstone United v York City on Saturday 6th August live on BT Sport 1 from 11:30am.
Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Pitch / www.actionimages.com