BY DARREN TINMOUTH: http://claretandbluepixels.wordpress.com
Over the last two weeks, news came out that the FA council will finalise the ratification of a partial implementation of the planned restructure of the non-league pyramid.
It means that for up to 110 of the best performing clubs at steps 5 to 7 over the last two seasons. Their efforts will be rewarded with what the FA are calling not ‘promotion’ but ‘advancement’ up the pyramid. That is because the non-league restructure that was due to come in at the summer of 2020 with the aim of giving the English pyramid system what has been called a ‘pure’ look (also known as the 1-2-4-8-16 structure).
Obviously, it was postponed last summer as the COVID-19 pandemic began to make its in-roads but it appears the FA don’t want to delay it again, especially with the prospect of reduced travel distances at Step 4 with the extra league, especially to entice more Northern League teams to step up.
WHAT IS THE RESTRUCTURE?
But what was the proposed restructure? Well, Its actually the second phase of a two-part plan by the FA to implement the ‘pure pyramid’, the first part was initiated in the summer of 2018 where a series of mass promotions saw the creation of a 4th league at Step 3 (The Southern Central Premier) and a 7th league at Step 4 (the Isthmian South Central). For context though, here is the proposed Phase two in full as described step by step when it was originally announced before the 2019-20 season.
- STEP 1: National League to remain unchanged at 24 clubs
- STEP 2: National League North & South to be increased from 22 to 24 clubs each
- STEP 3: Regional Premier Leagues to remain unchanged at 22 clubs each
- STEP 4: New NPL run division implemented, increasing to 8 leagues of 20 clubs each
- STEP 5: Two new leagues run by the United Counties and the Combined Counties, increasing to 16 leagues of 20 clubs each
- STEP 6: Reducing from 20 leagues to 17 leagues, but all will increase in size to 20 clubs each
- STEP 7: Mass promotion of clubs from here to step 6 to fill any gaps with priority based around the needs of certain leagues.
Now things have changed since then and the null and void of Step 2 this season has complicated things to the point that the proposed restructure has been adapted to not include Steps 1, 2 and 3 in this proposal. This means the following
- No relegation out of Step 1 (The National League)
- No Promotion or relegation from Step 2
- No promotion or relegation from Step 3
- No promotion or relegation from Step 4
So in short, the proposal is to incorporate the restructure from promotion into Step 4 onwards so the proposed new divisions can be created.
HOW WILL IT WORK?
But how will it work?
For the purpose of this piece, I’ll look at the main part of the restructure, and that is the introduction of the brand new division at Step 4.
To do this, there is a controversial move to ‘un-nullify’ the playing records from the 2019/20 season and include them with the 2020/21 season. From this data, the FA Council will offer ‘advancement’ to 20 Step 5 clubs with a priority weighting given to the three northernmost divisions as the new Step 4 division will come under the administration of the Northern Premier League.
To put it simply, from these 3 leagues (Northern League, Northern Counties East and North West Counties), will each provide three clubs, and the other 11 Step 5 leagues will each provide one club to come up.
However, the offer that the FA Council will send out will not be a mandatory request meaning if need be, clubs can refuse the offer if they don’t feel ready either financially or from a sporting sense. For this, each league will also have two clubs on standby if any prioritised club does not wish to take up the offer of advancement into Step 4.
How are these clubs decided? Well, this is where the data from two seasons comes into play, clubs would be ranked on a points per game basis from the last two seasons with the prioritised clubs being decided on these leagues ranking on those PPG ratios.
Using that hypothesis, here are the 20 clubs that I believe will be prioritised for advancement along with the 28 others that will be on standby.
WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS?
The restructure in my eyes has been brought about to help encourage more representation in the upper echelons of the non-league pyramid in the North-East of England, a region that over the last 25 years has seen a massive boom of interest and success but not when it comes to providing clubs to play further up the pyramid.
This became a big problem at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season with the demise of Darlington FC. With them having to reform in the Northern League, it meant that in the top 4 tiers of Non-League football, the North East was only represented by just three clubs (Gateshead, Blyth Spartans and Whitby Town).
And this is despite below Step 4, the region being immensely successful at Step 5 with multiple wins in the FA Vase, cementing the Northern League as the strongest league at Step 5, with the 2012 final for the first time being an all Northern League affair with Dunston beating West Auckland Town 2-0.
With this restructure, the FA hope that it will mean more Northern League clubs will come up to populate Step 4 and thereby move the NPL’s boundary further northwards. They also hope this will address a similar issue in another of England’s most distant outposts, the South West. Especially as the Western League’s boundary in most recent years has begun to stretch into the likes of Bristol, making progress more difficult for clubs in Cornwall who at the time of writing this are only represented in the top eight tiers of English football by Truro City.
THE FINAL WORD
Obviously it’s very controversial, especially as this involves the ‘un-nullifying’ of records from the previous season, something that some clubs fought for in arbitration last summer and ultimately lost (a move which cost South Shields FC a reported £200,000 in legal fees). And also some clubs that lead their divisions at Steps 5 and 6 in the 2020/21 season that could miss out.
But looking long term, I think it’s a move that the English pyramid has needed for a very long time. The mess of the 2018/19 super playoffs farce (a system that saw Step 4 playoff winners Pontefract Collieries and Heybridge Swifts refused promotion) is a scenario that the FA do not want to see repeated.
This will provide the pyramid with a hopefully smooth transition of promotion and relegation between levels, thereby giving ambitious clubs a more clear path towards where they want to be.