Is More Regional Football The Answer To The Lower Divisions’ Prayers?

By on Mar 1, 2012 in Latest, Non-League | 16 comments

Spiralling wage bills aren’t the only thing that are making the lives of non-league football clubs more and more difficult. Paul Caulfield has taken a look at the difficulties that clubs face and arrived at the conclusion that a possible solution may be to reintroduce greater regionalisation back to the lower divisions.

When one Mike Gilbert of Beaconsfield wrote to the Non-League Paper last year bemoaning the current structure below the Football League, he was spot-on in his analysis. Non-League football clubs are travelling too far for league games and screwing themselves up in the process. Fixtures like Bath City versus Gateshead have no place at this level, or anywhere below League One for that matter. For those arguing that wages, not travel is the problem, try turning out for Gateshead at Bath and getting to work the next morning, and you will understand why the Tynesiders’ Chairman Graham Wood took his club full-time.

Bath City, who remain semi-pro, face midweek trips to Barrow and Gateshead in March (who drafts these fixtures?),  something that irks Director/Manager Adie Britton, who supports regionalisation from League Two downwards. “We are trying to run a Conference club on gates of 700-800. How can it work? It is unsustainable. There are nineteen full-time clubs in the Conference out of twenty-four, with managers looking at their personal ambitions, not the viability of the clubs. Clubs drop out of the Conference and go into oblivion. Is that success or not?”

Britton is right. Clubs are over-reaching themselves, and the semi-pro game harmed itself in scrapping regional leagues for its top clubs. They could be reintroduced if the Conference National was incorporated into the Football League, giving the full-timers the status they crave and leaving the remaining structure in place. But this won’t happen because of the effort in creating the current set-up, and the egos of those running it. Then, of course, there’s ‘direct promotion’. It is almost sacrilege to say it, but promotion to the Football League and the formation of the Conference harmed the semi-pro game and brought a ‘League football at any price’ mentality. Maidstone United were the biggest casualties as clubs mortgaged themselves in the process. The Conference brought all the costs of Football League membership such as nationwide travel (and the full-time status required to accommodate it) without an equivalent increase in income.

A quick look at the bottom of League Two and the top of the Conference makes you wonder whether the system is working at all. Ten or so clubs have bounced between the two divisions in the past decade, or reached the bottom half of League Two and stayed there. At time of writing, seven of the Conference top eleven have played League football in the last ten years  and six of League Two’s bottom ten have been in the Conference. Promoted clubs play at a level they can’t afford, and hover around the bottom of the the Football League awaiting relegation.

Promotion to the Football League was supposed to revolutionise English football. But after the novelty wore off, it became clear that the Conference was just a temporary home for ex-League clubs taking a breather (Oxford, Colchester, Doncaster, Torquay, Shrewsbury), before regaining their former status while remaining full-time. Two-up, two-down brought more full-timers to the Conference, making it harder for relegated sides to make a quick return. In response, existing Conference clubs went full-time to compete; a far cry from the 80s and talk of semi-pro status in the old fourth division. Of the original ‘non-Leaguers’, only Wycombe, Stevenage, Yeovil and (to a lesser extent) Cheltenham have made a real success of things, while Accrington, initially at least, traded promotion for financial problems. Meanwhile, the non-League game has lost a setup that was working well.

In the days of re-election, Wimbledon and Wigan entered the League in successive seasons. A similar system would work today if non-League football was regionalised, with one or two clubs promoted from each region, and no Wembley playoffs (and don’t get me started on that subject).Clubs would not have to travel the length of the country for low-profile fixtures, and would have time to generate support and develop their stadia.

Wimbledon, under Alan Batsford’s inspired management, were Southern League champions three seasons running before their election, and eventually presented a cast-iron case for Football League membership. Wigan, meanwhile were in the top two of the Northern Premier League in five of their last eight seasons; a momentum they carried into League football. Common to both was success on the field without the burden of excessive travellling and full-time football.

Altrincham should have been next, but in 1979, the League’s bottom four were returned at the expense of the Robins – then NPL champions – and Kettering Town; with the League unwilling to jettison another club. The ‘great leap forward’ of the Alliance Premier League the following season made little difference. No-one else was elected. It took direct promotion in 1986 for Scarborough to claim their overdue League status – and we know what happened there. Maidstone, meanwhile, were on borrowed time the moment they sold their ground, with promotion to the League a mere prelude to bankruptcy. Had the non-League game kept its nerve and retained its regional setup, clubs like Scarborough and Maidstone would not have drained the coffers travelling the country on diminishing crowds and declining resources.

As Conference clubs have tried to compete with newly-relegated rivals, short-term thinking has inflated players’ wages, with predictable results. In 2008, clubs voted to ease the limits on the Approved Player Budget (APB). This scrapped the previous limit of 60% of turnover which could go on wages, and gave the league’s big fish all the incentive they needed to spend their way into the Football League. The APB was replaced by the Financial Reporting Protocol (FRP). This required all  member clubs to provide quarterly reports on payments to customs and excise.. While Conference clubs’ tax debt has dropped 83% since the FRP was introduced, the  system has not been a complete success.

In 2010, Forest Green Rovers had to be rescued by green energy tycoon Dale Vince, after previous chairman Trevor Horsley had revealed serious debts, while in 2009 the original Kings Lynn club  folded over an HMRC debt of £67,000. At the time, the Linnets were paying a ‘four figure’ weekly wage bill to a squad including  Julian Joachim (ex-Leicester) and Andy Johnson (ex-Norwich City). Chester City, meanwhile, were expelled from the Conference in February 2010 for failing to fulfil a fixture at Forest Green after the players had gone unpaid. The club’s debts included £26,125 owed to Customs and Excise, which their parent company, Chester City 2004 Ltd, had failed to settle. For their part, the renamed Kings Lynn Town, now run by speedway owner Buster Chapman, gained a 25 year lease on The Walks stadium and currently top the United Counties League.

The UCL or Southern League may be their ideal level. There is no point joining the Conference or its regional setup unless you have Football League ambitions. And if you can’t do that from your own resources, don’t do it at all. As Crewe manager Dario Gradi told the Chester Chronicle, “clubs keep getting to the brink of disaster and then being saved. That doesn’t discourage people from overspending.” Such good sense seems rare in the game, though there is good practice further down the Pyramid.

Marine FC are a model of stability who have maintained their place in the Northern Premier League while managing their money and cutting the playing budget if necessary. There is no big backer at Rossett Park, just an experienced committee unfazed by the lure of Conference football. The emphasis on sound finance is refreshing, as the alternative if the books don’t balance is the arrival of the Sugar Daddy, an all-too-frequent visitor to non-League football. Over-reliance on a major investor, such as Michael Chinn at Kings Lynn, leaves clubs banking on the goodwill of that person.

For most non-League clubs, life is a world away from the professional game. People at Conference level and lower down should consider this, and think what they would lose before spending their way up the Pyramid. Fans are attracted to local football by the relaxed atmosphere, lower prices and closer relationship with players and officials. Because clubs at this level depend on fans for survival, they (usually) speak to supporters and act accordingly. Non-League clubs should be social clubs and sports centres for their communities, offering players a chance to progress in the game. Once the club is self-financing, then they can consider promotion. The ‘Conference National’ does not fit this ideal. The emphasis on promotion to the League and the presence of the playoffs encourages over-ambitiion, with excessive spending (usually on wages) the inevitable result. This won’t befall Bath City, according  to Adie Britton; “Whatever happens, we will run on a sustainable budget and we will have a club next year whether we’re relegated or not.”

The message must be; appreciate your worth as a non-League club and enjoy your football. Make ends meet. Provide opportunities for local players and low cost admission for supporters. Do these things and you will serve your purpose. You may not get into the Football League or even the Conference, but you will have attractive local derbies and occasional Cup runs, and you won’t have to sell your ground to bail yourself out. And these days, there’s a lot to be said for that. Just ask Maidstone United or Scarborough.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the Non League Digest.

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    16 Comments

  1. If more regional football was introduced, cutting overheads and boosting revenue from attendances, wouldn’t the chairmen just spend the extra money on players? I think the issue is that football is, on the whole, so badly-run and far too many clubs overstretch themselves in pursuit of glory. Those running the clubs ultimately should take responsibility for driving a club into he ground, rather than blaming it on the system.

    Also, is there any guarantee that a merged League 2/Conference would see higher gates across the board? Yes, the teams are closer geographically but the standard of football is, arguably, reduced significantly.

    English football is special and unique in having such a rich football history in such a small area that away support is seen as a key component of the supporters’ experience. And having a national, largely professional 5th tier is possibly a stretch but, in global terms, Barrow to Bath isn’t really that far, is it?

    Tim Vickerman

    March 1, 2012

  2. Barrow to Bath is a fair distance for a midweek fixture, particularly if you have to get
    to work the following day.

    Paul Caulfield

    March 1, 2012

  3. And thus, the FA in their wisdom decide that, as promotion up the pyramid is all important, it’s time to reduce regionalisation all the more.

    In cutting the number of step 5 leagues (which includes the UCL where Kings Lynn now play) from 14 to 12, they simply propogate the problem down the structure.

    Yet the top of the pyramid is fundamentally imbalanced. It will never be perfect, but the FA are actively planning to make it worse.

    Mark Chalcraft

    March 1, 2012

  4. Seriously? Election to the football league “would work” if regionalisation was re-introduced? I’d suggest that this flies in the face of what actually happened. Between 1950 and 1979 only 7 non-league clubs were elected to the FL… You might want to do a little research before publishing.

    Only the top-flight of NL football is national – the BSB Conference Prem (level 5) everything else below is regionalised and I would suspect that the majority of clubs in that division would like it to remain so (as would their supporters). If a club, such as Bath City, don’t want to or can’t compete with their current structure they could always turn down automatic promotion.

    Your arguments are spurious to say the least – it’s not as if the Conference has a monopoly on clubs over-reaching or being run by a dodgy chairmen or board…

    I support a team in the Conf (see comments re dodgy board – and while we’ve been on-loan from the FL for a few years :(), the aim and goal is to return to the FL with a manageable budget and appropriate infrastructure.

    SteveinSoCal

    March 1, 2012

  5. Whilst I can understand how regionalizing the leagues would certainly bring about some financial benefit I find it difficult to understand why anyone would think the league structure is on anyway responsible for clubs overreaching themselves and getting themselves into financial difficulty. The responsibility for that lies completely with those at the clubs who are running them beyond their means. And it certainly is not restricted to those clubs in non league, you only need look to Vale and Pompey. Promotion and relegation should be available at every level of football within England, every club should have the possibility of progressing. Just because a number have done so by spending what they do not have does not mean this should not be available to those who run a tight ship and live within their limits. Whilst the financial issues we see within the game certainly need to be addressed I really do think you are looking in completely the wrong direction when looking to the current league structure. Marine and Forest Green both play within the same league structure; as to why the latter found itself in financial trouble is down to how the club was run. Not because of the current league structure. If Marine (and many other clubs who are run within their means) can look after themselves within the current structure then everyone else should also be able to do so. This is down to how these clubs are run. Simple as.

    Dave

    March 2, 2012

  6. I can see where this piece is coming from, but I can’t agreee. My team, at the wrong end of the BSP having dropped out of the league last season (OK, that narrows it down) drew 4,518 for a big home game last weekend. Like most BSP clubs, we’re full time and have no intention of changing that. It’s been hard enough to stomach the drop into non-league, not being ‘one of the 92′, less local press coverage, that horrible black and white ball, etc. But if you squint a bit, it still looks more or less like League Two football. Make the drop out of the FL one that goes straight into regionalised football and that relegation could be a death knell.

    Yes, Braintree and Bath are trying to cope on three figure crowds, but frankly, that’s tough. Braintree are doing a pretty good job, Bath not so much. The latter will be almost certainly relegated to the BS South and might be able to regroup. Them’s the breaks, sadly.

    Rob S

    March 2, 2012

  7. My feeling is “meh”. It is not the setup itself, but the people running the clubs (and who decide about the setup too) who are responsible for problems. The Conference is bloated – that’s one of the problems. There are c. 43 weekends in a season. At least 5-6 weekends must be put aside for the Cups and play-offs. Even playing some fixtures Fr/Sat-Mon on Bank Holidays, the 24 or 22 team league format ensures quite a few games on weekdays.
    Conference National should be cut down do 22 or 20 teams. That’s at least 4 Tuesdays less …

    Borys

    March 2, 2012

  8. Agree with the sentiments of the article. Would personally prefer League Two and BSP merged and regionalised, i.e. league two north/south. Then four regional divisions below that with only the champions eligible for promotion. However one problem with regional football is where you draw the borders. This always leads to disputes.
    Also think there are too many clubs in some divisions which compromises quality and reduces the desirability of cup competitions. So would slim down the divisions to Prem 18, Champ 20, then everything else capped at 22.

    Steve (MUFC)

    March 3, 2012

  9. I would think the real move would to be re-introduce the old D3N and S in the Football League. Then the non-league game could be successfully regionalized below that with a Conference N and S directly below that. The thing for English football is that the old system of three regional leagues below the Conference always blurs thinking and brings in issues of “fairness” in relegation. Well if a club is Conference N and goes back down and needs become Conference S then so be it. And in this scheme then only the champions go back up which relieves pressure on the pros and reduces the incentive to overdo the urge to go FT on non-league sides.

    Kreig Zimmerman

    March 3, 2012

  10. I can’t see why the old system of 3 regional leagues “blurs thinking” At some point travelling needs to be reduced down for the benefit of semi-pro clubs. Bishops’s Stortford, part time, and next to London’s third airport now find themselves in the |Conference North facing Tuesday evening fixtures at Colwyn Bay and Halifax where players are going to need two days off work. If the blurring of thinking is that 3 doesn’t go into 2 than have four regional feeders

    Geoff White

    March 3, 2012

  11. I have to agree that the problem stems from the people running the clubs and Addie Britton gives the usual example of those people ignoring the obvious financial facts.

    Bath City have lost an average of @£60,ooo per year for several years running now culminating in a (recently announced/leaked) loss of £120,000 for the 2010/2011 financial year which was spent playing as a part-time team in the BSP. Addie Britton himself was Chairman for some of that period so should know better about being able to claim that those losses and total club debts approaching £1 million mean that the club is being run on a “sustainable budget”.

    Even more interesting is the ignorance of the fans who have bought a share in this. Since Bath City supporters took over the club some years back from a board who were accused of fleecing the club the debt has multiplied by @6X.

    When the Bath City Supporters Society convinced ordinary fans to contribute money to a subsequent share buy back from a previous majority shareholder they claimed in their literature that they would never allow the club to propose a negative budget. Losses year after year have not been addressed and the budgets produced have not been reduced to a realistic “sustainable” level, ie the previous years budget minus the previous years losses. Simple accounting but on a footballing level unsustainable…

    So I suppose what I am trying to point out is that anyone involved with any club (bar Marine apparently) is willing to allow their club to overspend just for the dream of success. Or am I just trying to point out that football will never be built on realistic business sense?

    Paul Sheppard (Bath)

    March 3, 2012

  12. Thanks for the comments – I’m gratified by the response. This is an opinion piece and isn’t totally watertight,
    so there’s always room for disagreement. However, I maintain that it is possible for non-League sides to be
    successful on a local level by running a range of teams, using the facilties for community groups etc, while winning
    matches and maintaining their support, without the so-called Holy Grail of the Football League clouding their thinking.
    Only two clubs get promoted from the Conference each season, with maybe six/seven others in contention. For the
    rest, balancing the books is the priority, so that the other things the clubs does (community activities etc) can be
    maintained.

    Paul Caulfield

    March 7, 2012

  13. The idea of ending automatic promotion to the Football League and bringing back election is ludicrous. Sorry, but it is. Badly run clubs in the Football League would only get worse knowing that while they are only maybe two promotions away from the big time, they can never actually be relegated out of the League. Rather than offering encouragement to clubs to get their house in order, such a system would mean that clubs could run way beyond their means and then wait for the next sugar daddy to come along, or go bust altogether rather than taking their medicine and regrouping in the Conference or below.
    Also, regionalised football probably looks like a lovely idea if you’re in the North West or South East. It’s not as much fun having two leagues, north and south, if you’re in the Midlands. What benefit would a north/south split be to Hereford, Cheltenham, or Kidderminster? The travelling would remain the same and you would also know that most other clubs would only be spending half of what you do on travel.
    As other correspondents have said, you can’t blame problems caused by bad management on the league system. Would regionalisation have saved Portsmouth, or Port Vale, or Coventry from the situation they are now in? I don’t think so somehow. Bad financial planning isn’t the sole preserve of non-league clubs, and they shouldn’t have to wait for a club to go bust before they get their chance in the league.

    MDS

    March 8, 2012

  14. I stand by what I said on overambition. There are too many clubs in non-League spending money they haven’t got, on players they can’t afford, pursuing something they cannot reach or maintain. Histon, Rushden and Maidstone are three clubs who over-reached themselves and paid the penalty. The ‘prize’ of Football League or Conference membership seems to blind some clubs to everything else, including payments to the HMRC and other creditors, which are forgotten in the pursuit of promotion. This is the ‘blurred thinking’ I referred to earlier.

    Paul Caulfield

    March 10, 2012

  15. I support a team at step 8 of the football pyramid. There has already been major reorganisation of the leagues at that level in the last few years. We now exist in the “north” division of the “Northern” Premier league. This sees us visit teams from Cheshire to County Durham. Before, we would have been facing teams from Shropshire and Derbyshire. I think the extra regionalisation has been for the better.

    During the reorganisation, it was suggested that the F.A. should create an East and West split rather than North and South. I don’t think it was ever taken seriously. The argument for this was due to the fact that traveling up and down the country is easier than traveling across.

    I am definitely for regionalisation for non-league clubs like ours. More derbies, less traveling. However, in cup competitions (FA Cup and FA Trophy), I’d prefer LESS regionalisation. I’m speaking purely as a fan, but we find ourselves playing exactly the same league teams for about 3 or 4 rounds before the competition goes truly national. It gets a bit monotonous. When my club played in the FA Vase (before my time), the old-timers speak of great days out to Esh Winning and Brandon United in the cup competitions, which were rather exotic locations. I’m sure clubs don’t mind going a bit further afield for a one-off game, and it gives us fans something a bit different to look forward to. I also think league clubs should enter the F.A. cup earlier than they do. I don’t buy this ‘safety; issue about big clubs traveling to small clubs too early in the competition. It would be more fun for everyone.

    Philip Lewis

    March 11, 2012

  16. There is a huge problem with only promoting one team from a league, you always get a runaway leader and other teams end up playing dead rubbers for 4-5 months which why the BSS and BSN was set up with playoiffs.

    Please do not go back to these dark days!

    Stokie (BTFC)

    April 7, 2012

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