The events of the weekend in the Football Conference have re-opened a debate within non-league football that has lain dormant for several years, in spite of increasingly contradictory geographical arrangements starting to become more commonplace. Mike Bayly wonders whether it is time to rip up the league committee’s rule book and start again.
“At today`s Annual General Meeting of the Football Conference Limited, the member clubs unanimously approved the Constitution of the Competition. This followed the unanimous decision of the Board to expel Rushden & Diamonds FC from the Football Conference under Article 5.2 of its Articles of Association … the consequences of this decision (to expel Rushden) for the Constitution are that Southport retain its membership of the Premier Division; Thurrock retains its membership of Conference South and Bishop`s Stortford is transferred from Conference South to Conference North on a geographical basis. While Bishop`s Stortford`s transfer is far from ideal, it is simply the result of the relevant regulation governing such placement.”
On Saturday morning, an official statement on the Football Conference website advised the above. Although most supporters empathise with the difficult situation the Hertfordshire club now face, others have argued it is simply consequence of a system they were hitherto happy to abide by. This, to a large degree, misses the point. The real problem here is not geographical interpretations of arbitrary boundaries, but the failure of the English football league system to address the financial and logistical considerations of its member clubs.
The shape and constitution of the football pyramid is one of permanent evolution; the National League System – the first seven divisions or ‘steps’ below the football league – only really came into fruition during the 2004-05 season, and seems to change on an annual basis. It is worth noting that as recently as 1978-79, the Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier divisions stood one level below The Football League, but with the introduction of the Alliance Premier League (now Football Conference) and the Conference North and South divisions in 2004-05, these same leagues now sit at step three of the non-league structure. In theory, these changes were implemented to provide a structure that could facilitate easier movement through the divisions, but if anything, it has had the opposite effect.
The main problem with the setup is the enormous concentration of clubs in the South East, and polarisation of clubs in the North East and South West, meaning teams are reluctant to take promotion owing to the exorbitant travel costs involved; it is no coincidence that Cornwall based Truro City are the only club in recent history to have emerged from the area, largely due to the huge financial backing of chairman Kevin Heaney. As a result, the border lines have been squashed. With little or no promotion from the Northern League at step five, but a steady stream of mobility from other parallel leagues, the Northern Premier League and Conference North are moving further and further south each season, resulting in the farcical situation Stortford now found themselves in.
Quite how this issue is addressed is one of fierce debate. Seasoned non-league fans have long argued for a flatter, less linear pyramid, with regionalisation happening far higher up the pyramid, possibly at level four by combining League Two and the Conference National into a North/South split. This would then create four divisions at level five, eight divisions at level six and so on. Such a move would be problematic though. For a start, it is highly unlikely The Football League would ever agree to such a radical proposal as its members would see it as a diluting of quality. Although there are various commercial and logistical benefits to a regionalised structure, fans of the bigger League Two clubs might argue there is no interest in playing the like of Hayes & Yeading and Gateshead who regularly attract sub-500 crowds to their games.
The counter to this argument is that crowds at these clubs may well increase from the added interest in playing regular ‘professional’ opposition, particularly if increased away support was coming through the gate. Moreover, it would be myopic to label clubs of a smaller stature in such a pejorative way. The whole point of the football league system is to provide opportunity for clubs to progress to the highest level they can attain. Obviously this brings with it a note of caution in these boom and bust days, but there are plenty of examples where clubs, with the right business model, can do just that. In the 1992-93 season, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United were embarking on their first ever season in the Premier League, while Stevenage Borough had just been promoted to the Isthmian Premier League. This season, all three clubs start life together in League One. Similarly, Alfreton Town were playing in the Northern Counties East League just ten years ago, and through hard work, a solid community football scheme and careful planning, now find themselves one division outside of The Football League.
A bigger problem than engrained snobbery on a professional regionalisation proposal would be the minefield of ground grading. By creating a north/south tier at level four of the pyramid, with a subsequent four parallel divisions below, it would have the knock on effect of ‘promoting’ some teams two divisions in order to fill spaces. It is highly unlikely that a team in say the Ryman Premier League, who now found themselves one promotion away from The Football League would have anywhere near the ground requirements required for the professional leagues either in the short or medium term. Whilst critics have argued that ground grading at non-league level is too draconian and bears little reality to attendances, it becomes far more of an issue if two thousand away fans suddenly turn up en masse with limited segregation and a paucity of facilities.
One possible solution is to create a ‘promotion by application’ system, similar to that used at step five of the National League System. Rather than create automatic promotion places at this new step one level, any parties wishing to seek promotion to a regionalised division in The Football League needs to submit an application by a set date. The club is then audited in advance to confirm ground requirements are in place. In reality, very few clubs – at least for the foreseeable future – would bother to apply, and going from a culture of aspiration to one of stagnation may be too much of a change for some fans. Then again, this has as much to do with the sometimes unrealistic expectations supporters put on their clubs. Furthermore, when one considers that until 1986, all promotion to The Football League from non-league was done by arbitrary elections, it becomes clear that the world of the grass roots fan has always been one of tempered ambitions.
Perhaps a more workable (and one might venture less controversial) restructuring model is the one proposed by Mike Avery on his excellent non-league website. In this hypothetical example, regionalisation starts at step one of the National League System, giving a 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 split, as opposed to the current 1, 2, 3, 6, 14 setup. This would allow for significantly reduced travelling across the pyramid and provide a truer representation of geographical areas. There are still problems, not least that some clubs would be shifted from the current Conference North/South to one level below The Football League, but as mentioned earlier, there is nothing to say a club should take promotion.
If anything, the current system lends itself far too much to overstretching. By employing an application system based on objectivity rather than opinion, and relaxing the ground grading requirements at non-league level, clubs can be allowed to find their natural order and then grow sustainably. One might also add that any promotion application needs to incorporate a degree of due diligence and transparity. It would be very tempting for a club to engage in irresponsible borrowing in an attempt to build out a stadium and ‘live the dream’ of The Football League, but measures could be incorporated to ensure that this paradigm was thoroughly evaluated by a governing body first.
Although these proposals seem radical, they are merely addressing a number of issues with the current game, not least that clubs with a few hundred fans at level six of the pyramid are faced with more travel than the vast majority of Premier League sides: behaving full time in a part time world just doesn’t work. Aside from the travel costs, it is almost impossible to attract and keep players who will be required to juggle full time jobs with endless weekly trips to the other end of the country; there have been countless tales of clubs embarking on away trips without key players owing to work commitments, and this is unfair on both the team and its supporters.
If proof were ever needed that the FA needs to re-evaluate its position, one need only look to Germany to see how expansive their model is. Here, regionalisation starts at level four, with a North, West and South divisional split. Below that – where our Conference National would sit – they have the Oberliga, made up of a staggering eleven divisions: level six has 33 leagues exist; level seven has 91 leagues and level eight around 221. Given many supporters see German football – specifically the Bundesliga – as the democratic financially viable blueprint for our own game, there could be much to learn from the Deutscher Fußball-Bund.
Clearly any change of this magnitude would need to be done with consultation and in stages; analysts have suggested the most effective way of achieeving this would be to start from the bottom and work up, although there is evident need for discussion. In the interim, the FA could do a lot more to help subsidise the travel costs foistered on its member clubs. It has long been argued that more money needs to filter down to the grass roots game to cover spiralling operational expenditure. Increased money should not mean increased wage budgets as this creates its own inflation problems, but a fund to help with travel costs and continued ground development as and where deemed fit would be a lifeline to so many teams constantly sailing against the wind.
With the obscene amounts of money englufing the Premier League, just a small levy on transfers or wages would make a monumental difference further down the pyramid. Over time, and with correct restructuring and protective legislation, all clubs can aim for slow and steady growth until they reach their natural ceiling level. For some sides, this may only be the rise of a single league, but for others, hampered by location or ground restrictions, it could allow significant movement more reflective of training methods, management and competent business practise, than how rich their chairman and board of directors are.
And after all, isn’t this what football should really be about?
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