Restructuring of the National League System has been high on the agenda for Non-League football over the last 18 months with extra divisions to be introduced at Step 3 and 4 from next season.
It will take the current Pyramid to four divisions at Step 3 and seven at Step 4.
The Football Association have now released the provisional boundaries to give clubs and fans an idea of the changes.
As part of a partnership between The FA and The NLP to bring readers exclusive features and content relating to the Non-League game, this month’s Football Matters focuses on how the decisions were made and what happens next.
Head of National League System Laurence Jones and National League System Manager Matt Edkins, explain all.
NLP: The changes have dominated the conversation for the best part of 18 months, but why now?
LJ: The world we live in is changing. The reconfiguration and reduction in divisional sizes is designed to create a National League System that reflects the challenges this level of the game faces.
There’s no silver bullet. An incredible amount of work has gone into this. There’s been a lot of consultation and discussion with a wide range of stakeholders involved in this level of the game.
There are some common and consistent themes coming through around travel time, reducing cost, player availability – particularly around midweek football. We’ve listened to, and considered, all the feedback to look at how we can create this new structure.
NLP: What were the challenges in putting this together?
LJ: History is a challenge. Football doesn’t always embrace change but, inevitably when you’re introducing new divisions, there is going to be some movement.
People have perhaps played in a certain league for many years and they are comfortable in that environment, I understand that.
But the National League System is just that. It is a structured Pyramid of football that covers the whole of the country and there has to be fluidity to enable clubs to move up and down.
The challenge is to look at the existing landscape and try to create a new one that doesn’t make too much change but meets the needs of the world we live in.
NLP: Can you explain how the decisions for where the new divisions will be placed were made?
ME: It’s important we have flexibility with the boundaries. At Step 4 we had a look at the key transport arteries. You have to start in the far north and work down the country.
We looked at the Dartford Crossing in the Isthmian area.
Historically it’s been very difficult if there’s a problem with the crossing – it’s very hard to get around it. So for that particular reason the decision was made to keep the divisions north and south of the river.
There was a discussion around East Anglia and how that would fit in. There were alternatives but it was decided by the Leagues Committee that the boundaries we’ve put out are the best way forward.
At Step 3, it’s often been dubbed as a Midlands Division – we feel that slightly differently and term it Central as it goes a bit wider than what you’d expect to call the midlands. That can all change depending on who gets promoted and relegated. We’ll know more in the coming weeks.
NLP: You mentioned the Dartford Crossing and the M25 – three of the Step 4 leagues intersect it. That’s obviously quite deliberate?
ME: What we’ve found – certainly in the two years since I’ve been here – is that people in the north don’t fully understand the challenges in the south and vice-versa.
The committee have been very open and had those discussions to explain the problems in each part of the country. That’s been very productive.
The Northern Premier League section of the map we’ve released will be split into two. The league will meet with their clubs to decide if they go with a north/south split or west/east.
Technically the Leagues Committee has the final say, but I think the views of those affected will be appreciated when making a decision about their competition.
There’s been lots of discussion about getting more teams from the Northern League, for example, and the feedback from when we went to meet them in December is it would make life easier for them with an east/west split.
NLP: You’ve been very clear the boundaries put out this week aren’t set in stone.
LJ: That’s a really important message. This is nothing more than a view at this stage of the season. Until the season is completed, nothing is or can be finalised.
NLP: Why put this out now?
ME: It’s to give everyone an idea. It is important we’re transparent and demonstrate to everyone involved in the game at this level, regardless of what role or discipline, that we’re all working towards making it better.
LJ: The changes are to improve the National League System with players and clubs at the heart of it. One of the debates is, ‘What’s next?’ In an ideal world, as we’ve said before, we want to get to a pure Pyramid. We want to get to 1-2-4-8-16. We see this as part of that process.
NLP: You’ve said this is a two-year trial, how will you monitor the success of these changes?
LJ: When you introduce anything you should have a period of evaluation. We’re putting this in place and we will spend the next two years seeing how it’s working. If the outcomes are that it works 100 per cent, great. If the outcomes are it needs tweaking then we might have to tweak it.
We have a real desire to get the eighth division at Step 4 in the future and then 16 at Step 5.
We’ve got to make sure we’ve got enough clubs that can sustain the level required to populate those divisions, but that is the long-term vision.
NLP: There is always huge discussion around the north-east, the area those divisions cover and travelling, do we have to be mindful of the how clubs are spread?
LJ: We are talking about a structure that has 1,400 clubs. It’s important not to lose sight of how important it is to our game in this country.
For all those clubs with a team in the National League System, they all have a lot of other teams playing open-age football or youth football.
Everything we are trying to do is ensure the longevity of the National League System.
ME: There is a lot of green space in the northern part and, like you say, there’s such a high population density in the south that probably warrants the amount of clubs.
It’s a bit of a red herring to say there’s an imbalance in the north and the south – it’s just the make-up of population density.
NLP: We’re eagerly waiting to find out how promotion (the super play-offs) and relegation will work between the Steps. Is there a timescale on that?
ME: What we have to do is build up the regulations to support the structure.
Regulations have to be agreed before the season starts and the process for that is at the May FA Council meeting.
The drafted regulations are going through due process to be finalised and, once they are, we’ll make people aware.
NLP: So, now we just have to see who finishes where.
LJ: Once the Beast from the East clears, we can all start playing football again. It’s getting the season completed and then we start the allocation process.
ME: We’re as prepped as we can be at this stage. Until the season is complete there is much that can change between now and then.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday