National League chief executive Michael Tattersall feels that the extended play-off format at Steps 1 and 2 has been an overwhelming success in its first year.
For the first time in English football, the spots were opened up to six teams with one-legged eliminator games before the semi-finals and final.
Here Tattersall speaks about the play-offs, three-up and three down, 3G pitches and plans for Non-League’s highest competition to play a bigger role in youth development.
NLP: It was one of the most exciting National League promotion races in recent years. How did you see the season?
Michael Tattersall: It’s been a very competitive season. There hasn’t been much between the teams – Macclesfield won the league by ten points but it felt like it was very contested throughout. I think the play-offs helped because it kept the competition alive.
NLP: How pleased are you with the new play-off format?
MT: I suppose it was experimental – you don’t know how it’s going to be until you actually see it. However, the matches delivered entertaining football and those involved have fed back that they think it’s a good format.
You’re trying to find something that will work sustainably. We’ve only had one year in three divisions, but it already looks like it will be sustainable as a format and deliver what people want at the end of the season – extra games, extra excitement and a good competition to see who gets promoted.
You can see what it meant to Tranmere at Wembley when the final whistle went. There was an audible gasp of relief and joy! They were crying, it was that emotional. Playing with ten men for more than 99 minutes, or something like that, was a colossal achievement from the players.
NLP: It was the same in the North and South play-offs too, with Harrogate Town and Braintree Town winning out.
MT: All the play-offs games were good. A lot of action happens in the space of ten days with stories unfolding. It feels like a tournament after the season, which is good. We want to attract people to the games. The crowds were really good so we’re happy, the clubs appear to be happy and so do the fans. That’s the main thing.
NLP: Do you think it has won people over because there were sceptics when it was announced?
MT: When you’re trying to get more people interested in your level of the sport, you’ve got to look at changing things to improve wherever you can. But it’s always dicey. You don’t want to change things and make gimmicks. You want to change things genuinely for the better.
So it’s quite a high threshold coming up with something you think will work – you have to be quite selective. It’s quite difficult getting any change through in sport because you’ve got to think of a better way of doing things and you’ve got to convince the people who vote on it. Our clubs will ultimately determine what our competition looks like.
NLP: So is the new format set in stone now?
MT: You keep everything under review but it will continue. The time when we will look at it definitely is if we ever get three-up, three-down. That would be a natural time to look at the play-off format again because you’d end up going down to eighth. But that would be a nice problem to have.
NLP: Three-up-three-down has been one of Non-League’s biggest talking points for some time, is that ongoing?
MT: You get to three-up-three-down, that’s when you’re getting full recognition for being the division below the Football League. I think we are well on the way to having a standard of football that is respected and is good enough to be recognised as the genuine next level down.
NLP: It’s clearly not a quick process.
MT: If you look at history, it took something like 15 years between one-up and then two-up. Whether we have to wait however many years, it’s still our ambition to do it. We’d want to do it sooner rather than later but there’s got to be an opportunity. The other powers-that-be have to see there is a reason for it. We’ll keep pressing for it.
NLP: How do you build the argument?
MT: You’ve got to have a high-quality competition. The clubs deliver the actual football and resources that go into running their clubs but we need to create the right competition and environment for that.
The main focus I want to concentrate on next season is youth development and trying to get a good career path for our players as well. We don’t really have a system. We’ve got youth development at clubs but we want to join it up.
We want clubs to be able to register players properly when they’re developing them and also have a competition for them to play in. So it may be something like an U21 league, but also setting out some standards for player development. They don’t exist at the moment so we’d like to pull that together and have more structure to it.
It strengthens the fundamentals of sport at our level. In turn that will give us more credibility and better quality.
We’ve already seen lots of players go into the Football League through transfers, so we are developing these players. But we can do more and demonstrate we deserve a better level of recognition for the job we do.
NLP: Clubs are on board with improving youth development?
MT: There’s a lot of appetite for it. More than two-thirds have a youth development programme of some description. It’s overdue improving that system. Not at club level but as a structure and the National League and the FA getting behind those clubs and giving them more recognition and resources to do their job.
NLP: You were in Dublin last weekend to see England C, who are a great advert for the National League?
MT: England C is really the pinnacle of player development in the National League System. All these players are a product of it. My design for player development would have England C as the pinnacle and a showcase for what can be achieved. To play for your country at any level is a very high achievement.
NLP: 3G pitches are another big issue in Non-League football.
MT: 3G has worked out pretty well. We’ve allowed the clubs the choice, we have seven or eight now with 3G and the clubs that have used them have benefitted. They’ve been able to have more community activities at the club and training so it’s worked for them. In terms of playing matches on them it’s not been a major issue or talking point. Clubs have accepted the change in surface, they are good-quality pitches and the results have been fair, from what I can see.
NLP: Is it your remit to push the Football League for acceptance?
MT: Sutton obviously got very close to promotion but the rules are such that clubs have committed to changing the surface should they get promoted. Allowing 3G pitches in the Pyramid, there’s always going to be a point where the rules allow it and then don’t allow it because the top level of the game is pretty clear they want to remain on grass. So there’s always going to be an area where you move from having 3G pitches and not. We had that issue ourselves a few years ago and changed the rules to accommodate it.
We would like the Football League to accommodate 3G, but you’ve got to respect their clubs’ wishes to set their own rules. And I do. If they wish to remain as they are, then that’s their prerogative.
NLP: Are your own rules under review with the effective double relegation if clubs get promoted and don’t change their pitch?
MT: I think the rule is the right rule for our league. It’s not what you want to happen, but what it does do is mean the clubs have to stick to their commitments. They are committed to changing their surface. People call it “double relegation” because they are trying to emotively change the rule. But you do need the rule to protect the competition from losing a promotion place. Promotion-relegation is more important than the surface of your pitch. It shouldn’t happen, a double relegation, because clubs will accept promotion, I’m certain of that.
NLP: There are big National League System changes below your competition with a reshuffling at Step 3 and 4. Do you expect to have to make changes in the future to three-down from Step 2 with four Step 4 divisions below pushing for six spaces?
MT: I’m sure it will be debated at the FA about having a look at that system. They’ve obviously gone from having three divisions to four divisions. So there’s more clubs involved at Step 3, the regions are a bit tighter than they used to be and it does throw up four divisions going into six promotion places. So it’s bound to be something that will want to be reviewed at the FA.
NLP: The FA released a statement recently about the potential sale of Wembley Stadium that mentioned the National League would still be able to play finals there – that must be pleasing?
MT: Very. The Wembley final for our top division is our showpiece event. It’s a much bigger game if you put it on a platform at Wembley. It’s a major event in our annual season. Having it talked about as part of the future if Wembley is sold, which is a matter for the FA board, is very important to us as a competition.
NLP: Is having the North and South finals at a neutral venue on the same day off the table?
MT: We had a discussion about it last season and having it at the club grounds is where we are at. There’s no plans to revisit that. We had sell-outs at both Harrogate and Hampton. At Halifax last year there was a crowd of 8,000. That’s where we are, I think the clubs are happy with the formula as it is.
NLP: BT Sport has renewed its deal by three years. How valuable is that platform?
MT: The BT Sport coverage has been superb, particularly as you get towards the business end of the season and telling the story of how the championship and play-offs are going to be won. It shows us as being a top-standard league, but also appropriate for our level.
The BT Sport presentation is done really to show what the managers are thinking, what the fans are thinking. They do a really good job in enhancing it however they can.
The highlights show has been really good this year too. It’s showed more than just goals with some in-depth magazine coverage and shown goals from the North and South to give some airtime that wasn’t really present before. We want to do more of it in the future.
NLP: It’s important to have those long-term relationships with companies such as BT Sport and, of course, your major sponsor Vanarama.
MT: You want to have a deep and lasting relationship with your major partners. We’re in the fortunate position of having a good long-term partner as our title sponsor as well as with BT for broadcasting.
NLP: Tell us about the personal challenge you are about to take on…
MT: I’ll be walking seven marathons in seven days with Kevin Webber to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK. Kevin was the chief guest at our Wembley Promotion Final this season and since being diagnosed he has been dedicated to raising awareness and donations for the charity. Starting on Monday June 11, we’ll embark on seven marathon walks across the North of England.
Anyone wishing to make a donation can go to mine or Kevin’s JustGiving page and every penny goes towards helping to beat this awful disease.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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