Laurence Jones – Head of National League System
In the latest of The NLP’s series of exclusive columns with the FA, we look at the impact of restructuring…
The restructuring process is all about creating a structured and sustainable National League System in this country.
The system we have is very special and unique. It is vital we get the structure right.
It’s not a finished model. We recognise some of the frustrations of clubs but we would ask you to bear with us because, ultimately, we are looking to build a robust system.
This year we’ve started the transition with the introduction of new divisions at Step 3 and Step 4, as well as two new Step 6 leagues, for next season.
Our vision is by the 2020-21 season, we have a symmetrical Pyramid in place. We’d like to think clubs will welcome that because what we’re striving for, and we don’t have at the moment, is a level of consistency.
It’s important to say this is the start of a two-year journey. By 2020-21, we will have an additional Step 4 division and two additional Step 5 leagues.
As everyone will be aware, following Shaw Lane’s resignation from the National League System, there are appeals to be heard from Banbury United, Fleet Town and Hednesford Town.
There are 1,641 clubs in the National League System and we’ve had 34 appeals from clubs. That’s 34 more than we’d want but we have to put that in context.
The placement of clubs at each Step sits with the FA’s Leagues Committee. Historically some of that would have been handled internally within leagues, primarily through promotion and relegation. There have always been lateral movements, that’s the nature of the system, and that will always be the case.
Of course, the further you go down the Pyramid, the wider the base, the more volume of clubs and, therefore, more movement.
At the same time, we’re moving towards a position where promotion from Step 5 to Step 4 is mandatory, and the same between Step 6 and 5.
Moving to a 1-2-4-8-16 Pyramid at Steps 1 to 5 is absolutely the right structure. In the long term it will help clubs become more sustainable, it will encourage upwards and downwards movement through promotion and relegation in a controlled manner.
There will always be an element of lateral movement because wherever you draw the league borders, there will be some clubs sitting on that line which means they may migrate between different competitions. We consciously try to do our best to keep that to a minimum.
It’s fair to say the eighth Step 4 division will be in the north, that’s where it’s needed, and – as we did before – leagues will be able to apply to run the competition and go through the same independent decision process.
We’re still quite early into the work of where the new Step 5 competitions will go, so it’s not appropriate to speculate at the moment. Wherever they are there will have to be a movement of clubs to fill those divisions.
It’s always a challenge when you make changes. The Leagues are backing the work we are doing, which is really good. Football can be resistant to change so we want to get the message out there as to why we are going through these alterations.
The North West Counties League and Northern Counties East League had their own play-off system at Step 6, for example. We welcome play-offs, we think it is an added value to the game.
But that was based on a structure that had internal promotions within their leagues. Now clubs promoted at Step 6 will go into a pool and be allocated to Step 5 leagues from there. We have to go through this transition to get consistency and fairness across the whole of Step 6.
If a play-off system gives clubs an improved chance of promotion compared to the other 17 Step 6 leagues, then it’s not consistent across the country. We have to have that. It was resulting in a 1 in 20, 2 in 20 or 3 in 20 chance of promotion, which was not consistent or fair.
In real terms, clubs have membership to that level rather than a competition.
It’s not easy and the FA absolutely understands the criticisms and concerns some clubs have made. We are not unsympathetic to it. But we have to look at the country as a whole in terms of what we are trying to build. There has to be an acceptance that there is a cultural change needed in the National League System.
PROMOTION FROM STEP 3 TO 2 AND STEP 4 to 3
We want to have automatic promotion and relegation, as well as play-offs, to work throughout the structure.
We’d like to be in a position where there are eight clubs going up into the National League regional divisions and in a position where three clubs are promoted from the National League into the Football League. It’s all part of a wider equation we are working towards.
The danger is you do nothing and then we don’t actually improve anything. At some point we have to take a leap of faith and modernise the National League System.
Challenges fall out of that. It’s not ideal, we can be honest enough to say that. But it’s part of an on-going piece of work where, in the fullness of time, we will create the required number of movements between the respective Steps to make it work properly.
The Leagues Committee and the Alliance Committee – who will be taking responsibility for Steps 1-4 next year – acknowledge that the solution is not ideal. There were lengthy discussions about what would be the right option to go for on a temporary basis.
Clearly, the eighth Step 4 division will resolve the issue. Unfortunately there will be play-off winners who miss out on promotion. But they will be the first to fill any vacancies that arise at Step 3. As is often shown, we can never be sure when a club from any level of the game will drop out. The FA and all the Leagues in the National League System are working very closely together to get the best possible structure as quickly as we can. There is a real commit-ment to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible. We all recognise where we want to get to. Sometimes the route isn’t a straight line.
There were alternatives at Step 4 that would have lengthened the season but the general consensus from all involved is what we’ve arrived at is the best option.
People, quite rightly, will see how those issues impact on their club and league. Our responsibility is to create a structure that is seamless and allows fluidity of upward and downward movement across all Steps. To do that we’re having to go through some pain to get to the right structure.
Our target is by season 2020-21 we will have a pure Pyramid and a robust structure from Step 1 down to Step 7.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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