By John Lyons
THE National League want to play all three of their promotion finals at Wembley and expand the play-offs as part of their ambitious plans for the future.
Last week, the league unveiled ‘Growing Our Game’, their four-year strategy from 2016 to 2020. Among the aims are to increase annual attendances from 1.5m to 1.7m, increase commercial revenue by 50 per cent and increase live broadcast matches from 25 to 40 per season.
The competition believe putting all three of their promotion finals at the home of football – currently it’s just the National League final that takes place there – and changing the play-off structure could help them to achieve some of their targets.
In an exclusive interview with The NLP, National League chief executive Michael Tattersall explained the reasoning behind the moves, starting with Wembley – and the intriguing prospect of three finals in one day!
“We want to have the most exciting format for our play-offs and the first thing is that we would like to see if we can take all three play-off finals to Wembley,” he said.
“It’s not set in stone, but it’s something we would like to do. It means being able to do a financial deal with Wembley Stadium and that probably means all three in one day.
“In the North and South divisions (where the highest placed team currently gets home advantage in the final), there’s a big prize for those clubs, but the matches aren’t being played on the highest stage.
“For example, Maidstone had 750 tickets for the South final (at Ebbsfleet). If you had taken it to a neutral ground you would have had a lot more than 750 supporters. We are having big games but not making the most of them – and the big stage is Wembley Stadium. Let’s see if we can make that happen.”
And if there is support from the clubs, Tattersall would love to make it a Wembley triple-header at the end of next season.
“If we can deliver that it would give the play-off competition a boost in North and South,” he said. “Whether you are a player, manager, director or supporter, a day out at Wembley is something to look forward to. It is the pinnacle.
“We would have to go back to the clubs because, as it stands, we’d have to change the rules – at the moment the highest placed club hosts the final. May ’17 is a possibility but I’m not promising it.”
While it’s difficult to see why National League North or South clubs wouldn’t back a Wembley showpiece, the other big change – expanding the play-offs – could be more controversial.
English football has become used to the traditional four-team play-offs over the last 30 years, but the National League are suggesting to their clubs that extending the end-of-season competition to six clubs would be beneficial.
As in the current set-up, the champions would go up automatically, but then clubs finishing second to seventh, instead of second to fifth now, would compete in the play-offs.
All the ties would be one leg and in the first round the team finishing fourth would host the team who came seventh, while fifth would entertain sixth. In the semi-finals, the teams who finished second and third would host the winning teams from the first round, again over one leg.
The league believes one of the advantages is that more clubs will be in contention for the play-offs as the season comes to a close, potentially boosting attendances as dead rubbers are avoided.
Tattersall said: “The current format is a stable one, but the question is whether it’s the optimum play-off format for our clubs.
“We have to be careful what we do, we don’t want people saying ‘what’s the point of playing the 46 games?’ It has to be a format that is genuinely better and not just a gimmick.
“There is one particular format we are looking at, expanding them to six teams, and I explained that to the clubs on Saturday. I didn’t want to bounce them into anything and it was more a case of explaining what we want to do.
“It’s something we want them to consider and it’s a possibility for the 2017-18 season. We need to have a bit more debate on it and get some feedback from the clubs.
“We’d like to see what each division says, but it’s probably stronger with all three having the same format.”
One change that will be noticeable in the coming season is the use of artificial pitches in the National League’s top division, following the promotion of Sutton United and Maidstone United from National League South.
Indeed, up to six of the National League’s 68 clubs across three divisions will have a plastic pitch in 2016-17. In their strategy, the league say they will review the surfaces in 2017-18, but Tattersall says too much shouldn’t be read into that.
“We asked the clubs in January whether they wanted them at Step 1,” he said, “and we had a majority in favour. It’s my job to implement that and we have to see how it works.
“At Step 2 we’ve had a couple of clubs with them and it’s been successful for those clubs, which is not to say they’ve had an advantage from doing so. We will see what happens in the National League next season and we’ll review it once we’ve had a season.
“I don’t say that with any prejudice, but let’s see what people think. It’s not just the artificial pitches, it’s the grass pitches as well. They are equally a factor of concern. To be honest, I’m not sure artificial pitches are a source of concern for me. I think the grass pitches are something we need to improve.”
In the broad-ranging interview, Tattersall was also asked what he thought about the Football League’s plans to create an extra division, something which could see a raid on National League clubs to make up the numbers.
If the Football League were to create a League Three, it would effectively push the National League, and all the Non-League divisions below it, a rung further down the ladder.
Although Tattersall toed a diplomatic line, you get the feeling there is frustration within the National League set-up that they were kept in the dark about the Football League’s ideas.
“If the Football League plans were to go ahead, it would change the nature of the Pyramid,” he said. “We weren’t consulted and we weren’t able to influence the proposals before they went out.
“It’s not just a matter of a vote for Football League clubs (next year). It’s a debate for the rest of the game. It’s a debate that would have to be had by the FA as well.
“It’s not just an internal Football League matter, it’s external. If it’s going to be a ‘Whole Game Solution’ it needs to be a whole game debate because there are big implications for the whole game.
“If your club is in Non-League at the moment you should still be able to dream about rising up the leagues and going into the Football League, and not have this changed by a new format. Who knows what would happen to promotion and relegation places in the future?
“If the Football League had four divisions, we would all be down a division. The Football League proposals raise more questions than answers.
“What we want is three up, three down from the Football League in the existing structure. League Two and the top division of the National League are increasingly similar in the standards of the clubs and we believe it’s more appropriate for a normal level of promotion and relegation between the leagues. We aren’t looking for a radical shake-up of the Pyramid.”
As to whether or not the National League can achieve their own targets over the next four years, Tattersall is bullish.
“If you set yourself up to grow you have to give yourself challenges, you have to focus and motivate people,” he said. “The targets are ambitious – but we have to be ambitious.
“Changing the play-off format could increase the level of interest, we need to keep growing the community schemes and have more games on the television. That demonstrates to a big audience that it’s a good standard of football, a high level league.
“BT televised 25 games last season, but in the contract (for two more years) they can do more and we would like them to. We don’t have to wait for a new contract for that to happen.
“More games would be a good thing, more exposure would help the competition. No one has got a magic wand, but there are things the league and clubs can do.
“I think we are a good and well-loved competition, but you always have to look for improvements.”