At the end of the Non-League season, once the last fixtures have been played, play-off finals decided (even with winners not gaining promotion) the Non-League fanbase wait in anticipation for the Football Association (The FA) to announce the league allocations for the following season.
Imagine you own a Non-League club in the regional divisions, and you run a tight ship, but the FA have reallocated your team in a different regional division. The travel to away games has been increased by 40%, which means the wage budget you had promised your manager has now been cut almost in half because you have to fund travel expenses. The majority of your playing squad leave for pastures new because, with their regular day jobs, they can’t commit to the extra travel involved in the newly allocated league. Suddenly the club’s future goes from consolidation and progress to scarcity and survival. This is the reality a lot of Non-League football teams endure every summer.
Below Step 1/Level 5 (National Conference) you will find regionalised leagues which means the FA have the task at the end of each domestic season to then reallocate these leagues based on geography and logistics. This could be a hard task depending on the relegations from the Conference National and the case in point for the 2019/20 season proves this with Oxford City placed in the Conference North and facing a high mileage of away trips.
The problems worsen further down the structure where the financial factor of travel affects non-league football clubs largely run on fan donations and an extremely tight and almost tethered shoestring budget.
I first realised the severity of the situation a year ago when the North West London Non-League club I follow were reallocated into the Southern Premier South division, despite having played over 50 consecutive years in the Isthmian Premier (both at Step 3/Level 7).
This meant an almost 50% increase in travel for the club, with the majority of teams based in the West Country and the South West coast.
The FA can be on a hiding to nothing with league allocations because there’s a high possibility that there will be clubs feeling short-changed due to logistics of relegations and promotions affecting geographic locations.
On the flip side, some of the allocations defy basic common sense. Ask any Hendon, Harrow, Met Police or Walton supporter, for example, who were moved from the Isthmian Premier to the Southern South. From playing in a league of clubs that were based in and around London with you or in neighbouring counties in Essex, Kent, Sussex and Surrey, to then facing a 50% increase in travel.
However, ask a fan of clubs who are geographically based in far-flung locations like Truro City and they’ll tell you otherwise. In fact, I now acknowledge that the Isthmian Premier has often been the envy of many clubs outside of the South East who have often faced an extra amount of travelling in comparison.
Say a Non-League club has a whole season of the budget of say £20k, this is (give or take) for everything. From player wages, travel, food and catering, ground maintenances etc – if this club is then reallocated to a league where the travel has drastically increased, that budget is going to be heavily affected. The net for player recruitment is tightened and the ability to compete is stifled.
Clubs have 7 days to appeal their league allocation which costs £50 and as far as I am aware, no club has yet to be successful in their appeal, although many do appeal every season.
Kings Langley, who was in the Southern Premier South (blue) in 2018/19 season, is now reallocated to the Southern Central (yellow) but are now appealing to be allocated to the Isthmian Premier (red). They are like many clubs up and down the pyramid who seem to be on the cusp of these FA made boarders separating regional leagues.
Due to the FA’s reshuffling of the pyramid system, the 2018/19 season at Step 3/Level 7 saw a one-off ‘Super Playoff’ which occurs between two league play-off winners for promotion to the Conference South.
Metropolitan Police FC, previously of the Isthmian Premier, had won the Southern Premier South play-off final but lost to Tonbridge Angels, winners of the Isthmian Premier playoff final. They have appealed their allocation to the Southern Premier South having felt, and rightly so, hard done by for having won their league play-off without promotion.
However, as you can see from the image below, the chart shows that Met Police FC are 14th in the table for travel distances in the current Southern Premier South allocations, with 13 teams ahead of them set to rack up more miles and more expenses.
In the next image of all Step 5 allocations in the south show some rather interesting borders dividing league allocations which have caused several clubs to appeal and understandably so. The clubs from the Hellenic League in purple, based in Buckinghamshire/Bedfordshire, have some far-flung journeys ahead compared to some of their ‘neighbours’ in the Combined Counties League (blue) who are all conveniently local.
At Step 4/Level 8 in the 2018/19 campaign there were a number of clubs who won their league playoff but did not even get the chance of a ‘super play-off’ because limited promotion places went down to a PPG-Points Per Game ratio which gave me a slight migraine trying to keep up at the end of the season.
At Step 3/Level 7 for the 2019-20 season, there is no talk of a ‘super play-off’ again (thankfully) but at the other end of the table will see the bottom 2 clubs in each 4 leagues face relegation with the 3rd from bottom clubs facing relegation on a PPG-points per game ratio due to more league changes by the FA.
Perhaps some of the names for these regional divisions need to change. Take a look at the 19/20 allocations for the Essex Senior Football League. Out of the 20 clubs set to compete only 6 of them are actually based in the county of Essex.
The FA have a thankless task in league allocations but the fans of Non-League clubs are growing more grievances with every season. I would love to know how the FA go about their business with the Non-League pyramid and believe more communication with clubs and fans is required as soon as possible.
The league allocations for the 2019/2020 Non-League season were actually released via the Non-League Paper. That’s right, the FA did not even have the courtesy to contact each club privately, but rather give it to a publication for release.
Is there a better way to structure the Non-League pyramid system? Perhaps one way would be to have multiple divisions at each level in smaller leagues throughout the majority of the season, with the top half of the teams progressing into a promotion league towards the end. However, there will always be exceptions to this. For example, a club like Truro City will always have a problem with travel simply based on logistics and geography, unless suddenly St.Ives, Barnstaple and other Non-League clubs in Cornwall and Devon were all to rise to the same level collectively. One solution to this would be similar to Guernsey FC who, in 2011, were accepted into the National League system on the condition that they would fund the travel of the opposition to and from the Channel Island.
I understand that there’s no perfect solution but I end this article with an open invitation to the Football Association to allow me or anyone else to come and visit the HQ where you make these huge decisions such as league allocations for Non-League clubs up and down the country. Do you have meetings? Do you even look at a map? Do you take a diplomatic vote on your choices? We Non-League fans are starting to wonder…
All images via @Ollie_Bayliss