When the FA curtailed the 2020/21 non-league season, they left on the table the prospect that they would restructure the leagues to deliver the long-awaited “pure pyramid”. Whilst few in the game believed the institutionally conservative FA would actually go through with such a bold undertaking, their statement of April 12th signalled their intention to upwardly move 110 clubs “within the pyramid at Steps 4 to 6”. Promotion without relegation, particularly in the face of two incomplete seasons, can only be a good thing, but whilst the FA can try and please most of the people most of the time, they’ve certainly fallen short of pleasing everyone.
In their own words, the FA’s “mechanism for selecting clubs required to move into the new divisions at Step 4 and Step 5”, involves each Club being allocated an “unweighted points per game figure on the basis of its completed fixtures in both the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, i.e. the club’s total points across both seasons will be added together and divided by the number of games it has played across both seasons”. The obvious problem with this is that according to the FA, the 2019/20 season never happened! However, there are other issues that challenge the FA’s logic that the “restructure will have a positive impact on a significant number of clubs, supporting them with reduced travel and costs and providing greater opportunities for generating income via localised fixtures”.
In terms of the Western League, far from reducing travel distances, the prospect of adding the “top 2 ranked clubs in each of the South West Peninsula League divisions” will significantly add to the time and cost of playing Premier Division football. Clubs already balk at the prospect of travelling to Plymouth, but a trip to Helston will add a further hour and forty minutes to the Western League’s new Cornish away day. In addition to Helston, Illfracombe, Milbrook and Saltash could all be added to the Western League Premier Division next season and given that only one team will be upwardly moved into the Southern League, the FAs restructuring process can only mean lateral movement for an unprecedented number of Clubs. Speculation is already rife about where the axe will fall, with Chipping Sodbury Town, Roman Glass St. George, Cribbs, Hallen, Cadbury Heath, Bitton, Bradford Town and Westbury United all in the mix.
This situation will be made worse by the upward movement of three of the League’s First Division Clubs. Fortunately for the FA, both Calne and Corsham are obvious candidates to join the Hellenic League, meaning their promotion won’t require moving any more Clubs out of the Premier Division. However, the promotion of Ashton and Backwell would require an additional space being made, as would the promotion of Radstock Town, currently sitting fourth on the FA’s combined points per game calculation.
The process set out by the FA means that the top five Clubs in the First Division will be consulted on their potential promotion, meaning that it is not compulsory, yet the detailed proposals published by the FA last week made no reference to lateral movement, leading to the inevitable conclusion that it will be. Looking as far down as fifth place for promotion is hardly unreasonable, given that the FA’s original plans for this season were to promote the top four. However, that fate would have been achieved over the course of a playing season, where all sides played each other twice. This scenario has come about through a mathematical formula, so is it really consistent with the sporting integrity of the league?
No one can doubt how well unbeaten Corsham have performed this season, but if they hadn’t stumbled past bottom of the table Devizes, Radstock would have had the upper hand in the upward movement debate. Given that Championships and relegation have been won and lost on the strength of a single result this is hardly outrageous. However, it opens the door to a world of challenging evidence that undermines the FA’s case to bring about the pure pyramid.
Few can doubt Plymouth Parkways suitability for promotion under the FA’s new proposals, however in the Premier Division it was Tavistock, not Plymouth Parkway that headed the table in 2019/20. Parkway had played three fewer matches than their near rivals and points on the board have always meant more in football than games in hand, particularly when fixtures can become congested at the end of the season. To make matters even more complicated, Tavistock weren’t the Points Per Game leaders of the division, that honour fell to Bradford Town, who had played four games less than the league leaders and were yet to play Plymouth Parkway home or away. With so much to play for, how can the fixtures of 2019/20 really be combined with those of 2020/21? Tavistock didn’t play Parkway this season, Bradford Town didn’t play Parkway this season or last season.
This is a marriage of convenience and whilst most of the football family appear happy for this process to continue, in that it facilities upward movement, there are clearly Clubs who will be left wondering what might have been, not to mention those left fearing the consequences of being moved into a new League. This isn’t just a Western League problem, there are signs in other parts of the country that Clubs fear the unintended consequences of the FA’s bold decision to restructure as we emerge from the pandemic. Tooting Bec FC have written to the FA raising their concerns about reducing the number of Step 6 divisions, the level of the Western League’s First Division. They fear that by removing a league in Surrey/South London, clubs will see increased travel time and travel costs, as well as a loss of local derbies. Ironically, they believe they “would have much less travelling and more derbies” if they were promoted to Step 5.
The big picture across the country looks compelling. The FA plan is likely to see an overall reduction in Club’s travel costs, but as with any restructuring process, there are likely to be winners and losers. Have the FA done enough to mitigate the impact of their proposals on those Clubs and Leagues, like the Western League, who will face significant challenges implementing the pure pyramid?
This was a pre-pandemic plan that fits with the post-pandemic landscape, but why has the South West been sacrificed to make the rest of the puzzle pieces fit? Has a Step 5 division across Devon and Cornwall ever been considered and has anyone ever asked the Cornish Clubs, that apparently need access to the higher levels of the non-league pyramid, whether they are interested in going up, not least whether they are interested in paying for the privilege? I hope the FA have put in place a time for reflection after this season, just to ensure that this process brings about the sort of change they intended and not the catastrophic consequences they didn’t.