IN: I’m delighted to welcome back to the Toolstation Western League podcast, the chairman of the Toolstation Western League, John Pool. John, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us. We wanted to get you on because obviously we’ve had the restructuring now, the new line-up for the leagues has been announced. Before we get into the nitty gritty of that, can you remind us how we got to this point? How did the FA conduct this restructuring exercise?

JP: I think we would go back, probably to the latter part of 2019/2020 when they started talking about the restructuring process. I think taking step seven out of the national league system was a pointer towards the thinking that was going on, probably back in February 2021, that was the first real indication that the structure was going to be looked at. Of course, the pandemic was a critical factor over all this with regards to whether they went ahead with it or not.

We met with them on April 10th and we knew then that it had legs, there was no doubt that they were going to go ahead with it. And the reason we had that meeting is because, ironically, when the Peninsula evolved into two step sixes, we were never really told what arrangements were in place with regards to promotion and relegation. So, that was the reason we asked for the meeting and then we got to know then that they were going to push on with it. They gave us a pointer as regards to the four clubs and we are where we are now and all the decisions have been made.

The lateral movement was the one question that we asked, ’Would we be permitted to have any input in who was likely to be leaving us?’ And we were told quite clearly, ’No, you won’t, that will be a League’s Committee decision.’ It was as blunt as that. We asked, ’what criteria are you going to use?’ ... they threw us a little bit there, because what they said was "distance travelled", they didn’t say miles and then they said "clusters". But it became apparent what that meant in the end was the fact that they were going to try and maintain what they consider to be groups of clubs within localities, like in around Bristol for instance, where they could still maintain the local derbies and bank holiday fixtures.

IN: We’d always known, hadn’t we, that promoting Cornish sides and Devon sides, those were always going to come through into the Western League, so there was no surprise there. But I guess one of the things that’s been the most eye-catching from the announcement last week is obviously the impact on Clubs travel distances. I mean, can you give us some idea what impact has this restructuring had on our travel distances for next season?

JP: Well, I would imagine it’s probably every club, has had their mileage increased and doubled in some cases. I think what gets forgotten is the fact that our footprint has never ever changed. It’s always been down into Cornwall, you know the likes of Truro, Falmouth, Liskeard, Saltash; all these clubs have been part of the Western League over the years. I think it’s fair to say that they’ve always brought a lot to the league. As did the clubs from Wiltshire, Gloucester, Bristol, and everybody else, but I don’t think it’s such a surprise to me because once you create a national league system, one would expect that the likes of Penzance and if you like Helston, Mousehole, they’re all entitled to play in that national league system. Well, once that’s accepted then it is blatantly obvious that the Western League is the next stop.

I think the impact is, or what perhaps shouldn’t be forgot about, is they’re prepared to come into the Western League and they’re prepared to do this every other week. The one thing I do get, and I think this is where the big change comes about, is the cost of travel. And yet again, you have to look at them, and admire the fact that they’re prepared to take it on. But with regards to an impact, that was the biggest impact without a shadow of a doubt.

And I think if you look at the Clubs that have taken lateral movement into the Hellenic League, sadly, you know, if you could pick and choose, there’s a lot of the clubs that you wouldn’t wanted to have lost. Some of those clubs are probably quite relieved, that they haven’t got to take on these travel distances. I think probably, what would have softened the blow is not so much the four clubs coming in, it was where they came from. And if they’d have been, for instance, Torpoint, Saltash, Millbrook, Ilfracombe, it wouldn’t have been so dramatic. Of course, the first two, I mean, ironically it was only Helston initially, and then Mousehole we had absolutely no idea at all, because the original information that came didn’t include Mousehole. Look, they’ll all be as welcome as anybody else, I mean, it’s been what the Western League’s always been about, it’s not their fault. They shouldn’t be made to feel like that. They’ve taken an opportunity, the same as anybody else would, and bear in mind, we’ve had clubs that have come into the Western League that have always looked to aspire to go into the Southern League. So, somebody better tell me what the difference is.

IN: Obviously, it does create a headache, particularly for our fixtures secretary. I mean, I suppose if we take an example of the Les Phillips cup, we’re going to have first division sides that…

JP: No, we won’t do it Ian. Straight away we were all over that, because we need to find a different format for it. We are playing with all sorts of things. We actually had, believe it or not, we actually had put together a different format, a format for the competition, which was based on regional groupings, where there were local derbies and it all worked out fine. And then we started looking at the travel distances and started thinking to ourselves, you know, maybe we need to have a rethink about this Les Phillips cup. It probably is still on the table about whether we even run it, whether we looked at a season whereby we don’t run it.

Our plans are to meet with these new clubs, because there’s certain things that we want to run across them about some of the ideas that we’ve got. We’re certainly going to meet with all the existing clubs and sit down with them. You know, the FA are going to go ahead with this without a shadow of a doubt. What we’re hoping to do is to take everybody and try and make it work and we will do everything in our power to try and make it as easy as possible.

And going back to your original question with regards to fixtures, we’re all looking at it and we will, as much as is possible, make sure that Saturday’s will be the key to a lot of it. Inevitably, weather can play a major part, good cup runs can play a part in it. Everybody that has been involved in football understands the implications and what can happen, but there’ll be no way that we will be setting out fixtures that’s going to be taking clubs long distances mid-week. That’s never been the case, to be quite honest but sometimes it can work that way with postponements.

IN: Moving away from the challenges of the fixture schedule, obviously, the restructuring has meant that we’ve lost a lot of clubs that have given a great deal to the Western League over the years. And in our conversations, you know I’m always a very keen follower of Wiltshire football so I’m particularly sorry to see some of those clubs go. Have you got a message for all those clubs that are leaving us now?

JP: Yeah, I’ve spoken to all these clubs and they know my feelings. I’d like to think there’s people, particularly in Clubs like Calne and numerous others, that are a part of the Western League family and they’ve brought an awful lot to the table to be quite honest. I’d like to think that when conventions come around, they still consider coming down and joining us again. It is extremely disappointing to lose a lot of these clubs, we’re talking about clubs that have been in membership for a long, long time.

But you know, these clubs that are joining us now, they are new members of the family, hopefully. We want to make sure that, as much as we possibly can, they’re made to feel as welcome as everybody else who has joined us. I’m disappointed to lose clubs have been part of the Western League family and you can only wish them the best. I’m not at all sure, if I’m absolutely honest, how all this is going to work out. Do I see them moving them back again? Not in the short-term, no, I think we are going have to get on with this. I don’t think there’ll be any - this is my own personal view now - I don’t think you’ll see any changes until such time that these two seasons have gone by just to take stock of how it all goes, really. I think to be fair that’s what the FA asked us to do, they are aware, they’re certainly aware of what they’ve asked us to take on, and I think the message from them is, ’we just want you to give it a go.’ Travel distances are going to play a part in it, but we’re up for it. We will try to do our best by the clubs as always.

IN: let’s finish on a positive, let’s look forward to next season and we are going to be joined by Helston, Ilfracombe, Millbrook, Mousehole, Saltash, AEK-BOCO, Gillingham and Tytherington Rocks. So, what’s your message for those clubs joining and their fans, of course, joining the Toolstation Western League family next season?

JP: Come and enjoy it. I’ve spoken to several of them and the excitement that is going through the places is incredible to be quite honest. In fact, you know, I think the existing member clubs should take something from that, it’s the fact that these new Clubs want to join the Western League. They want to be part of the Western League, and I think they deserve respect for that reason. Welcome them into it, you’ll be treated fine going the other way, I’m sure. Like I say, I just hope they come into it and they enjoy it as much as those that have left.

IN: John, as always, thank you very much indeed for your time coming on to the podcast and I look forward to catching up with you next season on the Toolstation Western League podcast.