Controversial? Well, let me explain my thinking.
If we go back to before 1979, there was no pyramid in non league football and indeed no national league outside of the 4 football league divisions. There was no automatic promotion to the football league. Aspiring clubs had to apply to the football league and the 92 member clubs voted whether to decide which of the bottom four clubs in the football league & aspiring non league clubs would be admitted to the league. There was very much an old boys clubs and non league clubs found it difficult to get elected to the league. It is also worth noting that in the years between 1960 and 1979 it was Northern clubs who were voted out in favour of Central/ Southern based teams
I am not going to recite the full history of the Non League Pyramid. That can be found in various locations, including here. Basically, the Pyramid was set up to help ensure a way for Non League clubs to get entry to the football league. From the formation of the Alliance Premier League in 1979, it was agreed by the participating clubs that only the winners would apply for promotion. The Alliance Premier League was formed by the top clubs in the Northern Premier and Southern Premier Leagues. This was the first national non league to be formed.
Subsequently, automatic promotion came and Scarborough were the first club to get automatic promotion to the league. Now we have 2 places each season into the league. Most clubs in the now called, Conference are full time professional outfits, despite most having gates of less than 2000 at home games.
The goal of promotion to the football league is seen as some form of holy grail which clubs chase. Well, that is most clubs do, apart from it seems some clubs in the North East who are in the Northern League and repeatedly do not take the chanced of promotion to the Northern Premier League. ( I will come back to this. issue.)
There is now in place a structure of leagues below the football league starting with the
Step 2 – Blue Square Bet Conference North & Blue Square et Conference South ( Any club at step 2 north of a line from the Northern edge of the M25 to Bristol is in the Blue Square Bet North. So bishop Stortford whose home ground is near London Stansted Airport are in the North division. Strangely when I was taught geography, London was in the south of England.
Southern Premier League Premier Division – which basically covers southern and South Western England, but teams as far south as Brackley are not in this division, but are in the Northern Premier League
Northern Premier League Premier Division – see above re Brackley – this covers from the Scottish borders as far south as Brackley
Ryman’s Isthmian League Premier Division – This was formerly a home counties based league and is still predominantly based in that region
Ryman Division One North (aka Isthmian Division One North).
Ryman Division One South (aka Isthmian Division One South)
Evo-Stik Division One North
(aka Northern Premier Division One North)
Evo-Stik Division One South
(aka Northern Premier Division One South)
Evo-Stik Southern Division One Midlands
(aka Southern League Division One Midlands)
Evo-Stik Southern Division One South & West
(aka Southern League Division One South & West)
These leagues at Step 4 effectively split each of the Step 3 leagues into 2 geographical based leagues
Baker Joiner Midland Football Alliance
Baris Northern Counties East League Premier Division
Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League Premier Division
ChromaSport & Trophies United Counties League Premier Division
Ebac Northern League Division One
Essex Senior League
Kent Hurlimann Football League Premier Division
Molten Spartan South Midlands Premier Division
North West Counties League Premier Division
Ridgeons (Eastern Counties) League Premier Division
Sussex County League Division One
Sydenhams Wessex League Premier Division
Toolstation Western League Premier Division
Uhlsport Hellenic League Premier Division
To take an example of a step 5 league, the Northern League covers roughly Tyneside, Durham & Cleveland (with the odd exception). Travel to games is rarely more than 60 –90 minutes. Players and fans can get to games after work on a midweek game and on a Saturday can be home in time for tea. To move up to step 4, clubs would face having to travel up to around 400 mile round trips for some away games. The majority of games are a considerable distance. For a game that is predominantly played at this level for fun ( and a small financial reward) by part time players, it is a huge extra commitment on the part of players. For this reason, it is very understandable why clubs at the extreme edges of the country do not want to take promotion.Indeed, as well as extra travelling costs, and extra compensation to players, the clubs are likely to see a fall in attendances as clubs are likely to bring less fans to away games owing to the extra distances involved. Its a no win situation. Crowds are only likely to grow as clubs establish themselves at a much higher level.
Indeed, Blyth Spartans after spending time moving up the Pyramid to the Conference North, now find themselves in Step 3 and are getting lower crowds than some of their former rivals who are still in the Northern League.
Not a week goes by without another tale of a non league club in financial trouble.
Of the 20 clubs who founded the Alliance Premier League,
Kettering – they are currently in the Southern League, homeless and on –5 points, and unlikely to see the season out owing to financial problems
Boston – they were a hugely successful club before the Pyramid came about, but having been in the football league, they have crashed down the division to the Northern Premier League as a result of financial issues, indeed when they were relegated from the football league, the Conference refused to have them because of their financial problems
Scarborough – the first club to get automatic promotion to the football league. They do not exist at all now, even their former ground has been demolished after they were relegated back to the Conference and wound up. Prior to the Pyramid, Scarborough were regulars at Wembley winning the FA Trophy several times in the 1970s
Maidstone United – they made it into the football league, but failed to finish the season owing to their debts
Nuneaton Borough – another club who went bankrupt and reformed later as Nuneaton FC
Northwich Victoria – after leaving their home at the Drill Field (oldest ground in the world allegedly) they lost their new ground and are now playing home games some 40 miles away from Northwich. The supporters have voted to form their own club
Telford – another club to go out of business and have been replaced by a new club AFC Telford
AP Leamington – by 1988 they were out of business but later reformed as Leamington FC in 2000
Weymouth – another club with crippling debts. In 2010 they entered into a Creditors Voluntary Agreement with debts of £822k. They have teetered on the brink of financial obliteration on several occasions.
Wealdstone – have been forced to ground share for many years now after their ground was sold. They do not have a ground of their own
On the other side of the coin, both Yeovil and Barnet are members of the football league now although Barnet’s finances always seem to be one step away from a crisis, at best.
So, at least 50% of the founder members of the pyramid have experienced severe financial problems or gone out of business. They are not unique. Halifax Town went out of business and reformed as AFC Halifax, Chester City did likewise. Many other clubs who have tried to chase the holy grail of football league membership have suffered. In The north East, Whitley Bay, Spennymoor united, Bishop Auckland and Durham City amongst others have taken promotion to the Northern Premier League and whilst all were relatively successful on the pitch, the costs nearly crippled those clubs and they all returned to the Northern League, from whence they came. Sadly, Newcastle Blue Star were unable to return, they went out of business completely.
Google the history of Truro City FC for a great example of why chasing success in the pyramid destroys teams.
I should make it clear that I am not saying it was the chasing of success in the Pyramid alone that caused all these clubs to get into financial difficulties, but it does seem to feature too all too commonly.
So, What is the solution? I’m probably going to get burned as a heretic for saying this, but I would suggest we scrap the Pyramid below the Conference North & South levels and go back to the position we had in the 1970s, with what effectively were a series of leagues based around relatively small geographic regions – Northern League, Isthmian League, Northern Premier, Southern Premier, Western League, Cheshire League etc. Retain the FA Trophy (and possibly the FA Vase) as the chance for teams to test themselves nationally.early 80s where league representative teams played each other. That could also be revamped and re introduced if space could be found in the calendar.
We also had a fledgling competition in the late 1970s/ early 80s where league representative teams played each other. That could also be revamped and re introduced if space could be found in the calendar.
Teams would be able to apply for promotion to the Conference North & South if they are the highest placed club in their league wanting promotion, satisfy ground and financial criteria (as at present) and if more teams are seeking promotion, then play offs can be arranged between the various leagues.
The benefits? Stronger regional leagues, less travelling for fans and players and thus less costs to clubs. This structure would also allow the clubs with the ambition and finances to seek to move towards the football league.
We need to face facts that there is a great difference between clubs like Luton & Mansfield in the Conference with big support and little clubs like Alfreton who get 300 people at home. Their trying to compete at the same level will end in financial ruin. It is only feasible currently when the little clubs have a wealthy benefactor, but what happens when they pull out? The club are left with the expenses still, but not the income.