The TBIR Blueprint for the future of Non League football – part 3

So six down, four to go in our agenda for change for the Non League game.  Parts one and two have gone down like a bacon sandwich on a hungover Sunday morning.  Finding three (you will see why not four at the end of this post) was incredibly hard as there are so many simple things we could do to change the game for the better.  So please excuse me if your “hot button” has not been included.  There is still time to contribute!

7. Make Non League Day a firm fixture in the calendar
James Doe deserves a medal for making the first ever Non League Day last September.  Not only did he have the energy to say “right let’s do it” but he was also able to get national media attention to the day. In short Non League day – what a brilliant idea!  My Non League team of choice Lewes FC hosted Hampton & Richmond Borough on a glorious sunny day and saw 694 fans flock into The Dripping Pan, up more than a hundred on games in previous weeks.  We also saw the likes of Jonathan Pearce, Mark Williams (From Fast Show and Harry Potter fame) and Dave Lamb (The voice of Come Dine with Me) come along to support their local club.

For those of you who have no idea what Non League Day is or was then shame on you!  It was a chance for all of those plastic Premier League and Football League (well, the higher placed clubs) to remember that there is more to life than a sanitised stadium, overpriced and undercooked food and players faking injuries.  It was a celebration of our Non League game and an opportunity for everyone to enjoy a game at the grass roots level of the game.

So what does it take to become a regular fixture on the calendar?  Three things really.

First.  Make sure that the FA recognises the day and therefore stipulates that home internationals are not played at 3pm on a Saturday (or preferably on a Saturday at all).  This day happened because the home game versus Bulgaria was played on the Friday night meaning no Premier League, nPower Championship and around half of the League One and Two games were played on the Saturday.  Take the game last weekend against Wales – couldn’t that have been played Friday night?  They play rugby union internationals in Cardiff on a Friday night without any issue? Or Sunday?

Secondly.  It takes a willingness of the clubs involved to adopt it as a special day.  Clubs need to do more to attract fans for this.  Many did last time out – Some offered 50% discount on admission, others put on special events.  But all clubs need to adopt the day and do something, otherwise it will be just like any other home game.

Thirdly.  Whilst I do not particularly advocate sponsorship for the sake of it, I actually think this would benefit from some sponsorship.  Why not make it like a “Red Nose Day” for clubs – do fundraising events, give some cash to grass roots football charities.  And get a national sponsor of the day who can use their marketing resources to really get the message across.

I would also suggest that it is held twice a season, planned so that ALL Non League clubs could benefit from hosting a game each season.  So in September it is Lewes versus Hampton & Richmond Borough, and then in March or April it could be the reverse fixture.  And let’s recognise the contribution of possibly the greatest man in Non League football, Tony Kempster (idea thanks to Danny Last) by naming the day after him….and getting at least a CBE for James Doe for his services to football.

8. Alleviate the financial catch 22 of promotion
This idea comes from Charlie Dobres, one of the directors of Lewes FC.  The cost of being promoted up the non-leagues can be crippling, each promotion seeming to cost almost exponentially more due to increased player wages, ground grading requirements, longer travelling distances and more. The step-up to Blue Square Bet Premier in particular, where almost all teams are now full-time, is a killer for small clubs. Increased crowds and sponsorship do not cover these promotions, so the inverse economics of non-league football is such that, the higher you go, the bigger the losses. Every time aspires to play at a higher level, but at what cost?  You can see the division in class both on and off the pitch between a Hayes & Yeading or a Histon, and a Luton Town or a York City.

Occasionally you are surprised by teams who seem to come from nowhere.  Fleetwood Town this season are making a real challenge to the top six but are being bankrolled.  Crawley Town?  Do not get me started on that whole situation?  AFC Wimbledon, a club built on solid community foundations.

So I would propose an ‘Escalator payment’ for promoted clubs. Funded by the Premier League/FA it would make a grant to promoted clubs sufficient to cover one season’s additional costs in the league above. This would give clubs more time to adjust to the step up and act as a safety net. At the moment, some clubs’ biggest fear is, ironically, the ‘threat’ of promotion. You can look at it as the other side of the coin to the parachute payments that a Premier League club gets on being relegated.

We all know that most clubs are held together financially by wealthy(ish) benefactors. That’s their choice, but the downside is an innate long-term instability in the club i.e. what happens when that person(s) goes away? So I propose a cap on the proportion of club income that can come from donations. Perhaps starting as high as 50% in year one, but ending up in year three (to create a soft landing) as no more than 20%. This would encourage and give clubs time to both replace this sugar-daddy money with genuine recurring, earnt in both gate receipts and commercial activities.

9. Scrap the ground grading farce
Following on from the financial catch 22 we have ground grading.  Take a look at the picture on the right?  Idyllic setting isn’t it?  This is the home of VCD, last season of the Ryman League North.  2009/10 was the first season at this level and they more than held their own.  Crowds were as you expect modest, in keeping with a regionalised league were attendances do not often break the three figure barrier.  They were accepted for promotion from the Kent Premier League to the Ryman in May 2009.  A year later after they finished in a respectable 8th place.  But then they were told that their Oakwood Road ground was not up to standard and they were relegated back to the Kent Premier League.

So a year after their ground was good enough to host crowds of 100 people they were told it wasn’t fit for the job despite them spending not insignificant sums of improvements.  As you can see from above – idyllic.  Two small stands, perimeter fencing, floodlights – all ticks in the boxes.  The issue was a 1metre wide path around the pitch.  It appears that this should have been a metre wide.  The club were given until mid June to sort this and they were on track to complete this work when all of a sudden in May the Isthmian League said “sorry but you have been relegated”.  You can read more here.

I have no issue with certain criteria needing to be met before clubs can play at a higher level, but the whole March deadline means more than often clubs have to gamble on paying for work on the slim chance they may be promoted.  Suppose that your team sits in 10th place in early January, five spots off the play offs but quite a few points away.  If you put a run together you could make 5th spot and thus get to the playoffs BUT there is a slim chance you may go up.  Only problem is you need to carry out a number of upgrades to the ground at a cost of several thousand pounds.  You only have a small window to carry out this work so you go ahead. Two weeks later your team suffers three serious injuries.  Then the bad weather starts and your next few home games are cancelled.  Sound familiar from the previous few seasons?  So extra money is needed just to get a team out yet there is no money coming through the turnstiles.  That is the issue.  Clubs have to gamble far too early in the season.  Why not make the deadline say in May or even later?

What is the difference between playing in front of 75 in Step 5, 100 in Step 4 and 250 in Step 3?  Or is this simply rules for the sake of rules?

So there we have it.  Nine sensible, logical and workable ideas.  But we all know that those three bedfellows do not resonate with the powers that be.  I will be sending the whole list to the FA and the respective Non League administrators for their comment, but I doubt I will get a response.  But before that I want a number ten.  After all a list is not really complete unless it is a top 10 so I want YOUR ideas for the tenth item.  We have a few such as change the playoff system so that it involves a team from the league above, change the regionalisation of the leagues and scrap the rule that says all teams over a certain level have to produce a match day programme.

So in the words of Deliah, “Let’s be ‘aving you”


  1. Brilliant article, Stu. Really good this. I haven’t read points 1-6 in your previous 2 articles about this, but if these 3 were the only 3 that you had come up with, they’re great on their own as ideas.

    NLD definitely should get more publicity than other days in the football calendar. It was a great idea about James Doe. It definitely should get more coverage this time and all the clubs should be promoting it more. At the time I remember on NLD I was at a game between Ilford/Enfield and spoke to Ilford’s gaffer who I know well – Colin Walton – and he said Ilford had 50 odd more fans today due to his friends, etc hearing about NLD and wanting to try it out just because of James’s interviews on radio which they heard. A sponsorship idea would be great as with a big company backing it, who knows there could even be television/radio adverts hyping it up and it would look good on a company in backing grass-roots football. In fact it might be worth me getting involved with James and trying to organise a company to get involved – what with my job working in sports sponsorship right now.

    re: point 8, I’ve been saying for the past year that the FA/PL clubs should be doing alot more to help out struggling clubs and the various County FA’s and League’s should be doing more to help the clubs and with the money in the game today, it’s utterly pathetic that clubs lower down are going out of business when it comes to having debts of £2-300,000 or something like that, which is basically spare change to those clubs above.

    In no way am I implying that NL clubs survival be solely reliant on receiving (either by asking or by a fund) money from Football League/Premiership Clubs or the FA , as I’m a believer that clubs should always do the most that they can for their own future – as it’s a greater achievement for that club to say they’ve done it themselves, however the Premiership and the Football League and the FA should be doing alot more for NL clubs.

    re: Point 9, everything you’ve said there is 110% true. From a Ryman League view, it was a joke what happened to VCD and I feel embarrassed from being involved with a Ryman League club that what happened to them happened. It was nothing but one farce after another and VCD did nothing wrong. There’s a rumour that ‘internal politics’ were partly to blame for VCD being chucked out of the Ryman League, but that’s something that I wouldn’t want to go into.

    What I will say is that the ground grading rule needs to be slightly updated. Yes obviously the higher you go the better a ground’s meant to be, but if a team is demoted a league due to the reason that VCD was, then that’s a disgrace – if it was due to safety issues or for having a poor stand then you could perhaps understand it, but VCD were treated very unfairly. Cracking final 3 points to the blueprint.

  2. This has been a tremendous series of articles. I hope all of these actually happen (not completely sure about fa vase and fa trophy on the same day, because the players and fans would want their day in the spotlight on their own).

  3. also. i think that there should be at least one more automatic spot for promotion from blue square premier. 3 should go won from league two. With all the talented blue square teams like afc wimbledon (my non-league favourites), fleetwood, kidderminster, luton and so on going for one spot in football league, it’s just not fair.

  4. I have a few as well, hopefully one can make number 10. Some of them may apply to all football and not just non league. Here they are anyway…

    1) Get rid of FA Cup Replays – the draw is made, and that’s how the whole tie should be played Team 1 v Team 2. if it is a draw, play extra time, if still a draw then penalties. Having a replay at the oppositon ground hands the bigger team the advantage. Look at FC United at Brighton. Brighton field a weaker team in the first game, but having only drawn, go out and thrash FC United in the replay. If they choose to field a weak side, the game should end with the same weaker side, not give them the chance to reassess. I have no doubt that extra time in the first game would have gone FC United’s way. The same goes for Droylsden against Leyton Orient. And countless others. That’s before you have the situation of replays disrupting already planned in league games, short notice long away trips, etc etc. Replays are an outdated concept and should be scrapped. So include Vase and Trophy replays to be scrapped for the same reasons.

    2) Get rid of “ineligible player” rule for cup competitons. Why are clubs still having to not play players that they have bought, just beacuse they played in an earlier round for someone else. You buy a player, he is yours, who cares whether he played for another club? Bamber Bridge played AFC Fylde in the Lancashire Cup Final a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t play at least 4 of their newer players, because they had played for other clubs in the same competiton months ago. Pointless rule!

    3) Play County Cup pre-quarter final round games pre-season and/or in opening weeks of the season. Make one of the at least 6 or 7 friendlies normally scheduled games in July/August to be a local County Cup match, as per a draw made in June. Then clubs have to fit in just the odd one game throughout the season. Get rid of the priority rule for the fixtures, and let the clubs decide when they have a free week, but give them a deadline to play it. Then play the quarter finals, semi finals and final in the first week of May flexibly scheudled to avoid play-off games if any of the clubs are in them. Simple, no problem with games appearing from nowhere and messing up fixture lists, and the finals are a dramatic end to the season and a big party for the County FAs – as that seems to be the motivation for holding them in the first place.

    4) And while we are at it, completely shake up the antiquated County FA allocation. Some clubs are affliated to “historic” county FAs, some to two county FAs by being only associate of one and some clubs are only associate. Completely rip it up and designate strict County FA boundaries, so Stalybridge, Droylsden, Hyde, Ashton United, Curzon Ashton and Mossley (all in Tameside and under 10 miles from Manchester) can all be affliated to the Manchester FA, instead of just some of them. Ashton and Stalybridge are 2 miles apart and are affiliated to different County FAs. Teams actually in modern day Cheshire can be in the Cheshire FA etc. Then they all play in their affiliated County Cup. You won’t get the case of Radcliffe (Lancs & Manchester) v Glossop (Manchester & Derbyshire) fixture that took 3 months to play when it shouldn’t even exist as a game if clubs had just one County FA. I’m sure there are several other examples around the country.

    5) If you are not going to involve a club from the division above in the play-offs then how about having a system where 3rd play-off place plays 4th play-off place. The winner is away to 2nd play-off place. Then the winner of that is away to the highest playoff team. A clear advantage for the highest placed play-off team, and surely fairer.

    I’m sure there’s loads more but that’s all I can think of for now!

    1. I think the list could have been 20 or 30 long – you make some very valid points. I wonder how many non league teams would want to scrap replays if it meant a trip to Old Trafford or Emirates? I can see the logic in Round 1 where travel and expense is often prohibitive though. County FA’s – I am still trying to figure out what they do for the game. Lewes played a friendly against Margate in December and one of the Lewes players was sent off – no leg breaking, fighting with officials or anything like that. But as t was a friendly his punishment was set by the Sussex FA and they decided it would be 4 games!

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