Non League Football: Looking back and forward

Non League Football faces some big challenges

A surprise phone-call to my dad on Thursday night from Allen Bethel, the former Stocksbridge Park Steels chairman, stirred up loads of memories. 

Allen hadn’t spoken to my dad for a couple of years, but their relationship goes right back to the 1980s when Allen worked for British Steel and my dad was employed by Jonas Woodhead in Leeds.

My dad became a director of Bradford (Park Avenue) in 2001 so their paths continued to cross. Then when Non League Yorkshire came on the scene, the connection became 40 years old, now through son.

The phone was eventually passed to me and the conversation has certainly helped to take my mind off the world as I have spent the last few days looking for old photos and reflecting.

Long-time readers to Non League Yorkshire know I am no Johnny-come-lately to Non League football. Me and Non League football go right back to the 1990s.

What I class as my first Non League game was in October 1998 when Avenue visited Witton Albion and lost 2-1.

But I started going more frequently after I was mascot for match at Horsfall against Flixton. I walked out with captain Wayne Benn (I have the picture somewhere in the house). Avenue won 2-1 with Chris Brandon and Jason Maxwell scoring. The team that dad: Derek Atkinson, David Blair, Neil Grayston, Jonathan Jones, Clive Freeman, Lee Connor, Chris Brandon, Wayne Benn, Jason Maxwell, Damian Lee, Stephen Ball.

The ‘Avenue journey’ took me all over – Belper Town, Hucknall Town, Accrington Stanley, Workington, Netherfield Kendal (before the re-brand), Chorley, Whitley Bay, Gretna and in later years places such as Kettering Town, Marine, Colwyn Bay and Cammell Laird.

Through Avenue, I also met Brian Clough on Boxing Day 2001 and duly got his autograph and a hug. Sir Bobby Robson was another person met and whose autograph I snapped up. In 2006, I visited football great, and the only man to take Leeds United to the European Cup final, Jimmy Armfield’s house in Lytham St Anne’s to interview him.

I made the back-page of the Telegraph & Argus in 2003 lifting the FA Cup after Avenue reached the First Round (playing Danny Wilson’s Bristol City).

There’s the odd amusing story such as falling off the high-raised front seats at Gretna in 2000 and hitting my head on the barrier wall and needing treatment from the Gretna physio at the beginning of the second half.

Moving onto Farsley Celtic, helping the former Sheffield United player Georges Santos climb over a fence at the Cedar Court at J24 off the M62 and assisting in the survival of a goldfish during a seven hour journey from Torquay to Halton Moor in Leeds are my favourite stories.

In recent years, Non League Yorkshire has been a pride and joy to run…most of the time.

Looking back is all we can really do at the moment. The crisis has broken every economic rule known to exist. Every business not in the essential bracket is at mercy of the Government.

There is zero point in screaming at the FA and telling them they should make £100 million or x amount available. We must be patient and trust the authorities to make the right decisions.

People forget that The FA is a business itself with debts (Wembley for one). It will have to wait like everyone else for the Government to outline rescue plans and come up with their own (not something done overnight). The FA is in the queue like every other business so it cannot start sending out blank cheques to every grassroots club in the country.

Highlighting shortfalls is only what can be done at the moment, ensuring the FA has an informed decision on how best to solve the problems created.

What I would like to see is the FA create and manage a fighting fund for grassroots football, aimed at persuading the richer end of Premier League footballers to donate.

I think that would be a positive step and give hope to all clubs out there fearing for the future.

There also needs to be a major debate about the direction of Non League Football, certainly at Step 5/6. Even before the crisis, let’s face it, the Northern Counties East League season has been a disaster. The weather had caused a break the length of three-months between October and March.

There was simply no chance of most clubs being able to finish by April 25th 2020 even two weeks ago because of the amount of games still to be played. 

Because of the world crisis, some say it should be voided. But the season must be completed, even if we have to wait until September or even next year. Too many clubs have invested too much emotionally and cancelling it will only demoralise people. Everyone needs something to look forward to.

If the season re-starts in August for instance. Finish it and then between say October and April organise tons of mini-leagues across the regions like the Wartime League in the Second World War, before starting properly again in August 2021. 

In the mean-time there is plenty of time to draw up plans to decide the future layout. If there was ever a time to rewrite the rulebook, this is it.

Tradition should be a word banned in any FA meeting before anyone says it too. Tradition and Football are glued together…unless television and money is mentioned. They say change happens, but I can produce newspaper cuttings from the 1950s which heavily highlight issues affecting clubs, such as County Cups and league fixture extensions. These were issues not dealt with then and still remain problems in 2020.

The local FA boundaries are ridiculous. Armthorpe Welfare are in the West Riding, with Barnoldswick Town who let’s be honest are in Lancashire. Yet Nostell Miners Welfare, very much a Wakefield club, are in the Sheffield & Hallamshire.

The FA and its local offices have had decades to sort some of those issues and have failed to do so. Radical reform must come.

Competitions like the West Riding County Cup should be thrown in the bin. In the instance of the WRCC it has not been taken seriously by every team in the competition since the 1950s, maybe even 1930s.

Playing Non League Football between February and October has to be given serious consideration, certainly at Step 5 and 6. Non League Yorkshire has been a firm advocate of this idea for years.

Some clubs will scream ‘Cricket’, but two out of the last three campaigns in the NCEL have been write-offs because of the weather. September to February, even March, are notoriously a waste of time and people get bored and frustrated at the endless pitch problems.

The 2017/18 campaign saw clubs such as Liversedge, Garforth Town and others playing two nights running which was crazy.

Players are fed up travelling in midweek too. When normality resumes, no-one will want to travel far anymore. Clubs have been genuinely travelling from places such Bradford to Grimsby during the working week. The distance is too far for Step 5 and 6 clubs.

The long-planned FA restructure is being thrown around as a reason why a decision must be made soon. There will be a new league anyhow and travelling will be cut to a certain extent. But I would go further (a phrase used a lot by the Government currently). 

The NCEL is a great league with a superb history, but certainly for the next few years, there is a strong argument that going back to the old Yorkshire League boundaries is the way forward – simply to reduce the number of games and travelling (i.e get rid of midweek games).

Even if that means creating three leagues (more if needed) in the NCEL at Step 5 and 6 to separate the various regions. A maximum of 12/14 clubs per league (at most 26 games in a season) is the figure I had in mind. Such a plan would also enable clubs to reduce costs significantly.

On a predicted map of the 2020-21 football pyramid, Harrogate Railway were listed as a Northern League because of geography. Knaresborough Town were last year. There’s clearly danger of that happening and if such a decision was taken, it would finish off both clubs and take them away from their local communities at a critical time.

The FA has the chance to use the opportunity to make ground-breaking changes and basically ‘go local’ at Step 5 and 6.

Clubs at those levels must also play their part and go back to the concept of having players playing for their local community clubs, for the love of the game and for no financial reward. This will only work if most, if not all clubs publicly take this stance.

Playing local lads will also strengthen local ties as more local people will be more encouraged to go and watch matches.

The kinds of figures spent on players across the NCEL has been frightening. Clubs have spent hundreds, thousands on players and achieved nothing. Clubs have to choose whether they want to be a beacon of hope for their community or a club solely focussed on gambling once again on finishing eighth instead of ninth next year by wasting tons of money.

Spending beyond means and needless expenditure on players must stop, otherwise clubs will not be rebuilt properly. Every penny of gate receipts and raffle money is going to be critical. Sugar daddies are going to be few and far between, sponsorship from businesses will be non-existent.

Non League League may not on many people’s priority list right now, but the pause is going to be long enough to reshape the landscape.

2 thoughts on “Non League Football: Looking back and forward

  1. Food for thought James , clubs such as our local club have ambitions to climb the ladder , but is it realistic ? The travel is not that bad at our level , but increases as you rise , our away support has collapsed really hasn’t it , as you say there has been widespread postponement, leading to for eg a midweek game at Grimsby , I wouldnt have dreamed of not going at 1 time but you think twice now , as you say the lines need to be re drawn

  2. There are a couple of issues to be resolved re: Summer football.

    1. How do promoted teams filter into the higher leagues? Finishing in October and starting in August in a higher league would be an enormous gap.

    2. Matches against EPL/EFL clubs – These are an important source of money for NCEL clubs. League fixtures must be able to be moved to accommodate these.

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