Geographically peripheral, a potential financial burden and an ongoing headache which divides opinion at every turn. You could be forgiven for thinking that I was talking about Britain’s present relationship with its neighbours in the Eurozone. Instead I am referring to the Northern League’s position in the football pyramid. It all sounds very sensible – promotion to a higher level, progression through different leagues and part of a meritocracy that rewards success with promotion and failure with relegation. Yet it has not panned out like that and over recent seasons no Northern League club has opted for promotion, despite domination of the FA Vase since the turn of the millennium. Should teams be forced to take promotion or are Northern League clubs understandably reluctant to take a leap of faith?
If the situation could be summed up musically, it would have to be the Clash’s Should I stay or should I go? The financial costs of promotion are obvious with increased travel and the need for players to leave work early to get to games. A Saturday fixture might involve a 10.30a.m start for players with a return almost exactly twelve hours later. Midweek fixtures represent even more of a problem. Guisborough’s recent mid-week North Riding trip to play Scarborough Athletic at Bridlington proved the point exactly. Frantic calls were being made to enquire as to players’ whereabouts and players were stretched to get there. Players may want be recompensed for time lost from work and booking a coach almost every week would be a huge expense. Players would seriously consider whether this jump would be worthwhile and even whether they could commit to this extent when they could play for a Northern league side along the road, especially if the money they are receiving is of parity. Those against the notion of promotion may be nodding their heads wisely and recounting the line from the aforementioned song which states that ‘If I go there will be trouble’. But we should note that the following line was ‘If I stay it will be doubled’. The Northern League is currently very strong – perhaps falsely so – due in part to its isolation. It exists in the pyramid and has the advantage of FA sanctioned competitions but perhaps understandably there are elements of the non-league community who are irritated at the perceived reluctance of some of the more successful clubs to make the move.
There are some who argue that the costs of moving up are exaggerated and that you don’t need to pay the players so much. By paying players less some of the extra costs would be negated. Equally, some would argue that extra revenue could be created by playing in a higher division. Crowds could in theory be higher through interest from the local community that their side is playing ‘new’ teams each week and admission costs would be greater in a higher division, creating more revenue. There is also the sense of adventure associated with travelling to new places, new teams and new challenges for supporters.
These arguments are easily countered. For Northern League teams to be given a realistic carrot to encourage them to apply for promotion, I would argue that the FA needs to offer a helping hand. This could come in two forms. One, by redrawing the boundaries to make travel less of an obstacle – especially for the Tyneside teams. Two, by allowing four or five Northern league teams to make the jump at the same time. By giving Northern League teams a feeling of strength in numbers, they would feel reassured that eight local derbies would exist each season, cutting travel costs and guaranteeing large gates to recompense them their additional overheads. The following season other teams may join them. Within a two year period, even if Northern league sides achieved promotion, there would be a sizeable enough quantity to make it feel a more realistic proposition. Promotion would almost be normalised.
Blyth Spartans did it, Whitby Town managed it, Durham City have just about pulled it off and Spennymoor, Bishop Auckland and Whitley Bay have tried it and returned to the Northern league for a whole host of reasons. The suggestion that Dunston, Sunderland RCA, Whitley Bay and Bishop Auckland may be interested in promotion is clearly welcome news and it would be marvelous if they were able to fly the North-eastern flag effectively in higher divisions.
For now, the issue remains a clash of interests. Promotion from the Northern League is a Curate’s egg. It remains to be seen whether the egg turns out sunny side up or leaves an unpleasant taste. I’m not one to normally sit on the fence and am firmly of the view that to do so you end up with some unpleasant splinters, particularly if the issue is thorny one. But on this matter, I feel the decision very much has to be club-based and founded on clear financial principles. We all want to see our clubs progress, but not at the risk of a club’s long term existence. From Eurozone to nonleaguezone in one fell swoop. From Sarkosy to too cosy and from Channel Tunnel to tunnel vision. The debate is set to rumble on and on.