Working for the Football Association must me remarkable fun, and by “remarkable” I mean “barely”, and by “fun”, I mean “an alternative to slamming your dangly bits in a car door.” It’s not as though football fans are ignorant of the constant stream of brain farts guffing from the collective mind of the FA, we’ve suffered down the years, from the Wembley reconstruction mess to the constantly bewildering way managerial choices are mishandled. Do they get rejects from The Apprentice to make these choices? I don’t want to imagine how that might work out. Sorry, Fabio, it’s just not working out (you being statistically the best manager we’ve had in 40 years, and all), so just dance in your pants, dance in your pants!
What the FA has splooged all over the place this week is somewhat niche in its audience though no less an example of them getting a simple task utterly Andover-over-Timperley. Having looked into how to resolve pressing issues amongst the cluttered number of divisions in non-league football they have announced the equivalent of shoving paperwork into a top drawer for looking at ‘you know, later, like when I’ve less, you know, busy?’.
In short, the FA was tasked with sorting out the perennial problem of cutting back the weeds and cleaning up the rock garden that is the middle bits of the non-league pyramid. As currently constituted, the pyramid resembles a capital “A” written by a drunk, blind monkey, on fire, in space, which makes the latest decision all the more frustrating and self-defeating. Pushing back decisions into the never-never might work for the full-time, professional leagues; it tends not to have much of a positive outcome for semi-professional or amateur sides. Non-league football has been allowed to develop its current wobbly state precisely because decisions on the geographic spread of divisions and the number of teams in each league have been deferred and delayed year-on-year.
In broad terms, each step down provides for each division to become more geographically specific. Blue Square/Conference Premier is a national league, fed by the geographically spread Conference North and South feeder divisions, themselves fed by the Northern/Midlands/Southern feeder divisions, and so on. Due to the unpredictable nature of the football season, with some relegations/promotions not confirmed until April or May, fitting teams into the right place can be an arduous (read, improvised) process. Don’t need to tell fans of Durham or Bishop’s Stortford or King’s Lynn about being plonked into the wrong leagues. Having to travel across the East Coast Main Line for every away trip, Durham have recently requested to be demoted from the Northern League Division One for financial reasons. King’s Lynn were wound up by the Courts. Bishop’s are wound up by not being able to travel south for any away game in their “northern” leagues.
By expanding divisions at Steps 3 and 4, the FA is putting more stress and strain on the financial constraints suffered by teams who can’t add extra away days without feeling the pinch. There’s no argument for expanding the Premier League or Championship, so how can it be justified further down? What compensation will the FA offer for the inevitable damage to non-league grounds after four (or more for ground share clubs) games being played across winter or spring?
From Step 4, the FA should look at streamlining the feeder leagues whilst ensuring the geographic spread is as tight as possible. It’s not the kind of thing which looks to me as brain surgery, and yet the great and good suits always make the easiest task the hardest execution. There can only be one consequence from this week’s decision – more games for clubs which can’t always afford it, more games for fans who can’t always travel, and less confidence amongst teams towards a streamlined, relevant league structure. Deferring decisions on this can’t wait any longer.