The restructuring of the non-league game is coming more into focus by the day, as crucial decisions are made prior to the start of the new season. Before a ball is kicked in vengeance in the last season with the current set-up, the onus is on the Conference to spell out to clubs exactly what they will need to do, on and off the pitch, in preparation for the new era.
On the playing side, there will still be three relegation positions from the Conference Premier and three promotion places from the Dr Martens, Unibond and Rymans Premier. The teams finishing between second and thirteenth in the three Premier leagues will then be eligible to join the new Conference North and South divisions. If a team does not meet ground and/or financial criteria, then the next placed team in its division will become eligible.
Another fundamental decision that has been made is to do with promotion from the Dr Martens Eastern and Western divisions, Unibond First Division and Rymans North and South. So long as the top teams in each of these divisions meets the ground and financial criteria, they will be promoted straight into the Conference North and South. These five clubs, plus the three relegated from the Conference, plus the 36 in the top two-thirds of the Premier feeders will constitute the 44 teams that will make up the Conference North and South.
The latter decision means that the top sides in the Dr Martens Eastern etc will leap-frog all of the teams in the bottom thirds of the higher divisions. If, for instance, Dover Athletic finish 14th in the Dr Martens Premier at the end of next season and Folkestone Invicta finish top of the Eastern, then Folkestone would catapult to the higher level. This might seem strange, but the Conference is trying to avoid a situation where the competitive element is removed from the coming season.
Two days ago (30th June), the Conference mapped the new structure onto last season's final league tables. 'It fitted really well,' says Conference chief executive, John Moules. The structure is being refined all the time, he says, but the signs looked promising. If the new set-up started today, then the geographical divide would see Worcester City as the most southerly club in the Conference North and Bedford as the most northern club in Conference South. There would be additional travel for some of the further flung teams than with the current three feeders but others would benefit because of the current geographical anomalies. Moules cites Tamworth, who will have less travelling in next season's Conference than they did in last season's Dr Martens Premier.
Overall, there is no getting away from the fact that a fairly large number of clubs will effectively be demoted. Three feeder leagues into two at level two does not fit. In fact, when everything has been put in place, there will actually be the reverse effect at the bottom of the pyramid, so that ultimately the structure will span 220 clubs rather than the current 205. It is envisaged that 15 clubs will move up from the 14 existing level four feeder leagues (Kent, Essex, Sussex, North Eastern Counties etc). This will be done in two phases over two seasons, with eight stepping up at the end of the 2003/04 season. To take 15 in one go would be a major loss to the feeder leagues, says Moules, hence the staggered approach. He foresees some restructuring of the level four leagues, with the stated aim of amalgamating some of the lower leagues to end up with twelve. He feels that there is not the strength of depth in the north so that there might be some restructuring here; he also cites merger talks in the past between the Kent and Essex leagues.
Once everything has settled down, the twelve level four feeder leagues will still supply clubs to the level three as they do at the moment, based on the eligibility of the top teams. However, from this level above, there will be play-offs throughout the structure.
What about the off-field criteria? This is still being finalised, with correspondence due to be circulated to all clubs over the next week or so. However, in terms of ground grading, there will be a lower level of grading for Conference North and South than there is for the top Conference division. A final meeting to hammer out the financial side is being held on 10th July. While not willing to go into detail prior to that, Moules hints that any club which is not in full administration will probably be eligible. This means that any club with a Creditors Voluntary Agreement (a device for getting a club out of administration) will not be barred entry (Dover Athletic are in this situation at present).
The other financial consideration is the ground-breaking decision to introduce salary capping, so that wages should not exceed 65 per cent of a club's turnover. The theory is fine and has been widely welcomed, but how will it be policed? The Conference has been working towards this over the last year but has been keeping quiet about it, says Moules. 'We will sometimes get it wrong, there will be pitfalls, and we are looking to refine it, but we are doing it with the clubs.' The aim is to ensure that clubs are only paying out what they can afford. The scheme will be monitored throughout the season, with clubs having to submit financial information on a monthly basis. Contributions by an individual benefactor will still count as turnover, so too income from cup competitions and from transfers. There will also be a degree of flexibility so, if a club is hit by injuries and submits the medical forms to back this up, then it might be allowed to exceed the 65 per cent mark on a temporary basis.
Finally, still on the financial side, what are the implications of the new structure on the existing league sponsorship deals? The Conference has its own contract with the Nationwide Building Society, separate from the Society's sponsorship of the Football League. The tie-up runs through to May 2005, with the Society having an option to extend. Clearly, the Conference and the Nationwide will discuss the new set-up, with the extension from one to three divisions bringing greater coverage for the sponsor. There is still TV exposure via the deal with Sky (Aldershot versus Accrington Stanley will be the first televised match of the season, by the way, with this switched to the Sunday on the opening weekend of the season). There is also the recently announced agreement with the Footballers' Football Channel to show all Conference matches via broadband. Moules believes that this all means that there is the opportunity to bring additional sponsorship into the non-league game.
Perhaps less convincing is his belief that the new structure will not impact the sponsorship agreements and opportunities below the Conference. The backing of Dr Martens is due to end anyway, with the Southern League seeking a replacement. The long-standing backing of Ryman and Unibond has some way to go and Moules does not think it will be in doubt as a result of the changes. That remains to be seen. The fewer teams and loss of status of these divisions might not be viewed favourably by the sponsors.
There is also still the spectre of possible legal action by the Ryman League. A meeting last Monday did not see any progress, so the Ryman is currently taking legal advice. There also seems to be a polarisation of views from the clubs themselves, with those now eyeing possible demotion starting to voice their opposition, while the more confident clubs publicly applaud the new era.
So long as the legal issues do not scupper the long-awaited changes, then there is no doubt that the game will end up with a more sensible structure. A key benefit will be standardisation. Every club at every level will have an equal opportunity to progress. The ground and financial criteria will be standard across the country, so too the number of steps on the ladder. A club in the Kent League will have exactly the same ground grading criteria as one in the North West Counties. And no longer will a club at one level be seven steps away from the Conference Premier while another, elsewhere in the country and ostentatiously at the same level, finds itself ten steps way. Fundamentally as well, the introduction of play-offs combined with two feeder leagues rather than three into the Conference Premier will make every division that much more competitive. For instance, there will no longer be the situation where, as in the last two seasons, one club has pulled so far ahead at the top of the Unibond Premier that any other club safe of the relegation zone has had little or nothing to play for at way too early a stage in the season.
Egos will be dented, vested interests will bring opposition, and a large minority of clubs will move down a level, but ultimately these would seem to be acceptable costs in the wider interests of the non-league game.