Should lower-league football in England be regionalised?

Fans of a certain age will remember the old Third Division North and South that ended in the late 50s. Slightly younger fans may remember the formation of the Alliance (now the Conference) in 1979 – the first fully nationalised league in the non-league. And for some managers and chairmen, those older days are their way forward to cut costs.

Woking chairman David Taylor has been the leading voice over the last week in calling for the regionalisation of the Conference in order for teams such as his to survive the credit crunch and compete one step below the football league. Bournemouth manager Jimmy Quinn has gone further and suggested the authorities may want to consider re-regionalising Leagues One and Two, for much the same reasons.

The suggestion has divided fans with some seeing the advantages of less travelling and more local derbies, while others have argued that such a move would damage the quality of lower league football.

Cross country clubs

It’s not hard to see why Taylor and Quinn, among others, are keen on breaking the leagues down into a neater geographical fix. For Bournemouth, returning to two regionalised third tiers in the league would cut the number of miles they travel from 7,000 miles to around 4,300. For a credit-crunched club, that’s a lot of money saved on petrol.

Woking have an even stronger argument – they’ve got trips to the Cumbrian outpost that is Barrow, while there’s also long trips to York and Wrexham to contend with. And if that’s a lot of miles and, for Woking, overnight stays, spare a thought for the likes of Torquay and Eastbourne who’ve got even further to travel.

Along with the expense of long away trips, Taylor also says regionalisation for the Conference will benefit the fans, who’ll spend less cash following their club around country, which, in turn, would supposedly lead to higher gates that are vital to a club’s survival. Although quite how the plight of Woking fans differs from, say, those at Newcastle who have even higher prices and long away trips to Portsmouth and London and are facing the same economic hardships as all of us, isn’t exactly clear.

“Our own standards would drop”

But two clubs you may expect to support Taylor’s stance have been quick to voice their opposition to the call. Histon’s chair Gareth Baldwin, who presides over one of the smallest teams in the Conference, has called the suggestion “nonsense”.

Even more telling is the view of Brian Keen, the chairman of the somewhat geographically isolated Barrow. His club has one of the biggest travel bills in the league and their local derby is at Altrincham, a mere 103 miles away.

For both Baldwin and Keen, any form of regionalisation will hurt the quality of the leagues they currently play in. It’s certainly true that once the Alliance was formed the non-league game made great strides in professionalism that resulted in the current automatic promotion and relegation that’s in place today.

If the Blue Square Premier was regionalised, then the top two north and south leagues would need to make up numbers from the teams in the Conference North and South and possibly even further. For Keen, this could mean Barrow could play the likes of Unibond side Marine, one of their nearest clubs at this level.

If Leagues 1 and 2 were regionalised, this would see the top two of the MK Dons and Leicester in the same league as Grimsby or Barnet, depending on the boundaries drawn up by the league.

Points wise, these are two of the worst teams in the football league and it’s debatable if the Foxes would benefit from matches against either of these two as opposed to Millwall or Oldham, who currently occupy the play-off spots in League One.

As Keen says in the Non-League Paper: “If we weren’t facing the same level of opposition, our own standards would no doubt drop and if we were to make it to the League we would be a far weaker outfit than we are now and we’d come straight back.

“If that were to happen, then sooner or later the gulf would get so wide that the League would say thanks but no thanks, and we’d be scraping just to get one club promoted again.”

The gulf between the Conference and League Two isn’t currently that large – witness the successes of Aldershot, Exeter and Dagenham this season, and Hereford a little before them, while seeing how hard former League clubs Mansfield, Oxford and York are finding life in the Conference.

But the difference in class between the Championship and League One is wider, as Doncaster and Nottingham Forest can testify. For every Bristol City or Swansea who’ve adjusted to life in the second tier, there’s a Scunthorpe or a Southend who’ve found the standard just a little too tough.

But as well a quality issues, there’s also the question of how, if it was carried out, the reorganisation would be done and what football would look like afterwards.

League One N&S

When the Third Divisions North and South were created back in 1921, it was to prevent a breakaway football league being formed. At that time, the league had a very northern bias, with only 7 of the 44 clubs based below the midlands. Even then all bar one of these (Bristol City) were from London.

With the Southern League growing restless – and with ambitions of its own to one day become the premier football competition in the country – the League took the step of taking the top clubs from the top Southern League division and placing them in a newly-formed division three.

This created a further geographical bias and, to rectify this, the Third Division North was formed to run parallel to the new Third Division South. There was only one team promoted from both leagues, meaning it was hard for a team to make progress, while the bottom two from both leagues had to apply for re-election – a process they normally survived.

As with any league split along geographical boundaries, the placing of clubs threw up some strange anomalies. Both Nottingham teams – County and Forest – were placed in the South and had to play the likes of Brighton and Plymouth, while near neighbours Derby were in the Northern half. The structure was finally changed in 1958 to create the four divisions of English football we know today.

Non-league football, meanwhile, has gone through many structural and regional changes in its history, but it’s difficult to argue that the creation of a single nationwide non-league top flight hasn’t made it stronger.

There’s plenty of regionalisation below the Conference and this is mostly for the key reason Quinn and Taylor say is necessary for higher leagues: to help smaller clubs cut down on their expenses.

So, below the Conference National (Blue Square Premier), you’ve got the Conference North and Conference South. These then split into further regions with the Unibond League (North), the Ryman League (mostly South East) and the British Gas Business League (everywhere else). All three of these have a Premier league, then split into a northern and southern league, and then, beyond that at step five, you’re moving towards very close regionalisation and then counties football.

A regionalised, amalgamated League One and Two wouldn’t affect the makeup of the Conference and probably wouldn’t affect the two-up, two-down system currently in place, although would mean that there would probably only one relegation spot from both League One North or South, unless the League and Conference were prepared to sanction four teams relegated and promoted each season.

Regionalisation of the Conference would leave a very different mark. The Conference North and South as we know them would probably be abolished with the majority of teams placed into a new non-league north/south split top flight.

This may have a knock-on effect further down the leagues as those clubs who’ve not quite made the grade would be placed in the Unibond, Ryman and BGB leagues, possibly knocking out a few teams who’ve just managed to avoid relegation.

But the biggest change would probably come via promotion and relegation. Currently two sides are promoted from the Conference – one automatically, one via the playoffs. It’s hard to see too many League clubs being keen on extending the relegation slots in League Two to four, especially when they’re currently battling against introducing a third relegation spot to non-league.

This means that the Conference top leagues would be back to just one promotion spot, which makes it harder for teams to get out of the league and often leads to the end of the season being a somewhat damp squib for most sides from about 4th downwards.

As always, follow the money

If this is the case, then what have David Taylor and Woking got to gain by moving to regionalised leagues. As ever, it comes down to cash and security.

Woking have, in their reasonably recent history, come close to gaining league status but in the past few seasons have been off the pace and turned from playoff hopefuls to relegation contenders. And, as with any team that aims for League status but then starts slipping down the leagues, they’ve also spent heavily.

They may not be in the same position as crisis clubs like Weymouth and Lewes, but they’ve hardly got money to throw around. So, if they can cut down on unnecessary expenses like travel and overnight accommodation, it means they can put that money to another couple of players.

Two regionalised leagues would also mean Woking would go from a relegation club to mid-table or better, if numbers were made up with weaker teams. Not only does this keep them safer from relegation, it could even bump their crowds up as locals head to see an (artificially) more successful team.

But this really doesn’t seem anything more than a short-term fix. Barrow’s Brian Keen calls for clubs to be more sensible with how they spend their money. “If somebody goes out and signs four new strikers, they can’t complain that they can’t afford to travel to Barrow,” he said in the Non-League Paper.

Histon’s Gareth Baldwin echoes a similar message – his club, from an area with arguably worse transport links than Woking, only have one overnight stay of the season – for Torquay – and, along with the likes of Burton and Kidderminster, are in the top five because of sensible spending, even with long distances to cover.

You could even go further and argue that teams who can’t afford travel or overnight stays at Conference level will, in all likelihood, struggle if they were to make it into the league.

The Conference, for all its problems in the past, is slowly becoming a much more professional league. It’s able to attract national TV coverage in the form of Setanta and has more stringent rules for financial entry than the league does. Around half the sides in the league are full time and there’s plenty of quality to be found.

The recession will undoubtedly hurt non-league football, where the operating margins are much slimmer. It’s possible that fairly radical options may have to be looked at as clubs try to cut their cloth accordingly, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if several names went out of business.

But although it may be necessary in the future, regionalisation isn’t the currently the answer to these problems and is no solution to clubs who live beyond their means, of which you will always get at any level.

As Brian Keen concludes – “it would be a travesty to throw away all we [Barrow] have achieved for the sake of a few irresponsible spenders.”

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