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Column: Is The Non-League Pyramid Shrinking?

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They say league tables never lie. That being the case, the tables in many of the feeder leagues in the non-League Pyramid paint a similar picture.

I realise it`s still very early days as some divisions aren`t even a quarter of the way through their fixtures, but there seems to be a trend where newly-promoted teams are doing rather well.

And so I pose a question – is the non-League Pyramid narrowing in standard?

I have often said in the past that I believe the Football Association`s re-structuring of the non-League Pyramid a few years back meant that many clubs found themselves higher than perhaps they should have been – and we have seen several fall by the wayside as they attempt to bridge that gap.

Clubs were forced to improve their stadiums and build stands for 100-200 people when their total attendance for normal games was probably half that, and they were forced to compete for players in an already saturated market, meaning they were having to shell out unrealistic `wages`.

Back in the 70s and 80s when I played, clubs and players found their natural level and if the club had a particularly good season, it obtained promotion – if it was ready and able to do so.

There are now players being paid to play that a few years back would have struggled to get into a club`s reserve side!

And it`s the same with clubs.

In the past, we occasionally got a Colne Dynamoes-type club appear out of nowhere – but very few – and they disappeared almost as rapidly as they appeared.

I reckon to have a reasonable grasp of non-League football, but I must admit to often having to hit the search button on Google to find out about some of the clubs appearing at Step 4 and 5 nowadays!

But a quick look around the top end of the Pyramid sees Shaw Lane AFC in second place in the Evo-Stik League Premier chasing an Altrincham outfit who are a well-known name to most – even those with little knowledge of the non-League game.

Shaw Lane have only been going since 2012 and have rapidly climbed the Pyramid from the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior League, through the Toolstation Northern Counties East League and then, after stalling for one season in the Evo-Stik North when they `only` managed to lose in the play-offs, the Barnsley-based outfit won the title and promotion last season.

To make it an even more remarkable rise, Shaw Lane will feature live on BT Sport when they host SkyBet League Two neighbours Mansfield Town in the First Round of the Emirates FA Cup on November 4th!

That really is some rise in five years – from Step 7 to Step 3 and featuring live on national TV!

In the division below, South Shields are another club with an amazing recent story.

Although the current club was formed back in 1974, it`s since Geoff Thompson took over as chairman that Shields` rise has been rapid.

He bought the club`s Mariners Park, improved the facility and brought in former Aston Villa star Graham Fenton and the lesser-known but shrewd Northern League tactician Lee Picton as managers and – as they say – the rest is history.

After languishing in the Ebac Northern League Second Division for years, suddenly this sleeping giant was awoken and fans streamed to the ground in vast numbers.

November 2015 saw a new record crowd of 1,412 to witness a 9–1 drubbing of Tow Law Town and then 3,464 watched the Mariners beat Coleshill Town in the semi-final of the Buildbase FA Vase – a competition they went on to win at Wembley when, it seemed, half the north-east had assembled at Wembley as they completed a league and cup `double`.

Now, the ground has three new stands and a new 3G pitch was also built alongside the stadium.

It appears that Shields aren`t looking to consolidate in the North division either, and are presently joint top with Basford United with games in hand due to their fine FA Cup run which came to an end with an exciting Fourth Qualifying Round defeat by Vanarama National League neighbours Hartlepool United.

Then we look at the Evo-Stik League South East table expecting to see the likes of the ambitious AFC Rushden & Diamonds or relegated Cambridge City sitting at the summit.

But instead it`s newly-promoted pair Moneyfields and Hartley Wintney who sit first and second respectively.

Moneyfields are another relatively new club, having only being in existence since 1987 and have come through the Hampshire League and Sydenhams Football League (Wessex) divisions.

Hartley Wintney are a much older outfit and won the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League last season having been crowned champions in 2015/16 but were then unable to go up as their facilities weren`t up to scratch.

In the Evo-Stik South West, sitting in second below Taunton Town are Bristol Manor Farm, who won the Toolstation Western League title last season in emphatic fashion and also enjoyed a good Vase run.

For me, equally as important as far as the Pyramid is concerned is that Forest Green Rovers manage to scramble enough points in League Two to avoid coming straight back to the National League.

For years, the National League – and most people outside the Football League – have campaigned for three-up, three-down and it would only add fuel to those wanting to keep the status quo if Rovers came straight back down.

But I definitely think the Pyramid is shrinking in standard.

The likes of South Shields, Shaw Lane and Moneyfields will eventually find their level – whether that be upwards or downwards.

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About Author

Former Swansea City and Kettering Town defender who has been managing the likes of Kettering Town u18s, Rothwell Town, Desborough Town and Wellingborough Town for 33 years as well as being technical director at AFC Rushden & Diamonds. Began in non-League journalism as editor of Team Talk magazine back in the early 1990s and then as editor of Non-League Daily, joining Pitchero to set up Pitchero Non-League in January 2011. Also works for the National League.

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