The Northern Premier League’s clubs voted for an east west split at Step 4 next season following the Football Association’s decision to create new divisions covering the Midlands.
Thursday night’s landmark vote at the Holiday Inn Wakefield saw 37 clubs vote for change with 27 opting to continue with the current north south split.
There was one abstention and three clubs were unable to attend the extraordinary general meeting to decide on the future geography of the Evo-Stik League.
Originally scheduled for last Sunday before Britain’s big freeze, the meeting was called to coincide with last week’s long-awaited publication of the Football Association’s National League System Review by the FA Leagues Committee and the proposed draft boundaries for Steps 3 and 4 following the creation of the new Central Step 3 and Central Step 4 divisions for season 2018-19.
Clubs took the decision to switch after a presentation from league chairman Mark Harris and vice-chairman Keith Brown on the background to the biggest shake-up to the non-League Pyramid since 2004 to iron out geographical anomalies, cut down on travelling costs and time and encourage more Step 5 clubs to climb the Pyramid.
The Board’s recommendation won a clear majority on an open vote after clubs were presented with the results of a comprehensive review and detailed statistical research that had been undertaken by the league on the costs and benefits involved in taking either path.
As well as a number of key financial arguments in favour of the east-west switch, the boost it would give to the competition’s future development and integrity by making membership a more attractive aspiration for clubs in the North-East was also highlighted.
Chief among the financial reasons was an estimated saving of £100,000 a year for clubs from the reduced costs of being able to shorten the season by one week to 37 and schedule far fewer midweek games, a move expected to boost matchday attendances and associated revenues by a widely accepted figure of around 30 per cent.
The lifestyle benefits for players, staff and fans alike of more weekend fixtures also proved persuasive as the league’s chairman outlined the other positives for clubs in all three divisions promised by the FA Leagues Committee, the benefits including a doubling of the prize money on offer in every round of the FA Cup, including the preliminary rounds.
Clubs were also told they would have the opportunity to review the decision to switch annually and those situated on or close to the proposed boundaries were encouraged to make their own representations to the FA to back up any concerns and views they held over the plans.
The league’s chairman (pictured addressing the meeting) said afterwards: “It was a hugely important and significant decision and the important thing to say is that this was the decision of the clubs. The league evaluates what the right split is every year and there is no perfect solution, but the clubs did accept the board’s recommendation.
“It was very much an open vote, so we can push forward and hopefully by moving to east west that will also make clubs in the North-East think again about how attractive joining the NPL actually is. Clearly, we want to maintain the integrity of our borders and we do want to get more clubs coming up from the Northern League because our boundaries have gone very much gone further south over the years and that’s obviously a trend that ideally we want to reverse.
“At the end of the day this is about the integrity of the Northern Premier League and hopefully the decision the clubs have made today will prove beneficial. We will be reviewing it as we have done over many years on a season by season basis. Yes, it was a difficult decision for clubs, but we have a clear majority and a clear mandate for what happens next.”
In total, the 276 clubs currently playing in Steps 1 to 4 will increase by 20 to 296 under the FA’s restructuring when the two new divisions kick-off in August 2018. Across the board, the re-shuffle will see the three current Step 3 divisions of 24 clubs increase to four divisions of 22 clubs while the six divisions at Step 4 currently run by the Northern Premier League, Southern League and Isthmian League will rise from 136 clubs playing in six divisions to seven 20 club divisions.
To achieve the FA’s aims, only the bottom clubs in the current Step 3 divisions will be relegated at the end of season 2017/18. In addition, only the clubs finishing last in the six divisions currently operating at Step 4 will be relegated with 26 clubs coming up from Step 5.