The news today that the FA has decided to abolish the Tier Three promotion play-off from 2023-24 onwards has been universally welcomed, and rightly so. It has always been iniquitous that any team can win its Division and not be promoted, and this is what most would see as a long overdue righting of that particular wrong.
Not surprisingly, however, in amongst the cheerful reaction came further questions. “What about tier four?” asked Doncaster Rovers Belles’ manager Nick Buxton, in response to a celebratory tweet from FA Women’s National League (FAWNL) Chair, Carol West.
Leaving aside the fact that this reform is merely bringing tier three promotion into line with tier four, not putting it in a better position, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Buxton and his Belles. Runners-up to Boldmere St Michaels last season in FAWNL Division 1 Midlands, they find themselves consigned to the same fate this season behind Stourbridge. In the men’s pyramid, they would have been looking at a play-off shot at the very least. In the Women’s pyramid, thanks for coming…
The case for a more ‘fluid’ pyramid, with two teams promoted from each Division, is often stated, but rarely is it explored in any depth. Everyone nods their heads sagely and agrees that it would be a ‘Good Thing’, without considering how workable it is in practice, so what ARE the pros and cons?
Between tiers two and six we have what you might call a perfect pyramid now, with two Divisions feeding into one above at every level, and that means that the introduction of ‘two up’ would bring with it the need for ‘four down’, something which is rarely touched upon.
Some basic maths here. With Divisions of twelve, four down would mean relegation for a third of each Division every season, the equivalent of the Premier League relegating six or seven teams (like we can see that happening, right?). That’s not going to be palatable for clubs, and more importantly, I cannot see it being sanctioned by the FA.
For now, I suspect perhaps the best we could hope for would be a play-off between each pair of runners-up to create a third promotion place, meaning three instead of two make way above. That’s still 25% of any Division being relegated, but it’s potentially swallowable.
What could be done, then, to facilitate a proper ‘two up’ system? A partial answer is tied up in another frequent cry – Increase the size of the Divisions! If each Division was to become 14 teams – or even 16 – rather than 12, then three or four down starts to look a little more realistic.
We’re all in favour of bigger Divisions, right?
But there’s another issue – fixture congestion. We’ve seen this season, notably in the FAWNL where matches are still being postponed even in the last few days, that it’s not easy cramming all the games in, even when there are only twenty-two of them. With midweeks only of limited use due to travel and player availability, and Cup competitions an ever-present menace to all good fixture secretaries, adding as few as four more fixtures per club is nigh on impossible without some serious structural changes to the calendar.
The options here (rationalise or do away with County Cups and/or League Cups, for example) will not go down well in some quarters, and ought to be the subject of another article altogether, but suffice to say something would have to give.
And are there sufficient clubs to fill those extra places? An increase from 12 to 14 in each Division from the WSL down to, say, tier four, would require an extra sixteen clubs, that’s two from each of the current tier five Divisions. In my own Midlands region there probably are clubs ready and able to make that leap. Travel isn’t too onerous, many clubs are clustered within easy distance, and the roads are decent. Playing at tier four isn’t vastly different from playing at tier five.
But in the South West, the North East, East Anglia, maybe not so much. Again, looking at the current season, we’ve seen Wymondham Town come up to tier four and quickly fold, and we’ve seen St Austell come up and fail to fulfil at least one fixture towards the end of a season that has seen them pick up just three points.
Then there’s Hounslow, Bedworth United (folded in the summer after relegation from tier four), Long Eaton United (relegated from tier four weeks ago with one win and over 160 goals shipped)…
There’s genuinely no criticism of these clubs intended, simply a recognition that the pyramid is brittle and many clubs are just one ‘event’ away from things going wrong, even if that ‘event’ is ostensibly a positive one such as promotion.
So expansion needs to be handled carefully, and if that means we keep things steady-as-she-goes for a little longer than people might ideally like, then just maybe it will work out for the best in the long run. What’s more important is a robust pyramid, with depth and strength, one that is sustainable in the short AND long term, and my instinct is we’re not there yet.