Monday, 30 July 2012

News: National League System changes 2012-13 confirmed

The National League System will have another shake up this summer, affecting the promotion and relegation at Steps 3, 4 and 5. theonionsack spoke to the FA’s Leagues and Clubs Manager Mike Appleby last week to find out exactly what will be happening, how, when and why.

This diagram from the FA’s website shows how the different levels are divided up – there are 14 leagues at Step 5 feeding into the six Step 4 divisions.

What will happen

  • All three Step 3 leagues (Northern Premier League Premier, Southern Premier, Isthmian Premier) will increase from 22 to 24 teams.

  • The two Isthmian leagues at Step 4 (Division One North, Division One South) will increase from 22 to 24 teams.

  • A third relegation place will be created in the Isthmian leagues at Step 4, creating 14 automatic promotion places from Step 5 from 2013-14.

  • Teams finishing as low as third at Step 5 may be promoted, as long as they apply for promotion and meet the ground grading criteria. However, only one team from each Step 5 league will be promoted each season, the highest placed eligible club.

How it will affect 2012-13

To add the extra six teams required at Step 3, each league will relegate only two teams instead of the usual four. That means six teams will go down from Step 3 with 12 coming up from Step 4 via the usual method – champions plus play-off winners from each division.

This means Step 4 will need an extra ten teams – six to make up the shortfall from Step 3 and another four to increase the size of the two Isthmian divisions.

Therefore, each Step 4 league will only carry one relegation place this season, instead of the usual two.

The FA have decided to create a 16 up – 6 down system for this season only between Steps 4 and 5, enabling each Step 4 league to relegate its bottom club.

As a one off, the FA will promote a second club from two Step 5 leagues in the Isthmian League catchment area only. This covers five leagues – the Eastern Counties League, the Spartan South Midlands League, the Kent League, the Combined Counties League and the Essex Senior League.

The FA will take no more than two promoted clubs from these divisions and it will be decided on position and points per game basis. The FA will only take one promoted club from the other nine leagues.

The aim is to ensure that all bottom placed clubs at Step 4 are relegated, but if any teams drop out from Steps 1-4, the vacancy created will be filled by relegation reprieves. Extra teams from Step 5 will not be promoted.

How it will affect 2013-14 and beyond

Promotion and relegation will return to normal from 2013-14 other than one change.

As mentioned above, there will be three relegation places in the Isthmian leagues at Step 4, while the other four divisions of 22 teams will continue to relegate two.

This creates a 14 up – 14 down system where every league can promote a team each season – previously there had been only 12 places across the 14 leagues, though this rarely created a problem as clubs from some leagues frequently decline promotion, citing travelling and financial implications.

Any clubs dropping out of the system from Steps 1-4 will continue to be replaced by reprieving relegated clubs on a position and points per game basis.

This means that the first relegation reprieves will be offered to the two clubs finishing third bottom of the Isthmian League First Divisions, irrelevant of points per game achieved by clubs in other leagues.

Reasons, criticism and responses

Mike Appleby, the League and Clubs Manager at the FA told theonionsack that the increase in clubs at Step 3 is to make relegation fairer.

“They had 22 teams and were relegating four each season – no other competition does that, not even the Football League.

“It is a big turnaround of teams, losing six clubs overall from 22 year on year.”

Since the plans have been announced, supporters have voiced concerns over increasing the league schedule by four games at a time when so many teams face fixture backlogs already, but Appleby said that the leagues had been fully consulted throughout.

“Those are valid points and we did look at that, as well as seeking advice from the leagues themselves.

“The clubs were happy to go with it – it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

There has also been criticism of the decision to relegate only two teams from Step 3 this season, with people believing that the Step 4 leagues should have been granted an extra promotion place.

Appleby responded: “I think that’s something we need to look at going forward, but it’s in the rules, you reprieve in England. In Scotland, when Rangers went down to Division Three, they promoted Dundee, but we do it differently.

“Two years ago, of the five teams reprieved at Step 4, four got relegated last season – do you not just prolong the agony? You have other clubs who have just spent the whole season buoyant, so why shouldn’t they be given the chance? I can see the benefit of that.

“But the rules always help the teams at a higher level and the leagues were happy to offer it that way. We can’t just amend the rules, the clubs need to come forward.”

The FA hope that by accepting teams finishing as low as third, promotion and natural movement between the leagues will be stimulated.

The plan had initially been to reduce the number of leagues at Step 5 from 14 to 12, resulting in a straight 12 up – 12 down without changing the Step 4 leagues, but the Step 5 leagues couldn’t agree on changes.

“We were asked by the leagues to look at it,” said Appleby “and we had a mandate to do that, but when the leagues saw the actual proposals some were very vociferous.

“It would have been a major upheaval and it was decided it would cause the least disruption to keep 14 leagues at Step 5. Demographics would say with the density of the population in the Isthmian area that the increase [at Step 4] happens there.”

In addition the FA aims to ensure that any club finishing bottom of a Step 4 league is relegated, even in 2012-13 when only the bottom sides go down, but Appleby conceded it wouldn’t be easy to implement.

“We’re planning to try and relegate the bottom teams where possible and going forward we’re talking to the leagues to enforce this regardless of what happens [in terms of drop outs].

“I think this season, though, we would have to reprieve. Step 5 leagues don’t like us taking too many teams in one year. They are very, very reluctant, and I understand their position. It is the leagues, not the clubs, though we have to apply the rules in place as well.”

All information correct at the time of publication, Monday 30th July 2012. 


  1. From 2013-14 season onward - a few queries:

    It's stated that Step4 relegation reprieves will be awarded first to the two 22nd.-placed Isthmian finishers.
    That is fair enough, but will Isthmian 23rd.-place finishers be accorded parity with the 21st.-place finishers from the Southern & Northern Premier Leagues, when it comes to reprieve precedences? (And likewise, last-place finishers, in turn?)
    To me, it seems obvious that the Isthmian 2nd.-to-last finishers should be considered for reprieves ONLY FOLLOWING exhaustion of the 2nd.-to-last finishers from the other four divisions. Ditto in respect of any last-place finishers.

    Re: Last-place finishers. I see that the new system would be flexible enough to cope with reprieves being given for up to eight vacancies arising at Step4, before any last-place finisher might need be considered for a reprieve.
    It's stated that the desire is to legislate that no last-place finisher escapes being relegated to Step5, but what is going to happen when (inevitably) more than eight vacancies arise during a given season?
    Is there a regulation that has actually been agreed to cope with this (admittedly unusual) eventuality?

  2. From my discussion with Mike Appleby, I would have thought that all second bottom clubs will have parity after the Isthmian clubs finishing third bottom are reprieved, but I don't know for sure.

    The bottom club scenario, I'd imagine, would come down to position first, then points per game - if there were nine vacancies at Step 4 then with the rules as they are (stated in the article) I don't see how they could do anything other than reprieve a bottom club.

    It should be noted though that bottom club relegation is still a work in progress, so a rule change may happen.

    I think the guidelines would possibly prevent a situation arising like in the NPL this season, where Quorn and Shepshed Dynamo were relegated from NPL One South, but Wakefield and Cammell Laird were both reprieved in NPL One North.

  3. When, at the end of 2012/13, two teams instead of one are promoted from each of the five 'Isthmian-catchment' step 5 leagues, will they draw in additional teams from step 6 to keep up numbers, or will there be reduced relegations from step 5 to step 6?

  4. Hi Fourwheeler,

    I believe what will happen between Steps 5 and 6 is still on the agenda so to speak - when discussing enforced relegation for bottom clubs at Step 4 Mike Appleby mentioned that bottom clubs should go down right throughout the pyramid, but obviously that gets harder as you go down.

    No answer as yet, something I'd imagine is a work in progress.