THE biggest non-league reshuffle in 13 years has been described as ‘good news for football’ by one of the Isthmian League’s key figures.

A review of the third and fourth steps of the non-league football system has been conducted, in a bid to improve geographical anomalies, cut down on travelling costs and encourage more step 5 clubs to climb the pyramid.

Nick Robinson is the chairman of the Isthmian League and has been involved with the league since 1982.

And he now has to contend with changes to the third and fourth steps of the non-league pyramid, with another division introduced at each level for the start of the 2018/19 season.

However, our clubs will be affected next season with just one team to be relegated from the Isthmian Premier League and Northern divisions, as opposed to four and three respectively.

There will also be two teams automatically promoted from the Isthmian North, with a third going up via the play-offs.

While at step five, there is a strong chance that two teams from the Essex Senior League will win promotion instead of one, with 12 of 14 second-placed teams from the tier promoted on a points per game basis along with the champions.

And Robinson said he is excited at what lies ahead.

“This is good news for football,” he said.

“What we are trying to do is cut down on the amount of travelling and cut down the number of games.

“Look at the Isthmian Northern and Southern leagues. Currently there are 24 clubs and they play 46 games over the course of the season.

“That is too many and if we cut it down to 38 games with four divisions of 20 teams, it is less commitment for each side and will encourage players and coaches to get involved.

“There will be less midweek games and they are the ones that aren’t as well attended.”

Step 3 will move from three divisions of 24 teams to four divisions of 22 come the start of 2018/19 – with the new division controlled by the Southern League.

With just one team relegated from each of the Isthmian Premier, Southern Premier League and Northern Premier League, it means 19 spaces will be available for teams looking for promotion to Step 3.

Two automatic promotions from each of the six divisions at Step 4, plus one through each of the play-offs will see 18 teams promoted, while the best third-placed club across the tier will secure the final spot on a points per game basis.

That means the make-up of Step 4 will go from two divisions of 24 and four of 22 to seven divisions comprising 20 teams – with the Isthmian League taking charge of the new division.

It’s a move that thrills Robinson.

“The fact that the Isthmian League has been given control of the new Step 4 division is excellent,” added Robinson.

“It gives us more control and enables us to manage things in a more effective way.

“The board has worked hard for some years now to deliver football for all.

“Giving the management and control of the new Step 4 division to the Isthmian League is a great step forward for the league.

“The aim is to reduce costs for clubs and fans alike so that we encourage more players and supporters to join our brand of football.

“There are currently 48 clubs at Step 4 under our control. We will have 60 in the near future.”

It was announced on Saturday that Bostik will take over the sponsorship of the Isthmian League for the next two seasons.

And it is not just league officials that are excited at the news.

Canvey Island manager Danny Heale could be one of the main beneficiaries of the move, following their relegation to the fourth tier last season.

The Gulls are many people’s favourites to bounce straight back next year.

And although Heale is taking nothing for granted, he admits the changes could prove significant.

“This is good news for us and the league,” he said.

“I didn’t know much about it at first but, on the face of it, it gives us another opportunity to return to the third tier at the first attempt.

“In the last 14 years or so, no-one has gone down and the gone straight back up.

“We want to make it happen. We know there are big teams in that league – Grays Athletic, AFC Hornchurch and Maldon & Tiptree to name a few - and we have no divine right to go up ahead of anyone else.

“I believe there are six to eight teams that will be in the picture and it will be an interesting season.

“It is common sense,” he added.

“With the league being reduced to 20 teams at step four and 22 at step three, it will be nice to play instead of train.

“These boys are all working and it is down to the management to make it work. That is tough to do at times so changing it is the right thing to do.

“If there are more places up for grabs it must go in our favour. We must make sure we go about our business in the right way and give ourselves the best chance to make the most of it.”

Vice-chairman Craig Johnson added he fancied relegated trio Canvey, Grays Athletic and AFC Sudbury all to be fighting up the top come the end of the season.

“They are strong clubs,” he said. “I expect all three to be heavily involved in the promotion battle.”




Promotion - East Thurrock won promotion to the National League South in 2016

THE National League will also undergo a shake-up next season after league bosses passed a vote to rejig the top two tiers’ play-off structure.

National League and National League North and South sides will now see six teams involved in the play-off mix.

The champions will go up, while second and third placed sides will automatically be handed home semi-final draws in the play-offs.

Those finishing in fourth and fifth will host seventh and sixth respectively in one-legged ties before the winners travel to second and third for a one-legged semi-final.

The winner will play at the home ground of whichever team placed higher in the division, with the final of the National League showpiece to be held at Wembley.

East Thurrock United and Concord Rangers, both of the National League South, threw their weight behind the proposals.

And their respective managers have now had their say.

“I am a fan of the change as it gives every club at this level an even better opportunity to get in the play-off mix,” said Beach Boys manager Adam Flanagan.

“Every club wants the chance of getting promoted so why would anyone vote against something that would give you a greater chance?

“I believe it will make things more exciting.

“That said, I do question what would happen if the teams in the play-offs are not allowed to compete, as was the case last season (when Poole Town and Hungerford Town were denied a place in the play-offs after failing to meet ground requirement regulations).

“I wonder at what point the cut off might be but, in truth, I haven’t read the finer details of the change so maybe this is incorporated within it.

“Concord have come within five points of making the play-offs in the past but I think the league will be open next year and any team could have a chance of making the top seven so it should make for an exciting season.”

Rocks boss John Coventry said the club voted in favour, although he admitted he did have his reservations.

“I can understand why the changes have been made,” he said.

“It is great if you are seventh as it keeps the season alive and more teams may be in the hunt in the closing weeks.

“But if, somehow, the team that finished seventh was to win and be in the National League it just doesn’t seem right.

“All you need to do is win a one off game and I am not sure if that is fair against a team that finished second or third.

“Where does it stop? The league had problems last year with teams not fulfilling ground requirements and I wonder where it will end.

“Will it be at the stage where you are either in the play-offs or relegated?”




Interesting thoughts - Bowers boss Rob Small

BOWERS & Pitsea manager Rob Small believes changes to the league structure will make next season more competitive than ever.

Small’s men finished sixth in the Isthmian North last season to just miss out on a play-off place.

Although under new rules next season, Bowers would have secured the final play-off position.

And while Small thinks it will be more competitive, he admitted he didn’t feel too strained in terms of travel requirements in Bowers’ first season at step four.

“We are only one year into life at this tier and I haven’t found the travelling to be too challenging,” he said. “There have been a few trips to Norfolk and Cambridge but I don’t think it is that bad in the division.

“I am not sure about the rest of the country. Having spoken with Morpeth Town, who play in the Northern Football League, there is actually a lack of ambition to be promoted due to travel requirements.

“They are based in the north east and if they went up they would have to travel a great deal more.

“If these changes stimulated the northern part of the country then that can only be a good thing.

“If there is an extra promotion place available then there may be an increased chance for some teams,” he added. “That may be a catalyst for making it more competitive towards the upper end of the league.

“But, in reality, all three of last season’s relegated Isthmian Premier teams have joined our league and all three have to be strong frontrunners.

“If you include Hornchurch and Maldon that makes it five huge clubs in the picture. So the rest are already massive outsiders.”

With only one team going down next season, concerns have been raised as to how competitive the league will be at the bottom.

But Small doesn’t share those concerns, although he hopes those without anything to play for in mid-table come the end of the season remain competitive.

“If you look at the teams at the bottom last season - Brentwood, Waltham Abbey, Heybridge Swifts, Ware, Soham Town Rangers – these are all teams that put together results that belied their league positions,” he said. “So I believe the league will be competitive “But, looking at the league, where is the one team coming from?

“I don’t suspect any teams coming up will arrive and not be competitive due to their momentum – as that helped us when we went up.

“It may mean there are teams in 12th or 13th place that will be ‘on holiday’.”




Looking up - Southend Manor boss Stuart Marshall

THE managers of Great Wakering Rovers and Southend Manor believe their chances of promotion have been boosted by the non-league restructuring.

Next season, one team will be promoted as champions from each division in the fifth tier, while 12 second-placed teams from the 14 leagues at that level will win promotion on a points per game basis.

Should a team finishing as runner-up not have the necessary ground-grading, the team with the 13th best record nationally will be promoted, instead of the team finishing third in that particular division.

Wakering were relegated from the Isthmian North last term, and are among the favourites to bounce back this year.

While Manor are also planning to apply for promotion to the fourth tier in November, following an impressive year last term.

And Iain O’Connell, who took over at Wakering in February and also managed the club between 2004 and 2009, says his team are looking to strike back.

“It is good news,” he said. “I am pleased that another space has been created as it gives us, and other teams, that added incentive.

“We have come close in the Essex Senior League in the past but knew we weren’t close enough to the leaders.

“This year, there are more opportunities for all the sides competing. If you are in the top five or so teams in the league then it keeps things interesting for longer.

“I think it will be more competitive. There will be some strong sides and you hear whispers about players some teams are signing but we fancy ourselves as well.

“It will be close and I am looking forward to it.”

Manor boss Stuart Marshall believes as many as ten teams could be involved in the race for promotion to the Isthmian North this season.

The club has forked out £12,000 on ground improvements so far, and are planning on investing more in the months ahead as they bid to secure Isthmian League grading.

And he says teams will be more ambitious next season in their aim to win promotion.

“The more places there are the better and it gives us something to play for,” he said.

“Barking ran away with the league last season and that was that.

“But others have that incentive now so, even if there is a runaway leader, teams can still play and push on.

“We might finish second and that might be enough. We all want to win the league of course but the ambition is to get promoted.

“We are applying for promotion and from my point of view that shows ambition.

“If we didn’t have that ambition then I wouldn’t want to be here.

“We will give it a good go.”



THE Isthmian League will be rebranded The Bostik League for the next two seasons.

League bosses have struck a deal with the global adhesive and sealant specialist, following the conclusion of a 20-year relationship with stationers Ryman.

The Premier, Northern and Southern divisions will now be known as The Bostik Premier, Bostik North and Bostik South, following the announcement at Saturday’s Annual General Meeting.

Nick Robinson, the League chairman, said: “The Isthmian Football League, now entering its 113th season, has 72 clubs that rely heavily on the financial support that sponsorship generates.

“Teaming up is certainly welcome news for everyone involved.

“We are delighted to be linked with such a well-known brand.”