PLANS to restructure non-league football in the South West have been given the green light by The FA, it was announced this morning.
From the 2023/24 campaign, the Western League and the South West Peninsula League will merge and a new division will be formed at Step Five of the non-league system – aimed at reducing clubs’ travel time.
At Step Six, currently served by the Western League Division One and Peninsula Premier East/West divisions, three leagues will remain and cover roughly the same geographical areas. All five divisions are set to contain 18 teams each.
The spaces created at Step Five will primarily be filled by the top four clubs from each of the Step Six leagues being promoted at the end of the coming season.
There is also the prospect of the best fifth-placed clubs being promoted on a points-per-game basis, while lateral movement from other Step Five leagues is also a potential factor.
Mark Frost, chairman of the FA Leagues Committee, said: ‘It is important that as the pyramid evolves, we consider the feedback of clubs and leagues.
‘This issue was raised in a proactive manner by the leagues and we are delighted that we are able to find a solution, while protecting the integrity of fluid promotion and relegation that the pyramid restructure has now enabled.’
South West Peninsula League secretary Phil Hiscox added: ‘I’m relieved that we’ve been able to get it over the line and that it is going to be happening.
‘It’s also great that we’ve been able to confirm the promotion criteria before a ball is kicked – which understandably is what the clubs were after.
‘For us, the work really begins now. It’s the less sexy side of things, but we have to make sure we merge the two leagues properly so that we don’t upset anyone.
‘The plan is to have all of that done and dusted before our inaugural Annual Meeting in June next year.’
Dan Hart is the head coach at Buckland Athletic, who play in the Western League Premier Division at Step Five. He said: ‘From a purely footballing perspective I think it’s a really good move. Devon and Cornwall clubs have been held back geographically for a long time.
‘Having a Devon and Cornwall league at Step Five offers clubs down here more of a level platform compared to the rest of the country. It’s good to see that there has been an effort to address that.
‘In terms of Buckland Athletic, it doesn’t change any of our aims. No matter whether we’re playing locally or down at Mousehole, our aim this year and over the next few years is to be playing Step Four football.
‘The restructure will make things different, and if promotion doesn’t happen for us this year then I think it puts us in a good position to be right up there the following year.’
Marc Revell, manager of Peninsula Premier East side Newton Abbot Spurs, said: ‘My target for this season is to finish higher than we did last season, which was fifth. With that in mind, it doesn’t change our objectives for the season.
‘If anything it does give the lads a bit of an added incentive. I know the restructure gives you a bit of a helping hand, but my aim within five or so years was to reach the Western League with Spurs anyway. To do it in two years would be fantastic.’
And he added: ‘I’m all for matching the ambition of our players. You’ve got to keep that work-life balance, as I know, so it will help to keep hold of players who may otherwise have not liked the travel distance.’
Will Small, manager of Peninsula Premier East outfit Bovey Tracey, said: ‘It’s an exciting time for all the clubs in our league with the infrastructure and facilities to progress.
‘Nobody will want to be left behind, which means that most teams in the league are going to be eager to compete for those four or five promotion places.
‘In terms of the plan itself, you can look at it two ways – more clubs will be encouraged to step up, but in turn will that water down the quality of football? Only time will tell.’
Liam Jones, manager of newly-promoted Peninsula East side Teignmouth, said: ‘It’s a little bit different for us. Our ground is not currently at the required standard for promotion, although we would very much like it to be.
‘We’re also new to the competition this season, so I don’t want to overstate our ambitions. We need to make sure we’re as set as we can be off the pitch and then assess the situation at Christmas. Our initial aim is the top eight.
‘We’ve all known this was coming for a while, so some teams have probably gone pretty big in their recruitment with this in mind.
‘Promotion is usually limited to the top two, so there is that extra incentive for clubs to sneak in there as this opportunity doesn’t come around every year.
‘Ultimately, it’s something which needed to be done and fair play to The FA for listening. Phil [Hiscox] and the Western League have been doing plenty of work, so fair play to them, too.
‘It will only increase the prospect of Devon and Cornwall clubs playing at Step Five – so on the whole I’m sure it will achieve what it set out to.’