The Non-League Football Paper
A NO-GO ON THE WESTERN FRONT
THE FA admits measures to cut travelling in the Western League Premier Division may not come forward in time for next season after a league merger hit the buffers.
It was confirmed on Monday that the bid to bring together the Western and South West Peninsula leagues, with the creation of an extra division at Step 5, had officially been withdrawn.
Laurence Jones, head of the National League System at the FA, said the governing body would “consult with stakeholders as to what the preferred competition structure” looks like.
“Whilst the intent is to provide effective solutions quickly, due to time lost on dispute resolution and to allow time for potential processes around alternative solutions, it may not be appropriate for any change to be implemented until the commencement of the 2024-25 season,” his statement read.
The merger was an attempt to solve the problem of three Step 6 divisions – Western League
Division One and the two in the South West Peninsula League – all feeding into the Western League Premier at Step 5.
That has stretched the Western Premier’s footprint from Bristol deep into a remote area of England with 400-mile round trips that can see teams on the road for up to eight hours for one match.
Odd Down and Brislington have taken voluntary relegation in the past two summers with Bitton also withdrawing from the Premier Division in October citing travel implications, stating they could get to Leeds just as quick as they could reach Mousehole in Cornwall.
The leagues were on course to join forces but hit an impasse over how things would run.
Secretary Phil Hiscox told The NLP that the South West Peninsula League had “bent over backwards to find a compromise” and had been prepared for the Western League to take six of the nine officer roles available provided the single, paid part-time post of football secretary, supported by board members, was protected.
That would have meant Hiscox taking charge of fixtures, results, registrations and transfers across all five divisions but giving up being company secretary and managing the benevolent fund, website and social media, roles he undertakes with the South West Peninsula.
Western League chairman John Pool said: “We spread the load and believe with any business – and certainly when you are looking at personnel operating voluntarily – that there is always the potential for a big danger if one individual takes total responsibility.”
Pool added there had been “no other issues” and that the new league had been due to launch in Exeter on March 16.
Both leagues suggested alternatives, including the South West Peninsula’s solution of using the same league structure that would have been implemented as part of the merger with them running a new Step 5 league covering the south-western part of the current Western Premier footprint.
A letter from Jones said the leagues committee was “unanimous in not supporting the alternatives”, citing that the required changes to current FA regulations “would not be able to go through due process” in time for next season.
Pool said the Western League would continue to do “everything in our power to encourage the FA to move this forward as quickly as possible”. When asked by The NLP, he confirmed that he fears clubs may be lost to the Western Premier if a solution is not put in place prior to the new campaign.
“A lot of clubs will need to pause for breath,” he said. “If it is the FA’s intention to find a solution then that might persuade some to bite the bullet and stick with it but as long as the options are there to ask for lateral movement or voluntary relegation, those are going to be on the table for a lot of clubs.
“It is sad to say but as a board, we fully understand that and we would never want the clubs to doubt that. This whole exercise has been driven by the clubs.”
Hiscox disagreed. “If the FA is taking control, they need to get it right. The timing is not important,” he said. “There is a fundamental difference between rushing something through and getting it right because it has to stand the test of time. It cannot be a sticking plaster.”
Jones also said the FA had been “disappointed” that the merger, which “had the full support of the FA” and “would have had a significant positive impact for clubs in the south west”, had stalled “despite our significant involvement in dispute resolution”.
He said “a transparent, fair and thorough tender process” would be required “meaning these could not be implemented for the 2023-24 season”.