Non-league restructure presents new opportunities for clubs

It really is an exciting time for Non-League football with a huge restructuring of the National League System taking place at Steps 4 to 6, explains Non-League football fan and talkSPORT presenter Tony Incenzo.

Subject to FA Council ratification, the club allocations for season 2021/22 have now been confirmed. The restructure means that 107 Non-League teams have been moved upwards within the pyramid.

This has been to facilitate a new division at Step 4 and two new divisions at Step 5. Meanwhile, the Step 6 divisions have been reduced from 20 to 17.

The aim is to present clubs with reduced travelling costs whilst providing greater opportunities for generating income via more localised fixtures.

A number of clubs who are joining Step 6 have been in touch to tell me about the work they are carrying out to meet the necessary ground grading requirements. With this level of football bringing the potential to compete in the Buildbase FA Vase, I am pleased to highlight some of the success stories…

South Liverpool FC – Moving up from the West Cheshire League to the North West Counties League

Club commercial manager Gary Johansen told me: “It’s been a long 30 years since we last played semi-professional football in the pyramid and we’ve spent £25,000 to get the ground grading completed. Some of the cost has been covered by a grant from the Football Foundation.

“It includes improvements to our home and away changing rooms, plus two match officials’ changing rooms. We’ve also installed a 75-seater stand behind one goal, a covered standing terrace for 100 spectators, additional signage, new fencing and a secure walkway from the dressing rooms to a new pitch entrance gate.

“In addition, we have been fitting agricultural mesh to bring a 75% wind reduction. This will really help on match days due to our ground being next to the River Mersey.”

Gillingham Town FC – Dorset Premier League to the Western League

Club secretary Paul Hill said: “Three years ago, we voluntary dropped down from the Western League because we were moving to a new ground which we have been working on ever since to meet the Step 6 grading.

“We have built a clubhouse at a cost of £11,000 initially and we are now spending a further £6,000 to extend it by 60% in size. We have also provided a tea hut/gate entrance (£4,000), a 100-seater stand (£18,000), floodlighting with a generator (£87,000) and remedial work to the pitch including installing secondary drainage (£20,000).

“We have requested funding from the Football Foundation for the lights – which are due to be erected in late July – and towards the drainage. We have to raise 30% of the costs ourselves.”

Larkfield & New Hythe FC – Kent County League to the Southern Counties East League

Club chairman John Michel said: “The primary items we have installed are a 50-seater grandstand, covered standing for 50 spectators, floodlights, hard standing, a barrier around the pitch and new dug-outs. We have also spent considerable money on a full pitch maintenance programme.

“These were the main tasks required to meet the Grade H minimum requirements for Step 6. However in addition to this, we also upgraded our changing rooms and clubhouse as well as fixing new security fencing around the ground.

“The majority of the funding came from the generosity of our club sponsor Taray Group. In total, we have spent £150,000 over the past 18 months of which about £11,000 was from the Football Foundation.”

Letchworth Garden City Eagles FC – Herts County League to the Spartan South Midlands League

Club spokesperson Tony Eden said: “Our home ground received grading standard for promotion to Step 6 in 2019. However, because of Covid there has been no relegation or promotion for a couple of seasons. Fortunately, the FA restructuring has finally given an opportunity for our club to progress after 15 years of developing the facilities.

“The main clubhouse was built in 2006 at a cost in the region of £450,000. This figure was covered by an 80% grant from the Football Foundation and a £10,000 grant from the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation.

“In 2011 we erected our current spectator stand at a cost of £11,000, with financial support again from the Heritage Foundation and a number of small grants from local charities. Then in 2015 we built our new bar and lounge extension to the clubhouse at a cost of £150,000, with the assistance of a Football Foundation grant. Two years later, a generous gift from a private donor enabled us to install floodlights at a cost of £50,000.

“Since then, the club has carried out further improvements including new barriers around the senior pitch and seating in the spectator stand – all paid from our own resources.”

Buckhurst Hill FC – Essex Olympian League to the Eastern Counties League

Club chairman Simon Cornwell said: “We have enhanced our facilities in two phases. Phase one included a concrete walkway and barriers around our first team pitch, which we sectioned off with new fencing. We also installed new goals and dug-outs. The total cost of this phase was £40,000. We received £19,000 through the Football Foundation and the club funded the difference.

“Phase two is yet to start. It includes floodlights, a 100-seater stand and two turnstile kiosks. This will cost £94,940 with the Football Foundation to provide £66,458 (subject to approval) and Buckhurst Hill FC to cover the difference of £28,482.

“What we have achieved is nothing short of sensational and a huge motivation for every team in the country to show what is possible for a grassroots football club. The internal finance for these projects has come from due diligence of our cash flow and extensive fundraising activities.”

In conclusion, some fantastic initiatives are taking place up and down the country. As always, we should recognise that this is all possible due to the unstinting input from Non-League’s army of volunteers.

These wonderful people take great pride in being part of their local football clubs who do so much good work for the surrounding communities.

Read more from Tony and his passion for Non-League football in our Groundhopper Diary

Click here to be in the know on how we’re supporting non-league football, or follow @BuildbaseUK on Twitter for the latest news and competitions. 

Tony Incenzo is a reporter for talkSPORT Radio and Sky TV. You can follow Tony on Twitter at @TonyIncenzo