Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Northern Dilemma

Morpeth Town  4  Consett  1

Northern League – First Division

Some commentators might say, that if a league were ever to be a thorn in the side of the English Non-
League Pyramid, then that league would be the Northern League.

When it comes to pointing the finger of blame at anyone, for the seeming imbalances between the North and the rest of the Country when it comes to club distribution, then that finger almost exclusively points at the Northern League.

You could forgive them for feeling a little paranoid?

But why is that deemed to be the case? The history of the Northern League and its involvement with the Pyramid needs to be assessed to draw any kind of conclusion on the matter. Even then, it’s still not simple.

The Crowds Gather At Craik Park
When the Alliance Premier League (the now National League) was formed in 1979, the Northern League wanted to be a direct feeder to it alongside the Northern Premier League and the Southern League. That wasn’t granted, so for many years the league simply sat outside of the Pyramid, but then when clubs wanted to progress upwards from the Northern League, they had to find a new means of doing so. So they effectively moved into a league that they sat outside the normal footprint of, namely the Northern Counties East League. Both North Shields and Spennymoor United chose this route with a view to moving forwards.

This was clearly not a satisfactory outcome, but by the late Eighties the league had been granted the same step status as both the Northern Counties East and North West Counties League’s and what that allowed was for the progressive clubs such as Blyth Spartans, Bishop Auckland, Whitby Town and Whitley Bay to jump straight into the Northern Premier League after winning the championship.

The league were now a fully fledged part of the Pyramid, but trouble was on the horizon, and perhaps inevitably so.

Cracking Floodlight!
The Northern Premier League, both divisions of it, now spread from the very North of England, all the way down to the Midlands, and as a result, many of the Northern League clubs simply didn’t want promotion due to the travelling and associated costs involved. Since Whitby’s promotion in 1997, only five clubs have taken promotion, one subsequently folded (Newcastle Blue Star), another dropped back down again (Durham City), two were phoenix clubs who were building from the bottom again (Spennymoor and Darlington), while the other (South Shields) is a current tour de force.

I suppose it was a self-perpetuating problem, the less clubs that chose to go up, ultimately meant the volume of clubs in that part of the Country would not get any bigger, in fact, in reality it would get smaller as the ambitious clubs carried on getting promoted, which in turn further discouraged clubs from making the move.

A Shiny New Fence
How is the problem solved? Well, more clubs taking the plunge in theory would solve it, but then would a better solution be a restructuring of the leagues to help in terms of reducing travelling in the North? Subsidies maybe could be provided to help travel costs, but that wouldn’t help in terms of the amount of time players are away from home and indeed work?

The Northern League’s suggestion was to be elevated en-bloc to Step 4, which in theory is fine, but that just in turn pushed the problem up a level? The same issues would arise when it came to taking promotion to Step 3. The suggestion was rejected by the FA.

No, the FA had what they thought was a much better idea, and it kind of fits into the plan of getting enough Northern League teams into Step 4 to move the balance of clubs in a more Northerly direction and consequently reduce travel costs etc.

Tree Lined
So, what you do is make promotion mandatory, in a season where the top two clubs for the first time are eligible for promotion! In the long term this would ultimately solve the problem, I think, but in the short term, pain is going to be felt. Subsequently the Northern Premier League took a vote to split the First Division from North / South to East / West, which supposedly helps the Northern League clubs (albeit they weren’t involved in the vote), but is Newcastle to Peterborough at Step 4 really the right solution?

The two clubs who are going to be impacted are Marske United and Morpeth Town. They are currently fighting a fascinating battle for the championship, but while Marske have not been overly public about the compulsory promotion issue, Morpeth have made their concerns known.

Morpeth, first and foremost, is a long way North, sat the top side of Newcastle, it is one of the outposts of the competition, but, having won the FA Vase a couple of years ago, and built a fine team, they are certainly equipped to be playing at a higher level.

But, think this one through for a moment.

A Beautiful Setting
So, let’s take Morpeth as an example. They win the league because they have the best team and are deserving of the accolade. They have a group of players who have the desire and drive to win the Northern League, but, as a club, and as a group of players, promotion is not something they desire?

The following season, the players choose to leave, so the club has to rebuild. Now they could rebuild to survive or indeed grow, or they could re-build and cynically think about getting relegated because they didn’t want to be in that position in the first place. In the meantime, it’s cost them a fortune to do it!

Then of course, you look at the implications for the Northern League, a league every club would love to win, but now, maybe it’s not worth winning it, maybe it’s better to be average? That clearly then devalues the entire competition.

Of course, in time, you would hope it would ‘sort itself out’, but over the next few years, we have a very real danger that this could implode and we end up with a mess on our hands.

Looking Towards The Alehouse
Could it have been dealt with better in years gone by? Maybe, but, that can’t be changed now. Do I have a solution to the problem? No, but at the same time, and you only need to look at the FA Vase winners over the past fifteen years, we have a league that stands out as being the best at its Step, yet, you could argue contains clubs that lack ambition? For justifiable reasons I might add.

Anyway Morpeth Town, it took me two and a half hours from my homestead after a very clear run to arrive at Craik Park, and I have to say, what a fantastic afternoon I had.

Sat at the side of the A1, it has a real rural feel about it, enclosed on all four sides by greenery and woodland. A seated stand sits on the half way line, while behind it, up a slope are the dressing rooms and the large clubhouse. The ground has hard standing all around while what looks like a new fence has been erected around the perimeter. My favourite features though are the four corner floodlight pylons, which if I were a betting man, might have come from either a colliery yard or a railway shunting yard.

Despite the bad weather, the pitch looked in excellent condition, while those who were to set foot on it sat top and fourth respectively in the table, so I was hopeful of a very good game of football.
Consett got off to a great start and took the lead through a Michael Sweet penalty in the fourth minute, but the healthy attendance of 228 saw the hosts draw level when ex-Sunderland man Stephen Elliott score with a fantastic lob in the 15th minute.

It was stalemate at half time, but the second half belonged to Morpeth. Jordan Fry scored with a header just after the break, only for matters to get worse for Consett when Ryan McKinnon was sent off for kicking out at an opponent.

A Lovely Setting - But A Long Way From Wisbech.....
Dave Carson then made it 3-1, only for Joe Walton to score the fourth from the penalty spot as the game moved into its final ten minutes.   

It was a deserved victory in the bright sunshine, and with Marske playing catch up but bang on form, it was a vital victory as well. The final couple of weeks are going to be fascinating for all concerned, but then, as we move into the Summer, a whole new challenge is going to present itself.

A challenge that the footballing World will be watching very closely.

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