Part 16 of our 2018 recap comes courtesy of IAN CUSACK as he looks at the changes forced upon one of the last bastions of non-league ‘independence’ – the Northern League – by the Football Association. The league has dominated the FA Vase in recent times but forced promotion and impending reconstruction of the pyramid will have significant impact on the region’s grassroots game.

On Saturday 1st December 2018, I think I saw possibly the most enthralling, passionate and exhilarating game of football in my entire life. The contest was an FA Vase Third Round tie, played in front of 153 spectators at Sam Smith’s Park, between my beloved Newcastle Benfield of the Northern League Division 1 and Runcorn Town of the North West Counties League Premier Division, with a place in the last 32 of the national competition for grassroots sides from step 5 downwards at stake.

The final score was Benfield 5 Runcorn 4, with the winner being an unstoppable 20-yard strike from the home side’s midfielder Ritchie Slaughter that arrowed into the top corner of the net, beyond the despairing leap of Runcorn keeper Adam Reid. It was the last kick of the game, bringing unrestrained joy to the faithful denizens of the east end of Newcastle and despair to the visitors from Cheshire. There were no tears, no recriminations and no gloating when the final whistle sounded seconds after Slaughter’s Exocet nestled in the goal. Instead, as is de rigeur in 99% of non-league games, the victors were gracious, and the losers dignified. I wouldn’t have anything to do with the grassroots game if it were ever any other way.

Once the hurly burly had been done, the battle lost and won, not to mention several dozen warm handshakes exchanged, it was time to sit awhile in the clubhouse bar and reflect on the day’s events. I bought Ritchie Slaughter a pint and gave him a hug. I’d estimate a good 50% of our support stayed back to mingle and bevvy, congratulating those who’d played, geeing up the crestfallen unused subs who hung around like forgotten wallflowers at a high school prom, as well as commiserating with the losers who’d played a vital part in the day. This happens after every game, though the football isn’t often as spellbinding as this. Meanwhile, 3 miles to the west, 50,000 willing financial backers and emotional contributors to Mike Ashley’s circus at St. James’ Park watched in mute disgruntlement as West Ham flayed Rafa Benitez’s bumblers 3-0. Apparently 400 or so malcontents had walked in after 11 minutes in some kind of bizarre and poorly observed protest at the owner, at the very moment Javier Hernandez put the Irons ahead. You really couldn’t make it up, could you?

Meanwhile as the dust settled and the away players and support headed home on the same bus, with our best wishes for the rest of the season and a massive carry out to soothe the pain, it was time to reflect on scores elsewhere. The FA Vase has almost been the exclusive property of the Northern League this past decade. Whitley Bay, who’d already won it back in 2002, reeled off a triple crown of victories from 2009 to 2011. Subsequent winners have included Dunston UTS, North Shields, Spennymoor, Morpeth Town and South Shields, with West Auckland (twice; including once to Dunston) and Stockton Town losing in the final. It is not just an enviable record, it is a scarcely believable tale of regional dominance so total that it appears the FA have sought, by fair means or foul, to destroy the influence, scope and strength of the semi-professional north east powerhouse, by introducing reorganisation that will involve compulsory promotion; if refused, relegation will be the mandatory alternative. Consequently, there has already been upward mobility in the shape of progressive and ambitious Spennymoor, South Shields and Morpeth taking their leave. Indeed, Spennymoor have gone up 3 divisions and South Shields 2, while Morpeth head the Evostik First Division East and look set to keep their momentum going.

Unsurprisingly, FA Vase results elsewhere told tales of victories for West Auckland, Hebburn Town (away to Stockton Town) and Sunderland RCA (away to a Shildon side that had beaten them 12 times in a row before this one). The FA’s preference for regionalised draws has resulted in early rounds of the Vase seeming akin to a rebranded version of the Northern League Cup. Hence 4 out of 32 survivors is probably par for the course over the last few years and, in this instance, the most that could have been there bearing in mind the draw. And yet, there is the sense that 2018/2019 could be the last hurrah for the Northern League as we currently know it, for a multiplicity of reasons, including the fact that Sunderland RCA vs. West Auckland was first tie out the hat, but not least of which are the effects of compulsory promotion and possible lateral movement for geographical reasons but, above all, the spectre of league reorganisation scheduled for 2020.

The constitution of the Northern League used to provide for a maximum of 22 clubs in each division. However, having seen the cumulative results of resignations, increasingly wet winters and unavoidable cash shortages, clubs voted at an EGM two years ago to limit membership in each league to 20. As a result, the end of the 2017/2018 season saw champions Marske United and runners-up Morpeth Town promoted. Sadly, this also meant Alnwick Town and Darlington Railway Athletic were demoted to the Northern Alliance and Wearside League respectively, with the latter’s champions Redcar Athletic taking their place. As things stand, the Northern League Division 2 has 20 competing clubs, with the bottom club definitely dropping out at the end of the season. However, it isn’t simply a case of the relevant feeder league champs stepping up in their place, as the FA’s regulations allow for direct election of “suitable applicants.” The implications of this are currently intangible, but the suspicion is that step 7 leagues, like the Alliance and the Wearside, are being effectively downgraded to little more than recreational kickabouts in public parks. Personally, I think that stinks, but it is undeniable that the standard of football in the Northern League Second Division is generally inferior. Supporters of clubs at this level may have iconic grounds, oozing history and atmosphere from every splintered seat and crumbling concrete step, but even the most blinkered, beer-goggled partisan must recognise that the football they watch is obviously a step down from the top tier clubs who are looking to progress.

In my eyes, the Northern League First Division is not only the best value football competition, pound for pound, in the country, it is home to the highest playing standards I’ve ever seen in more than quarter of a century of watching the game at this level. Grounds are uniformly excellent; safe, well-maintained and improving year on year. Even better, the actual product just gets better every year; fast-paced, skilful football played on the deck, almost always to feet is the order of the day. Tactics, pitches and the players themselves have evolved at an astonishing pace over the past few seasons. Unfortunately, I do not believe this current happy situation is sustainable once the FA’s proposals come fully on stream as, in their desire for uniformity, the Northern League will cease to exist in its current form, or in any meaningful form.

The FA’s plans are for a neat, tightly-organised and obediently regimented non-league pyramid that starts with 1 division at the top (the National League) and is then followed by 2, 4, 8 and 16 divisions at each successive step downwards. This latter level is where the Northern League Division One sits. The elephant currently reversing into the north east room is the filling of the currently empty berth for an eighth step 4 league in 2020/2021. Undoubtedly, this will involve a third, parallel division in the Northern Premier League and a whole panoply of rejigging and lateral movement. Currently there are 2, entitled west and east, but a third division, known probably as south or central, will comprise clubs from Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. Hence, the east division will need to be populated with 20 new clubs, who have to come from somewhere. While this appears to be chance for a great leap forward by the Northern Counties East, it is more of a leap into the dark for the geographically isolated Northern League, whose members were unhappy at the inevitably increased travel costs. The FA’s response? Tough. In their eyes, they’ve compromised sufficiently to make this new league an attractive prospect for teams from north of the Tees; they’ve reduced the divisions to 20 and have promised no scheduled midweek league games, but is that enough to persuade suitable potential members to get on board? I’m conflicted; as a devotee of the Northern League, I would hate to see almost 130 years of tradition swept away by removing the best clubs, on and off the pitch, and weakening the standard of the competition. However, as a supporter of Benfield, I would love to see my club playing at the highest level possible. If that means leaving the Northern League, then so be it.

Of course, any feelings of unease should be tempered by the realisation that things are already starting to change in the Northern League Division 1. While there ought to be 20 clubs in the top flight, there are actually only 18. We’ve already seen how Marske and Morpeth have gone up and thrived at a higher level. Sadly, others have gone west; Jarrow Roofing packed in at the end of last season, partly because they seemed destined for relegation, but mainly because their manager and owner Richie McLaughlin was exhausted after giving more than 30 years of his life building the club up from Sunday morning football and fancied taking it easy as he embraced the realities of life as a septuagenarian. Ironically, Team Northumbria, on account of the University who sponsored them making swingeing budgetary cuts to all areas of campus life that weren’t strictly academic, resigned after the Northern League AGM, which would have saved Jarrow Roofing from demotion after all. Then, the farcical situation regarding AFC Blyth finally unravelled in a predictably farcical manner. A club with neither a ground nor any support, who’d split from their well-respected parent institution Blyth Town for scarcely credible reasons, and were playing home games at Ashington, called it a day in early September, meaning the top flight is running 2 clubs short. At the end of this season 2 other clubs will leave. The top side must be promoted, and the bottom must be relegated. Currently Penrith, who live every season under the shadow of enforced lateral movement to the North West Counties League, have taken 2 points from their first 16 games and seem likely to be needing snookers by Shrove Tuesday. Up at the top unbeaten Dunston, well-supported Consett and eternally unhappy temporary residents Bishop Auckland could all unquestionably make the step up, though probably only 1 will.

If, as seems likely, this means 4 teams will be promoted from Northern League 2,  the playing standards of the top division will be inevitably diluted. In 2020, when possibly 10 clubs will be forcibly promoted to the Northern Premier League East Division, their replacements will undoubtedly come from Division 2. The ultimate effect will be a first division including 14 teams who are currently operating at a level lower and a second tier fleshed out with any outfit who fancy applying. Undoubtedly, and disgracefully, this will mean the hard-fought battle to ensure all clubs satisfy a minimum ground grading by having floodlights, seats, cover and hard standing, will have been in vain as glorified park facilities will be deemed acceptable at step 6. Such a retrograde step will be a slap in the face to all remaining member clubs who strove to make their grounds eligible for crowds far in excess of the 150 or so regulars who pitch up.

Another obvious conclusion will be that the FA Vase would stop being a realistic target for Northern League clubs, so make the most of 2018/2019 and the season after, because come autumn 2020, there’ll not be much of a Northern League and much less of a chance of constituent members battling for the honour of a lap of honour at Wembley and an open top bus parade through the proud former mining towns that have for so long been the heartland of the grassroots game from the Tees to the Wansbeck. On Saturday 5th January, we have the aforementioned Sunderland RCA vs. West Auckland game, but also Hebburn Town host Shepshed Dynamo and the one I’m already losing sleep over; Benfield vs. Northwich Victoria. If you really need to boycott a Newcastle United game, give their cup game at home to Blackburn Rovers a swerve and cheer the Lions on. You’d be more than welcome.

IAN CUSACK – @PayasoDeMierda2