With claims teams in the National League North are forced to travel considerably more than their Southern counterparts, Non League Daily explores what it would look like if a third division in Step 2 was to be introduced.
By Amos Murphy and Richard Scott
While Step 2 in the National League system is supposed to be regionalised, there have been criticisms that the teams in the Northern section face a disproportionate amount of travel each season.
As clubs attempt to recover from the damaging aftereffects of COVID-19, and the cost of fuel continues to rise, non-league sides can ill-afford any unnecessary expenses.
Last year, Non League Daily revealed National League North clubs travel an average of 53 miles more per match than their National League South counterparts.
Some of the biggest casualties of the travel chasm in the National League North are North-East outfits like Blyth Spartans and Darlington, who both face lengthy journeys week in and week out.
Similarly, Gloucester City, who are 57 miles closer to the French city Calais, than they are Blyth, have also endured difficult trips in the supposedly National League ‘North’.
What’s more, the 2022/23 season looks set to bring even more travel disparities to the National League North, with King’s Lynn Town, who were relegated from the National League last season, have returned to Step 2.
The Norfolk-based outfit will compete in the National League North, despite their relative inaccessibility to clubs in the North of England, leading to even more frustrations surrounding potential travel for teams and supporters next season.
Granted, the likelihood of any major structural reform to the sixth-tier remains unlikely, but one potential solution to ease the burden of travel on Step 2 clubs would be to introduce a third division, accommodating for teams in the country’s ‘central’ region.
Coexisting alongside the already established National League North and South, the Central division would serve to address the geographical imbalances.
Each division would comprise of 16 teams, splitting the current 48 teams at Step 2 into three even leagues.
That accounts for 30 games in the season, leading to the first stumbling block, with teams now playing 16 fixtures less than in previous years.
While a decrease in matches could help ease the pressure of fixture pile-up, especially in the winter months when games are called off, there always remains the option to introduce intra-division clashes, where teams from one league would face off against another.
The next controversial hurdle surrounds the issue of promotion and relegation.
Currently, four sides are promoted from the sixth tier (two from the National League North and two from the South), with a total of four coming the opposite way from Step 1.
In the new look restructuring of Step 2, the four promotion berths would remain, with the winner of each division promoted to the National League as champions.
Problems start to be encountered when trying to work out how the fourth and final promotion spot is decided.
One potential way would be for the four teams with the highest points tallies across the three leagues to enter a playoff system, with the eventual winner securing promotion.
As for relegation, a similar format would be used, with the two teams finishing lowest in each league dropping down into Step 3.
Right now, ahead of the 2022/23 season, a total of eight teams are relegated from Step 2, with six of them to be decided by orthodox relegation spots.
The other remaining spots could also be decided via a playoff system, or simply chosen based off the two sides with the lowest points tallies across the division, that haven’t already been relegated.
Competition: Win a 2022/23 non-league season ticket courtesy of Betting.co.uk
Despite alleviating some of the travel woes for sides in Step 2, the new format will still pose some geographical questions, specifically surrounding which division clubs should be placed in.
Here is how Non League Daily predict a new look National League North, South and Central would look for the upcoming 2022/23 season:
AFC Telford United
Bradford (Park Avenue)
Hemel Hempstead Town
King’s Lynn Town
St Albans City
Hampton & Richmond Borough
Havant & Waterlooville
So, what do you think of this new look Step 2? Are there any clubs you would move about, or do you have any suggestions for how to figure out the final promotion positions? Let us know over on Twitter
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