The Great News of the Non-League Pyramid Change Proposals?

It has been announced this week how Step 3 and Step 4 in the Non-League pyramid will be changed and expanded, bringing a much needed, much better geographical balance within the Leagues’ constitutions, and giving the opportunity for many more Non-League clubs to play at a higher level in 2018/19 than they ordinarily would have been able to do if the existing promotion structures remained.

So it’s great news for all Non-League clubs, isn’t it? A move from three Step 3 divisions of 24 clubs each to Four divisions each containing 22 clubs will increase the number of clubs at Step 3 from 72 to 88. That’s great news, for sure. Sixteen more Step 4 clubs will be ‘promoted’ which can only be good news.

Six Step 4 divisions with a mix of 22 and 24 clubs, totalling 136, will be transformed into Seven divisions each containing 20 clubs, giving a total of 140, meaning that 20 current Step 5 sides can be ‘promoted’ up a level, providing they meet all ground grading criteria, which again can only be great news.

But is it great news across the board? Well in the FA Cup the news is not so universally great. If the FA decide to maintain the current structure of just 32 Non-League clubs qualifying for the First Round ‘Proper’ alongside sticking with six qualifying rounds where clubs at certain steps enter the competition in certain rounds, then there would be a reduction in the number of Non-League clubs that could participate in the FA Cup.

Currently 736 clubs compete in the FA Cup, of which 644 are from the Non-League world. Twenty-four Step 1 clubs are exempted until the Fourth Qualifying Round, 44 Step 2 clubs exempted until the Second Qualifying Round, 72 Step 3 clubs exempted until the First Qualifying Round, 135 Step 4 clubs exempted until the Preliminary Round, and 368 Step 5 and 6 clubs starting out in the Extra Preliminary Round (see table)

Current Qualified Exemptions Total Ties
EP Step 5 & 6 0 368 368 184
PR Step 4 184 136 320 160
Q1 Step 3 160 72 232 116
Q2 Step 2 116 44 160 80
Q3 80 0 80 40
Q4 Step 1 40 24 64 32
R1 EFL 1 & 2 32 48 80 40
R2 40 0 40 20
R3 EPL & EFLC 20 44 64 32
R4 32 0 32 16
R5 16 0 16 8
QF 8 0 8 4
SF 4 0 4 2
Final 2 0 2 1
736

This approach of only allowing 32 Non-League clubs to enter the First Round has been in place since there was first established a Football League of 92 clubs back in 1950/51. That Non-League quota is unlikely to change given the FA’s track record of introducing change. Having said that, though, since the turn of the Century the FA has actually steadily increased the number of Non-League clubs that have a chance of reaching the First Round.

An extra 178 Non-League clubs now take part in the FA Cup than did back in 1999, and the total has only been limited to 644 clubs based upon a mix of ground criteria and round quota standardisation introduced in 2014. Again, though, this round quota standardisation is unlikely to change and the Step exemptions detailed above are likely to be maintained.

This is great news for those clubs that have been ‘promoted’ to Steps 3 and 4, as more clubs will now be exempted in the FA Cup to a later round than they had been used to. However, to accommodate this increase in the number of clubs exempted until later in the competition, there is a knock-on negative effect on the number of Step 5 and 6 clubs who can enter the FA Cup (see table below).

Future Qualified Exemptions Total Ties
EP Step 5 & 6 0 296 296 148
PR Step 4 148 140 288 144
Q1 Step 3 144 88 232 116
Q2 Step 2 116 44 160 80
Q3 80 0 80 40
Q4 Step 1 40 24 64 32
R1 EFL 1 & 2 32 48 80 40
R2 40 0 40 20
R3 EPL & EFLC 20 44 64 32
R4 32 0 32 16
R5 16 0 16 8
QF 8 0 8 4
SF 4 0 4 2
Final 2 0 2 1
684

So if the FA retain the limit of just 32 Non-League clubs qualifying for the First Round ‘Proper’ and retain the exemption rounds for each Step in the pyramid then there’ll be room for 52 fewer clubs in the FA Cup, all of whom are likely to come from Step 6 in the pyramid. That’s a significant decrease from the current level of 82 Step 6 clubs down to just 30 of them.

This obviously isn’t great news for those 52 clubs who would now miss out on participating in the greatest Cup competition in the world.

However, there is a potential solution to actually increase the number of Non-League clubs who can take part in the FA Cup without changing the FA’s policy of just allowing 32 of them to qualify for the First Round. But this option does require a change to the rounds in which clubs from each Step in the pyramid are exempted from during the qualifying stages of the competition. It doesn’t require any more rounds, but would allow for moreclubs to enter.

The proposals are detailed in the table below and require two substantial changes to the exemptions. Currently, the 24 top level National League clubs are exempted until the Fourth Qualifying Round, two rounds later than those clubs just one step below them. So, the proposal recommends these 24 clubs actually join the competition earlier in the Third Qualifying Round.

Potential Qualified Exemptions Total Ties
EP Step 5 & 6 0 400 400 200
PR 200 0 200 100
Q1 Step 3 & 4 100 228 328 164
Q2 Step 2 164 44 208 104
Q3 Step 1 104 24 128 64
Q4 64 0 64 32
R1 EFL 1 & 2 32 48 80 40
R2 40 0 40 20
R3 EPL & EFLC 20 44 64 32
R4 32 0 32 16
R5 16 0 16 8
QF 8 0 8 4
SF 4 0 4 2
Final 2 0 2 1
788

The second change is to delay the introduction of Step 4 clubs and have them join the FA Cup in the same round as the Step 3 clubs, namely the First Qualifying Round. What this does is two things. Firstly, it allows for more Step 5 and 6 clubs to enter the competition, and secondly it will ensure that the better Step 5 and 6 clubs are the ones that make it to face clubs two or three levels above them thereby reducing potential mis-matches.

This proposal would allow for 52 extra clubs to participate in the FA Cup than currently do, taking the overall number to 788 of which 696 would be Non-League clubs. And this extra 52 clubs would all come from Step 6, raising their numbers to 134, opening up this wonderful competition to many more clubs, all of whom are itching to take part. This would definitely be great news all round.

However, to really make this into an absolutely fantastic story then the FA needs to review how the ‘Proper’ Rounds are structured to enable more than 32 Non-League clubs to compete in those rounds, a subject and a proposal I have put forward before, one which requires only a minor change to the structure of the ‘Proper’ rounds, but can really boost the number of Non-League clubs in the First Round significantly.

Click on this link to see the details: http://www.wsc.co.uk/news/13546-proposals-to-include-more-non-league-clubs-into-the-fa-cup-first-round

Now that really would be great news.

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