The article below appeared in The Walloper, the Prescot Cables FC programme, for Cables’ match against City of Liverpool on 22nd February 2020. 

Football at our level of the game is changing once again this summer, with the addition of an eighth division at Step 4 of the National League System. This new division will be managed by the Northern Premier League and in order to ensure there are enough clubs to fill it, The FA have made some changes to the promotion criteria at Step 5 for this season only.

As the new division has always been intended to reduce travelling for clubs in the North of England, three clubs will be promoted from the North West Counties League, the Northern Counties East League and the Northern League. All the other Step 5 Leagues will promote their Champion clubs and the four runners-up at Step 5 with the best Points Per Game ratio (PPG) will also go up automatically. The remaining seven runners-up at the lower level will go into play-offs against the seven clubs currently at Step 4 who finish last in their division. The Step 4 club will enjoy home advantage for these games.

With the ‘extra’ promotion places being spread around our League’s natural catchment area, now is a good time to take a first look at who might be visiting the IP Truck Parts Stadium next season.

North West Counties League

With an 11-point advantage over fourth-placed Charnock Richard, plus three games in hand over the Lancastrians, leaders 1874 Northwich look handily placed for promotion. The fan-owned club have a squad packed with NPL experience, including former Colne and Cables goalkeeper Tony Aghayere, former Prescot star Harry Cain, Jake Parker and former Mossley and Hyde United defender Jack Pritchard, amongst others.

Sitting in second place are Warrington-based Rylands, who have made rapid progress up the pyramid in the last few years. Financially supported by former Youth Team player Paul Stretford – who is perhaps best known as Wayne Rooney’s agent – the Blues have been transformed on and off the pitch.

Currently occupying the third promotion place are Bootle. The Bucks would be a local derby for Cables and went incredibly close to promotion last season, ultimately losing out to today’s visitors. Like 1874 Northwich, Bootle have played 26 games, so have two games in hand over Rylands and three in hand over Charnock Richard, whose three-point deduction earlier this season may yet prove costly.

Also with an outside chance of promotion are Ashton Athletic and Longridge Town, although they would need some help from the top four to reach Step 4.

Northern Counties East League

On the other side of the Pennines, the promotion race is an absolute bunfight, with the top five clubs separated by just five points. Of that top five, only fifth-placed Bridlington Town have previously played NPL football. After last weekend’s matches, Staveley Miners Welfare hold top spot, with Sheffield-based Penistone Church just three points behind.

Currently occupying the third promotion place are Yorkshire Amateur, from Leeds, who are level on points with Liversedge and Bridlington Town, both of whom have two games in hand over the Ammers.

Northern League

Former FA Vase Finalists Stockton Town look ‘nailed on’ to be playing Step 4 football next season; the Anchors have already racked up 70 points from 28 matches and are 12 points ahead of second-placed Hebburn Town. Perhaps more importantly, the Teessiders have a 21-point advantage over fourth placed Consett.

As for Hebburn, they have a nine-point gap between themselves and Consett, from the same number of matches played. Having reached the Quarter Final of the FA Vase, the Tynesiders will be aiming to combine promotion with a trip to Wembley for Non-League Finals Day.

Currently holding the third promotion place are Northern League stalwarts Shildon. The Railwaymen were champions of the League in 2015-16 but had not applied for promotion; subsequent rule changes mean that should the County Durham-based outfit will definitely join the NPL if they retain their current position.

So, what will the new divisions look like?

To be honest, no-one knows! The format of the new look Step 4 will be determined by the FA Leagues Committee, which includes representatives from all three of the competitions managing our level of the game.

The Non-League Matters Forum has a lively discussion every season about the decisions the Committee might make; one unofficial projection produced by a forum user suggests that the three NPL Divisions might be split in a North / South-West / South-East fashion.  If this came to pass, Cables would sit in the South-West Division, which would essentially be centred around the ‘M6 Corridor’ and would combine all the local derbies we currently enjoy with trips south, into the West Midlands. These might include matches at Alvechurch and Reddich United next season, as well as revisits to several clubs we met during the single-season West Division format.

This scenario would potentially place Clitheroe, Colne, Droylsden and Mossley in the North Division, meaning those clubs would face cross-country trips to Teesside, Yorkshire and County Durham.

A possible alternative might be a North-West / North-East / South split. This would probably prove popular with Cables supporters who enjoy the away trips to Clitheroe, Mossley and others. Clubs placed in the South Division might be less happy; for example, going from Kidsgrove to Grantham or Spalding might not be much fun.

The situation is changing week-by-week and will depend on which clubs finish in promotion and relegation spots at the end of April. All we can say for certain is that the fixture list will look very different next season.