Mark Carruthers: Football Association plans will change the landscape of the North East game

As the nation welcomed the latest lifting of some Covid-19 restrictions on Monday, the Football Association were getting ready to release details of a seismic change in non-league football.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 9:26 am

Without prior warning, the governing body confirmed that they plan to carry out the introduction of new division in step four of the non-league pyramid in a move that will change the landscape of the North East game.

Under the guidelines set out in a lengthy document released at tea-time on Monday, Northern League Division One trio Stockton Town, Hebburn Town and Shildon will be eligible for promotion into the Northern Premier League’s second tier.

All three North East clubs are sure to formally apply for promotion by the time the deadline arrives at the end of the month and that sets up a tantalising prospect in the new look step four.

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Mark Carruthers' non-league column.

Stockton, Hebburn and Shildon will compete in the same league as former Northern League champions Dunston UTS and Marske United as the governing body look to reduce travel time and costs in the non-league game.

It is only right that the FA look to reduce those costs to give clubs an opportunity to make their way up the pyramid in a safe and sustainable manner – especially in the financially challenging environment in which they compete.

However, the announcement conjured up many emotions as I made my way through the guidelines released by the FA.

First and foremost, I am absolutely delighted that three forward-thinking clubs will get their chance to ply their trade at a higher level and experience competing in the FA Trophy.

Secondly, seeing clubs like West Allotment Celtic, Crook Town and Redcar Athletic given the chance to be promoted into Northern League Division One brings a sense of relief after the Covid-19 epidemic robbed them of that achievement 12 months ago.

And then there is the prospect of welcoming three clubs from the Northern Alliance, Wearside League and North Riding Football League into the Northern League – something that always brings a sense of excitement as they take their first steps at a higher level.

I would be lying if I said that there was not at least a little frustration over the Football Association’s decision to utilise an average points per game formula to calculate which clubs are eligible for promotion.

Nor would I begrudge any club to show a little anger over the fact that the FA are using results from the 2019/20 season to calculate those averages.

Let us not forget that they declared results from that season as null and void just over 12 months ago in a move that provoked much anger from clubs across the country.

I’d certainly wonder what key figures at South Shields are thinking right now after they looked set for promotion into the National League North before Covid-19 brought a premature end to the season.

Or even those at Morpeth Town as their first season in the third tier of non-league football garnered a play-off push and the possibility of a third consecutive promotion.

Some clubs impacted negatively by that decision are set to be rewarded with the opportunity to gain promotion over the next month – but spare a thought for those that will be baring a rueful smile since Monday’s announcement was made.

There was another interesting announcement made earlier this week after it was confirmed that supporters of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur will be able to attend the Carabao Cup Final.

The Premier League giants will each receive 2,000 tickets to give their supporters a chance to make their way to the home of football.

Restrictions remain in place and only supporters over 18 will be eligible for a ticket and people who are “clinically extremely vulnerable or pregnant” have also been advised not to attend.

But nevertheless, the Wembley showpiece will take place with the welcome return of supporters.

That tie takes place on Sunday week, eight days before Northern League clubs Consett and Hebburn Town compete on the very same pitch in the 2020 FA Vase Final.

Yet Terry Mitchell and Kevin Bolam will be met by empty stands when they lead their sides out for their historic first visit to the national stadium.

The Vase final will not be used as a test event, despite three separate matches – including the two FA Cup semi-finals - being used as test events at the same venue prior to that date.

This seems extremely harsh on supporters of Consett and Hebburn, not to mention supporters of Concord Rangers and Harrogate Town who will face off in the FA Trophy Final at Wembley just hours after the meeting of the two North East clubs.

I appreciate the FA are led by the government on this matter – but the non-league clubs deserve an explanation as to why their supporters are being handled differently to their Premier League counterparts.

The importance of hardworking volunteers at non-league clubs can never be understated.

And that is why I was devastated to learn of the passing of two men that poured their heart and soul into the clubs in our region.

Monday brought the announcement that Seaham Red Star vice president John McBeth had passed away after serving the club as secretary, committee member and chairman over the last 31 years.

Less than 24 hours later, Dunston UTS announced that long-serving volunteer Tom Clark had passed away.

I spent many an afternoon or night alongside Tom in his PA box as he expertly carried out his role as announcer at the UTS Stadium.

Both men gave so much to their clubs and they were highly respected and appreciated in return.

Their effort and hard work will not be forgotten and my thoughts are with their friends, family and everyone at the clubs they served so well.

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