Mark Carruthers: This is the knock-on impact of the major shake-up of the non-league scene

The landscape of North East non-league football is going through a period of significant change - and that represents a number of challenges for clubs across the region.

Thursday, 16th September 2021, 10:17 am
Seaham Red Star (red/white) v Hebburn Town (blue) at Seaham Town Park, on Saturday.

The Football Association’s restructure of the non-league pyramid has already caused seismic change for the Ebac Northern League with Hebburn Town, Shildon and Stockton Town promoted into the Northern Premier League’s second tier.

The knock-on effect saw Crook Town, Redcar Athletic and West Allotment Celtic elevated into Northern League Division One and four clubs from the feeder leagues - Blyth Town, Boldon CA, Horden CW and Redcar Town - replaced them in Division Two.

A similar process is likely to take place next summer with up to two more clubs being promoted from the top tier in a move that will see more established clubs - and well-known players - plying their trade above Northern League level.

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But where will that leave a league that has been seen as the strongest at its level across the country for over a decade?

With the increased number of North East clubs in the Northern Premier League, the travel time and costs incurred by promotion will be reduced from the level they have been in the recent past.

It seems a strong possibility that the vast majority of players will stay with those promoted clubs, I can see a likely scenario where the Northern League becomes a place where younger players can flourish.

The numerous colleges and academies around the region are already providing a number of players for clubs in step five and six - and I can only see this number increasing over the coming years.

This should not be seen as a negative, far from it.

Such a move would offer Northern League clubs an opportunity to make the most of younger players, to improve them, give them experience and to develop with them as they look to make their own move up the pyramid.

There are several examples of this already happening across both divisions in recent seasons - but I can see this scenario becoming more regular throughout the coming years.

But what of our clubs in the National League North and Northern Premier League? Where will the changes in the tiers below leave them?

Many are now functioning with their own academies and, given the increased competition for more established players, they may be faced with the difficult choice of paying over the odds for the best players or trusting in their own academy products.

Take Morpeth Town, for example.

The Highwaymen are currently playing at the highest level in their history and are sat just one level below the likes of National League North quartet Blyth Spartans, Darlington, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town.

That would have been unthinkable a decade ago when Nicky Gray took over at the helm in the aftermath of a season where they had finished bottom of Northern League Division Two and were only saved from relegation by a lack of suitable promotion applicants.

After just over nine years of constant progress, Morpeth now stand at a crossroads and their decisions over the coming weeks could define the next four to five years of their existence.

Stephen Turnbull’s decision to step down as manager last weekend leaves a vacancy that will and already has attracted significant interest.

The new manager will take over a squad with a fair sprinkling of players that have experience in the professional game - but also a squad top-heavy with players heading towards the autumn of their careers.

That is not to suggest they should be cast out of the club - but there will be a time in the near-future where they have to replaced.

Where does the new manager go to refresh the Morpeth squad? Will it be too soon for the club’s new academy to provide players capable of coping in the hustle and bustle of the Northern Premier League?

Will the new manager be faced with having to take what would be seen as a risk in finding gems from lower down the pyramid or will the club continue to search for high-profile signings and inevitable big outlay that comes with them?

Other clubs in steps two to four will face the same scenario in the near-future.

Some will be ahead of the curve and will already be reaping the benefits of investing in their academies and the infrastructure of their club as a whole.

Scouting systems will become commonplace across all clubs as they look to secure the best available young players from youth football, the professional game and lower down the non-league pyramid.

Far from trying to paint a negative picture, I believe the North East non-league game can become stronger as a whole as clubs strive to get themselves in the best position possible to cope with these challenges.

I have always believed clubs in the region should want to ply their trade at the highest possible level - but this should also take into consideration any financial risks that come with progression.

The changes imposed by the Football Association have already prompted many clubs to look at how they function on and off the pitch and that can only be healthy for the region’s non-league scene.

Challenges and change are inevitable - but there is also no reason why we can enjoy a flourishing North East non-league scene for many years to come.

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