Why Does Ground Grading Always Come as a Surprise?

It’s that time of year again. No, not when I write my now seemingly annual article (sorry, I’ll try and get back to it!), but rather the time when clubs anxiously await their fate as to which division they’ll be competing in the following season. Why, though, does it always come to this?

A wise man once said:

There are two certainties in life; death and taxes.

Well, in nonleague football there are three: postponements, reprieves and ground grading.

And it’s the last item on that list that is the talk of the moment right now. In the National League South and North, three playoff contenders are in danger of falling foul of the Football Association’s strict guidelines regarding the standard of facilities.

Poole Town and Hungerford Town – fifth and sixth respectively in the South – along with Darlington, fifth in the North, have all been told they cannot compete in the playoffs as they do not meet the requirements for covered seating in the National League. The standard says the following:

The minimum covered seated accommodation must be 500. These may be located in two stands of which at least 250 shall be seats located in one stand, with no stand having less than 100 seats. These seats may be inclusive of Directors/Committee and press seating.

All three clubs have appealed their punishments.

Darlington’s appeal centers around the fact that the ground grading guidelines were amended in May 2016. Prior to then, it was accepted that a club could enter the playoffs with temporary seating, as long as they had planning permission and a detailed plan for the installation of permanent seats. The statement goes on to say:

This change in the requirement for permanent covered seating was only brought to the Board’s attention in the past couple of months. By the time the Board was fully aware of the requirement, it was not able to act because of the timescales involved and the lack of funds available.

I’m sorry, what? The board were not aware of the requirements until a couple of months ago? Surely if your club is on such a phenomenal trajectory (they have achieved three promotions since coming into existence in 2012) you would be used to reading these grading documents, and would be aware of any changes to them? Even if you thought you were fully across it, you would read and re-read them just to make sure you passed muster, no?

Don’t get me wrong. I do feel sorry for The Quakers, as theirs is the latest incredible ‘phoenix club’ story, and hopefully this oversight on their part will serve only as a temporary roadblock on their path back to the Football League.

In the cases of Poole Town and Hungerford Town, it seems both clubs have been so busy concentrating on meeting the requirements to remain at Step Two that they have failed to prepare for the eventuality of promotion. Both clubs faced the prospect of demotion at the end of the season if they didn’t achieve the B grade required to play at Step Two. Happily, the two clubs did meet the March 31st deadline, but now find themselves being held back in the South.

In the case of Hungerford, they are some 133 seats short of the requirement (I haven’t been able to find out about Poole), and according to their official statement:

Our focus has always been on making the ground grading requirements for this league and that alone has been monumental but we assumed that adding extra seats would be arguable.

Again, what? You assumed the extra seats required would be arguable? Please!

While all three clubs have appealed the decisions, it’s hard to see how they can hope to win them. The rules are quite clear after all. The ground grading documents can be downloaded from the FA website, and state clearly what is required.

Apologies to the three clubs mentioned, this article isn’t necessarily aimed at them, but they are the three highest profile clubs currently affected. It happens every year it seems; a club realises it doesn’t meet ground grading and we see frantic appeals and fundraising as they desperately scrabble around to upgrade their ground so they can either take a promotion or remain at their current level.

Currently, if a club gets promoted, they have until March 31st the following season to ensure their ground is up to scratch for the level they’re competing at. In the case of the National League, you need a Grade B to play in the National North or South, and a Grade A to play in the National League. However, there is something of an anomaly here. For instance, as we have seen in the three cases here, you can compete at Step Two temporarily with a Grade C, as long as you achieve Grade B by the March deadline. Failure to do so will result in your club being demoted back down to Step Three, regardless of your finishing position (one of many reasons we see reprieves for other teams).

What that means, of course, is that you effectively need to have a Grade A at Step Two if you have any ambitions of reaching nonleague’s top flight. This is a massively expensive undertaking, especially for clubs achieving back to back promotions, or multiple promotions in a short space of time. It has been reported that it will cost upwards of £150,000 just to install the extra seats required, on top of what these clubs have already spent just to meet the requirements for Step Two. As I say, expensive.

In addition, to play in the top flight you also need a minimum capacity of four thousand, and the ability to increase that to five thousand. I have been unable to ascertain how long clubs get to carry out the necessary work. Currently there are two clubs plying their trade at Step One with capacities less than four thousand – Solihull Moors with 3050, and North Ferriby United with just 2700. Moors have plans in place to increase their capacity, and I know NFU were looking at a potential new home when promotion started looking likely, although they have been relegated after just one season, and there is still a small chance that Moors could join them.

What needs to be done to avoid this in future?

The obvious solution to the problem is communication. The FA should make it abundantly clear what is required on a division by division basis, i.e. a circular should be sent at the start of every season to each club stating their current grading, and what – if anything – needs to be done should the club wish to go for promotion. Let’s not forget, promotion isn’t every club’s ambition every season, but for those who do have aspirations of moving up a level, they should be acutely aware of what is required so we can avoid these embarrassing situations in future.

One other possibility is that the rules are tweaked at the top of the nonleague game, and clubs are allowed to start the season with a Grade B, but must attain Grade A by March 31st. With the extra income from gates and TV, that shouldn’t be a problem. However, this scenario is unlikely due to the very fact that the National League is now broadcast by BT Sport.

The flipside of that would be to do away with the leeway currently afforded to clubs lower down the ladder, i.e. you have to have the grade before you can get promoted. However, that is totally unworkable in my opinion, and would lump massive and unnecessary expense on clubs, as they would need the grading for the division above even if they have no immediate plans for promotion.

My final solution would be to have clubs apply for promotion from Steps Two, Three and Four, in the same way they have to from Step Five down. That way, we would all know where we stand from an early stage. However, that immediately encounters a problem: the playoffs. From Step Five downward, only one team gets promoted. There are no playoffs at all. For a club to be promoted, they have to have applied (meaning that they already have the necessary grading), and they must also finish in the top two in their division. That is a recent change, as my local team Bracknell Town finished fifth in the Hellenic Division One East in 2012-13, but were promoted as the highest placed club to have applied. Enough of that tangent though!

As things stand in the National South, seventh placed Hampton & Richmond Borough (long term readers will know my affection for the mighty Beavers!) will enter the playoffs should Hungerford and Poole fail in their respective appeals, although that has yet to be officially confirmed by the league.

All in all, it’s a flawed system, but one which is doing the best it can from the FA’s point of view. The whole reason the March 31st deadline exists is to give clubs that leeway in light of a rapid – and often unexpected – rise through the divisions. Clubs shouldn’t be held back because of a few seats, or because the running track is the wrong width (that has happened in the past!), they should be encouraged to achieve and, in some cases, over achieve.

The ultimate responsibility, though, lies with the clubs themselves. They need to familiarise themselves with what is required of them, not only for the division they are currently competing in, but also for the one above if their short term ambitions include getting promoted. Let’s not have this circus at the end of the season anymore!

About James Bartaby

Hey, I'm James and I'm relatively new to non-league football, having only taken in my first match in September 2011. Despite it being a 0-4 defeat for Hampton & Richmond Borough, I became a huge fan of the club and NL in general. So much so that they are now the first club that I mention when talking about which team I support! I just got massively disillusioned with top flight football in this country and the attitudes of the lawmakers and top clubs in general, and I wanted to start taking my son to see decent football. I am now the club's Deputy Press Officer, and loving every minute!

Posted on April 17, 2017, in Opinion, UTL Archive and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on Football – as I see it and commented:
    Some cogent thoughts from fellow Non Leaguer, James Bartaby.

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