One the most regular gripes I hear from players, managers and fans of clubs in many of the step five, six and seven leagues is the fact that only one promotion spot is available.
Quite often, clubs are racking up 90-odd points and/or scoring over 100 goals and yet if that’s somehow only good enough for second place, then they stay at the same level.
Now, I’m not for one second saying this is a particularly easy situation for the FA’s leagues committee to sort out, as the further you move down the pyramid the harder it is logistically to allow for more promotions and relegations, such is the often tight geographical nature of some divisions and the potentially quite high number of lateral movements that might be required depending on who has gone up or come down.
But it is pretty frustrating that a season such as Ilkeston Town’s, which in their case began just three weeks after the club had been formed and yet has seen them rise to look favourites to finish second, won’t be rewarded with what at some higher levels would be either automatic promotion or a play-off spot.
They’re far from the only ones - last season Hinckley AFC were second behind runaway winners Bromsgrove Sporting, scored 133 goals and got 85 points but still didn’t go up, and there are other examples both locally and further afield where similarly impressive campaigns suffer the same fate.
Teams know the deal at the start of the season but even so, campaigns are often as good as over by February or March once it’s apparent teams aren’t going up nor down.
Likewise, budgets are often drastically reduced at some clubs once promotion is out of the question.
It’s the norm nowadays that those with the most cash and biggest wage budget tend to float to the top, as is the case with Walsall Wood and indeed Ilkeston, although Blaby & Whetstone in the East Midlands Counties League, which runs parallel to the MFL Division One, took that approach and have just withdrawn because they couldn’t sustain it and were sat in mid-table.
I think a more detailed look at things by the FA is called for, even allowing for the league restructures that are about to take place and also the geographical changes (east/west split) at the start of 2018/19 at step four.
Whether it’s a fairly standard two automatic and one play-off promotion, alongside three relegated from above, or whether they go the whole hog and follow the National League into going for the somewhat ridiculous six-team play-off zone, anything that makes the season more exciting for fans right up until the finish can’t be a bad thing, nor can giving those who have had what in other leagues would usually be promotion-winning seasons that bit more of an opportunity for reward.
I know of so many clubs, even at step seven, who are well and truly set up for football at higher levels but simply can’t get out of their leagues despite regularly finishing second or third.
Yes, if you want to join the rest you need to be the best, but it’s a shame that rightful progress is often halted by what is basically logistics with regard to the relevant feeder leagues.
Ilkeston’s biggest threat to getting back to where they want to be could be these factors irrespective of what league they’re in, and although it’s clear they are far better equipped than most clubs below step three, let alone step six, and could well cruise to promotion next year, I wonder just how long fans’ (and maybe the owner’s) patience will last if it doesn’t happen soon despite winning most weeks.