Over the past few seasons, the numbers of teams going up and down from each non-league division have varied drastically. It’s left non-league fans scratching their heads and reaching for their calculators from about January onwards to try and work out the possible fate of their local sides. A league position that meant promotion or safety the season before, could well equate to something completely different the following year.
Last season culminated in a farcical playoff system at Step 4 which saw only some of the playoff winners actually being promoted. The five 'best' playoff champions from across the seven equivalent leagues were chosen using a 'points per game ratio'. This meant clubs went into playoff campaigns and even finals knowing they couldn't be promoted. Thankfully local Hertfordshire side Cheshunt were able to be promoted, but it didn't stop their manager Craig Edwards describing the whole thing as 'an absolute disgrace'! The managers of the Heybridge Swifts and Brighthouse Town, who won their playoff but didn't go up, no doubt felt even worse about it!
There is a worthy end goal to all the absurdity however. The FA is remoulding the structure of non-league to create a 'perfect pyramid' of divisions for much easier promotion and relegation in the future. By the start of next season we'll have 2 leagues at Step 2, 4 leagues at Step 3 and 8 leagues at Step 4 (with the hope of 16 leagues at Step 5 and 6 as well).
Once all that's achieved, promotion and relegation should make a lot more sense and be far more straight forward. The National League model of ‘2 up and 4 down’ can be reproduced across all the non-league divisions.
What it means for this season, however, is yet more calculators and confusion. Promotion and relegation from the National League remains the same (unless we lose Bury or Bolton from the EFL). Below that though is where things have changed again this year. Just the 2 sides will go down from each of the National League North & South. Relegation in the Step 3 leagues is when the head-scratching really starts; the 4 Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier leagues will each relegate 2 teams, plus the two ‘worst’ third-bottom clubs will also go down. 20th place could mean relegation or safety depending on how well teams in other leagues do.
Going further down the ladder things get even more unusual. At Step 4, just the bottom sides face the chance of the drop. They’ll play a one-leg 'relegation playoff' against a Step 5 side to see if they go down. At Step 5 the dreaded points per game ratio will decide many teams’ promotion chances. Fans will need to keep across the progress of rival teams across 14 leagues! Step 6 thankfully is easier, in fact so easy that 4 clubs from each division will be given automatic promotion. Cue chairman gambling with playing budgets to try and take advantage of the FA's one time offer!
You can’t argue that this season won’t be a bit of a mess in regards to promotion and relegation in non-league. But once we're through it, we should have a non-league pyramid that makes a little more sense. It's certainly not the first time the FA has tried to 'fix' the non-league pyramid, but hopefully it'll be the last time.