Chalford AFC boss Ben Powell insists the promotion system is broken after his side were denied a place in the Gloucestershire County League after going unbeaten all season.
Powell’s side will remain in the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League Division One in 2023/24 despite winning the league, with calls coming for a rethink higher up the football pyramid to ensure that teams are sufficiently rewarded for their achievements in the league season.
Dropping just six points from their 28 games and finishing 12 points above nearest challengers Brockworth Albion, Chalford lifted the GNSL title on 13th May. However, league rules stated that the club would then have to enter a play-off system, with just two teams from three feeder leagues around the South West being able to progress upwards to the Gloucestershire County Football League.
Chalford had two opportunities to secure promotion when they faced Bristol Premier Combination champions Hanham Athletic and Bristol Suburban League winners Avonmouth Town but were beaten 3-2 and 1-0 respectively to miss out.
“It was a major disappointment (not to get promoted) after the season we had,” said Chalford manager Ben Powell.
“Our players can’t let everything that’s happened with the playoffs take the focus off of what they’ve achieved. To win the league unbeaten is outstanding and we’ve won the Reg Davis Cup for the third year in a row so the boys should be proud.
“To not achieve your mission whilst unbeaten, it devalues all three of the leagues and it’s not a system I’ve ever heard of before.
“In all three leagues (in the future), the three winners have to go up and three come down, it’s not complicated. I know other managers in the GNSL who are wondering whether to bother again, because if there’s no guarantee you’ll go up then then the incentive isn’t there.”
A Facebook post from Chalford’s account called for the Gloucestershire FA to ‘re-evaluate their promotion criteria’ to ‘ensure the true essence of grassroots football’.
The situation prompted the GNSL to respond with a press release: “The Gloucestershire Northern Senior Football League recognises the disappointment which their Champion club, Chalford AFC, have publicly expressed in not gaining automatic promoted to the Gloucestershire County League at the end of such an outstanding season achieved on the field of play.
“Promotion and relegation issues can be compounded by other Leagues higher up in the overall pyramid, both regionally and nationally. Having to go through a Play-Off system of matches is not ideal for our Champion club; but unfortunately, this is the current regulations overseen by the County FA and our overarching governing body of the Football Association.”
Hanham’s Saturday First Team were promoted to the County League eventually, beating Chalford in the playoffs after a 60-point season to win the Bristol Premier Combination, but their Chairman Bob Sperring noted that the lack of clarity from the top down creates an uncertainty around the pyramid structure.
“I feel sorry for (Chalford) because it could have been us, it’s just the way it goes, but we knuckled down and did what we needed to do,” said Sperring.
“The FA makes those decisions on the structure and there are teams (in Bristol) that have disbanded and are allowed back into the same division. Why should a club voluntarily resign from a league and get back in as soon as they’ve got their accounts back in order? The County League needs to speak to the FA and it is a question that needs to be asked (about the current system of promotion),” he added.
Chalford had to dig deep to win their own league, their final month of the regular season including 13 matches with games against all of the other sides in the top five, including two against Brockworth. The side had lost just one game all season before the playoffs, a 1-0 in the GFA Senior Amateur Cup final to Avonmouth, who repeated the scoreline to gain promotion.
“We had tired legs and a few injuries (heading into the playoffs) but there are no excuses. Over the course of 180 minutes we’ve fallen short,” said Powell, who has been in charge of Chalford for seven seasons.
“However, I personally believe the promotion system is broken. Cheltenham Civil Service had to go through the same thing last season and lost both playoff games having won the Northern Senior League but, fortunately for them, they were promoted after a team pulled out.
Following the playoff disappointment was a week of uncertainty, with the club awaiting confirmation from the FA that Cirencester Town Development would be placed into the Premier Division of the Wiltshire Senior League. The Devs were almost relegated to the County League, which would have sent Chalford up to ensure an even 18-team league, but the announcement was confirmed at the beginning of June that they would remain in the Northern Senior League for the 2023/24 season.
The GNSL said: “We shall be seeking from the County FA whether there is any possibility of improving movement of clubs at our level of the game, to alleviate any disparity in the future, and thereby to ensure a better balance of membership is maintained in the County League, and primarily that our member clubs are not disadvantaged.
“This matter has already seen dialogue underway with the County FA and we will, as a competition at the heart of this complex situation, be part of that consultation which is set to progress over the next few months. We shall rightly work with Chalford AFC and take their views forward into that process,” the statement read.
Powell concluded: “If the negative of us not going up this year changes the system for future seasons, then maybe everything we’ve said and done will have been worth it. If you don’t say anything then nothing will ever change.”