Graham (follow on Twitter: @grahamsibley)
Wed 23 July 2008

A local league for local people

This season sees the first campaign for Germany's 3rd Liga, a new national division for the third tier of German Football. It's nothing new for us in England - we've had a national third division for the last fifty seasons. Indeed, since the inception of the non-league conference in 1979, our league stays national all the way down to the fifth tier.

But does having a such a linear league structure help the game? In Spain and Italy the leagues regionalise at the third tier - our League 1. The Spanish league's fifth tier has 60 divisions in it compared to our one, and in Italy it's nine. It could be argued that the English League is a testimony to the strength of the game in this country, but given the repeated reminders of how weak the British game is, can we really still get away with this myth? Are teams at the top of the Blue Square Premiership two degrees of separation away from their counterparts struggling at the foot of League 1?

This is how a three division regionalised third tier could have shaped up this season coming (click image for larger version):

On the face of it, you see three divisions that still look very competitive (certainly far more so that than the uppermost tier in the country). Added to this you see heavy concentrations of local clubs together, and not just in the main metropolitan areas like London or Birmingham. Small groupings in places like Sussex, Cheshire and even Gloucestershire promise a steady stream of local derbies throughout the season.

Of course many would argue that regionalising consigns these clubs to effectively being non-league. I would argue that the term 'league' and 'non-league' are irrelevant in these days of automatic promotion/relegation and money-spinning play offs between the various levels.

It could be said that it wouldn't be as attractive to TV companies, but consider the high number of derbies together with boosted attendances from increased local away support. There is also the opportunity for each region to negotiate their own deal.

The last point I'd make on this subject is this: a removal of the lengthy league ladder would provide a greater protection for fans of vulnerable clubs. If Milton Keynes had been a regional fourth tier club, would Pete Winkelman have bothered spending all that money on moving Wimbledon there?

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