However, the restructuring has significantly expanded the size of the Western League Premier Division, imposing a heavy financial penalty on some clubs, with an average increase in travel distances of almost 50%. Indeed, the challenges are not limited to the traditional WHL footprint. Historically, Cornish teams that had previously joined the Western League Premier Division had withdrawn after several seasons due to travel costs, as well as clubs refusing promotion due to anticipated travel costs.
Although immediately accepted by most member clubs, the current model is seen as questionable in the longer term, prompting the South West Peninsula League and Western League to establish a common goal to improve this situation.
Currently the Western League operates a Step 5 division, comprising 19 clubs whose current footprint stretches from the north eastern suburbs of Bristol to Mousehole in the far west of Cornwall. This involves round trips of over 400 miles, for comparison a trip from Bristol to Manchester is around 340 miles. In Stage 6, there are currently three splits. The South West Peninsula League comprises two divisions with a footprint covering Devon, currently 20 clubs, and Cornwall, currently 17 clubs. The Western League First Division comprises 21 clubs with a footprint including South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset.
In proposing a merger, the main objective of the South West Peninsula League and the Western League is to create a profitable, sustainable and environmentally friendly structure for Step 5/6 football in the South West. Officials in both leagues accept the principle that reasonable travel is an element of football at this level. However, there is growing awareness of the environmental impact, as well as the financial cost, of travel.
The proposal will see the South West Peninsula League and the Western League combine into a new League structure, streamlining costs and administrative procedures to run two Step 5 and three Step 6 divisions. Initially, this will involve 18 clubs per division, requiring a total of 90 clubs, with the aim of increasing to 20 clubs per division in the near future.
The two Step 5 leagues would create a new footprint with the North Division covering Bristol, Somerset, part of Devon and Dorset with the South Division covering Devon and Cornwall. A key determinant in setting limits will be travel distances, an average of less than 160 miles per game should be a maximum for Stage 5 clubs and less than 100 miles per game for Stage clubs 6, but some flexibility will be needed as the league evolves. overtime.
The realization of this new structure requires the recruitment of 12 additional clubs. This would be achieved through promotion from Stage 6, relegation from Stage 4, and some degree of lateral movement in the north and east of the territory. Vacancies in Stage 6 would be filled by promotion from South West feeder leagues as well as relegation from Stage 5. While the geography of Stage 6 leagues remains broadly similar, there is scope for streamlining the number to 18 in each league, making 54 clubs in all, where there are currently 59.
Looking to the future, a few options exist to determine how the new Step 5 divisions will be promoted to the Southern League. These could include a season-ending playoff before the NLS playoffs or an agreed rule change under the current NLS for SWP Step 6 divisions.
Officials from both leagues believe that this new structure will create a profitable, sustainable and greener environment for tier 5/6 football in this geographically diverse and expansive region. It is hoped to have the new structure in place for the start of the 2023/24 season after a transition season in 2022/23.
This proposal is currently the subject of consultation with various stakeholders, including; South West Peninsula League and West League Clubs, County FA, Feeder Leagues and Sponsors. Their needs and concerns will be fully considered as the project develops, but once the proposal has been accepted in principle, more detailed work will begin to produce a detailed final proposal and business plan, presented to the Committee. leagues in the next 6 months.