The Heat Is On: Race For Non-League Promotions & Relegations


For some football clubs, they are 46 games away from achieving promotion to the Premier League at the start of every season whilst to some others, they are only 46 games away from reaching the riches of the EFL and becoming part of “The 92”.

To many others, there is a dream to become a senior status football club and rid themselves of being known as a side who play at “Intermediate” level. For some of these clubs, they are all of 25/30 games away from reaching that level in English non-league football but with these dreams come fears to those who are threatened with relegation and the chance to lose out on cup money and potential sponsorship.

Who? What? Why?

Back in 2017, the FA had decided to reform English non-league football as they sighted that in order to reduce midweek matches and long journey times, they would ultimately create a new Step 3 & 4 division in order to help this plan.

Ultimately, the Southern League was chosen by the FA to create the new Step 3 league whilst the Isthmian League was chosen to create the new Step 4 league. In March 2018, the FA announced plans to create a pure pyramid system for English non-league football in the style of 1-2-4-8-16 which ultimately meant they had to create one new division at Step 4 and two new divisions at Step 5.

However, this process would take upto two years for it to be finalised and finished by the FA. In both 2018 and 2019, some teams were heavily affected with sideways moves which resulted in greater journey times whilst some teams stayed in their respective divisions.

As of 2020, the eighth Step 4 league will be run by the Northern Premier League as a gateway for those who are based from Cambridge to Sheffield.


Promotion in the non-league game has been a tad complicating within the last two-three years as previously mentioned, the FA have seeked to make reforms so its built upon an actual pyramid format so that sense, promotion between the five tiers is as follows:

Step 1 =
2 Promotion Spots to EFL League 2
4 Relegation Spots to National League North/South
1 Relegation Spot from EFL League 2

Relegation into the National League is set to only include one side due to the exclusion of Bury FC earlier in the season from League 2 this season. Hopefully this will be the only occasion that this happens.

In recent years, teams have been reprieved from facing relegation from the National League due to off field issues occuring at other teams higher up in the table. An example is that Aldershot Town were reprieved due to issues taking place at Gateshead last season who instead were relegated to the National League North.

In some cases, relegation can consist of 3/4 sides going into the National League North or South with sides in respective divisions being moved sideways due to geographical location to fit this quota.

Step 2 =
4 Promotion spots from National League North/South to National League
4 Relegation Spots To Isthmian Premier/Southern Premier OR Central & Northern Premier

Due to the Step 2 divisions being expanded to 24 sides each in the summer of 2020, there is only two relegation spots this year available to sides competing.

So basically, you have two sides from each Step 3 division going up into Step 2 with those sides being the League Winner and the Play-Off Winner.

Relegation to the Step 3 leagues will be done geographically again so currently speaking, Braintree Town would be consigned to the Isthmian Premier with Hungerford Town consigned to the Southern Premier whilst in the North division, Bradford Park Avenue would be consigned to the Northern Premier as would Blyth Spartans.


Teams like Concord Rangers & Hampton & Richmond Borough are set to play 46 games next season.  An increase from four games this season. Photo: Andy Wilkins

Step 3 =

8 Promotion Spots from Isthmian Premier/ Southern Premier & Central & Northern Premier to National League North/South
12 Relegation Spots to Isthmian Central/North/South East, Southern League South/Central & Northern Premier North/South West/ South East

Last season saw two of the play-off winners from the Step 3 division’s get promoted via a super play-off final but thankfully due to the National League North & South being expanded to 24 teams, there won’t be a need for such an event to take place this season for the Step 3 leagues as its reverting back to the old play-off format.

Relegation is still a problem given we have eight feeder leagues to accommodate. In the recently published predicted idea of what the leagues could look like ahead of next season, it could be the case that three of the Step 4 leagues might not welcome a new side who have been relegated.

Step 4 =
14 Promotions Available
7 Relegations to Step 5 feeder leagues

Promotion via the play-offs is going to remain a tricky subject for those at Step 4 as the likes of Heybridge Swifts found out last season when despite winning their play-off final against Maldon & Tiptree, they were denied promotion on grounds of Points Per Game (PPG).

One thing that is certain is that the league champions of the seven Step 4 divisions will go up into Step 3. However, not all of their respective play-off winners will join them unless there is pull-outs from other sides elsewhere higher up in the football pyramid and in the past, Shaw Lane’s withdrawal from the Northern Premier in 2018 saw Walton Casuals being promoted to the Southern Premier as a result of PPG in Step 4 with FC Romania being promoted from Step 5 as a result of the PPG rule being in place.

Relegation this season from Step 4 is a tricky subject as currently speaking, seven teams could go down but this will be subject to a play-off with seven teams who have finished in 2nd place of Step 5.

Step 5 =
24 Promotions available from the feeder leagues
14 Relegations to Step 6 feeder leagues based on PPG

In regards to promotion from Step 5, the 14 league champions from each league will be promoted to Step 4 and alongside that, those placed in second and third from the North West Counties League, Northern League and Northern Counties East League will also all be promoted.

To accommodate another four spots available, teams from the other Step 5 divisions who are placed in 2nd place will be promoted based on PPG whilst you’ll then have the seven remaining 2nd placed clubs taking on those who finished last in their Step 4 divisions in a play-off.

The reason behind this amount of promotions is because of the new Step 4 league that is being created so 20 teams will be moved sideways/relegated or promoted to accommodate this new division and as a result, there will be a need to fill in the gaps left by those who’ve been moved.

Step 6 =
76 promotions available to Step 5 feeder leagues
40 teams face potential relegation to Step 7

There is set to be 20 Step 6 leagues in action at the start of the 2020/21 campaign whilst the current 19 Step 6 leagues are looking potentially witnessing 4 teams who will be promoted this season upto Step 5.

In regards to Step 6 relegations to Step 7, which is the first level of intermediate football in the England, it could be down to a league filling the required quota that is desired by the FA of 20 clubs per division so teams who finish in last place might get a reprieve due to their division not having many new applicants in joining.

This was the case last season for a wide number of clubs but since the reforms have finally been taking shape in the last 12 months for a number of aspiring clubs, we could very well be seeing a number of relegations take place this summer.

Step 7 =
40 promotions available to Step 6 feeder leagues
Relegations to be decided by respective feeder leagues

Promotion to Step 6 is dictated by applying to the FA and also having the correct ground grading so if your team was to finish 1st, you might not get promoted due to not having the correct facilities or infrastructure at your home ground.

Subsequently those who do apply for promotion and are accepted into competing at Step 6 do have to finish in the top two ideally to get promoted.

Relegation from Step 7 is dictated to by the feeder leagues themselves and there can often be changes made prior to the League AGM’s in June.

Writers Corner: How Does It Affect Me?

Now I am currently the Media Officer for Southend Manor who play in the Essex Senior League at step five of the English pyramid. We are on course to finish in a midtable spot so we won’t be affected with promotion or relegation this season.

However we could be set to welcome potentially five new teams into our division this summer due to the chances of having a team relegated from the Isthmian North and also having teams brought up from the Eastern Senior League South.

We could be set to say goodbye to potentially three-five teams as a result of these moves with the whole possibility that we could see three teams getting promoted and one team being relegated at least. There is also the whole possibility that sides in our league who are say based in Hertfordshire could be moved sideways into another division should it need to be done by the league.

Whatever happens, it will sure be interesting to watch and find out.

The FA Cup: How Does It Affect Non-League This Season?

The 2020/21 FA Cup campaign is set to start in late July/early August and its already been discussed and decided that no clubs from Step 6 will take part in the competition this season.

However for those who are promoted from Step 6 to 5, they will be potentially be accepted into the competition yet start at the Extra-Preliminary Round stage whilst those who are promoted from Step 5 to 4 will also potentially start at that stage.

Clubs who are relegated from Step 3 to 4 will start at the Preliminary Round whilst happened in August whilst in some cases, clubs who are promoted from Step 4 to 3 will still play at that stage.

Most Step 3 clubs will start their journeys at the First Qualifying Round in September with Step 2 clubs joining in the Second Qualifying Round. Lastly, the 24 National League clubs who represent Step 1 will continue to join the survivors of the previous five rounds in the Fourth Qualifying Round.

All in all, there won’t be many major changes to the system this year which is welcomed by many whilst the idea of an increased winnings for those in the qualifying rounds could happen yet again by the FA.

When Do We Find Out?

Now apparently, we are due to find out about the proposed non-league constitutional structure for the season ahead ideally in mid-May at the earliest with the latest being at the start of June.

The proposed constitutions won’t be approved until every league has their AGM in June so it could still change. Nothing is definite for the clubs until the AGM’s take place.


About Author

Photographer who's gone everywhere from covering non-league football to covering England internationals. Occasionally write but mostly at football matches with a camera and mono-pod.

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