During the last two seasons we have posted two articles regards ambition. It drives us forward and gives us the challenges that give life purpose. Clubs and players should be lauded for their ambitions to progress to a higher level, it’s what makes league structures in sport so important. What is very clear however is that promotion to the next level is not necessarily the positive thing that it would first seem to appear.
Northwich have been one of the most consistent teams since winning promotion back into North 1 West 3 seasons ago. Statistically last season was their worst, finishing 4th, but there are too many anomalies throughout the 3 campaigns for statistics to mean much, if anything. As the faithful recall last season many of the teams were so close in performance to each other neither Nostradamus nor Baba Vanga could have made game predictions, with relegation only determined over the final two weeks fixtures, but what of the promoted team’s?
Kirkby Lonsdale gained their promotion along with Birkenhead Park during 16/17, Kirkby promoted as champions had a very strong senior section with a full senior and junior colts supported by equally strong full junior section. Kirkby Lonsdale have clearly progressed in every one of their seasons in the NPL. They are particularly pleased that so many good young players, are coming into their squad from their juniors and colts, and have quickly shown that they can handle the demands of the game at this level. Birkenhead Park yo-yoed straight back down.
Vale of Lune & Wilmslow both promoted and both relegated the following season. Realistically Vale of Lune’s season in North Premier was over, to all intents and purposes, by the end of October after they had failed to win one of their opening eight games, their match point’s total stood at a meagre five and they were bottom of the table. They had topped North One West in a record breaking 2017/18 season and their records continued to be broken at level 5, hammered 92-12. At the time this was their heaviest ever league defeat, worse was to follow however, because in February when they visited Hull they were thrashed, 97-0. The magic of the previous season had disappeared, regular players from the previous season were in short supply. As occurs following these situations there is a level of collateral damage. Vale have lost players already during the close season but have appointed a new coach in preparation for the coming campaign. Wilmslow’s single season adventure in the Northern Premier league ended as it started with defeat at the hands of Kirkby Lonsdale. Three wins and a draw from twenty six games left them firmly anchored at the foot of the league.
Are there lessons to be learned from promotion and relegation?
Obviously the pace and power of the game in the NPL is a big step up from the level below and requires a promoted side to assemble a strengthened squad, many newly promoted teams record they have problems with players unable to travel or growing injury lists and utilising players from their second team having between 40 – 50 players represent them over a season. The leading sides all fringe on part time professionalism and consequently recruit bigger, faster, fitter, more powerful and more skilled players. For amateur clubs such as ours, there will be a baptism of fire playing against semi-professional sides where players are earning between £150 and £450 per week to play for their clubs. There are clubs in this league that say they don't have to pay players to wear their jersey but they all experienced a transformation when they first entered this league. Hull for example who did gain promotion, were reputed to be paying a player £450 per week to play at level 5, and yet have no second team or junior section to the club. And whose supporters wish to read this as a news article “Why have you signed/resigned with Hull RUFC? I haven’t yet. I am still open to offers!”
Promoted sides appear to struggle putting out 3 senior teams every week due to the demands of the first and second XV’s. One club bucking the trend in playing numbers is Birkenhead Park who have applied to the NOWIRUL to enter a 4th team for the coming season, but most do have strong junior sections however the step up in playing performance can sometimes be daunting for such players in their promoted season. Club finance, structure or facilities do not necessarily guarantee success at a higher level but following a promotion then relegation some of these clubs are in a sound position to deal with the out-fall.
A club is as strong as its membership, governed by its elected committee, a team is as strong as its players developed by its coaches, the drive from within determines the level it achieves if a promotion is attained the challenges get greater as they do with relegation.
Northwich have ‘bounced’ around in North 1 West at level 6 / 7 the last 20 years and that, given the resources available to us, is the environment that we can sustain. Many a club has operated semi-professionally since the onset of English rugby professionalism in 1995. So its likely that the existing pattern of semi-professionalism will remain. Given that many clubs even at levels 5, 6 or 7 are either paying players or utilising a playing budget assisting travel expenses, then the competition for quality players is intensifying. Whether such payment is sustainable on a long term basis for such small clubs is, to me, a matter of doubt. Any club’s flagship is its 1st XV, the objective must be for clubs to compete at the highest level possible within the resources that they can provide.
These are the musings of a supporter and in no way reflect the ambition the club or its players may have.