Written By Scott W [Twitter: @ScottMHC14] – Non-League Writer
Hello and welcome to the first of my Summer In-Focus articles (marking Five Years for me as a Non-League writer), speaking to various parties in Non-League about the season just gone or about the future. In this article, I’m delighted to welcome Essex Alliance League (EAL) Media & Registrations Secretary Rob Parker [RP] to talk about the Essex Alliance League & its future after being announced as a Step 7 (Regional NLS Feeder) League from the forthcoming 2021-22 season, joining the Olympian League & Essex & Suffolk Border League top-tiers at that level.
SW: Firstly, thank you very much for your time Rob. Many congratulations to you, the Essex Alliance League & all involved in achieving the new status for the forthcoming campaign. Could you tell us a little about the process that was required (Talking to the FA, your clubs etc) to gain this elevated status?
RP: “Talks around the idea began back in 2018 between the league’s Management Committee, our clubs and Essex County FA to discuss the issues that we felt were hindering the progression of clubs in our region. We put together a formal proposal which we presented to our member clubs in 2019, the result of which was resounding support of the proposal. Further talks then took place with Essex County FA before we lodged our application to the FA in December 2019 with all of the supporting documentation.
Following this application, we were then invited up to Wembley to put our proposal directly to the FA’s Leagues Committee, to discuss various aspects of the barriers our clubs face when trying to progress and also impact on football in the wider, regional context. The feedback we received was very promising and we were therefore hopeful we may be approved in time for 2020/21 season. But COVID then struck a matter of days later and, as we know, the season was voided across most levels of the NLS (National League System – the tiered approach in Non-League) which scuppered our short-term hopes. We weren’t deterred however and our application went in once again in November 2020 following which, after a long wait, we finally received the great news at the end of May this year.”
SW: It must be inspiring for clubs that have petitioned to be included within the Alliance League divisions, to see that one day they could have a chance to compete in Step 7, with a potential opportunity to battle for promotion into Senior Football. As a neutral, which clubs do you feel might find their way into your Senior Division in the next two-three years?
RP: “It certainly is a big draw for our league to have gained Regional Feeder League Status as it now enables us to provide a full pathway for our clubs, potentially starting out in our lower divisions as a brand new club, perhaps just a group of friends having a kick about in the park, to playing football within the National League System (NLS) in just a few seasons given the right sporting experience and structure in place. This is a progression route which we feel so passionately about and now avoids clubs having to venture well out of the area just to fulfil their ambitions of joining an NLS competition.
There are plenty of clubs who have the ambition to move up into Senior football. Almost every team we have interviewed this summer with a view to joining the league has been enthused about the opportunity ahead of them and it’s fair to say our existing clubs are equally looking forward to the challenge. When you have a look at our divisions beneath the Senior Division, there are some big, local clubs who are all chomping at the bit to move forward, sides such as Dagenham United, Frenford A, Barkingside A and plenty more will be joining us for the coming season. What is most exciting is the opportunity for all of our clubs to now recruit ambitious players who want to be part of the journey up the ladder.”
SW: In my view, Essex having three Step 7 Leagues (the Essex Olympian League & Essex & Suffolk Border League being the others) now does show the strength of Intermediate Football in the Essex & East London area. How do you see participation growing in the area in the medium term as we emerge from the Covid pandemic?
RP: “Essex is already one of the best represented counties in terms of number of teams and player participation across the whole country with a dense population in the Metropoilitan Essex and East London areas particularly. It’s perhaps for this reason alone, along with many others, that this proposal benefits football in the region as there will always be a proportionately higher number of clubs seeking progression. I think that it’s a real feather in Essex’s cap to be producing and sustaining such a strong quality of football in the county and long may that continue.
There are still plenty of challenges coming up, particularly those around increasing the availability of senior standard football facilities to remove that obstacle over time but also with the effects of upcoming ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) charges for travel in east London which is going to add additional costs for some participants, in a time of financial uncertainty for many. As partners at the upcoming Parsloes Park developments, we hope to alleviate part one of those concerns at least and the other key thing that we are doing is to offer the best football product that we can to continue to increase participation and interest within our sport. The effects of the pandemic have been felt very acutely within grassroots football but it is clear that there remains a very strong level of interest and we hope that the new season will be a real celebration after some difficult years.”
Regular round-ups of Alliance League action have been provided by Rob to radio shows like the Grassroots Football Show on East London Radio for some time now.
SW: As an Intermediate (or ‘Junior’) League, how important is it going forward for the EAL to be represented in Independent Media (ie Writers/Radio & Social Media feeds)?
RP: “We’ve always taken a proactive approach to media as it it provides a real outlet for showcasing our clubs and the league itself to the outside world. When we interview new clubs, almost all of them say that they’ve seen our website and follow our social media presence and were impressed enough to apply to bring their own team into the league which is great feedback. Alongside that, we make regular contributions to local newspapers, podcasts, radio shows and independent media which, although it takes a lot of time, ensures we reach to as wide an audience as possible.
I’ve always spoken quite strongly on this topic as I firmly believe that if you aren’t publicising your work to the world, it’s possible that you are going to miss out on many opportunities. That could be new clubs or perhaps sponsorship/partnership opportunities. While social media can be a real challenging arena at times, it still remains a hugely effective platform for delivering a message and a good Media Manager is now almost as important as any other Management Committee role.”
SW: I have to mention a word on the EAL’s history, could you take us through the journey from your beginnings from the merger of the Ilford & District League and the Essex Business Houses League in 2014, to the present day?
RP: “Back in 2013, the landscape of local football was vastly different and comprised of a number of local “district” leagues that were each facing their own battles with keeping clubs afloat and needing to find sufficient volunteers to run multiple leagues. At the time, I believe that the Ilford & District League was on the verge of being down to just two divisions and that the Essex Business Houses League was similarly looking at a one division set-up, neither of which were particularly thriving. While the leagues had very different backgrounds and therefore some different views, both shared some common objectives which proved to be fundamental when senior committee members of the two leagues got together to discuss the idea of a merger.
As 2014 was upon us, after a period of consultation, it was decided that the most appropriate way forward was for resources to be pooled and for a new league to be born, forming an alliance from the two predecessor competitions. With the two committees combined into one, roles allocated and buoyed on by many new clubs being excited enough by the idea to join, the Essex Alliance League was formed and things have really spiralled from there. From season to season, we’ve grown in membership to well over double the original size and football is once again thriving in the region. In a time of dificulty in finding volunteers to run leagues, it is perhaps a wise move for smaller competitions to work together to form new partnerships where resources can be pooled together.”
SW: I’ve heard that the new-look EAL Senior Division will likely be comprised of 14 clubs, what effect will that have on fixtures and when games will be played?
RP: “That’s right – Regional Feeder Leagues are required to have at least 14 teams within those divisions and that’s the number we are looking at for the first season to not overburden our clubs unnecessarily, taking into account other competitions that the clubs will also be involved with.
Midweek football will be an inevitability for our clubs, particularly those without access to floodlights who will need to make good use of the natural light when British Summer Time returns in April next year. We’d also expect a small smattering of midweek football throughout the season too as we do have almost half of our Senior Division clubs playing on venues with lights.
SW: When will the EAL divisions start in Season 2021-22?
RP: “Our Senior Division is planned to commence on Saturday 21st August given the extended length of the season in the division. The other divisions will begin on the first weekend of September as per usual.
SW: What other developments are on the way for the club in the future that you’d like to share?
RP: “Our greatest focus for the coming season is really to consolidate on what we have achieved in the past few months and ensure we work closely with our clubs to keep them in the best shape they can be post-pandemic. We are working hard to establish ourselves as an FA Charter Standard League in the coming seasons, soon to be known as England Football Accredited, and that will remain a focal point for development.
Additionally, as mentioned previously, we are a partner organisation for the new Parsloes Park development in Dagenham which is due to open in the final quarter of 2021 and we are very excited to be involved with that site going forward both for use as a key match venue but also as a site for our clubs to train, especially important given a real shortage of quality and affordable training facilities locally.”
SW: Finally, how do you see this new adventure going in the next 12 – 18 months?
RP: “We certainly hope that this development is a real watershed moment for football in Metropolitan Essex and East London, providing greater, local opportunities for clubs and participants alike to realise their potential within the non-league football pyramid. Only time will tell on whether the availability of suitable senior facilities locally means that we can offer sides a regular chance of promotion to Step 6 competitions but, if the ambitions of our clubs are anything to go by, we hope to see at least one or two of our clubs operating at that level in the next couple of seasons. Whatever happens, these are certainly exciting times for the Essex Alliance League and the region.”
Update (June 16) – Here are the constitutions for the EAL divisions in season 2021-22 (Credit: @EssexAllianceFL)
Again, I’d like to thank Rob for his time and you have to agree that it could be a really fascinating season in the history of the Essex Alliance League starting in August. I wish all the League Committee & EAL clubs well. You can follow them on Twitter @EssexAllianceFL or on the web at essexallianceleague.com
Next in the ‘In-Focus’ series will be an EAL club interestingly, as I catch up with the Hunwicks family who built their club – Chadwell Heath Spartans, who played in Division One in the curtailed League season just gone. Thank you as ever for reading.