The chances of an el Croydon Clásico derby between the borough’s leading non-league sides have been made vanishingly thin for years to come, after the Football Association shuffled the pack of Step 5 and Step 6 clubs in the area and switched Croydon Athletic into a different league from next season.
Until Croydon FC’s relegation from the Southern Counties East League’s Premier Division at the end of their disastrous 2018-2019 campaign, the borough’s non-league rivals were guaranteed at least two meetings each season.
But after two covid-hit, abandoned league competitions for both clubs, the Trams under Liam Giles will feel particularly hard-done-by, as they have twice been denied any possibility of fighting their way back into the Southern Counties East League’s Premier Division alongside their local rivals.
Athletic will now forge a rivalry with Balham, their groundshare tenants at Mayfield Road, who have also been moved into a new division. The last time the Trams took on the Rams in a competitive game was a cup tie in October 2019, which Athletic won, 1-0.
Croydon Athletic, by virtue of hanging on to their place in the SCEFL Premier, have been transferred to the new Combined Counties Premier Division South – a Step 5 competition – while Croydon remain in SCEFL First Division One (Step 6) for a third consecutive season.
The restructure of the non-league pyramid has been a long while in the offing. It is far from straightforward. The reorganisation – intended to even up the size of some non-league divisions – was supposed to have come into effect from the start of the 2020-2021 season, but was delayed by the pandemic.
The FA sought to redress the imbalances created by some clubs folding, new clubs joining and the geographical difficulties of promotion and relegation by developing a new, “pure pyramid”.
They have created a new division at Step 4, two at Step 5 (Athletic’s level) and reduced the number of leagues at Step 6 from 20 to 17.
In order to facilitate these changes, 110 clubs have been elevated ahead of the 2021-2022 season, 20 have moved from Step 5 to Step 4, 60 have made the leap from Step 6 to Step 5, while Step 6 will welcome 30 new clubs promoted from various regional feeder leagues.
Decisions on promotion were made based on the results over the last two bit-part campaigns – a decision which has been criticised by some as being unsatisfactory.
Although the FA officially ruled the two past seasons as “null and void”, their results were combined and then sides ranked using an unweighted points-per-game system.
A number of sides were also moved sideways, either to populate new divisions or backfill others because of changes elsewhere. It was the former reason that saw Athletic and Balham shuffled across to the new Combined Counties Premier Division South.
Beckenham Town also made the SCEFL to Combined Counties switch, where they’re joined by fellow sideways movers Fleet Town and Horley Town, as well as the promoted trio of Farnham Town, Jersey Bulls and Walton and Hersham.
Croydon Athletic chairman Paul Smith seemed optimistic about the move.
“Creating a new Combined Counties League Premier Division always meant they would be looking for extra teams, and being the most westerly team in SCEFL we felt it likely,” Smith told Inside Croydon.
Croydon Athletic joined the SCEFL in 2015 after winning promotion from the Combined Counties First Division.
“We had a good few years in the CCL,” Smith said, “and are looking forward to renewing some old friendships. Our youth team has played in the CCL U18 league so we are quite familiar in any case.
“We have been very happy in the SCEFL, it is a very well-run league and we wish them every success. Of course, we may well end up meeting some of them in cup encounters, you never know.”
The standout side in Athletic’s new division is Jersey, with Smith assured that the very enticing away day to one of English football’s more expensive outposts won’t be a costly trip for the club or its fans. “Our game at Jersey Bulls will be a longer journey but, like when Guernsey FC joined the non-league pyramid a few years ago, arrangements are made to ensure that there is not a financial burden on visiting teams,” Smith said.
“I am sure there are a few of our supporters who may be excited about a trip to what is the most beautiful of the Channel Islands and I am looking forward to visiting too. However, I would say that as with my mother being Jersey-born, I am probably slightly biased!
“We won’t be incurring higher costs with the switch. With Balham and Beckenham Town making the same move, we are assured of those local derbies and we also have added ones with Colliers Wood United, Raynes Park Vale and Banstead Athletic to come. Conversely, by moving we’re spared the longer journeys down to the likes of Deal Town and Canterbury City.”
Croydon FC’s SCEFL First Division will have a very different feel next season.
The aborted 2020-2021 edition only had 17 clubs and three of those – Holmesdale, Kennington and Rusthall – have been moved up to the Premier Division. That means that there will be six new clubs to bring the division up to a full 20-team quota.
Chessington and Hook United, who played the Trams recently in a friendly, are one of three lateral movers from the Combined Counties system, alongside Wimbledon-based Westside and Tooting Bec. Faversham Strike Force, Larkfield and New Hythe and Staplehurst Monarchs all join from the Kent County League.
Whyteleafe have had a lot going on off the pitch of late with the sale of their Church Road home, announcement of the Steven Gerrard Academy and departure of manager Harry Hudson. They also discovered this week that they’ll be playing in a new division next season, moving from the Isthmian League’s South East Division to its South Central counterpart.
The Leafe were also in the news for other reasons this week, with former player Kwadwo Baah securing a move to Watford, after he had also been linked to a move to Premier League champions Manchester City.
The German-born teenager was an academy prospect and ball boy at Crystal Palace.
Following his release from the Eagles, he linked up with Hudson at the Croydon Arena-based Kinetic Foundation. It was through Hudson that he played for Whyteleafe against Herne Bay in 2019 and, after a trial with Fulham, the powerful forward signed with League One Rochdale.
Following their relegation, the youngster has moved on a free to Watford, with the Premier League-bound club expected to pay a six-figure compensation fee.
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