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Four National North and South clubs excluded from National North and South playoffs

Monday 1st May 2017
Darlington, Hungerford Town, Poole Town, and Wealdstone were told just before their season's final weekend that, even if they finished their league campaigns among their respective divisions' top five, none would be allowed to complete in the National North and South playoffs.

This weekend saw the National Premier, National North and National South's final rounds of league fixtures take place. Two teams each are promoted from North and South to the Premier, non-league football's top tier. Division winners go up automatically. Those finishing between second and fifth normally compete in the playoffs.

Over the last month, however, it came to light Darlington and Poole Town, both in the thick of playoff races all season, might not be eligible to compete in their respective playoffs due to ground relegations. Neither would have stadia meeting National Premier standards.

Later, two more sides, Hungerford Town and Wealdstone, both competing in National South, found themselves in similar position. All were informed, should any make the top five, they would not be permitted to compete due to ground grading rules.

Darlington went into a highly profiled, final weekend clash with rivals Salford City, its players knowing nothing was on the line. The result reflected their disappointment. Salford won 5-1 to secure a playoff spot itself, pushing the Quakers down to fifth. Chorley benefited most. Despite finishing sixth, the Magpies will host Kidderminster on Wednesday night's first leg.

Darlington had returned to its home town after four-and-a-half years away, moving into new ground Blackwell Meadows in December. The new stadium can hold 3,000, most hardstanding.

The FA/League decision stated Blackwell Meadows needed to cover 500 seats. The Quakers had been assessed ground grading B, required for National's North/South divisions, but not grade A as mandated for National Premier.

Darlington is run by volunteers. Its board members admitted they hadn't realised the 500 covered seats needed to be installed before gaining top flight promotion. Like Poole, Hungerford, and Wealdstone, their appeal was unsuccessful.

National South

In the Southern division, Poole finished fifth, Hungerford sixth, Wealdstone eighth. Due to Poole's dilemma, seventh-placed Hampton & Richmond Borough will compete in the playoffs.
Among the four exiles, Poole Town were first informed. In similar fashion to Darlington, its Black Gold Stadium does not have 500 seats under cover. Thus, the Dolphins were judged ineligible.

Hungerford Town was advised it fell 100 seats short. It appealed. Only in the division for six months, the Crusaders had invested to achieve Grade B to avoid relegation, hoping another extension would allow them to compete while arranging further capacity.

Wealdstone's case was slightly different. The Stones now have the required seating in place. However, the club had missed the 31 March deadline for installation as the seats had not been delivered in time. Even with the seats now installed, Wealdstone would have been frozen out if its late-season run hadn't come up short.

For the quartet, the letter of the law was fully applied. Ground regulations hadn't been met fully or in timely fashion. Yet, in each case, strong arguments for leniency existed. Should we not be doing our best to grow the game?

Meanwhile, at the very top, tax investigations into Newcastle United, West Ham, and Chelsea were announced this week. If found guilty, will the letter of the law fully apply to three among the country's biggest clubs? We will see or, more likely, we will not.

Sadly for Darlington, Poole, Hungerford, and Wealdstone, very successful seasons on the pitch are likely to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Simon Hahn

Lifelong sufferer following Darlington FC from League Two to the Northern League. Freelance Sports and data journalist. Living for 3pm on Saturday.

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