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When ground gradings need questioning

East PrestonEast Preston of the Sussex County League Division One walked away with their title – they were one of the most successful teams of 2013-14. But they find themselves playing at the same level next season.

The club’s Lashmar ground failed to meet the Ryman League’s grading requirements. Six months earlier, the club said that the improvements needed were all minor – with the exception of 50 extra seats – and that they were in hand.

In April, after clinching the title, East Preston got the go ahead for building work at their ground, which included the concrete walkway requirement and disabled shelter. For some reason, the club has not been admitted to the Ryman and East Grinstead Town, who finished runners-up to East Preston, have taken their place.

Last season, East Preston averaged 39 people at their home games. Their highest gate was 42. East Grinstead, incidentally, averaged 94. Therefore, the Ryman League may have been a bit embarrassed by the addition of East Preston, a club that has seen its gates fall in each of the last two seasons, despite unprecedented success.

East Preston is a village of just 6,000 people, so the crowd potential is limited. And while improving your ground is a sound concept, just how big a home does a club of this size and scale need? If being in the Ryman Division One South doubled their gate, it would still be below 100. Surely some latitude has to be applied to what appear to be stringent criteria.

Common sense, though, rarely seems to be exercised when it comes to ground grading. The word “shabby” doesn’t seem to matter as long as you have the facilities. The sacred “concrete walkway” is a prerequisite, which after all, will take you to places that nobody else wants to walk in many grounds. And a few hundred seats to ensure that the spectators that do decide to sit in the stand will have a whole row to themselves – in the interests of crowd safety, of course. And then there’s the jealously-guarded boardroom – always a priority for the Ryman League. If the blazers have to walk too far from their grandstand seat, it may not qualify for a ground grading.

The Ryman- indeed any – League should judge ground gradings in accordance with how many people “actually” pay to come to their games. In other words, if the ground can comfortably hold 150-200 people at Step four, then it should be passed as good to go. What’s more, East Preston are never going to need a ground much bigger than they have, no matter how successful they become.

Many clubs fall foul of the ground grading process, including much bigger outfits that East Preston. I once heard someone reveal that Rugby Town, who arguably have one of the finest grounds outside the Conference, struggled to meet certain criteria. And then there’s AFC Totton, who have a good set-up that didn’t fulfil the grade because the pitch was too close to the stand.

I agree that clubs should have a standard to live up to, but when they have to have seats that represent 10 times their average gate, or fail the grade because the half-time scoff is not within easy reach, something is badly wrong.

Asking clubs to live beyond their means is not a competition that has the best interests of its members at heart. The leagues would be better advised to direct their bureaucracy towards insisting on better pitches, up-to-date websites, more hygienic public catering, or perhaps more credible financial accountability. Maybe even wage caps.

As for East Preston, they have to do it all over again. Not going up can be costly for a team that has been so successful. For a start, other clubs come sniffing and some players, wanting to try their luck at a better level, will be tempted away. Secondly, psychologically, it can be tough to lift a team that has put in a good season’s work, only to find itself back where they started.

But East Preston’s manager, the exotically-named Dominic Di Paola, is already planning for 2014-15. “I’m staying and we should retain all of the squad as well…we might need a new keeper and potentially one more midfielder, but we should have a strong squad again,” he said.

That’s probably bad news for the rest of Sussex Division One, although Di Paola expects Eastbourne Town, relegated from the Ryman, to offer stiff resistance as well as Horsham YMCA and Littlehampton.

East Preston’s small band of supporters will be hoping that Di Paola and his team can take them into the Ryman. “We’re reliant on the club to get all of the work done and then we’ll see what happens. On the football side, we’ll just go out and try to do as well as we can.”

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