Three-time defending second-division premiers Cooks Hill will likely lose coach and technical director Graham Law after the announcement on Wednesday that they had not secured promotion to the NNSW NPL and the path to it remained uncertain.
The Northern NSW Football board voted to accept review panel recommendations, which followed an application process, to retain the NPL structure. It means the competition will stay at 11 teams, or change to 10 if the Newcastle Jets Youth move to the NSW NPL next season.
The decision means the applications of Northern League One clubs Kahibah, Wallsend, West Wallsend, Cooks Hill, Belmont Swansea and South Cardiff for promotion were denied.
NNSWF also ruled out the immediate return of promotion-relegation after deciding not enough clubs were compliant on criteria covering facilities, youth development, finance, coaching, council support, administration and performance.
NNSWF conducted the same process in 2016 in the hope of having two compliant NPL divisions, enabling the return of promotion-relegation. The system was last in place in 2015, after which the lack of compliant clubs led NNSWF to put it on hold.
NNSWF chief David Eland said movement between the leagues would be possible for 2021 and beyond. A traditional, performance-based system could also be reinstated once sufficient clubs met criteria.
"The board will consider the composition of the premier competitions annually by introducing an ongoing reporting system, which will monitor the overall performance of clubs in relation to the key criteria," Eland said.
Cooks Hill appeared leading contenders for promotion after three consecutive premierships under Law, who was disappointed their success on and off the pitch had not led to the NPL.
"It's highly unlikely I'll stay at Cooks Hill again next year due to there being no promotion again," Law said.
"I came to Cooks Hill because their ambition matched mine, to take a club to the NPL, and not only is that not happening next year, but there's no timescale on that happening."
He said "it will take them a long time to come back from" NNSWF's decision.
"How can they possibly motivate Northern League One teams now?" he said. "And it's detrimental to the NPL as well. It would make that league so much more competitive if bottom spot meant something."
Cooks Hill president Max Sovechles said "it's obviously disappointing but what I think is more disappointing is that no one is going up".
"It feels like it was for nothing," Sovechles said of the process. "I guess what Northern have now is they know where all the clubs stand. It might come out in the wash that we just weren't good enough, but I don't think that's the case.
"I'm hoping they have their own agenda and we're all on this pathway. We can't see a year in front, but I'm hoping they can. I'm hoping they can see 10 years in front because we need to justify why we're doing this."
"What do we do? Do we continue to put our resources into being a successful team on the field, if we don't get the chance in the top division? I think the idea of success as a club changes when playing winning football is no longer the end result.
"We've got to go get sponsors. So how do we say to a sponsor, we might be in NPL next year, can you give us some money? We have to market ourselves, and we also miss out on getting those good players."
Sovechles believed Cooks Hill "ticked a lot of boxes but weren't 100 per cent" on the NPL criteria "but I don't think any were 100 per cent".
He said the club had recently invested in a PA system at their home ground, Fearnley Dawes Athletics Centre, to meet the criteria and they were looking to secure a ticket booth.
"We'd put in a lot of resources into making that a good ground," he said.
"We have put a lot of resources into [getting into the NPL]. We've headhunted Graham because he has the experience to take us to that next level and I think he's shown that, but that costs a lot of resources as well."
This season marks the end of a second three-year licence period in the NNSW NPL. From next year on, licences will participation agreements reviewed and granted on a rolling basis annually.
The announcement on the NPL structure for next year was to be originally announced after the grand final but Eland said the decision was brought forward when "it became clear there were not going to be changes".
If the Jets Youth move to the Sydney competition, a 10-team NPL will mean a decrease from 22 rounds featuring a bye to 18 with no bye.
Eland said the decision reflected the assessment panel's recommendations and the board's commitment to preserve the integrity of the top-flight competition.
"The board of directors support promotion and relegation in principle on the basis that there are sufficient clubs in the underpinning league pressing for promotion," Eland said in a statement.
"Management has been instructed to implement an ongoing reporting system which will objectively monitor the overall performance of clubs in the NPL and NL1, enabling the board to promote clubs in the short term and potentially reinstate promotion and relegation."
The NL1 competition will retain the same teams but divisions will be aligned to the NPL, which will return reserve grade next season. The divisions will be first grade, reserves and 18s in seniors as well as 16s, 15s, 14s and 13s years in the youth league.
Northern Inland Football will join the NL1 youth competitions.
The statement also said NNSWF had reaffirmed its commitment to work towards the establishment of a division of the NPL for women from 2021 by establishing a local working group.
The group met this month to plan and identify key gaps which need to be addressed by clubs. There was initial consensus that the division should comprise first grade, reserves, 17s, 15s and 13s.