National Athletics League Season Ready For Lift Off

National Athletics League season ready for lift off

Alex Seftel looks ahead to the revamped National Athletics League, with Thames Valley Harriers going in search of yet another title

Talk of a team wearing sky blue winning the title four years in a row and the conversation might get confused with Manchester City and the Premier League. But, in track and field terms, Thames Valley Harriers (TVH) will start this year’s National Athletics League (NAL) campaign on June 1, aiming to become champions for a fourth consecutive season.

NATIONAL ATHLETICS LEAGUE SEASON READY FOR LIFT OFF

National Athletics League

The West London-based side have triumphed every year since the club competition was reformed to include both men and women for 2021, merging the old British Athletics League (BAL) and UK Women’s Athletics League (UKWAL) together.

One reason for this achievement has been the great support from international athletes like 400m hurdler Chris McAlister and discus thrower Jade Lally, with shot putter Amelia Campbell taking nine victories from the nine NAL matches that she has attended.

Amelia Campbell (National Athletics League)

Thames Valley captain Niki Faulkner believes that there are three principles behind his club’s success.

“The first is commitment,” he says. “When the fixture list is announced, you can guarantee that every athlete is marking their calendar.

“The second is ambition — we are relentless in our pursuit to be the best.”

In a sport which is so often seen as focusing on individuals, it is no surprise that the final principle, according to Faulkner, is about community.

“We have a great blend of experience and youth in the team and that supports the development of our young athletes,” adds the middle-distance runner.

“Our NAL team is greater than the sum of its individual parts, which is saying something considering the calibre of athletes we have.”

NATIONAL ATHLETICS LEAGUE SEASON READY FOR LIFT OFF

Jade Lally (Getty)

The record for consecutive league title wins is jointly held by Wolverhampton and Bilston, who won eight BAL championships between 1975 and 1982, while Belgrave Harriers did the same between 1997 and 2004. Reigns like these are always heavily reliant on highly motivated and persuasive team managers.

In TVH’s case, Phil Wetton and Manuel da Silva have continued the legacy created by a team which won the last three UKWAL titles between 2017 and 2019.

The league structure has changed for 2024, with the Premiership division involving eight clubs; namely Birchfield Harriers, Blackheath and Bromley Harriers AC, Glasgow Jaguars, Harrow AC, Sale Harriers, TVH, Windsor, Slough, Eton and Hounslow, and Woodford Green with Essex Ladies. They will compete against each other in three matches during the season.

NATIONAL ATHLETICS LEAGUE SEASON READY FOR LIFT OFF

Woodford and Harrow in NAL action (Mike Lepps)

“The change has been made to produce exciting competition, while keeping the league sustainable,” say NAL chairman Len Steers.

The second division, or Championship, will see 24 teams competing across separate North, South, East and West regional groups, each containing six teams.

“We want to reduce travel and accommodation costs – making meetings more attractive to athletes and officials is paramount,” Steers insists.

Other incentives include a £500 end-of-season award to anyone who has broken a league record, while the second Premiership match at Woodford on July 7 will be a World Athletics Category E fixture, resulting in higher ranking points.

Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium will host the third and final Premiership match of the season on August 3.

On the same day, the top two Championship teams from each regional group – who will all have had three fixtures by then – will come together for the Promotion Match in Bedford.

The sides placing first and second in that match will go up to the Premiership for 2025.

Those who have followed the league for many years will fondly recall its original heyday which featured the likes of Seb Coe and Daley Thompson, alongside mainstream television coverage.

Marking 50 years of the BAL in 2019, former chair Dean Hardman acknowledged that there are more athletes today for whom meetings abroad are attainable, with the advent of budget airlines allowing for relatively cheap travel.

NATIONAL ATHLETICS LEAGUE SEASON READY FOR LIFT OFF

Thames Valley Harriers winners 2023 (National Athletics League)

Yet some may be surprised to hear that last year’s second round of the Premiership – a week after the UK Athletics Championships – featured as many as seven athletes who had just won national titles.

Backed by financial support from England Athletics, the NAL will continue to stream its meetings on Vinco’s online platform in 2024.

Putting aside talk of ranking scores and headline names, for many the NAL’s biggest attraction is the team spirit and camaraderie that many dedicated athletes crave.

“It has a special place in my heart,” says Faulkner. “I have made some amazing friends over the years, including athletes, officials, physios, and supporters. Through the competition, we fight for each other and support each other.”

NAL Fixtures June 1 – Eton (Premiership), Nottingham (Championship North), Portsmouth (Championship South), Chelmsford (Championship East), Swansea (Championship West).

June 22 – Championship only – Leigh (Championship North), Crawley (Championship South), StoneX (Championship East), Yate (Championship West).

July 7 – Woodford (Premiership), Bedford (Championship North), Kingston (Championship South), Stevenage (Championship East), Basingstoke (Championship West).

August 3 – Birmingham (Premiership), Bedford (Championship Promotion Match and Cup Final).

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