PLAY OR NO PLAY? STEP 2’s BIG QUANDRY

The last two weeks in non-league has seen one massive question hanging over the league season at non-league level and this came to a climax earlier this week when it was announced that the Government would provide financial support to the National League’s 63 member clubs.

Effectively, this is a Government bailout which will allow Step 1 and 2 clubs to commence their seasons tomorrow (i’ll get into why as this piece goes on) with Step 1 beginning their league season while Step 2 clubs take their places in the FA Cup’s 2nd Qualifying Round including the BBC’s live coverage pick of York City’s trip to one of the lowest ranked sides left in the competition, Warrington Rylands.

The rumour is that the level of funding would equate to around £3million a month which is predicted to last for around 6 months (until the planned end of the restrictions). This would put the total government grant for something around £18million. It’s not clear yet how this money will be distributed amongst the clubs but for instance let’s suggest the monthly grant was evenly distributed amongst all 63 clubs, it pretty much equates to just under £50,000 a month per club.

But again, its not clear about the level of distribution between clubs it could mean, remember, the National League is a mixture of part-time and full-time clubs. Infact, there are 7 or 8 clubs in the National League itself that are classed as ‘part-time’ while at NL North & South, there are at least two full time clubs at this level.

HOW DID WE COME HERE?

The beginnings of this uncertainty actually came about at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic back in March, back then, was when non-league steps 3-7 were all declared null and void. Thereby cancelling all seasons at those levels with no promotion or relegation awarded. Tellingly though this did not include Steps 1 and 2 of non-league, also known as the National League.

The National League were fully expected to follow suit, infact I expected them to as well. But there was a catch. And for this, you need to go way back to 1987 when automatic promotion/relegation between what was then League Division Four and the GM Vauxhall Conference was introduced, with the previous incarnation of Scarborough (who were actually managed by none other than Neil Warnock) having the honour of being the first club to achieve automatic promotion to the Football League

Since 1987 the Conference (now National League) fought hard to try and get extra promotion places for ambitious non-league clubs but that meant trying to get into a good relationship with the historically stubborn Football League. After 15 years, the Conference was granted a second promotion place in the form of its own playoff competition in the 2002-03 season. Doncaster Rovers became the first ever Conference playoff winners that season joining champions Yeovil Town in the Football League.

Since then, the National League has begun to become more professional with ever more former Football League clubs not willing to lose their professional status in an effort to get back into where they felt they belonged.

As a result, they’ve attempted to forge closer ties to the Football League both on and off the pitch, a sort of ‘cosying-up’ to their bigger brother. I looked into this on one of my blog pieces when I questioned whether the National League was just League Three in everything but name.

LINK: National League or League 3

And this is where the current pandemic comes in.

The National League themselves did not join their other non-league feeder leagues (the NPL, Southern and Isthmian, also known as the Trident leagues) mainly due to wanting to align themselves with whatever the Football League wanted to do. On the face of it, I felt it was mainly to protect the current agreement of two up-two down between the National League and League Two. So began a guessing game that lasted nearly 3 months while the National League waited to see what the EFL wanted to do.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pitchero Non-League

THREATS, REPERCUSSIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

However, there have been rumours flying around which may go a long way to explain the National League’s stance. The big rumour being the possibility of the Football League threatening to take away the second promotion place that the National League fought for 15 years to get

BBC SPORT: Number of promotion places could be changed

But the big rumour added to that is that would not be just for this season, but a PERMANENT change, which would have brought Non-League back to square one and could pretty much all but end any hopes of the ultimate goal of ‘three up-three down’ between League Two and the National League.

So considering that, when the EFL announced that Leagues 1 and 2 would be decided by PPG and that the playoffs would still take place, it became no shock when the National League followed suit for steps 1 and 2 but with the extra implication of no relegation out of Step 2 due to all the leagues below being voided. The survival at step 2 of Blyth Spartans, Bradford Park Avenue, Hungerford Town and Braintree Town finally confirmed when South Shields along with a handful of other Steps 3-6 clubs lost their legal challenge against the null and void ruling.

WHAT IS ELITE AND ‘NON-ELITE’?

Mixed in with that decision to follow the EFL comes the term which has actually put the 43 Step 2 clubs in danger of withdrawing from the FA Cup and that is the terms Elite status and Non-Elite status. Back at the advent of the #LetFansIn movement (ironically initiated by a National League South side, Dorking Wanderers), It helped pressurise the FA and the DCMS to allow a limited number of spectators in at levels which are considered ‘Non-Elite’, shown in the table below.

However, for clubs at Steps 1 and 2, because they aligned themselves with the EFL and decided to finish the season with PPG and the playoffs, they were classed as an ‘elite’ competition, therefore have been excluded from the new crowd limits, meaning that they would be forced to play their games behind closed doors, a move that made Step 2 clubs seriously consider withdrawing from the upcoming FA Cup qualifying round games this weekend.

TRIGGERING CONTRACTS

The reason being that for the part-time clubs at Step 2 (and pretty much semi-pro football as a whole), the issue is player contracts. A lot of non-league clubs took advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme to make up any wages shortfall from last season. However that scheme is due to be stopped at the end of October. How a semi-pro contract works is that it is triggered the second a ball is kicked in the first competitive game and is completed when the final whistle goes at the end of the season. And with the upcoming 2nd Qualifying Round of the FA Cup due to be the first competitive game of the season for Step 2 clubs, contract obligations would have been triggered.

And with primary source of income for all of non-league being match-day gate receipts (a revenue stream now forbidden because of their elite status). It means these clubs would have next to no ways to earn enough money to pay their players, potentially threatening multiple clubs going bust without immediate help. This potentially threatened to throw the entire qualifying competition into chaos as 37 of the 80 ties involve Step 2 clubs including six all Step 2 ties.

In the worst case scenario, if all Step 2 clubs withdrew, then that would mean their lower opponents (marked out in black above) would all receive walkovers alongside the 43 winners of the ties that would take place. That would leave 74 clubs in the next round, 6 short of the 80 required. Honestly, I cannot fathom what the FA would do to rectify that problem.

GOVERNMENT RELIEF

BBC SPORT: National League Clubs to get grant

So the news that the Government are set to step in and offer financial support to the tune of a reported £3million a month is a very welcome move. Personally I’d have also preferred a support package that would have helped clubs in step 3 and below, especially those that are being badly effected by the new spectator capacity limits, (especially as my team South Shields are now being limited to 20% of last season’s average gate) but it is a positive step in the right direction that could allow clubs to not only commence their seasons but also complete them intact and allow local communities to continue to have a football club to represent them.

As expected, this has come with the criticism from the outside world with the main complaint being the use of taxpayers money to in their words ‘prop up players wages’ without paying much attention to the amount of work they do in their local communities and in turn, generate revenue back to the local economies.

But in a way I get that argument especially as with what the Premier League generates in broadcast and commercial revenue, they have more than enough to leave a small amount aside to help out the lower leagues while at the same time continue to spend tens of millions of pounds on the worlds best talent. But the problem is they are not really obligated to do that and infact, it was not on the agenda at their most recent meeting. So when that avenue is unlikely, the only option left is to appeal for government support, just like many other business have done and received.


Overall though, any move that goes some way to guaranteeing the future existence of our football clubs is always very welcome. And also it means both the National League and a big chunk of FA Cup qualifying ties can take place this weekend, allowing clubs to finally kick off their campaigns.

It’s still not a perfect scenario, and it never will be until a Covid vaccine is tested, developed and made available, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that will change for the better in the next 6 months.

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