It’s nearly 10 months into the pandemic and we are about to have another course of déjà vu.
As I write this, Marine are experiencing a footballing fairytale. Having fought their way through five qualifying rounds and two proper round ties to be drawn at home to Premier League giants Tottenham Hotspur. But if that was announced this week is ratified by the FA, it could well be Marine’s final game of what has been a chaotic season both off and on the pitch.
If one remembers back in March last year, when Covid-19 was making its mark on society as a whole. The three Step 3-4 league bodies (who call themselves the trident leagues) decided to both end the 2019/20 season there and then and also bring about an all too familiar phrase, null and void. That meant no promotion, no relegation and the achievements and failures of the previous 8 months would be treated as if they never happened.
For the likes of South Shields and Worthing, it was a gutting call that wasted their efforts and investment to win promotion to Step 2 when they had varying levels of comfortable leads at the top of their respective tables, whereas for the likes of Dorchester Town, Stafford Rangers and Redditch United, they had gotten a massive reprieve despite having rotten seasons and being pretty much cast-iron certainties for relegation to Step 4.
It was also the ultimate kick in the teeth for two Step 6 clubs that had already clinched promotion mathematically, Vauxhall Motors and Jersey Bulls, the latter of which had won all 27 of their league games.
STOP AND START AND STOP AGAIN
Now back then, nobody knew how long the pandemic would last, we had entered a full national lockdown that would last for close to three months and the assumption was the warm weather would bring cases down to the point where the virus could be close to an irrelevant hiccup. And for a time, that appeared to be the case as nationally, new cases were down to as low as 600 a day in late July. Cases were around 10 times that in March.
That gave non-league the impetus to start afresh for the new season when crowd limits were revealed to guarantee social distancing. And unless you were a club that had averaged in excess of 1,000 fans, the limit of 600 was workable. But it was when the season at Steps 3-6 began in mid-September that problems were afoot.
At that time, covid cases began to rise exponentially and already there was talk that there may be an impossibility of the league season being completed. The NPL in particular had already cancelled their League Cup competition and clubs took up options to withdraw from their county cups to create more spaces on the calendar but even then, things were looking bleak.
Clubs were already postponing games due to covid outbreaks in their clubs. Morpeth Town have been one of the hardest hit in that regard missing multiple league games because of it and also through the weather. In the end, the season went on till the beginning of November when a second national lockdown was announced as new daily covid cases had reached five figures. Since then, apart from the FA Cup, Trophy and Vase, only one boxing day game in the NPL was played (Mickleover 4-1 Radciffe) and a handful in the NPL’s North West Division. Apart from that, nothing.
And now in early January, daily cases have reached a quite ridiculous level, Friday January the 8th saw in excess of 68,000 new cases and with a new more infectious variant of the virus in circulation, that daily number looks line only increasing further and we are in a third national lockdown this time with no clear indication of when it will be lifted
THE PLANNED RESTRUCTURE?
That same Friday, the three ‘Trident Leagues’ got together, and it appears they have thrown in the towel with another null and void scenario, the very one the FA did not want to happen.
However, it remains to be seen whether the FA just accept a null and void ruling. If one remembers last season, non-league football at Steps 3-6 was due to undergo a radical restructure to increase promotion/relegation opportunities between steps and also to decrease the travel expenses at Step 4, this is what was proposed
- STEP 1: No change, National League remaining at 24 clubs
- STEP 2: National North & South to increase in size to 24 clubs each
- STEP 3: No change, Step 3 leagues remaining at 22 clubs
- STEP 4: Increasing to 160 clubs across 8 divisions, the new 8th Division to be run by the NPL
- STEP 5: Increasing to 320 clubs across 16 leagues, 2 new divisions to be run by the combined counties and the united counties leagues
- STEP 6: Decreasing to 340 clubs across 17 leagues
That was what was planned, however covid made the FA postpone these changes for 12 months. The noises back in the summer have been that the FA have been adamant that ‘null and void’ was not a consideration. I’m unaware of any reports of the contrary so I’ll assume that is still their stance.
WHAT DO THE FA DO?
As critical as I am of the FA’s handling of non-league football’s affairs ever since the covid pandemic hit, the decision by the boards of the ‘Trident leagues’ has put them in the middle of a big problem to sort out. So what do they do?
However, unlike last March, the powers that be have sought the opinions of the clubs affected to see how they think the season should be ended.
Looking at that, I believe there are many options the clubs will be considering. Here i’ll look at 4 scenario’s that have been talked about a lot.
OPTION 1: NULL AND VOID
The most likely option they will go for is to ratify the three board’s request for a second null and void. A decision that based on this one season would make total sense. But it would mean two seasons where efforts and work from clubs at these levels will have gone to waste while clubs at the bottom of the leagues at Step 2 will be reprieved once again.
Most prominently Blyth Spartans, they currently sit cut adrift at the bottom of NL North and by all accounts, are beginning to be cut adrift. If null and void is ratified and no promotion/relegation is allowed, then they will be reprieved for a second successive season, that is despite (at the time of writing) winning just 7 of their last 47 league games and conceding a whopping 114 goals in that time, by far the worst record of any club at Step 2 over the last 2 seasons.
Braintree Town in NL South are in the same boat, they’ve been in the relegation pales in both seasons and have won only 12 of their 47 league games slightly better than Blyth but the same scenario. It’s the same in the NPL Premier Division where both Grantham Town and Stafford Rangers are also in line for second successive reprieves.
The only benefit of null and void is it would allow clubs to sort out player contract situations much easier, but it does have the disadvantage of nullifying any semblance of achievement.
OPTION 2: RESTART IN AUGUST FROM CURRENT POSITIONS
Logistically, this would make a lot of sense. Especially as so little of the season has been played.
This option would see the current league season frozen until a suitable date to restart it, resuming in the traditional August date, would not only save leagues many headaches in re-doing fixture lists but also at least would allow seasons to resume seamlessly without wasting the work done in the first part of a season
The only issue would be regarding player contracts and supposed competition integrity, this would in effect split the season in two meaning player contracts would be an issue.
OPTION 3: COMBINING BOTH CURTAILED SEASONS INTO SUPER TABLES
This scenario would see both this season’s and last season’s records in each division combined to form a super table. And promotion/relegation being organised from these.
Here is one example of the NPL Premier Division having both seasons mashed together into one table.
Again, this is unlikely as it would mean ‘un-nullifying’ the previous season (another problem entirely that’s reserved for another talking point entirely) but in a way, it would go some way to recognising all of the work and effort put in over the last 2 years. There is an option using this method that has been done in Spain’s 3rd and 4th tiers, that is to promote but not relegate. Sure that would require some format changes that would completely break with tradition but if it were a temporary move, I’m sure people won’t mind it for one year.
If they go with this method and decide to push on with the restructure, then these would be the clubs in line to go up from Step 3
- NPL: South Shields & Basford United
- CENTRAL: Tamworth & Royston Town
- SOUTHERN: Truro City & Tiverton Town
- ISTHMIAN: Worthing & Cray Wanderers
If the restructure does go ahead and relegation is not enforced then the clubs in bold would miss out as they would be the two of the four runners up with the lower PPG ratio.
OPTION 4: ‘ELECTING’ CLUBS TO GO UP
This is unlikely but it is an idea I’ve seen mentioned on some fan forums and it does harker back to how the FA used to promote clubs in the pre-pyramid era.
Basically put, before automatic promotion/relegation was introduced in 1987 between the old Division Four and the Conference, there was what was known as the re-election process. This would put aspiring non-league clubs that had applied to join the Football League up against the bottom four clubs from the 4th division. Each of the FL’s 92 clubs had a vote as well as members of the FL board. However, this was a much hated and unfairly biased process.
Many conspiracy theories have floated around, clubs having friends amongst the board to vote for them (which may explain why Hartlepool United were successful in being re-elected a record FOURTEEN times) and also the powerbase southern clubs not wanting distant northern outposts to travel to. Another was clubs not wanting new clubs nearby taking some of their fanbase. It created a sort of closed shop approach and a southern bias.
As you can see, between the creation of Division 4 in 1958 and 1987, only six clubs won election into the FL and of those, only one northern club were elected in (Wigan Athletic in 1978). In every instance, a northern club was replaced, adding to the claims of southern bias.
It’s not a method I see being revisited though but If it were, then it would be interesting to see how they select clubs.
THE FINAL WORD
Its next to impossible to find a solution that will not only please everyone but also be fair for everybody involved. In my opinion, two successive seasons of no movement between divisions simply cannot be allowed to happen. What if clubs were to be unable to restart again, leagues would be in danger of being undersubscribed (The Southern Premier is already running two clubs short after Merthyr Town and also Blackfield & Langley withdrew and resigned respectively.)
Yes there are much more important issues at the moment like the health and wellbeing of the nation but for football fans, that shouldn’t distract from making sure football returns in a healthy state with full divisions and…well…having an aura of positiveity to come back to when this covid madness is finally consigned to the history books.
The big danger is next season, there’s already talk from government scientists of more harsh restrictions to come in for next winter which could well mean a third successive season being impacted, what if that third season is also null and voided? If two in a row was catastrophic, then a third could be the death knell for non-league football.
Overall, I hope the FA do impose some sort of solution that is as fair as possible and does not involve consigning two years of hard work to the scrapheap.