At some point in the next two weeks, Non-League clubs at Steps 3 and below will almost certainly be told that there will not be any competitive league football before the start of next season. Having not played since October in our case at Lewes, it may well be a further seven months before we will be back in league action. I do not think the decision to end the current season now is that much of a surprise. In the Isthmian Leagues alone there are over 1,200 fixtures still to be played. Even if football could return today, most clubs would have 30+ games to play and thus be playing twice a week until the end of May.
But of course we can’t start today. Nor can we start again tomorrow, next week or even next month. Football can’t restart at Steps 3 and below until fans can return, clubs can open their bars and club houses and of course it is safe to do so for fans, volunteers, players and management. That is why the sensible decision is to simply call time on this season and hope that by the time the summer arrives, COVID-19 infections will have fallen significantly, restrictions will have been lifted on some social distancing measures and clubs will be able to welcome fans back safely.
The elephant in the room is what do we do about the fact we will have had two consecutive seasons that have not been able to have been completed. It is hard to take anything away from this season, with most clubs only playing a dozen or so competitive fixtures, with many of those being cup competitions. Most clubs would argue there is still everything to play for to simply just assume that you could decide on final positions based on playing a quarter of the whole league campaign. However, if you were to add this season’s quarter to last season’s two-thirds then you could determine a league table based on points per game over 38-40 games. This is one solution that a number of clubs are pushing for through the Project Non-League initiative which also calls for promotion between Steps 2 and 6 but no relegation.
For the vast majority of clubs, it really doesn’t matter. There is no compelling reason to push for that solution over and above a reward for those teams at the top of the leagues. Naturally, teams in the relegation positions after the two seasons results are amalgamated will not favour it – in the same way as turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas (always a strange analogy but it serves a purpose in this case). Teams in mid-table who were never one result from the play-offs would be in some way ambivalent to it. They can’t really benefit in any way, and actually their best option may be to simply pick up the current season when football could return later in the year, which is another option.
An interesting “twist” in the last few days with all games at Step 2 have been suspended for at least two weeks so that conversations with the National League can continue on how the funding stand-off can be resolved. If there is no way forward in that time period it is likely the season will go the same way as Steps 3 and below, which will almost certainly mean no relegation. However, the National League will do whatever they can to avoid the Step 1 season being ceased as it would impact on the promotion/relegation situation to the Football League.
Not everyone can win and not everyone will lose but whatever solution is chosen there will sure to be dissenting voices and threats of legal action. We live in a world where too many the people in charge appear to not be able to do any right yet are not prepared to roll their sleeves up and become accountable themselves. It is far easier to criticise those who have to make the decisions than to understand the rationale or even the thinking behind it. At Steps 3 and 4 the boards of the leagues are almost all filled with representatives from their member clubs. They aren’t some exclusive cabal who have ulterior motives or aims to line their own pockets. They are club volunteers in the main who willingly give up even more of their own time to be on the boards and have to make some tough decisions.
At all levels of the game, football has been damaged in the last 10 months. In some cases that damage is probably irreparable but in most instances it wasn’t avoidable. What is needed now are calm heads, sensible governance, genuine help from the footballing authorities and the government and a commitment to make it better in the future. Football is a simple game but it has become complicated not through any nefarious motives but through trying to have the best intentions for as many people as possible.