Learn from the past, plan for the future

The announcement on Friday 12th March that the Football Association’s Alliance Committee had rejected the proposal submitted by the National League to create a new mini-competition for willing Step 2 clubs effectively ended the hope of any meaningful football for around fifty clubs at Steps 1 and 2.

By throwing out the proposal, the season for the 43 National League North and South clubs will be brought to an end, with the campaign being declared Null and Void when the FA Council next meet in Mid-March. By doing so it brings an end, at least in terms of on field matters, to a turbulent few weeks which potentially could have long-term ramifications for the Non-League game.

There’s been plenty of words already written on the rights and wrongs of the Resolution voting, the availability of loans versus grants, and what was promised by whom, and it matters not what anyone says about the situation once a binding decision has been reached. However, now is the time for strong leadership and planning for what happens next season.

As it stands, Steps 1 and 2 are running with 66 teams. However, they are split with 23 teams at Step 1, 21 in the National League South and 22 in the North. That means as it is, every round of games there is one team in the National League and one in the South who isn’t playing a game. Yet, they will still be incurring operating costs – it is a situation that no one wants or likes. In the ideal world that would have been corrected at the end of the 2019/20 season by additional promotion places from Step 3, with Steps 2 having agreed to increase to 24 teams.

With no promotion from Step 3 already agreed (I won’t use the words “set in stone” just yet because you never know), the National League is effectively running six teams short next season. Whilst the Alliance Committee has said there will be no relegation from Step 1, the issue of Dover Athletic’s inability to fulfil their National League fixtures has yet to be discussed. Some may feel the logical step would be to demote Dover Athletic to the South division, which would mean all three leagues would then have 22 clubs. There’s a lot of discussions that are yet to happen about Dover’s case, which will be heard by an Independent committee at some point in the near future.

Of course, the big danger now is that the teams in the lower reaches of the National League, who have already expressed major concern about their ability to continue to fund their operations. Many will have been looking on with interest on the Step 2 situation, and on whether any sanctions will be placed on Dover Athletic, but there will be some who consider reducing their operational costs by furloughing contracted players (or even releasing them) and picking up cheaper players – after all with the Step 2 and below season shortly ending officially, there will be thousands of players out of contract desperate for a game. That brings the whole integrity of the competition into question and may even have the Football League thinking about the relegation of two of their member clubs at the end of the season.

Some will suggest that the opportunity to look at redressing the numbers in Steps 1 and 2 has been missed this season, especially as the restructure at Steps 4 and below appears to be going ahead, with other criteria apart from points earned likely to be taken into consideration. But, any plan to move ahead with the restructure at Steps 1 and 2 needs to be planned and communicated long before the 2021/22 season commences.

Assuming that two teams go up from Step 1 to the Football League and two come down, and that one club drops from Step 1 to Step 2, then next season’s end of season decisions could look like:

  • Step 1 starts with 22 clubs and relegates 2 to Step 2 (22 to 20).
  • Step 2 starts with 22 clubs, promotes 2 champions and 2 play-off winners and gets the 2 relegated clubs, which would then leave them with 21 clubs per division (22-2+1)
  • Step 2 relegates 4 clubs, 2 from each division (21-2) to leave 19 in each Step 2 league, meaning they need to promote 10 teams from Step 3
  • Step 3 promoted the Champions and runners-up from the 4 leagues, plus two Super Playoff winners (as per the 2018/19 season).

What that means is that the clubs at Step 3 who have seen the last two seasons interrupted have the biggest opportunity for progression for many years. By communicating the structure as early as possible, it gives the clubs the opportunities to plan accordingly. There’s no doubt there are many clubs playing at Step 3 who are equipped on and off the field to compete in Step 2.

There’s been a lot of words said and written in anger about the season but now is the time to think about putting the necessary plans in place that will ensure we don’t have to suffer the uncertainty and potential injustice in future seasons. Learn from the past, plan for the future.

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