Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But so is football, and before we start playing competitively again, there is plenty to first think about and then put in place prior to starting next season, ensuring that everything is a little clearer and less open to debate or interpretation.
There’s been no precedent for events of the last two years, and whilst people at all levels of the game will claim to know best, the FA (note – that it is them and not the individual leagues) ultimately have the final say on the rules that will determine how the season is played. We go into the future with more hope that we will be able to return to some level of normality in terms of football than we have than at any point in the last year.
The next few months will be a period of review, reflection and revision not just for the clubs but also the leagues and the Football Association to ensure that before a ball is kicked in the 2021/22 season, there are plans in place that will provide reference points for any interruptions in the season.
Any considerations should take the following into account, which would hopefully avoid some of the painful scenarios we have been through in the last twelve months.
Consideration one – you cannot please all the people all the time. Whatever decisions the leagues or the Football Association take, there will be winners and there will be losers. Take the curtailed Step 3 and 4 season for instance. Had the decision been made that promotion and relegation would be determined by pro-rata’d points per game, Worthing, Leek Town and Hastings United would have won their respective leagues. The three clubs were also top of the league when the 2019/20 season was ended. But South Shields may raise their hand and quite rightly object as they finished the 2020/21 season in sixth place, rather than top as they were the previous season.
Therefore, there needs to be a clear plan that everyone agrees is the way forward even if it could be seen as disadvantageous to some clubs. Clubs need to respect the rules/criteria put in place at the start of the season and should any interruption cause the season to be disrupted, respect the decision. Not everyone will be happy but that’s life. The events of the last year have taught us many things, expecting the unexpected is certainly one.
Consideration Two – Play each other once first. One of the concerns about creating a mini-league this season had the UK lockdown regulations allowed us to was that some clubs would end up playing more home games than others, which in times of limited capacities and the ability to maximise secondary spend could have been unfair. Scheduling the fixtures so that clubs play each other first before the reverse will mean that at the very worst there will only be one fixture difference between games played home and away if the season ends early. There is obviously no ideal time for a season to end early but at least if it does, this is the fairest option.
Consideration Three – Create a Tipping Point. I don’t think any club at Step 3 and below would have really wanted to start the 2020/21 season had they known that after less than two months it would come to a grinding halt. I think we all felt that the second wave of the pandemic would come, but nobody really knew how serious it was going to be. Likewise, few could really complain about the decision to first pause and then terminate the season with the pandemic at times appearing to be out of control. However, without any pre-agreed check points in the season, it led to confusion, anger and distress across the game at all levels.
One consideration for the new season is that there are check-points build it. For instance, if 25% or less of games have been completed, then the season is scrapped, 50% or less and a secondary competition could come into force, 75% or less and results from the curtailed 2020/21 are taken into consideration and 75% or more, final positions are calculated based on a Points Per Game basis.
Consideration Four – Make Promotion and Relegation a definite. We are now about to enter our third season of status quo at Steps 2 and 3 in terms of the constitution of the leagues. No teams have gone up, no teams have gone down. No new faces, new grounds, new away days. Fans want that excitement of visiting somewhere new but more importantly, it provides the necessary competitive edge for all clubs. Everyone starts the season equal, on zero points (unless there’s been any administrative penalties!) – which is where the hope starts to disappear for some teams. But knowing that you are playing for something is key to the integrity of any competition.
Consideration Five – All for one, and one for all. When the UK Government announced the Tier structure in the Autumn of 2020, some areas of the country had restrictions placed on them that meant they would have been significantly disadvantaged over others – for clubs in Tier 3 they could not play in front of fans, whilst in Step 2 there would be no secondary spend allowed. The Trident Leagues took a view that unless all clubs could play in front of fans, at the very least, then games should not go ahead. The situation with the National League this season and the confusion over the initial grants and the subsequent Winter Survival Fund that were meant to compensate for the lack of fans is an example of how this season has operated with inequality.
I am sure there are other measures that could be considered. However, having a structure that everyone understands before the season starts is not only sensible after two aborted seasons for clubs at Step 2 and below, but also vital for everyone involved in the game. Now is the time to put any disagreements and discombobulation behind us and plan for the best season possible of Non-League football.