By Steve Sharman
“Every game, every goal, every hat-trick, every heroic penalty save or miraculous last-minute winner wiped from the face of history, as if they never happened. Somewhat unbelievably, suspensions and fines will however be carried over to next season”
The COVID-19 pandemic has obliterated football and wider sporting programmes across the world; almost all football across Europe has been halted, and Euro 2020 has been postponed. The only league that remains active is the Belarussian Vysheyshaya Liga, perhaps with the help of vodka and saunas.
Whilst the FA, Premier League and EFL dither over the destiny of this season, football across all leagues in steps 3-7 of non-league football has been cancelled. Every game, every goal, every hat-trick, every heroic penalty save or miraculous last-minute winner wiped from the face of history, as if they never happened. Somewhat unbelievably, suspensions and fines will however be carried over to next season.
Clubs at the top of their respective divisions will arguably have the biggest axe to grind with the decision; spare a thought for Jersey Sports of the Combined Counties League Division 1 who had won 27 out of 27 games and were 20 points clear at the top, or for Vauxhall Motors of the North-West Counties League Division 1 South, who had also already secured promotion.
Throw in clubs like South Shields of the Northern Premier League (12 points clear), Stockton Town of the Northern League Division 1 (13 points clear) and Maldon and Tiptree of Isthmian League North who despite a 3 point deduction, were 14 points clear, and the biggest losers in this outcome are clear.
All these teams now face the prospect of the ghost season leaving them empty handed.
Conversely, where there are losers, there are often winners. Whilst it may feel like a hollow victory, the decision to cancel this season may have saved some clubs from certain relegation. Take Wantage FC of the Southern League Division 1 (Central), who have a return of 4 points from 28 games, and have conceded an eye-watering 121 goals. The decision to cancel the season may well see the marvellously nicknamed Alfredians avoid the drop.
The decision to end the season and expunge all results is not a popular one; to date, over 100 teams have signed an open letter to the FA, asking them to reconsider.
However, whilst this solution is far from ideal, what other options are available?
One option is to end the season, freeze the tables, and consider current league positions the final positions. Whilst this may suit those at the top, a team just outside a play-off position, or a side in the relegation zone but locked in a dogfight might have a different opinion.
The Belgian League has followed this course, by ending the season, declaring Club Brugge champions, suspending relegation and promoting two teams from the division below. Whilst this may work for a single division, promoting without relegating could be difficult to implement across a large portion of the non-league pyramid. Furthermore, Brugge were 15 points clear so the decision was a clear one. Would such a decision be readily accepted if a team were only 1 point clear? And what if the chasing pack had game(s) in hand?
With as much as three quarters of the season played, perhaps a fairer resolution would be to adjust final standings based on average points per game. This would remove problems associated with games in hand and would provide a fairer reflection of a team’s form over the course of the season. However, this method would fail to take into account fixture difficulty; if a team at the bottom only had the proverbial six-pointers against relegation rivals remaining, whilst the other teams faced games against promotion contenders, would a difficulty weighting of fixtures played need to be attached to the points per game calculation? How would current form be factored into the equation?
Perhaps a more sensible suggestion would be, rather than cancel the leagues and expunge the results, to suspend the leagues and then resume when it is safe to do so. That way, remaining fixtures could be completed, and the season would be allowed to run its true course. However, this would mean delaying the start of the 20/21 season (a definite possibility anyway) and could even result in 20/21 being a non-starter. Is missing a whole season worse than playing part of a season then losing it?
A further problem with this suggestion is player contracts. Without an income, can clubs afford to maintain contracts and until the season can restart, and finish? If the start of 20/21 was so delayed that it didn’t happen, would that invalidate an existing contract? Changes to squad personnel could strengthen or weaken a team, so would a moratorium be put in place on transfers?
Perhaps now is the time for the FA or the Government to shake that magic money tree once more, and offer some assistance to football clubs further down the pyramid that are often important parts of the community, rather than Premier League clubs with billionaire owners.
Whatever path the FA opts to take with non-league football, it will be a path fraught with complications and challenges. The governing bodies face some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers, but whatever the final decision, it will have a huge impact on grassroots football.
If you would like to discuss this further contact Stephen @stevesharman81