How to Solve an Issue like Non League Football?

With Non League football declared void for this season which holds financial and personal implications for clubs, just what is the best solution to a tricky issue dividing fans at times of uncertainty?

This comes after the English Football Association (FA) announced that this season from steps three to six was formally abandoned, with results expunged meaning that there would be no promotion or relegation between leagues within those steps. 

Emotions therefore will be mixed as some teams including Stafford Rangers and Northallerton Town celebrate survival, whereas teams like Stockton Town and South Shields will be devastated after seeing their investment and promotion dreams destroyed in a cruel manner beyond their own control.

The premature end to this season therefore is controversial given how early the FA had taken this decision due to the Coronavirus pandemic creating uncertainty, but we will examine some of the alternative options which should of been considered. 

 

Resume season when safe

LIVBOU
If Liverpool plus their fellow Premier League and EFL teams can potentially complete their season when safe to do so, then why not allow Non League teams to be able to complete their campaigns?

With talks of Premier League and EFL being allowed to complete their seasons once safe to resume football, the FA could of played fair and allowed various non professional leagues to also finish their seasons at the same time. 

There however is huge uncertainty over when football can safely resume but this option would of allowed clubs in lower divisions to complete their campaigns and earn much needed revenue, which is much more difficult compared to teams in the top four tiers. 

Player contracts however would of been a tricky obstacle given that Non League football finishes at end of April with players becoming free agents from 1 May, unless teams are featuring in the post-season play-offs in early May then it obviously would be once they are knocked out or played the Final.

That would therefore mean teams scrambling to replace lost players unless deals were agreed for players to remain until completed this season. 

This option therefore would of been the most sensible because it is these clubs who are hit hardest at times like this, whereas the likes of Newcastle United, Manchester City and Arsenal can survive with minimum impact due to various streams of income. 

Ultimately we must also consider the knock on effect if football couldn’t resume to Autumn though, unless simplified next season to a shortened 2020-21 season in which teams faced one another once with a Boxing Day start to next season after a short break. 

To me, this feels like one of those scenarios where the pros and cons had to be weighed up against each other, and one of the biggest cons is likelihood of postponements in winter and potential fixture congestions affecting conclusion of both seasons in a suitable time frame. 

I consequently feel that the FA have probably made the right decision if it came down to voiding this season or having a resumption when safe with knock on effect to next season, because we simply don’t know how bad next winter will be. 

 

Points Per Game (PPG)

Anchors v Whickham
Stockton Town in action at home against Whickham during 2019-20 EBAC Northern League season.

A favoured option amongst many clubs were to settle each league in steps three to six on PPG average, although this would potentially open up a pandora box of new issues.

Take the Northern League Division One for example, because Stockton Town have 77 points from 30 games, which would average out at 2.56 points per game compared to third-placed Hebburn who played a game more and have 62 points yet average two points per game. 

Sixth-placed Consett meanwhile have played four less games than Hebburn and have 49 points from 27 matches, which averages out at 1.81 points per game but could be higher if had played more games by points of stoppage despite there being a 13 points gap between third and sixth. 

This therefore creates a potential argument in that if applied this solution to Non League football, it could create an unfair picture in final standings as far as promotion and relegation is concerned given the fact that teams not played same amount of games. 

It then becomes a question of whether to void games of teams who have played more than the team who played the least number of matches, which in turn could create further issues if costs a team promotion or survival. 

I therefore feel that this would of been a tough solution to apply given the variables with various winners and losers throughout Non League football and potential for legal challenges. 

 

Aggregate Seasons

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This idea might sound mad and beyond the English FA’s thinking because us Non League fans all want to see scenes like this at end of every season, whether it is reaching Wembley or winning the league but how about running an aggregate season as a solution?

It would involve completing this season and rewarding prize money as normal minus promotion and relegation, with standings instead carried over and merged with next season’s standings to decide who is promoted or relegated from respective leagues. 

This would ease some financial issues which are bound to arisen as a result of football being suspended, whilst avoiding what was the eventual decision to void this season because prize money would still be rewarded for this season under this idea. 

Player contracts however would still be a real issue for clubs further down the pyramid because under this aggregate season idea, a team could easily go from promotion elect to relegation if lose key players en mass and fail to sufficiently replace them with results dropping as a consequence.

As entertaining a story as that would be and vice versa if a relegation threatened team spent big and scored enough points to clinch promotion, there is the potential for clubs to go bust if were to get into dire financial straits due to this aggregate season idea. 

We therefore have to be realistic here because every potential solution carries potentially harmful long-term risks for clubs, although voiding this season is just as financially dangerous as any other solution. 

 

Verdict

As the UK remains in lockdown, there is really no easy solution to this season of Non League football without pleasing some and angering others, on top of financial challenges due to lack of income at present which is where prize money is crucial. 

I therefore would be in favour of resuming this season when safe to do so and scrapping or simplifying next season, unless cup competitions next season were scrapped to create extra space to complete both seasons and create an aggregate final standings next Spring.

Bad weather however is a huge issue in Non League football with several matches vulnerable to postponement in winter unless have a 3G pitch, which therefore could of created fixture congestion and particularly if teams needed to complete both this and next season by next May. 

The FA therefore have probably made the correct decision to void this season given the variables that could impact completion of this season and possibly affect next season too, although the aggregate season solution could of arguably worked if the timing of this pandemic was better. 

As for this season’s cup competitions, I believe that they should be finished given that most competitions are in the final stages, although shouldn’t be prioritised over league competitions if necessary.

Either way, this is a difficult blow for struggling clubs further down the pyramid and proves why we as fans should support our local Non League teams, otherwise they could go bust if can’t get the income at times like these. 

 

*Disclaimer – These views are of my own and not affiliated to any Non League club or division.

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