Title race very much alive and kicking

As the season enters the final six weeks of what seems to have been the longest eight months on record, there is a fantastic title race at the top of the National League for promotion into the Football League.

Had last season carried on I believe we would have seen a challenge to Barrow who were having a mini wobble at the time of the pandemic forcing all football to be suspended. As it was they took their place in League Two along with Harrogate Town for the 2020-21 season.

This season for a majority of the first few months it looked a one horse race as Torquay Utd won game after game and on Boxing Day last year after thumping local rivals Yeovil Town 6-1 the Gulls were nine points clear of their closest challengers despite having played two games more.

A stuttering January and February where only one win was gained in each month saw the chasing pack catch and overtake Torquay but the Gulls have managed to compose themselves and remain firmly in the hunt for automatic promotion.

The biggest advantage takers from Torquay’s blip have been Sutton Utd, quietly going about their business and stealing a march whilst the Gulls faltered. Of course every team goes through at least one sticky patch in a season and the Gander Green Lane outfit have been no different although more in the form of draws than defeats.

The basis of their title charge this side of Xmas has been a current 14 match unbeaten run which stretches back to the beginning of February and despite a few more draws in the last five weeks or so they too remain fully in contention.

With no game at the weekend they relinquished top spot to Hartlepool but trail the North East side by just a single point with a massive four games in hand whilst being three points in front of Torquay with a game in hand on them.

This Tuesday night see the Gulls heading to Gander Green Lane in search of three big points. Whilst the hosts can afford to draw in terms of their games in hand on both chasing clubs the visitors really need the win to keep the pressure on Sutton and Hartlepool as we head towards the season climax.

As well as Sutton’s great run Hartlepool are themselves 14 games unbeaten and their season comes to a climax a week earlier than everyone else due to Dover’s demise this season and it couldn’t have been written any better, a trip to Sutton in what potentially could a title decider depending on how results fair for both clubs in the next four weeks.

Having watched all three sides either on BT Sport or streamed against Barnet you can make a case for all three to be champions. Sutton are well organised at the back, strikers who can poses a threat up front and the goals from midfield of Harry Beautyman a real bonus.

Pools are free-flowing, also strong defensively and goals across the team, like Sutton they know if they keep their run going it’s going to become a two horse race.

Torquay though now they are over a raft of injuries to key players will feel the race is far from done even if they suffer defeat on Tuesday night, the wily Gary Johnson will try to ensure his team are competitive till the end. With Saturday Tuesday Saturday football for Sutton to contend with over the next four weeks more than the other two sides there is likely to be a lot more twists and turns before the curtain comes down on a difficult season.

Underneath these three clubs those currently in the play-off’s positions are very much in control. Three defeats in a row for Wrexham and for Eastleigh just recently has made the job a little harder whilst four draws in the last five for Boreham Wood might have given them a little too much to do.

Sandwiched in between those three clubs are Bromley who seem to have come to terms with the departure of Neil Smith and unbeaten in three games under Andy Woodman, but like those around them it might be an ask to get inside those top seven places and stay there.

Ten games to go for most clubs does mean there is time to turn things around but those games will pass by very quickly and then the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller, its going to be a great race to the finish, just a shame we are unlikely to witness any of it live bar the final game of the season, although spare a thought for Hartlepool fans who as mentioned above finish a week earlier than anyone else, could be champions and not one celebration inside their Victoria Park Ground.

Is it fine or not fine?

This piece is likely to provoke a lot of debate or at least I hope it does, but I couldn’t get away with not blogging about the fines and points suspensions being handed out by the National League this week to eighteen clubs.

There appears to be quite a split between the fans of clubs who have carried on, those who wanted to carry on and those who feel their clubs have taken the right decision to call a halt to things.

I think we can all be agreed upon the fact that if the National League had made clear in late September/early October there was to be a problem with grant funding within the confines of the season then I don’t believe we would have kicked off without the concrete assurances of either fans back inside stadiums on an agreed date or funding to compensate for as long as it takes.

There has been a lot said about the plight of Dover Athletic, a side who we knew at the beginning of the season were in poor shape then to kick off. A lot of people don’t have the time for Jim Parmenter the chairman, but they cut their cloth accordingly to put themselves in position to start. They even stated then that if either funding didn’t continue or fans were not allowed back into the grounds they would struggle to continue.

They were however one of the clubs believed to have benefitted when the grants money was handed out by virtue of Parmenter’s place on the board which is why a lot of people don’t have a lot of sympathy for Dover and I get that, but I’m looking at this purely from the point of view as a fan.

We take Chesterfield, approved for a £1 million pound loan from Sport England to underpin operating costs. Now that loan might be low interest split over a number of years, but that repayment figure has to factored into budgets for years to come whilst having a squad able to compete at the right end of the table or surely there is no point to be out on the pitch? It might not sound a lot split over the time but still another cost impact to complete a season.

Then we have the North and South division clubs fined for not fulfilling fixtures in a competition that no longer exists in the record books, absurd as that sounds it’s quite true. What has been appalling the whole way through this sorry episode is the clubs having to make their way with no leadership from the competition they play in.

We have a governing body giving out fines to clubs whose reason for not playing was due to the fact there are no funds to cover playing these matches, you couldn’t make it up! It’s no surprise most if not all of these clubs are looking to appeal, where do the National League think the few thousand pounds are going to come from?

Each club took the option most viable to them, to protect themselves against not being here next season or to carry on playing because they believe they could sustain it.

In my opinion the totally correct decision if I were a fan of any one of these clubs, and as a fan of another club I would want all of these clubs to be here to begin next season, why should 500-10,000 fans miss out on football and have no team to support because they took the right decision to protect the precarious financial situation of their club?

Dover are taking a lot of flak, but just for the next few minutes put yourself in the position of a fan in the white shirt. You play on this season you finish the season and as soon as the last ball is kicked the club announce closure due to being fully insolvent. That could be your club, any one of the other 65 that make up the National League. I’ve been there growing up seeing it happen at Maidstone Utd, I very nearly experienced it at Barnet as well, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone because if I am correct this Thursday is the deadline for applications for entry into the pyramid system and after that date well no football for you next season if you go bust.

What I do agree with is there should be a punishment handed out as per the league rules but the opposite way round to the way they have handled things. By all means make the points deduction stick but hand out suspended fines only invoked in a new season. That might still not please clubs but it’s what I believe to be fair given we are in the most unprecedented of seasons but under National League jurisdiction there appears no room for manoeuvre.

The next question then comes when clubs reply there is no £2000 or £8000 in the club to pay the fine, what then? Another fine? Suspension of the club affiliation by the FA until the monies are paid? We could be treading a very dangerous path.

Like most of this past year, common sense and a little leeway has been in very short supply in a lot of aspects of daily life. If the aim has been to trim down the number of clubs we have in England then they’re going about it the right way.

So much of this could have been avoided from the very start and I’m not surprised to see talk of a vote of no confidence in the National League board they’ve not covered themselves in glory throughout this period and the communication over the last few weeks has been non-existent. No doubt this one will run and run for a little while to come…………………

Bees fans wait a little longer

The managerial merry go round is all of a sudden in full swing and it doesn’t matter how well you’ve done at a club it can still be the final nail in the coffin.

In the past 24 hours we’ve seen Notts County dispense with the services of Neal Ardley whilst earlier on Thursday Bromley announced that they had relieved Neil Smith of his duties as First Team Manager.

You might not think too much of it as manager’s lose their jobs all the time, but both clubs are currently inside the play-off places, which if Bromley maintain their form is the highest placing the club would have ever achieved.

Does this mean managers in clubs all around these two might be fearing for their jobs? Are they worried the end is close for them whether they win a game or lose the next seven? It’s a dangerous situation being created and while we’re not privy to the ins and outs behind the decisions other than the released club statements it’s hard to work out what exactly is going on.

Similar to Jim Gannon who on the surface looked to be doing a sterling job at Stockport County, a culture change they wanted to install within the club despite at the time the club appearing well placed for some success.

Both managers appeared to be doing a good job on the pitch, the league position shows no doubt and with 14 games left to go now, the final run-in, it seems an odd time for either boss to go and now remains to be seen if either side will fall away over the course of those games.

That now means there are three current vacancies in non-league’s top division those two coupled with the Barnet job, open since the mutual departure of Tim Flowers two weeks ago, although County filled their spot quite quickly which might suggest Ardley’s fate had already been sealed.

Many and myself included were expecting an announcement to be in place in time for this weekend’s trip to Yeovil Town, Paul Fairclough saying his goodbyes after Saturday’s home defeat to Chesterfield and his three match stint was over.

 That trip to face the Glovers will be overseen by Head Of Performance Gary Anderson whilst the Bees continue to take their time in finding the right man. I believe the events of the past 24 hours have turned the chairman’s head that he is not yet convinced he has the right man for the job.

As Bees fans we know the next appointment has to be the one that can turn into the three year project that Barnet Football Club need. Having gone through two managers this season, both of which were not the right fit at all, the first we knew wasn’t, the second we hoped was but to no avail.

And whilst it might not be the best preparation for the weekend waiting just a few days longer might work out well to the advantage of the club. At the same time there is no midweek outing next week which would give Tony Kleanthous the weekend to finalise who exactly he wants in the hot seat and the structure in and around the football side of the club before the visit of Solihull Moors on Good Friday.

Can we expect Ardley or Smith to be in the frame now? I think so, at least one of them or maybe both, I don’t know what is in the thinking, both might even decide to have a few months off and see what’s available in the summer.

I would hope Smith is in the frame, not just because I know him reasonably well I think he can provide the stability we need but also is not afraid to tell it how it is. Plus his knowledge of southern based players would be an advantage if we aren’t wanting to spend out on long security of wages or relocation expenses.

I expect Dean Brennan and Harry Kewell still to be in the frame, however the longer it goes on you would think that maybe Kleanthous is not fully convinced by either appointment or he is making sure he exhausts all possible avenues.

Either way we’ve got a few more days waiting to see who’s next in the office at The Hive, but it must be done in time for Good Friday because it’s starting to look a little bit of a shambles the longer it goes on…….

Your Instant Replay: An interview with

In the last couple of weeks I sat down via Zoom with Louis Clark who runs Your Instant Replay to find out from him how they began, what the effect of the pandemic has been and what the future holds. Here is part 1:

TK: Louis, thank you very much for your time for this. Now I came across you and Your Instant Replay (YIR) when I was at Wick FC, but you guys began in 2016, was it something that you always wanted to do?

LC: To be honest mate, I didn’t have a clue when we first started! I’d never held camera nor done any editing, nothing like that, but I played abroad for like ten year or so and everything was filmed out there and I mean everything.

I had mates back here playing County league, Sunday league and Isthmian level and there was nothing like that and as a player I think you want to watch yourself play, I certainly did and was always searching for highlights that evening.

So I felt there was something there, some companies were doing it but it wasn’t consistent. I had to the idea then to come home, I was playing in Manilla at the time, I wasn’t ever going to be a big time professional player or anything and thought I really wanna try this.

Armed with one camera, I signed up at Worthing with Jon Meeney, they were the first club shortly followed by Steyning Town and of course then the first problem if they were both at home on the same day!

So I learnt the hard way it was going to be some expense to start with before I made any money back and I was playing while trying to do it as well, but my head was always on after the game picking up the cameras etc so I gave up playing and been full time at this since 2016.

I won’t lie, it was tough for a year and a half, losing money, trying to pitch it to people who couldn’t see the value in it. We made plenty of mistakes but learnt on the job to improve. We had a good relationship with the Sussex County FA which gave us some early exposure, but what is really great is 90% of the clubs who started with us in 2016 are still having their games filmed by us.

I still don’t think we’ve cracked it we’re surviving at the moment like a lot of things are in this current situation but pre-covid it was my dream job, it still is. It’s still the buzz of being around football, but the last year has no doubt nearly set us back to square one again.

TK: If we go back exactly twelve months from now, how many clubs did you have on board when the pandemic struck?

LC: I can’t quite put a figure on it because we had so many clubs saying ‘can you come and film this one game for us’, so the metric I use is how many we do per week which was 30 games per week and when I say games, Under 7’s Patcham and women’s football on a Sunday, County League and Isthmian plus National League South on a Tuesday night, college games on a Wednesday we do a lot of work with RMA run by Russell Martin and then games all round everywhere on a Saturday.

That was all pre-pandemic but we had lots in the pipeline too. We have a good relationship with the full FA as well, I don’t know if people have seen the ‘England reacts’ videos online that we put out and we had just started do to international friendlies for them. We were booked in to do England Under 21’s Lionesses at St Georges Park, but it all went just like that once the season stopped last March, it didn’t happen.

We were in a really good spot and the aim for this season was to be doing 50 games a week, the demand was there and I had clubs ready to go and now we’re facing fighting battles again, clubs are inevitably going to say next season sponsorship is down so they’ve got to cut costs etc. but the message I try and get across is the footage can pay for itself if you can find a sponsor or more than one or depending on your level the pay per view route.

It can be a real revenue earner for clubs and inevitably it will change when fans are allowed back into stadiums again and there will still be lots of opportunities but for now it’s tough, tough, tough.

TK: Did the first lockdown period change how you were going to do things going into the 2020/21 season?

LC: Yeah massively. As I mentioned we had planned for the 50 games, equipment to buy, getting people in place, and bang all gone! There are no contracts to this, most of it is done on a handshake. We’ve tried service level agreements but of course county leagues we can’t hold to that if they’ve run out of money.

So we kept most of the ones from last year but the ones who were going to come on board it really screwed things up for them and us and it didn’t help with not knowing when the season was actually going to kick off.

You can find YIR here:

http://www.yourinstantreplay.co.uk

@YourInstReplay on Twitter

http://www.facebook.com/yourinstantreplay

Dining at the top table leaves an uncomfortable taste

In the midst of all things Barnet going through yet another managerial change it hasn’t gone unnoticed the Friday decision of the FA’s Alliance Committee over the ongoing National League saga for the North and South divisions.

With 18 clubs wanting to continue their season at Step 2 a proposal was tabled which I believe was to use a mathematical formula to take into consideration the starting points total for each club ending with promotion for two teams, one automatically and one via the play-offs, but no relegation from the top division.

The Alliance Committee however rejected the proposal and backed the original decision on the vote to null and void the season for both divisions meaning a second successive year for a season that failed to complete.

How did we get to this situation whereby clubs were having to fight a battle to want to play football? And why were there not any contingency plans put in place for an interrupted season in which we got less football at the lower levels than we did last season.

There can’t be much disagreement in saying the National League board have generated a lot of the in-fighting, the feeling of discontent and the need for some independent focus within the top echelons of the non-league game.

And for that it starts way back in the summer and last season’s play-offs. Dearly hanging onto the EFL coattails for promotion and relegation into the Football League sought out a need for the competition to be granted ‘elite’ status within the game, which brought the National League in line with those above up to the Premier League.

In order to promote upwards the NL were told by the EFL they had to relegate into the North and South which in turn you would say caused their play-offs to happen.

But it seems that rather than deal with those end of season games and then look at whether that was the correct decision it was popped in a drawer and tucked away, knowing full well it was likely to resurface and need to be dealt with.

Then we come to the beginning of the season, all ready, fans anticipating watching in stadiums once again and the rug was pulled sharpish back to behind closed doors at a time where there was concern cases were rising across the country days after test events had been underway.

At that time fans were still allowed up to a maximum of 600 people at Steps 3 and 4 and 300 at Steps 5 and 6. I still maintain that test events should have continued at Steps 1 and 2 until the second lockdown occurred but that’s my own opinion.

So now we get to the funding, provided by the National Lottery having been brokered by the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media, and Sport). £10 million pounds of lottery money to cover clubs from October through to December whereby the next level of funding will begin, well so we thought and so did 66 club chairman.

For the National League not to have any recorded meeting minutes to prove this was the case is without doubt their biggest failure as a governing board. Without that assurance I would imagine all 66 clubs would not have started the season and we wouldn’t be sitting here with half completed seasons for Step 2 nor clubs being ‘creative’ in the top division, as a board they sold their member clubs down the river.

Would the previous chief exec Michael Tattersall not resigned if things were honest and above board? Big accusation maybe but he’s not the one tasked with sorting out the mess him and his fellow board members created.

The creative part for me is clubs using the furlough scheme and I use it in the loosest sense of the word. Creative because it’s a loophole being explored, but also abuse of a system for people who physically can’t do their day job. It’s not something I agree with clubs doing at all for their players, especially not when they have signed players to replace those furloughed.

With Friday’s decision and despite the FA Council still needing to ratify the null and void decision, there will be no relegation from the National League. So for the likes of say Barnet, Kings Lynn, Weymouth, Wealdstone, and Woking, possibly more, why not furlough the lot and bring in youth team players or non-contract players and save a few quid?

After all, seven clubs voted to end the National League season originally, with only Dover currently refusing to play any more games. It’ll be interesting to see how stances will change if at all in the coming weeks for other clubs with no threat of relegation.

It’s far from being less farcical in any stretch of the imagination, when in reality we should all be talking about how refreshing it is to currently have a three way title race and below them as many as 13 clubs chasing play-off aspirations given that only eight points separates 4th place and 16th place at the time of writing with clubs having all manner of games in hand on each other, this is where the focus really should be.

None of these clubs have to my knowledge received any outside funding since the end of December, some must be running on fumes week to week and I’m happy to be corrected if wrong on the opening line of that paragraph.

So for all the effort clubs put into games in the North and South divisions amounts to nothing, time given up by volunteers and money spent by sponsors and on streams by fans the net result is zero.

And to next season, what becomes of the division numbers? This year we have seen odd numbers for both the top division and the South division, logic would suggest that Dover will face demotion for failure to fulfil fixtures, ironically protecting the future of the club, which makes an even 22 clubs all round.

So, that’s a wrap for all things North and South, mothballed until the summer comes around, I have a feeling though it might an uncomfortable AGM for the league when it takes place, nothing more really than they deserve……..

Curtailed, but not the end

After much waiting and wondering but with little expectation the FA finally released details of the Step 3-6 season for 2020/21. As commonly thought the league season is over but the use of wording leaves a lot more debate and opinion to be had.

Null and void were the words used on the 2019/20 season as quickly as the pandemic struck and in hindsight which we all know is wonderful it can well be taken as hasty given the little number of games we managed to play this season.

Void of course means it never happened, those games those appearances those goals no longer exist in the record books. The wording this time around of curtailing a season to me and others puts a different slant on things going forward.

Still correct in the fact we won’t see another league fixture in 2020/21 but there is scope for the FA to be creative or imaginative if you will. Not a lot of credit is sent the way of the FA and opinion from me is rightly so, that’s not to tar some county FA’s with the same brush.

But, by not going down the full void route I feel they will look to see if they can make this season’s results count, maybe not at all levels but if we’re following the lead from the National League of no relegation from Step 2 for a second year running then that has to be applied throughout the pyramid.

Whether they can make it work is another question, do you also call in that famous word of integrity whereby a squad of players this season has achieved eight or nine results only for next seasons squad to be different players which in non-league circles is highly likely..

The second part of this action the FA could take is to complete their restructure of the perfect pyramid which was delayed last year and in all honesty may not happen until a full season is completed.

Project Non-League (@Projectnonleag1 on Twitter) have been campaigning for the FA to reward those who deserve from the course of two part played seasons to move up the pyramid but with no relegation occurring.

There are gaps right from the National League downwards and with the creation of an extra division at Step 4 it will allow for movement and progression for some from Steps 4-6 for those who have spent two seasons trying to do just that.

Steps 1-3 is maybe a little more complicated to agree on who and how they would promote, one or two gaps with possibly the ability of four or five clubs feeling they deserve to be promoted.

I’m sure some clubs if not a lot of them are frustrated at having to play the same sides in the same division for a third year running, if it comes to that it has to be a completed season this time around, no questions.

This morning, I’ve spoken to a club manager at each of the four levels to get their reaction to the decision and what their opinion is should the restructure go ahead.

Adam Hinshelwood, whose Worthing side led the Pitching In Isthmian League Premier Division on both occasions when the season stopped, agrees with the decision to curtail but isn’t convinced at the proposed restructure taking place:

‘I don’t think was any other option to finish the season now especially with spectators not allowed to attend until the end of March, it would mean disturbing the start of next season which we hope is going to be the shining light.’

‘That next season we can have spectators back in and no disruption hopefully, we can then get back to a bit or normality for everyone.’

‘The potential restructure is just another sign of the inconsistency throughout the FA decisions, I saw somewhere that a member of the EFL saying they wouldn’t relegate teams if the National League didn’t and they felt that whatever decisions were being made needed to be consistent at all levels.’

‘I feel that teams who have shown ambition are getting punished the most, it’s all become a bit of a shambles now. If they had kept with consistent decisions for all the levels then there might not have been as much upheaval as we are seeing in my opinion.’

Sevenoaks Town manager Micky Collins had his side in the Pitching In Isthmian South East Division play-offs places when the season was suspended late last year and admits this is the right decision being made:

‘I think it’s the correct decision to curtail the season as opposed to null and void. It leaves the option for the league to revisit the finished totals at a later date if required, null and void would have ended that scenario,’

‘With the on-going crisis who knows what could happen in the future (next season) I think in hindsight the leagues and the FA probably wished they had curtailed last season instead.’

Richard Styles’ Step 5 Tunbridge Wells team were in the top 5 of the Southern Counties East League when the season was suspended back in November, but he agrees there was little option but for things to end for second successive season:

‘It was pretty clear the FA were going to wait for the government roadmap announcement before making a decision. It seems in all honesty they have found a new word to use instead of “null and void”.’

‘I do think it strange to continue the FA Vase at our level though and slightly unfair on players and clubs to rush to get ready to play again with a lot at stake in these games.’

‘As for the restructure I don’t think there should be any promotion or relegation, purely on the fact that not enough games were played, had there been over 50% of games completed it’s a different situation, I can’t say it’s deserved for anyone after 12 or 13 games.’

‘Again, any decision that’s made will not please everyone but it’s about doing it the right way. I think had they decided to restart when we can or continue this season in August wouldn’t be correct either. Clubs, staff and players can all look to pre-season now to prepare for a fresh start.’

Simon Hull whose Step 6 Arundel side had a slow start to the season in the Southern Combination League Division One also felt there was no other option than to finish the season here and now:

‘All things considered namely where we are with the roadmap out of Covid and the time left to complete the season it was the logical thing to do. Clubs can’t survive without generating revenue and sustainability of a football club has to be the number one priority.’

‘I think everyone would like the restructure to be completed following the standard process of a season being completed. I would defer it again until the completion of a full set of games.’

There are a few points to come out as well in the past 24 hours too, as Richard alluded to above the FA Vase is to continue and it will be interesting to see which of the clubs want to carry that on or withdraw from the competition, would we assume that it’s going to be played on consecutive Saturdays until completed ready for a May final? We know this is driven by sponsorship money to continue; we can see that higher up in the game.

I’ve certainly seen more and more leagues starting to release details about possibly holding cup competitions for a month or two. Myself I feel this is needed because there are clubs, players and staff who want to be back involved and fans who want to watch. Absolutely there should be no pressure from anyone anywhere to play in these tournaments should they go ahead, personal choice at the forefront of it all.

For all of those four sections of people listed above, its that little bit of hope and relief that’s been in short supply for a majority of the last twelve months, a brief glimmer we enjoyed in September and October.

It’s the mental health for all that does need some addressing and that’s included in all categories, it’s your own personal opinion if you feel it’s right to get some football in or it’s a wait till pre-season.

Some players might see it as an audition for the new season, getting in the shop window early, some just want to kick a ball again after so much lost time. The same will go for club staff, wanting to get an early mark in front of others, fans will be happy to see the one thing a lot of them live for week to week.

If none of above come off then so be it, but out the box thinking and discussion right from the FA down to the County Leagues should be applauded, it’s not been for the want of trying. A beer and a burger sounds good though to me alongside some football on the pitch, it’s all we’re waiting for………….

The beautiful game looks about as ugly as it ever has been

So then. The last 24 hours or so, read lots, spoken to a number of people, answered lots of messages, here we go then the National League ladies and gentlemen!

A warning this might be a long blog, there’s a lot to get through, reactions from those inside the clubs, my own thoughts and what I see as stumbling blocks going forward from today, it won’t be pretty, you might not agree, but above all it’s an opinion nothing more, it’s neither right nor wrong.

Before we get to the main points though as a Barnet fan I’m embarrassed we’ll stay up through default. On the face of it, it looks like Tony Kleanthous made the correct decision in the summer not to spend, to severely undercut the football operation and six months later he’s looking good.

We should have been doing it on the pitch for the next four months or so to get out of the mess we created for ourselves which is what I would have preferred to happen, sink or swim by your decisions, not of others. But, for all intents and purpose it is what it is and Barnet have the opportunity to put a proper club in place under Tim Flowers over the remaining months of the season, a silver lining if you must but a hollow one at that.

Onto the main meal then and once again here we are in the midst of controversy. Whatever this final outcome was to be there was never an option to please absolutely everyone and there will be ramifications to come for days and the next few weeks.

I don’t believe there was ever a doubt in outcome of the vote, heavily weighted towards the top division and with the EFL relationship at the forefront of that it won’t have come as a surprise, but it’s been more how the situation has been dealt with.

A real lack of transparency and leadership is evident which you can trace back to the play-offs last season and continued into this. Commendation maybe for ensuring we had play-offs eventually completed for all three divisions last year but a lack of foresight when attempting to get this season worked has been forgettable.

Funding of course has been the full issue in where we have gotten to now, we are all aware the National League have no minutes of the meeting with the DCMS over what was on offer for the full course of the season is at best incompetent. I’ve served on league and club committees throughout my lifetime, to not have something so simple but vital can’t suggest anything more than a cover up of mismanagement and hanging all 66 clubs out to dry, effectively what they have done.

Two days ago I was informed players and staff in the South and North divisions were told, not via official communications, that no testing was to be carried out ‘a waste of tax payers’ money’ which in effect said null and void was coming. Excuse me, what about some of the £11 million pounds of lottery money than has now been poured down the drain?

While I write this now, I see across social media fans, clubs and chairmen attacking each other because opinion is so divided on what should have happened.

My opinion, well every club of those 66 is vital, vital to someone, vital to its players, vital to its staff and mostly importantly vital to its supporters and its community. The same applies for Steps 3-6 as well and every club has quite rightly looked after its own house but should they have been left to fend for themselves while the league banner they play under seem to not want to get involved.

Last night I spoke to various people around the situation to gauge a bit of reaction:

David Blackmore, chairman of Eastbourne Borough was ‘absolutely gutted’. He said ‘We have been cut adrift by the National League. A majority across all three divisions wanted to continue, majority in the South wanted to continue, yet we don’t continue.’

David’s manager at Priory Lane Danny Bloor is frustrated the season has now ended, ‘Our club just wanted to keep playing; at the conclusion of this we sit 3rd in the league a position we’re very proud of and I hope we can regroup and replicate that again next year.’

Steve McKimm, manager at Tonbridge Angels who had to furlough their players this week in order to protect the club, was gutted at the outcome ‘I don’t think the process was fair, how can the National League have it’s members vote against each other but not in equal amounts.’

Ben Strevens, manager at Eastleigh, is unsure what the future holds for the top division ‘seven teams voted for null and void, what exactly is that going to mean after this weekend for our teams?’

Andy Hessenthaler, manager of Dover Athletic who seem most at risk of not seeing out the season, said ‘I think the mess is just going to continue because as you said nothing has changed, still no money. Seven clubs voted to null and void so will be interesting with what’s going to happen now’.

Kevin Watson who recently returned to the game at Billericay Town like most wasn’t shocked at the decision, ‘No surprise at all to be honest, just really disappointing.’

Adam Hinshelwood whose Worthing side have twice been in pole position for promotion to the National League South questioned the timing of the announcement, ‘It seems strange with the government telling us on Monday the plan for the country and for the National League to not follow suit and also not to stay in line with each other.’

‘I feel for Marc at Dorking who invested in a great team at that level and to see it null and voided again seems wrong on the face of it. It does seem likely Steps 3-6 will follow; we will be ready for whatever decisions are made for our club.’

An increase once again to the furlough scheme as the North and South clubs put their players and staff on leave once again from this morning and attention turns now to the can which is just getting kicked down the road.

Already we see legal action from clubs going in today which if they feel is the right thing to do for themselves so be it, I’m not here to judge the rights and wrongs of what each club feels is its chosen path. Whether they can get any joy or a reversal of decision remains to be seen.

Then we have the seven who voted in the top division to null and void, the next can of worms. What now if those seven, and I’m led to believe Barnet were NOT one of the seven, decide with no further funding their club would go under and quite rightly want to preserve their future? Do we play on with 16 teams expunging all results of those not playing as there is no relegation? Do those seven get asked to furlough the first team and play weakened sides in order to complete the season? Do the National League push Sport England to help these seven clubs as soon as possible? So many questions but when do we get the answers? And these are just the beginning.

To read this morning though that two clubs in the top division didn’t bother replying at all beggar’s belief! Now either they’ve got deep pockets so it makes no odds to them or purely ignorant, surely out of respect to the other clubs in your division you would have abstained?

In all likelihood Steps 3-6 will now also null and void with no chance of Step 3 promotion to the National League North and South bringing another premature end to the season for a second year in a row. The hope now will be for the FA to see sense and take the time to implement their restructure of the perfect pyramid and with it some movement for teams upwards which is deserving, the benefit to playing exactly the same teams for the third year running, not one I can see.

And for the second season running it appears as if the National League and South will run with a team less once again, granted it’s difficult to now work out who would take the missing spot in each division but a lack of contingency plans is as well not their finest hour.

Just a sidenote to this as well, the FA Trophy and Vase. One continues, one suspended and last year’s finals still be played with one of the four participants an EFL club, go figure!

The beautiful game as it’s often referred to looks about as ugly as it ever has done in non-league circles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a vote of no confidence in both the National League and the FA in the coming months, not a chance this is all going to go away easily…..

Vote to play or vote to finish

Every few days the National League picture is changing, every day I’m receiving messages, speaking to people, and listening to interviews to find out exactly where we all stand and from one 24 hours to the next the landscape moves quite drastically.

There are various meetings happening almost daily now to try and get a resolution to what I call is ‘the mess of non-league football.’ Trying to keep on top of it is also a challenge in itself and understand exactly what the latest position is for each division.

The position of each club is the big variety and I think Marc White at Dorking Wanderers put it well that each club has an opinion and in many cases it is going to be different from club to club and in other cases it will be the same as some clubs.

Clubs met with Sport England on Friday morning to ascertain further what can be done to help, also after a meeting this week with the leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer. Grants applications are able to be made for the National League but those are expected to take four weeks minimum to come through, so clubs will in effect have played January and February without funding but wages to pay. These grants are also for those whose immediate future are at risk, otherwise once again it’s loans which we know are not feasible for clubs with no idea when they will actually earn income to pay it back.

Whilst they apply for a grant, they are being asked to vote next week on the resolution to the season, surely that decision needs to either be delayed or clarification sought to ascertain how long grants would actually take? The National League board itself should have been walking down this road at the end of last year so plans were in place after Christmas to get things sorted out as quickly as possible.

Clubs certainly don’t know where they’re coming from, neither do players. Speaking to people at different clubs over the past few days at boardroom level down to managers and players the lack of what can be planned causes as much concern.

Players and managers at National League clubs believe the North and South divisions will cease playing sooner rather than later and the top division itself a 50/50 split in which way a vote would go. With so little difference in points between clubs, why wouldn’t clubs and chairmen want a crack at promotion to League Two?

Speaking to Tonbridge Angels boss Steve McKimm on Friday morning, he believes grants are the only way forward.

‘Grants are needed without fans to keep clubs sustainable, loans with no relegation are pointless because clubs won’t need to pay wages they are paying and can reduce the budget by a third or less to keep playing, but it would affect the top of the table as it wouldn’t be a strong competition.’

‘A lot of clubs weren’t happy with the original funding distribution through the National League and there lies a problem. I wonder if clubs will have to take the same size loan as they received as a grant because it was obviously needed at a few clubs.’

‘As for safety reasons, players, staff, and volunteers etc, I’m seeing a lot of people asking for funding for testing but hardly anyone was asking for this during the first few months of the season. The league has been stopped for funding issues, not testing. Every member started the season knowing there was no testing taking place, unless clubs themselves undertook to do it, just protocols to be followed and all adhered to it.’

‘I believe there has been no clear dialogue between the DCMS and the National League forwarded onto clubs and the goalposts, pardon the pun, seem to keep moving.’

Eastbourne Borough boss Danny Bloor would like his team to just be able to play football but accepts that might be difficult.

‘I just want my team to be able to continue to play football. I don’t have an opinion on whether we resume on 6th February as we just don’t know, I’ll leave my chairman and CEO to deal with that side of things.’

‘Having enjoyed a good campaign so far it would be a shame for things to end but it is what it is and we have put excellent foundations into place for the future.’

‘We just continue to train like we always do unless we are told otherwise, however it was nice to play QPR Under 23’s during the week, it keeps game time up for the squad whilst not playing competitive fixtures.’

As of Thursday clubs were unaware exactly what they are voting on when it comes to Monday, hopefully by the time this article is online there is a clearer idea of the options, one thing is for certain it’s not going to be a winner for everyone and will be remembered for the mess rather than the football………

Buying time might still not complete the season

Just the other day I remarked on Twitter how much of a mess non-league football is becoming and there isn’t a single part of the lower level game that escapes being called that to at least a small extent.

From the National League right down to the very levels of true grassroots football things are looking very bleak for a lot of clubs to complete a season for the second year running and this week has seen the largest amount of unrest between the ‘elite’ clubs at Steps 1 and 2 with opinions divided and a lack of leadership and seemingly false promises coming from the top.

I’ve read so much over the past few days from clubs, people on Twitter, Facebook etc, club chairman and it’s hard to work out if the DCMS or the National League have been less than honest since that opening day in October that triggered player contracts.

It might well be both are culpable with blame but the results is their member clubs are the ones who suffer. Earlier on Friday having consulted clubs across all three divisions we now have a two week suspension across the North and South at Step 2 but Step 1 play on.

With clubs already confirming on Thursday an intention to not complete the weekend’s fixtures the NL board were left with little choice but to invoke the break to buy some time to get some assurances on the funding, it is also believed that the grants would help pay for testing which is currently not carried out by most clubs.

After the initial discussion of three options for National League clubs which comprised of either each club taking on a loan themselves, the league themselves taking on the loan and supplying the clubs with money drawn against future sponsorship payments or the season to be suspended, the consensus was to play on for the National League itself and the regional divisions to take a break.

The DCMS are adamant there was no conversation of agreement back in the late summer months of promised grant funding for the entire season, the National League board claim otherwise, the league itself have since withdrawn the option of taking on the loan themselves leaving options 1 and 3 left on the table.

Quite rightly club chairmen are refusing to saddle their clubs with debt and it must be remembered that we’re only talking about January-March funding currently. To complete the season we are now looking at a June finish, is this going to mean we’re going to be back at this same crossroads for the final months of the season?

It’s already been worked out that should there be a vote for suspension of the season to follow for all three divisions until the end of March then furlough for the government will cost £14 million compared to the £11 million the National League require, not only that we’re looking at £10 million of Lottery money wasted on the first three months of the season.

Clubs believed it was either a funded season or fans would return at some point, most say there isn’t a chance they would have kicked off the season if they knew we’d arrive at this point in time.

Having read more this weekend it appears the DCMS are digging their heels in, the FA and National League say they are in constant dialogue but without a change in the stance, there will be no money.

Whilst the North and South could follow the same pattern as last season we’re not close to 75% of completed games for PPG (points per game) to be triggered. As the remainder of non-league below them once again looks to be heading towards another null and void judgement, there would be no relegation from the regional divisions into Step 3.

For the top division it becomes a little more complicated I think with ramifications from the EFL when it comes to promotion to and relegation from League Two. But the same as the North and South they need funding to get as far as completing the season and to be able to test their players, it’s ridiculous to be classed as elite competition but not subject to the same testing levels as their higher paid counterparts.

Poor leadership and a keenness to get a competition played instead of looking after member clubs leaves a lot to be desired, but when the FA treats the rest of non-league football in the same vein, I guess it’s hardly surprising.

Where does it all go from here? Well, it rests on what the National League can gain from the two week suspension, if no change of mind from the DCMS which is what I am expecting, then I fully expect the season to be suspended for all National League clubs possibly until the end of March, not the situation we all want but no funding means clubs will feel the squeeze even more whilst no testing in place compromises player safety, however it goes we all want our clubs still here for the future and that goes for every club at every level, here’s praying for some common sense……..

Sort the mess before we start losing clubs

If you thought 2020 was the year to keep knocking you about, 2021 is looking like not being a lot better for us non-league football fans. Whilst at Steps 3-6 we await the clubs conferring as to whether null and void for the second season is going to be an overwhelming majority verdict Steps 1 and 2 which comprise the National League found out on Monday that their next round of funding could cause a catastrophe.

Having received around £10 million in Lottery funding to complete the first three months of the season, the DCMS has indicated to the National League that the £11 million due to follow is now going to be made up in the form of loans and not grants.

National League clubs were under the impression that to play out this season without fans they would be funded or compensated whichever way you look at it, to ensure every club would survive, but it appears that was a promise made which is now broken.

The wonderful coverage provided by Ollie Bayliss and Thomas Feaheny has added a few extra parts to this. A board meeting for the National League is due in the next few days, no doubt a few club owners demanding answers with the very future of their clubs at stake.

The DCMS have been informed that should the season finish now the cost of furlough for players and staff would actually exceed the cost of making this payment in grants by nearly £3 million, so the maths do not add up, not something I’m surprised at.

Who in their right mind will accept a loan for their club knowing full well there is no set timetable on income once again flowing through a National League football club? This is the same notion they are putting onto clubs in Steps 3-6, take a loan to stay afloat, but we can’t promise you can have fans back in a reasonable timeframe so tough luck!

I know full well having spoken to people inside the three divisions there is a lack of regular Covid testing due to the cost of funding it, now they are being asked to keep playing whilst saddled with a debt to stay solvent or close to it but not an ounce of knowing how different things will become to allow them to return that cash, it’s an impossible situation.

As with clubs being consulted at Steps 3-6 there will split camps of those wanting to continue the season at some point and those would be happy to stop it now and prepare ready for next season.

I can’t see this being any different at National League level to be honest, clubs that have kept a budget high will want to continue in order to get the promotion they want, those who have either cut their cloth accordingly and want to remain on an even-ish keel would likely want to suspend or end the season and then of course those whose season hasn’t panned out so far will be happy to call a halt and get themselves mothballed until a new season can begin.

Just last week 12 National League North clubs called the DCMS to ‘not betray the trust of clubs’ over funding agreements, it clearly appears that is the case. As shown throughout the whole season so far the DCMS have no idea how money works at this level and how clubs fund themselves through fans in stadiums spending money on secondary income.

As we know clubs at this level are not blessed with TV money and huge sponsorship deals and there were some back in September and October who were close to not starting the season, these club are not in any better shape now than they were then, it’s the funding and in some cases deep pockets keeping them alive.

If the National League board are guilty of these false promises then I wouldn’t be surprised to see calls for a few resignations to come in the next few days having failed their member clubs.

Bigger than that the next few weeks could see a lot of clubs contemplating what the future actually holds for them now, those that can and will survive might decide voluntary relegation is an option just to keep their club alive albeit at a lower level reducing expenses against the backdrop of continued no incoming money.

No club deserves to disappear, no supporter should lose their club during these times, but weak leadership is seen everywhere from the DCMS through the FA to the National League, it was only in this weekend’s Non-League Paper Tony Incenzo was remarking how we have gotten to this stage having lost a very small number of clubs during this period, action needs to be taken now before it becomes a huge great roll-call………