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 season on a knife edge

As some of you might know I am part of the Premier Non-League Podcast along with five other guys. We’ve just recorded our eighth episode and our first of 2021, focussing this time on the romance of the FA Cup from last weekend, the ongoing National League funding saga and of course the dreaded null and void situation which is being discussed again given the current restrictions Steps 3-6 find themselves under.

Underneath the elite National League divisions, football is looking increasingly unlikely to find itself with time to complete the 2020/21 season. Being completely at the mercy of the government restrictions talks are already underway to gauge how clubs feel with regards to cancelling the season or to providing ideas and ways to have at least a partial conclusion.

It’s easy to see that we are going to have a huge split as clubs are canvassed across the next few weeks. There are those who are in the same situation as last year, leading divisions or in with a chance of promotion with so many spots open as part of the re-structure that should have occurred last year and would no doubt want to carry things on and complete.

There will be clubs who weren’t close to things last year but are in contention this year and will be keen to achieve what they set out to do at the start of the season.

Those whose seasons haven’t panned out quite how they wanted will be happy to call a halt and begin again next season and hope for better times, I don’t disagree that some will decide that financially they also won’t think it’s beneficial to carry on or to re-start for a small account of time.

The volunteer base for a lot of clubs includes those who are currently being asked to shield or just receiving their first doses of vaccination which will of course impact on clubs to not only police the ground when the game is on but also the before of getting a game on and the after of clearing up.

The players of course are paramount. Without them on the pitch there is no game, same goes for officials. It’s easy to forget at times they started the season late after a confused pre-season programme, played for around two months and most have not kicked a competitive ball since early November.

Now we are looking at around four to five months off for these guys since they last played once we get around to March, is there time for them to get back up to a level of match fitness to complete some kind of competition? Will any of them say ‘thanks, but no thanks’, preferring to spend the summer months getting back to speed and going again in August?

And finally we have those of us who try to make a living from the game or just beginning to. This season I began to write for clubs from results round ups to articles written specifically for clubs that asked, those clubs being Southern Combination Premier Division sides Langney Wanderers and East Preston whilst Pitching In Southern League outfit Met Police joined just before the previous lockdown in November.

With the stop start effect of the season and also the knowing cash flow is tight for all, it’s been difficult for me to approach new clubs and really push it along to start to make moves in the market. With the success I enjoyed last year writing this blog with almost 22,000 visitors in a year there is a niche I’ve found where the words are right. But like the remainder of the non-league world I’m waiting to see where things go, I’m not expecting any more football to be honest until next August. I guess what it does do is give more time to hone this product some more and be ready to go to more clubs this summer and giving them something they want for their programme, be it online or in print.

There is a scenario that can be put in the mix should there be a resumption and that is for a split of divisions in two to play some sort of football in March through to May depending on if restrictions are lifted in time, it would bring some closure to the season without it being cancelled, but again it would depend on a lot of factors swinging in favour of the beautiful game.

A last but not final thought has to go to those suffering mentally from not attending games. For many and at times me included not being able to get out to watch a live game has been tough, whilst I don’t mind a bit of football on the TV or streaming via the laptop there is a saturation point to it, nothing beats getting together with your mates watching non-league football, its why we do it and while we know and/or hope these days aren’t far away again for some it’s the highlight of their working week.

For now we wait, hopefully no rash decisions will be made as per last March/April and a more logical approach is taken across the board and while whatever is decided cannot please everyone if they decide to curtail things again, there must a set of rules written up to cover playing a certain percentage of games or less than and sufficient agreement with that for a final resolution, we can’t be sitting here having this conversation again in the future……….