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………….

Managers have their say

Adam Hinshelwood (left) and Richard Styles (right)

It’s been a little while since there has been much else to blog about apart from the National League on-going saga and the trials and tribulations of Barnet FC! It makes for some reading I agree but the non-league game we know extends further than that.

And for that reason alone I’ve asked around a couple of managers this week to get some perspective on Steps 3-6 which operate underneath the National League divisions as it feels a little bit like they’ve all been pushed to the side somewhat, not that I disagree the NL gets its limelight it’s the full time for a lot of people.

The beauty of our football pyramid is the fact we go down to so many levels beyond the top divisions and there is a lot of opportunity to progress up the ladder.

Last season of course clubs at those step levels saw their season suspended in March and finished as null and void just a few weeks later. Now less than twelve months later those same clubs find themselves in the same situation despite having completed less games this time around.

Whilst we’re in territory we hoped wasn’t going to happen, there are a lot of ways in which things can help clubs still be in existence for a new season later in the year if the null and void does instead come into force over the coming weeks. Grants have been made available for clubs at this level which should enable them all to get through until the season starts again for 2021/22.

There is reason however to believe that just maybe there will be a resumption if restrictions are lifted in March to complete something in some form in some shape, as vague as that might be, everything is still up in the air and could be for a few weeks longer.

Earlier this week I caught up with Worthing boss Adam Hinshelwood whose side were for the second year running leading the Pitching In Isthmian League Premier Division and Tunbridge Wells manager Richard Styles, the Wells very much in the thick of it at the top of the Southern Counties East League Premier Division. Both managers gave me their views on what might happen over the coming months and how vital funding is to keep these clubs alive.

TK: Do you feel Steps 3-6 have disappeared a bit under the radar at the moment?

AH: Yes I do. I sympathise with the leagues and the FA as we are in difficult times right now but I did feel they jumped on their decision to null and void last season a bit hastily. Maybe a two weekly update would be good just to know what they are thinking, obviously it might not work as circumstances around the country are changing so quickly at the moment.

TK: What is your gut feeling in terms of what might happen and do you think we might see a stand off for a few weeks until the National League is resolved despite it might not having a bearing on the outcome for Steps 3-6?

AH: I can’t really see fans back for some time yet unfortunately, so this would make it impossible for us to play at Step 3 level which leads itself towards another null and void season. They may wait to see what the National League decide to do in the next couple of weeks before confirming anything but as I said already I would just like to know where we stand.

TK: How welcome is it though that Step 3-6 clubs have access to funding to help them survive and be here in the future?

AH: It’s a massive bonus to all clubs, I think so many would struggle and local clubs can be the real hub of the community and a place where the whole area can meet and socialise when safe to do so. These clubs are a big part of so many people’s lives so to keep as many of them going as possible is a massive positive.

Styles is also concerned at the lack of communication coming from above and like Hinshelwood feels null and void is the likely outcome to the season:

TK: With the National League fiasco taking centre stage, do you think the rest of non-league has been pushed to the side and almost forgotten about?

RS: The National League has gotten a lot of media attention lately which is right as they are at the top of the pyramid and have a lot of full time members in the divisions. Filtering down there hasn’t been a lot of movement nor communication recently from the FA through the league’s leading to a lot of assumptions as to what is going to happen.

Like anything we’re waiting I think for the National League to sort themselves out and it will then filter down to the leagues below.

TK: Despite the difference in what happened last time around do you think if the National League continues there is a chance Steps 3-6 will do the same or do you feel null and void is set to happen again?

RS: The National League seem to have a financial complication which is causing part of their issues in continuing or not. In terms of steps 3-6 there is already a financial grant I believe we can apply for. Given the time away clubs, staff, and managers have had away from football I can’t see anything other than null and void happening at steps 3-6 to be honest.

TK: If we do go null and void once again would you hope that there are better plans put in place should the game ever find itself in this position again?

RS: It would be helpful for everyone to have a plan or protocol in place for the future should anything like this ever happen again for sure. It’s difficult for the FA to decide how to complete the season in these situations and you’ll never please everyone.

The fairest way possible is with as much communication and guidance as they can give rather than the area of the unknown.

Whilst the National League situation is descending into a farcical situation on a daily basis the FA remain quiet on where they are up to currently, we can only presume they have all the information into them now, you can just hear the silence however……………

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……..

Has the time come?

Have we reached the saturation point of the season? That really should be on the minds of most in the footballing world and starting to be talked about with regards to the remainder of the season.

Despite an almost blanket cover of the South in tier 4 for non-league football and for a majority no football played since the beginning of November, the question now is whether the game and its players will be harmed more in 2021 trying to finish off a season that in some cases has barely begun.

The Christmas and New Year period has seen the ‘elite level’ of non-league football in the National League suffer from no fewer than 12 clubs across their three divisions postpone their next three games after positive covid tests.

Having started the season later than most in October due to the late resolution of the play-off system and despite the season likely to end in June it is looking like a big ask for those with smaller squads to perform to a good standard playing twice a week until then.

With the FA seemingly hell-bent on completing this season FA Trophy despite last season’s final still not being held and played yet more postponements in the new year will see clubs struggle to play at 100% capacity for every single game they face.

And when you think a majority of these clubs are full time, imagine how it is for those part-time clubs that make up the remainder of the footballing pyramid.

Those in the South have on the whole completed almost one third of their season when you look down at Step 5 and 6, Step 3 and 4 are not so fortunate in most cases and as you head further North the picture looks even bleaker.

There are sides who have completed somewhere in the region of 2-6 league games only, that is an alarmingly small rate for any club to be looking at if they are committed to finishing the season to ‘preserve its integrity’.

Whilst I’m an optimistic person to the hilt, surely this is beyond the scope of part-time non-league clubs to be able to finish 34-46 games this season in time before the thoughts would turn to a new season beginning.

The biggest worry though has to be the issue of player match fitness. By the time the end of December comes that will be two full months of no games for players, are we expecting them now to come back and play at full pelt for around six months and not suffer physically? Is their room for another mini pre-season before we get started again? Quite frankly, no! We shouldn’t be expecting it and I think the next couple of weeks will see some serious discussions across the country which need to be led by the FA to help these leagues sort out the mess that it currently is.

This time the FA must show some stellar leadership rather than the whimper they provided the game back in April. It also can’t and shouldn’t be a one size fits all scenario, I appreciate though that this time that might have to be the case but explain it clearly and simply and you might get a more measured response from people.

Plenty will not agree with whatever decision is made, just the same as earlier this year, I’m not sure you can have half the country able to finish a season and the other half with an impossible situation.

Whether it can be completed with sides playing each other just once if there are under a certain level of games played in a division I don’t know, it’s surely an option to happen and would allow time for clubs to get themselves settled and organised again.

I don’t envy anyone involved in making any of these decisions for a situation we haven’t been involved in ourselves before, you just pray some common sense and logical thinking comes into it, hold my beer…………….

What’s in a date

Now we are closer to a return for non-league football, attention turns to what date the FA will decide upon once the government and Public Health England give the full go ahead to resume competitive matches.

There is a lot to consider up and down the country and how much guidance the FA will give and support with is currently unclear and I’ll take you through why I think it’s much needed.

To start four weeks later than a normal season is not a problem for non-league to accommodate but some sacrifices will need to be made in order to not have clubs facing three or four games a week in April and May, the weather might dictate otherwise but everything needs to be done to avoid it. In Sussex for example clubs can be in as many as seven cup competitions alongside a full league campaign of around 34-38 games at Steps 5 and 6. That just can’t happen in 2020/21 with a truncated season, be it only four weeks short, but in that time two rounds of the FA Cup are completed along with around three or four league games for clubs at that level, for one year only we hope these miscellaneous cups will have to excused.

 It has to be remembered players at this level and above up to Step 2 also have full time jobs, to expect them to graft for a day’s money and then travel for a couple of hours in some cases to play 90 minutes of football and travel home again is not on. Some creative fixture planning needs to happen to keep these trips to a Saturday especially as these guys could be playing twice a week for as long as three months.

There is the need to complete both the FA Cup and Vase early rounds to meet the contractual targets for the Cup by the end of October, but this is achievable in two ways for me, reduce the amounts of entrants just for this year and allow no clubs from Step 6. Before you all go ‘they rely on this prize money should they win or lose’ not all Step 6 clubs make it in if they do apply and if they can run without the Extra Prelim round or a very small version of it then it will help no end to fit things in. Add to that a straight one-off game with no replays in either the Cup or Vase will also cut out games that can’t be accommodated in this year’s calendar.

I am expecting to see a start date of 12th September for non-league football across the board, anything later than that and it will be a struggle to fit everything in. That start date will give you a league game on the Saturday, followed by the Tuesday , FA Cup round the following Saturday, which if a one off game allows another league game on the Tuesday, FA Vase round for the final Saturday of the month and round it off with a further league game on the 29th, almost repeat for October and the catch-up would be caught up.

It must be remembered that last season saw unprecedented postponements from November onwards and every effort should be made to fit as many in as possible before then or the season will back up horrendously after Xmas, players will enjoy playing rather than training as it is.

I don’t see why County Cups can’t remain, later start than usual but still able to be completed even if they start in 2021, it might be weather dependant but a decision that can be made once the season is up and running, no reason why it can’t be said that ‘we’d like to do this and that, but it is dependent on this and that’.

I have seen rumours October will be the start date, that suits no one in non-league due to the tight fixture restrictions and how many clubs can go another three months without income from their activities that exist alongside their football, and if they could survive until then in some shape or form, is there a chance they won’t finish the season instead because the pressure is on to raise cash and as much as they can?

Paramount to everything, it has to be safe to re-start that is without question but as we see things are changing daily, weekly and where we will sit as a country in eight weeks’ time is difficult to predict although the signs are it is improving well for us.

What we don’t need to do is flog the players to death because we start four weeks behind and then try and cram too much into the end of the season because of a lack of preparation from the beginning, FA guidance is actually going to be very crucial in getting this right, maybe this time they might deliver……