National League North and South preview 2021/22

This coming weekend sees kick off for the National League North and South divisions, a further week to wait for the top division to get going but the two underlying sets of teams will be desperate to complete the new season for the first time in three years.

Two years without a completed season and minimal promotion from both divisions and no relegation has in my opinion led to a bit of stagnation, similar to Steps 3 and 4.

There is no doubt in my mind clubs are desperate to move and some of the signings this summer have been what I call intent! Intent to win, intent to compete, intent to give it a go.

Over this blog I plan to take a look at those I feel should be in the mix come the end of the season in both divisions, this game of opinions won’t please everyone and I don’t want it to, that’s the beauty of the game we love.

Starting in the North and being a southerner I can’t confess to following it as closely as the other end of the country but the eyes are on it don’t you worry! In both divisions there are some big clubs, big by name and history and big by the support they command. That though means nothing when it comes down to 11 vs 11 on the pitch.

When the season finished for these clubs in February, some let out a sigh of relief that things hadn’t gone to plan, namely Darlington and Blyth to pick out just two. Others such as Gloucester, AFC Fylde and a clutch of clubs just outside those play-offs who felt they had a chance of getting into those end of season games and probably let out sighs of anger instead.

And when you look at the quality that have arrived this summer in the North division, you know teams mean business and are desperate to get promoted. Striker Clayton Donaldson returns to York City to form an impressive front line with Kurt Willoughby and Jason Gilchrist, Steve Watson’s men were on the fringes of the play-off’s last year and those three the reason why they’re one of the bookies favourites.

AFC Fylde under Jim Bentley will be expected to challenge for the title as a full time outfit and having secured a majority of last season’s squad Bentley will hope continuity provides them with promotion foundations along with Stephen Dobbie as their stand out signing.

Gloucester will be looking to show last season was no flash in the pan and like quite a few other clubs have also retained most of last season’s squad. With experience at both ends of the park in Jake Cole and Matt McClure manager Paul Groves will be expecting more of the same from his side.

Boston Utd are another team who are one of the favourites to progress in front of their own fans at the new Jakemans Community Stadium. Impressive signings added to last season’s ranks include experienced defender Jake Wright and striker Danny Elliott, the latter a National League promotion winner at Hartlepool just last season.

A season that promises so much in the North, the title could go to a number of clubs in all honesty and I think if you finish in front of these four clubs then it’s all yours. One last word on this, the likes of York, Darlington, Chester, Gateshead and Spennymoor will believe the chance is there for them too and I can’t wait to watch the race unfold over the next nine months.

The South meanwhile has a few friends of mine in it, but that’s not going to cloud the judgement as we take a look at their division. Like the North division there were massive disparities in games played and while Dorking Wanderers were starting to pull away and an eight point gap from the last team in the play-off’s to the next games in hand for those below could have changed a lot for everybody.

As strong as Dorking were last year, they’ve strengthened again. Experienced keeper Lee Worgan and midfielder Bobby-Joe Taylor are two in the door and of course the goals of Jason Prior will keep them in the hunt. Dartford under Steve King are always there or thereabouts and the signing of striker Jake Robinson and once again shows they mean business.

Eastbourne Borough were third when the season ended, surprising a few people but not themselves. Danny Bloor is a very canny manager and gets the best out of his players, despite losing keeper Franco Ravizzoli to MK Dons they have retained most of last season’s squad and their strong link with QPR should once again see one or two on loan at Priory Lane.

Billericay Town under Kevin Watson are starting to build a good team and I expect them to be in the mix. Like quite a few other clubs in their division the ability to persuade players to drop down from the National League top division can well be the difference in quality, Charlie Lee and Marvel Ekpiteta are two who have made the move and with Watson able to keep the likes of Lawrie Wilson at New Lodge then play-off’s should be the ambition.

Maidstone Utd and Havant & Waterlooville will also be expecting better this time around, Haken Hayrettin at the Gallagher Stadium has also put together a squad with all his hallmarks on it while Paul Doswell will be hoping after a much changed squad last season didn’t quite get going consistently things improve this time around.

I like the signings Steve McKimm has made at Tonbridge Angels and they should certainly improve on what was a steady campaign last time out, the experience of Doug Loft has added to what is already a good spine of the team in Jonny Henly, Sonny Miles and Joe Turner.

Ebbsfleet have also recruited well, nine in total I believe it is now, and were going close last year at the time of the season’s suspension. Like a few others they have persuaded players to drop into the South such as Alex Finney and Craig Tanner from Aldershot, Joe Martin from Stevenage, whilst Elliott Romain has moved across from Dartford.

Not surprisingly Dorking and Dartford are seen as the favourites and like the North division, finish in front of those two and the title will more than likely be yours. However, this is a division of firepower and it might well come down to goal difference if someone is going to steal a march on another or someone is going to spring a surprise from within the pack of clubs I haven’t mentioned.

Come April next year we’re talking about an exciting season full of moments, drama, title wins, play-off wins and heartache and relegation despair, only then will we know football is truly back……………..

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…………………

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……..

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…..