(Article first published in The Non League Paper.)
The words of the great Barry Manilow but they should have also been the words that governed how the 2019/20 football season should have been concluded from the Premier League down to Step 7.
I’ve read hundreds of comments from fans and clubs in the last twenty hour hours with differing views on the decision made on Thursday by the Football Association that the 2019/20 would be rendered null and void, with no promotion or relegation. Many are very critical of the decision, citing cases such as Vauxhall Motors and Jersey Bulls who had already gained enough points for promotion or that the levels of investment they have made this season has counted for nothing. As the Chairman of Lewes Football Club at Step 3 I have every sympathy with them – there are pros and cons of every potential option and so whatever decision was made would disadvantage one set of clubs more than others.
A decision had to be made now and my view is still that the curtailing of the season now rather than continue to wait for conditions and let’s not forget, Government advice in the strongest possible terms, is the correct decision. Nobody knows when we will be able to return to some kind of normality and with that at front of mind, it is correct that the season should end here and now. Without any definitive decision on the ending of the 2019/20 season, clubs at Steps 3-7 would face problems such as:
- Playing and coaching staff – Approximately 90% of players at Step 3 will be Non-Contract status which means that come the last Saturday of the season, they will be “free agents”. They do not get paid by most clubs until the season starts, so clubs would have to rely on their good nature that they would return freely to play once the season started. There would also need to be a 3-4 week pre-season period where they train together so even if the restrictions are lifted in early June a return to action is unlikely until July, by which time we would be in the pre-season period for 2020-21.
- Pitches and ground maintenance – Traditionally, the ground maintenance and pitch preparation period starts in early May. If there is the possibility that games will need to be played at some point in the Summer, this essential work cannot take place and that could do irreparable damage for future seasons. You can’t reseed pitches in the dead of winter.
- Teams with nothing to play for – With no revenue coming through the gates, clubs need to budget accordingly. There are some clubs that are essentially safe from relegation and have almost zero chance of promotion or reaching the play-offs. They may decide to release all of their playing staff now and when the season restarts, simply play a team of 16 years old. Consequently they get thumped in every game – is that fair on the other teams in the league who they have already played twice?
- A further outbreak of COVID-19 – Let’s assume we restarted the season in July with an average of 9 games to play and a time limit of 4 weeks to complete them in. It is inconceivable that COVID-19 will have simply disappeared, so what happens if a team reports members of their squad with symptoms? They will not be able to fulfil their fixtures and so we come back to a situation where the league can’t be completed. Suppose they are a team fighting relegation? Is it fair to relegate them even if they cannot complete their games?
There is no right or wrong decision here, just a sensible one for the future of the Non-League game. Clubs all the way down the Non-League pyramid are having to make decisions to try to ensure their own survival and knowing that the season has been terminated takes one major uncertainty out of the equation. The rights and wrongs of having no promotion or relegation will be debated long and hard for weeks, if not months but it is time for the game to pull together with one voice that first and foremost puts the health and safety of everyone involved first.