So now we know … or do we?

A view on the 2019-20 season by Andrew Warshaw

As part of a planned series of articles for Town supporters during the lockdown, Associate Director Andrew Warshaw has offered a personal view on the ending and outcomes of the 2019-20 non-league season. Many thanks to Andrew; more pieces are scheduled to follow!

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So now we know. Or do we?
The National League have finally voted to end their regular season at its current point, a decision that falls into line with the rest of English non-league football below Step 2. At last some consistency, you might say. Well up to a point. It’s not over yet.

Crucially, in contrast to the Isthmian League, and indeed everyone else below Step 2, the National League and its North and South have controversially left open what happens with promotion and relegation which are still, we are told, “under careful consideration”.

One obvious knock-on effect of this is that it has fuelled an ongoing debate lower down the pyramid, and understandably so. The difference is that whereas all results from day one have been expunged in our league and those at the same level or lower, there has been no clear indication of what the next steps will be in terms of deciding the conclusion of Steps One and Two, including end-of-season play-offs as well as promotion and relegation.

But is this really fair? Because what it means is that season isn’t technically over for the non-league haves as opposed to the have-nots. Several teams in the smaller leagues had already gained promotion but this will now be cancelled as will relegations.
The same may still happen further higher up the scale, of course, leaving National League leaders Barrow for instance to suffer potential heartbreak over missing out on promotion to the dizzy heights of the Football League for first time in 48 years. Or it may not. We should know soon.

Notts County, playing in non-league football for the first time in their 158-year history this season, were third in the National League table at the time football was halted across the country in March. “We would like to place on record our disappointment that the season has been brought to a premature end,” said a statement from their board of directors. “While we appreciate the views of other clubs and respect the overall outcome of this vote as a representation of opinion across the three divisions, our stance has always been that the National League should operate in tandem with the EFL due to the intrinsic link between the two leagues. We were therefore opposed to this vote being imposed.”

County manager Neil Ardley added: “A basic principle of fair play suggests that teams at the top and bottom should be given an opportunity to get what they deserve. At the top, that means play-offs.” York City, top of National League North by two points, agree with this stance. A club statement said: “Throughout the process, York City FC has put forward a strong case to see promotions honoured and will continue to do so until a decision is made.”

Fair enough, but I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. It surely has to be the same for everyone. If the likes of Barrow and York are allowed to go up, those lower down the pyramid will claim they should have been given the same opportunity. Take Northern Premier League Premier Division leaders South Shields, who were set for promotion to National League North with a massive 13-point gap ahead of second place but will now spend another campaign at Step 3. “If it’s applicable to Barrow, it’s applicable to us and numerous other clubs around the country,” bemoaned South Shields chairman Geoff Thompson. “We feel the process has been wrong all along.”

And what about Worthing in the Isthmian Premier who led the league comfortably when matches were called off? “Whenever football is allowed to resume, we could have completed our league in four weeks,” their young chairman George Dowell, told me. “Everyone at the club has worked so hard. Money, time, effort. Getting promotion to National South would have been the highest the club’s ever been. It’s heart-breaking.”

You can understand his frustration. As usual money talks. Just as Premier League clubs dwarf the rest of English professional football when it comes to financial clout, so the top non-league clubs are far better off than other grass-roots teams who have no broadcasting deals and have to rely solely on gate receipts.

It’s a tough equation and there are arguments on both sides which will take some time to abate. But I have a suggestion. During the season we unfortunately lost Bury as a member of the Football League. The club’s demise rendered League Two one club short. That has to be resolved somehow so why not, as a compromise and just for one season, given Covid-19, go back to how football used to be in the old days and reward just the champion? In other words, promote National League Barrow to take Bury’s place and do the same thing pro rata down the pyramid, forgetting all about play-offs etc.

It’s not ideal and I know it would throw up other complications but at least it would reward teams that have ultimately been the best in their respective divisions over a season as a whole. Which surely is what success deserves.

* these are not necessarily the views of Enfield Town FC