The National League: From Despair to… Where?

by | Mar 27, 2021

A rancorous season in the National League hit a new low yesterday afternoon, with the news that clubs that were unable to fulfil fixtures as the season ground to its inevitable halt will be punitively fined and docked points for next season as a result. In the perverse world that these three divisions have become over the course of this season, we probably should be surprised by this. The National League has acted all season as though it doesn’t actually like a lot of their member clubs, but they should still be called to account over the small question of what good this latest act of idiocy is actually intended to achieve.

To rewind briefly first, though, The National League season only even began after funding was made available through grants to enable this to happen. The grants were awarded at the start of October, and the calculation used to distribute it among clubs was heavily criticised. Whatever this calculation was, clubs had been led to believe that attendances and costs would be the driving factor behind it, but when the announcement of the distribution was made, few could work out any rhyme or reason behind the amounts given to different clubs. After calling investigators to look at the calculations they used, they then refused to make the findings public.

An altogether more egregious state of affairs, however, was already brewing. These grants were supposed to fund clubs through to the end of the year, but when the new year came around, the announcement was made that future funding would only come from loans from Sport England. It was clear that clubs had been misled. Many would not have started the season at all had they known that they would have been forced to borrow heavily against their future, while others complained that the league seemed to be encouraging clubs to take out loans that they would (at best) struggle to ever repay or, at worst, even effectively leading them towards the likelihood of a future insolvency event, which might even be considered illegal, under current insolvency law. The league ignored such complaints – though it never did explain how so many clubs could have got such a distinct impression that future funding would come through grants as well – and ploughed on regardless.

When it came around, the league’s vote over whether to continue the season only added to the mess. The clubs of the league voted overall for the National League season to continue for its North & South to be curtailed, all of which started to cause rifts between clubs that wanted to continue and those who felt that they couldn’t afford to. In the National League, Dover Athletic furloughed their players and stated bluntly that they couldn’t afford to continue and would be playing no further matches, while newly-promoted King’s Lynn Town stated that they could afford to play two further matches and no more.

Meanwhile, as the National League tried to continue as though everything was normal, the clubs below it who wanted to play on submitted a proposal for mini-leagues so that they could continue. The combined mini-league would have seen clubs play each other once, with the champions promoted automatically and another via play-offs, but the FA rejected this proposal, a decision which also ensured that there will no relegation from the National League come the end of this season. Their statement read:

Consideration was also given to an alternative sporting solution at step two in line with a proposal submitted by certain step two clubs that wished to continue playing.

The Alliance Committee rejected the proposal, and any alternative, in the interest of the integrity of the National League System.

Further reasons for this decision will be communicated directly to clubs in due course.

Setting aside the small matter of whether there is any integrity left at this level of the game after this disastrously managed season, that did, at least, seem to be that. The calculations had been made, the votes had been cast and, no matter how imperfect it might all have been, at least the matter of what actually was happening was finally put to bed once and for all. This, however, turned out to be wishful thinking, and late yesterday afternoon the National League announced that its indepenent panel had decided what to do with clubs who had to stop playing earlier this year because they could’t afford to continue.

The worst affected club is Dover Athletic. Dover have at least been consistent in being vocal about their precarious financial position since before the start of the season, and furloughed all of their players, management and staff in February because they felt they could not continue without ‘appropriate funding’ being put in place. They have been hit with a £40,000 fine and a twelve point deduction to be put in place for the start of next season. If the club were to end up folding – and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if the owners thought, “What, exactly, is the point?” – then the National League itself can only be considered directly responsible for this having happened.

They’re not the only ones, either. Not all of them have made their fines public, but sixteen other clubs have also been hit with fines or points deductions, including Dulwich Hamlet and Slough Town (£8,000 each), Bradford Park Avenue (£6,000) and Southport (£4,000). Two clubs, Southport and King’s Lynn Town, have also been fined a further £2,000 each for breaches of Covid-19 protocols, with King’s Lynn’s being suspended because theirs was unintentional. Gateshead received a 30% deduction on a £2,000 fine imposed for failing to fulfil an away fixture at AFC Fylde that should have been played on the 13th of February because they accepted the charge.

Unsurprisingly, the response to all of this from the clubs most severely affected has been incandescent. Dover Athletic haven’t spoken publicly yet, other than to confirm that they “will be appealing to the Football Association and are also seeking legal advice”. Dulwich Hamlet’s chairman Ben Glasper told the Southwark News that, “We’ve put it to them in writing that we’re not going to put our players or physios in a position where we compel them to play, but it falls on completely deaf ears. It’s this idiotic determination to continue. They’ll get you onto a pitch whenever and how often they can.” Bradford Park Avenue’s Director of Football Martin Knight told the Bradford Telegraph & Argus that, “It is a joke – we could not financially afford to play those games They lied to us in October and put our club in financial jeopardy.”

Slough Town issued a statement in which they said that, “We are dismayed with the decision and will be submitting an appeal to the Football Association at the earliest opportunity.” Southport said that, “It is hugely disappointing that at a time when the clubs have had no income of their own whatsoever for over 12 months, and a number of clubs are clearly struggling to survive, the National League have seen fit to effectively ‘put the boot in’ by imposing financial sanctions for games that are of no relevance at all as they have been deemed “null and void”.

It mighe be argued that there is a logic behind these decisions. With no relegation to play for at the bottom of the National League, we might assume that the League wanted to send out a warning to other clubs who are still playing, but without anything much to play for. This, however, only really serves to underline how ridiculous the decision to force clubs to keep playing when they’d voted to send their season early. Unless we’re working to the ridiculous principle that clubs that have not been fulfilling their fixtures because they don’t want to, then why on earth are they being sanctioned when they’re already in a desperate financial position, and in no small part because the League itself lied to them and allowed them to believe that future funding beyond the end of last year would also come in the form of grants rather than loans?

Indeed, even the idea that clubs would be supported for the rest of the season by loans isn’t, strictly speaking, true. Clubs haven’t been given low interest loans – they were invited to apply for them, and not all of them were successful. When the grant money was distributed by the National League last year, Boreham Wood were, by the mysterious algorithm used by the League, one of its biggest beneficiaries. If they needed this support in October, one might assume that their application for a loan to continue would have been an open and shut case, but instead the club was told three weeks ago that its loan application had been rejected.

They’re not the only ones, either. Earlier this week, Chester found that their loan appplication had also been rejected, and the club’s financial prudence has been given as the reason for this rejection. The club’s statement on the matter hinted at the exasperation that is now being felt by many clubs at the cack-handed way in which this is being managed. If clubs that have been prudently run throughout this crisis are being rejected for loans, then what does that say about the National League’s attitudes to club finances? If loans were likely to be rejected, were the terms under which clubs could apply even made clear before they voted on whether to continue or not?

Because as things stand, the National League’s attitude seems to be that clubs should play on come what may, and that if there are casualties as a result of this, then, well, tough shit. It is a disgusting, amoral and negligent pose to strike, and the league’s reputation has already been shredded by the events of the last few months. Furthermore, the anger has now reached such a level that the directors of the League itself may well end up coming to reap what they’ve sewn. A number of clubs are now reported to be considering a vote of no confidence in the board of directors of the National League, and if those directors do all end up losing their positions come the League’s AGM in June, it can only really be considered that they will only have themselves to blame.

The National League lied to its clubs about future funding at the start of the season, when (and likely “because”) many of them would have refused to start the season had they known that would have had to be borrowing money to keep going come the turn of the year. The oversaw a hopelessly convoluted and divisive vote over whether to continue the season under the false pretence that clubs would definitely be able to get loans. Their conduct and their conduct alone has dragged the name of the League through the mud and they are now endangering the existence of their member clubs through punitive fines and apoints deductions over matters that the clubs could barely control. Morally bankrupt and dangerously incompetent, those running the National League need to be replaced at the earliest available opportunity, if only to safeguard the future of the clubs in their three divisions.