The National League: Divided, But Decided

by | Feb 18, 2021

And that, it would seem, is that. Except it isn’t. But we’ll come back to that.

There aren’t too many more reliable sources in non-league football than BBC Three Counties Radio’s Ollie Bayliss, and this evening he tweeted that:
The National League North & South season has been declared null & void. Following voting from clubs, the season has been ended with no promotions/relegations to or from the divisions. The National League (Step 1) clubs have voted to continue their season.

He followed that up with confirmation that the National League North and South seasons will end with immediate effect, while the top division will play on until the end of the season:

  • Resolution 1 (to let clubs to vote on their own step) – NL: 21 for, 0 against; NLN: 16 for, 6 against; NLS: 9 for, 1 against.
  • Resolution 2 (to end Step 1) – NL: 7 for, 13 against.
  • Resolution 3 (to end Step 2) NLN: 15 for, 7 against. NLS: 9 for, 12 against.

The league, it turned out, was split. The resolution to allow the two steps to vote on their own divisions was passed relatively comfortably, but the two separate resolutions revealed deep divides. The National League will continue, but a third of clubs voted to end the season. The National Leagues North & South voted to end their seasons, but again the vote was split. More National League South clubs voted to play on, but this was irrelevant. Across the three divisions, 31 clubs voted to end the season and 32 voted to play on, but 43 of the clubs’ league seasons are now over, whether they like it or not.

Of course, such a situation throws up questions of its own. Promotion and relegation between the National League and the EFL should continue as per normal, but there will not be any promotion or relegation between the two steps. Presumably, there will be no relegation from the NLN or NLS either, and the ripple effect down through the steps of the non-league game is clear. Leagues below this level – the “trident leagues”, as the Isthmian, Northern Premier & Southern Leagues like to call themselves these days – haven’t yet voted on whether to end their seasons or not, but it is surely now considerably more likely that they will also vote to end their seasons.

There was no way that there could ever have been a one-size-sits-all answer to these agonising questions that didn’t involve further grants from the government, rather than loans. We may disagree profoundly with the government’s position over this – indeed, non-league administrative incompetence and squabbling has let the government itself off the hook quite a bit – but the DCMS has at least been consistent with it. We might well not like it, but at least we know what it was. It is the thinnest gossamer of a silver lining.

Quite how the rupture of communication between the league itself and the clubs came about, though, we still do not know. We do know that for several months the clubs were convinced that further grants would be provided to them. The funding was due to be reviewed again for the end of the December, and it is on the record that the government was being non-committal on the subject at the time of the first payments. It seems vanishingly unlikely that clubs would have even started the season had they believed otherwise, though, so if this was the position of so many clubs, how on earth could the league be unaware of this major problem brewing? It beggars belief.

The alternative theory is altogether darker. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the National League could have falsely told clubs that further grants would be issued when they had no assurances of the sort, just to persuade them to start the season. Such an action could be considered kicking the can down the road. Putting all their eggs in the basket of further funding not being needed by the end of December. At the end of September, the National League might have been able to convince itself that the worst was over and that life was getting back to normal. Crowds were starting to return to matches. For the optimist or the desperate, the appeal of a straight line back to normality is obvious.

This feeling of distrust towards the League isn’t completely baseless, though. It’s a marginally different matter, but it was hardly as though the distribution of the first round of payments went smoothly, either. Clubs claimed that they were led to believe that crowd size would be the biggest part of the calculation for the amount to be paid out, but this then didn’t seem to happen, with considerable inconsistencies between the amounts being paid to clubs. The League was so stung by the widespread criticism of this that they called an independent panel in to look at their process chaired by Lord Bernstein, a highly experienced administrator. Since this report was returned, though, the Natonal League has kept its findings to itself, which led to a stinging public statement from Bernstein, issued just before Christmas.

At the time of writing, everybody has their hopes pinned on the vaccines working as hoped, and that its roll-out will continue to be a success. It was always likely that there would be a second wave. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19 came in three waves, the first in the Spring of 1918, the second in the Autumn & Winter of 1918, and the third in the Winter 1918 and the Spring of 1919.

But the experience of the last two or three months has worn many of us down. Our patience is now paper-thin, and it’s not easy for anybody. It’s important to bear in mind that while teams will vote in what they perceive their best interests to be, everybody is under pressure and there were no easy choices to be taken. But we shouldn’t forget that there will be clubs who suffer from this. Dover Athletic, for example, are marooned at the bottom of the National League and now have to play the remainder of their season, presumably funded by these loans that no-one wanted to take out.

The decisions taken have probably been the right ones, but now might be a good time for some degree of reconciliation between clubs. They could start in no better place than rounding on those that have been running their league this season, and especiialy wth Brian Barwick, who has been effectively absent from his position with no explanation as to why for more than two months. If there is a good reason for his ongoing silence, then fair enough. But if he was unable to actually run this particular league at this particular time, to show the leadership and experience that he is handsomely paid for, then he should have stepped aside, because good leadership was the one thing that the 66 clubs of the league really needed from the National League, and it was the one thing that they definitely didn’t get.

There will be further decisions to be made – indeed, even this one still has to be ratified by the FA, though that is largely considered a formality – but this was the big one, and it’s the one that should at least ensure the future of the clubs of the National Leagues North & South, and with the clubs of the National League not being relegated. There may yet be changes to this, but on the whole the actual casualties within the non-league game have, so far, been relatively slight. Today’s votes probably help that to continue, but that doesn’t let the National League’s senior management off the hook in the slightest. This needs to be investigated, from top to bottom.