The National League: Spiralling Out of Control

by | Feb 12, 2021

As we have seen repeatedly over the last twelve months, calm and authorative leadership is required in times of crisis in order to prevent disaster. For those who are familiar with it, it comes as little surprise to see that the board of the National League has been largely conspicuous by their absence over the last week or so, in all but the most unhelpful of senses. As we reported earlier this week, the National League is in a state of crisis that is entirely of its own making, and the league’s lack of authority is now at the point of actively endangering its member clubs. This could either be bad leadership or no leadership at all. It’s so difficult to say, that it’s likely the latter.

On Wednesday, Dulwich Hamlet posted a lengthy open letter explaining how the league’s decisions are impacting upon their season. You can read the entire letter here, but it’s best encapsulated by the its ending, which shines a harsh light on just how uncoordinated and senseless the league’s thinking has been on the matter, to the point that insisting on clubs continuing with this season and taking out loans – which clubs themselves have already stated they will not be able to repay – can easily be interpreted as encouraging clubs to break the league’s own financial rules, and still worse that:

Out of money? Against their rules.

Negotiate with HMRC? Against their rules

Private loan? Against their rules

Sport England loan? Against their rules

Play on and get into debt you can’t pay? Against their rules

Don’t play on and stay afloat? Against their rules

Play on with academy or U23? Against their rules

It’s reasonable to assume that the National League would waive their own rules on Sport England loans, because that seems to be the only solution to the current impasse that the League will tolerate. They appear to have taken no notice whatsoever of anybody who has suggested that this will not work for them, and they seem blithely dismissive of the fact that company directors can be deemed to have broken the law if they trade while insolvent or load their companies with debt that they have no chance whatsoever of being able to repay.

None of this is to say, however, that clubs haven’t already started bending the existing rules in order to try and keep themselves in order. NLS club Billericay Town have already put all their players on furlough and, since they aren’t allowed to use any of their furloughed players, played their home match against St Albans City last weekend with a team made up of under-23 and non-contracted players, who earned an impressive 2-2 draw against the team in third place in the table. Maidstone United have confirmed this afternoon that they will also be furloughing their contracted players and office staff. More are likely to follow.

As if to demonstrate their apparent love of pouring fuel onto fires, the one area in which the National League has been busy this week has been in sending threatening letters to clubs that have been unable to play fixtures recently. Jim Parmenter of Dover Athletic may have resigned his position on league’s board on Monday and Brian Barwick may have been silent, but Mark Ives, the General Secretary of the National League, certainly hasn’t, sending letters to several clubs, including Chippenham Town, Dulwich Hamlet, Slough Town, Bath City, Southport and Concord Rangers, confirming the start of disciplinary action for the non-fulfilment of fixtures. It is at this point that it becomes very difficult to avoid the belief that those issuing this sort of letter at this particular time are little more than sadists, taking pleasure from the suffering of their member clubs. The Concord Rangers response, from chairman Antony Smith, was strong:

Mark

We will not be answering this charge.

I explained to you personally and in an email that until our club had testing in place, we would not fulfil the one fixture last Saturday, the very fact that you have announced a few days later that you have secured free testing for all clubs is mitigation that we had “just cause” and as an “elite” club competition you had failed in your duty of care during this pandemic to protect your member clubs’ players, staff and volunteers.

The competition has also failed in its duty to protect all clubs from its very own rules, and try to actually engage them in taking loans due to misleading information given to us by the competition last October.

Again, the fact my accounts that I have sent to Sport England show we will be trading insolvent in a matter of weeks is also “just cause.”

Dulwich Hamlet, meanwhile, had this to say on the charge brought against them:

So after laying out the farcical situation we find ourselves in, the league at least offer some clarity. We will be charged for not playing.

The bullying continues.

And Slough Town had this to say about theirs:

We are disappointed that the Vanarama National League has seen it necessary to charge us with not fulfilling fixtures at this time.

We stand in solidarity with Dulwich Hamlet, Southport and Bath City, and others in the same position – we are all in this together.

This afternoon, though, the National League finally said something on the subject, in the form of an official statement:

Many things have been written regarding charges recently raised in connection for non-fulfilment of fixtures under League Rules.

It may be helpful to explain that this process is merely a mechanism for the League to deal with each of the occasions for non-fulfilment. No fines or sanctions have been raised or recommended and this will be considered at the next stage.

An Independent Panel will be appointed to hear each case and it will be at this stage the issue of ‘just cause” as outlined in the rule will be objectively assessed in each case based on the evidence before them.

In the interest of fairness of all parties, the cases will not be heard until such time as the outcome of the resolutions are known.

It is important that the framework in place is followed in a consistent manner in all cases and Clubs are able to make their representations appropriately and fairly.

The League will not make any comment during the process on individual cases in fairness to all Clubs but will issue the outcomes and reasons for the decisions following their conclusions.

Should Clubs remain unsatisfied with the outcome they will also all have the opportunity to appeal the decision directly to The Football Association which will be heard by a further Independent Panel in line with The FA Rules and Regulations.

Of course, none of this means anything in itself. This would be the process for determining a non-fulfilment of fixtures regardless of what the ciircumstances surrounding such an eventuality might be. The fact that they’re making a statement on the matter, however, does mean something in itself. Whether the league’s sponsors, Vanarama, have been spooked by the level of negative attention now being associated with their name, or whether they’re merely disquieted by it all, this feels like an attempt to calm the situation down.

The problem with this, of course, is that it’s all come in the wrong order. It’s no good issuing these threats and then, several days later after a shitstorm has occurred as a result of the understandably belligerent response of clubs to them, issuing a statement which says so little. It still remains the case that the league intends to see through disciplinary proceedings against clubs who are not in a position to be able to play matches at present. And as the week has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that the fault for this entire mess rests squarely on the shoulders of the National League.

There has still been no explanation given as to why clubs were told that the second tranche of payments to be made to them would be in the form of grants rather than loans when this was evidently not the case. Similarly, it remains a matter of the utmost importance that the report into distribution of the first round of funding is made public. It is, frankly, astonishing that the National League have been able to get away with this sort of behaviour – requesting this investigation and then refusing to make public what its findings were – and, when combined with their misleading clubs over the source of future funding, we are left with little alternative to consider the senior of the league to be fundamentally corrupted and untrustworthy. When people call non-league football “tin pot”, this is exactly the sort of behaviour they’re talking about. To say that it is disappointing to see such astonishing mismanagement from such a senior league would be a considerable understatement.

The news is a little better further down the pyramid. Step 3-6 clubs have at least received an extension to the 17th February for them to be able to apply for grants. These vary according to which level of the non-league pyramid they play at – Step 3: £27,000, Step 4: £15,000, Step 5: £10,500, Step 6: £7,500 – and they must use the funding by 31st March 2021. It’s difficult to see that being too much of a challenge to many clubs, though there will doubtless be some left wondering why the amounts are fixed per step rather than based more directly on need, while others may be wondering why these clubs are receiving grants whilst this is apparently impossible for clubs playing in the top two divisions.

The fundamentals of the National League’s now-existential crisis remain the same, though. Whether those running the league are incompetent or dishonest is a question for a later date, but we are left to consider that one or other of these has to be true. We don’t know whether they lied over the funding of the second round of payments to be made to clubs in order to get the season started (there was every chance it might not have, had clubs known that they’d be expected to take on loans from the new year on). We don’t know what Lord Bernstein’s report into their distribution of the first round said, or the reasons why they haven’t published it. We don’t know why they didn’t just suspend operations until the results of the votes from clubs were made and everybody knew exactly where they stood. But we do have a good idea of what strong leadership looks like. This, absolutely, catergorically, is not strong leadership.