Stevenage’s Enormous Strokes of Luck
It’s an ill wind, and all that. Has there been a luckier football club in 2021 so far than Stevenage? They were dismal beyond all comprehension last season, recording just three league wins from the 37 league matches played before the season was curtailed. With two promotion and relegation places on offer, there is no question that, in ordinary times, such a disastrous record would be plenty sufficient to relegate a club from League Two, but this season isn’t like any other.
Stevenage’s first round of good luck – and I should be clear that this can only be considered “good luck” in the narrowest, most self-interested of respects – came 350 days ago, when Bury were expelled from the EFL. This occurence – literally a once in a century event, given that the last time a football club was expelled by the League was Leeds City, in September 1919 – meant that, in order to realign the EFL to its full quota of clubs there would be only three relegation places from League One and one relegation place at the bottom of League Two.
Their second slice of luck came with Macclesfield Town sliding seamlessly into Bury’s position in – and it’s a crowded field – the EFL’s biggest financial basket case of last season. Having survived relegation at the end of the season before by the skin of their teeth, thanks in no small part to a rescue overseen by Sol Campbell, their persistent failure to do the most basic thing that any business should be doing (paying their staff on time) left them open to (and then in March subject to) a disciplinary charge from the EFL.
For Stevenage, the run of good fortune continued with an investigation into a complaint brought by Oldham Athletic after Stevenage over the postponement of a fixture between the two clubs on 16th November 2019 due to international call ups. All the charges were dropped, and club chairman Phil Wallace took the time to conclude the club’s subsequent statement on the matter by saying, “We are greatly indebted to Nick De Marco QC who represented us in the hearing and who did such an excellent job to ensure that justice was done.” Some social wags have, of course, pointed out that De Marcos was almost certainly, considering their playing record, their player of the season.
Even all of this, however, wasn’t enough to keep Stevenage in the EFL come the end of last season. With the season curtailed by the pandemic, they finished it in 23rd place in League Two with just three wins and 22 points from their 36 matches. Still, though, the breaks that ultimately led to the weirdest escape from relegation in the 139 years since it was introduced into the Football League kept coming.
Macclesfield town made substantial headlines over the course of last season for their financial issues, and over the course of this season those particular chickens have been coming home to roost. In December 2019 they were given a ten point deduction with four suspended for the non-payment of salaries and failing to fulfil a fixture against Crewe. In March, this was reduced to 7 points with 3 suspended after the club appealed.
This meant the club were deducted 4 points with immediate effect, and in May they picked up a further 7 point deduction for failing to play a match against Plymouth and non-payment of wages, including the suspended 3 points from the first case being applied to the second punishment, with a further 2 points suspended. That took the total deduction for the season to 11 points, with 6 suspended. When the season was curtailed and PPG was decided as the best means to resolve it, that 11 point penalty rose exactly the same, to 13.67 points. Confused yet? The feeling’s mutual.
In June, an independent disciplinary commission docked Macclesfield the two suspended points and gave them a £20,000 fine after the charging them with misconduct in relation to delays in the payment of player wages in March. At the end of June, the EFL issued the full verdict of the independent panel, which included this now somewhat hollow sounding paragraph:
This has not been an easy or in some respects straightforward matter and it is to be hoped that the circumstances do not arise again. In the end we have no doubt that MTFC’s misconduct, whilst egregious, does not necessitate a sporting sanction which would result in its relegation from League Two. It does require however a significant but suspended points reduction, unusually, for next season.
The EFL subsequently appealed the commission’s decision, and on yesterday an arbitration panel confirmed not only that the two point deduction would stay in place, but also that, in addition, Macclesfield would be deducted the four further suspended points, changing their Points Per-Game total for the season to 23.62, afdrift of Stevenage’s end of season PPG of 28.11 and therefore in bottom place in the entire EFL. Should Macclesfield, who have been in deep financial trouble for some time, survive until the new season, they will begin it in the National League.
It’s worth bearing in mind that none of this offers Macclesfield a great deal of finality. Their latest winding up order was suspended for an eleventh time in May, over an unpaid tax debt of £72,000. The case had been due to be heard on the 25th March, a week after the lockdown was first formally imposed. And the matter impacts downwards, too. The National League is obliged to take Macclesfield Town, but it may well not do so in its top division. There’s been no official word yet from the National League itself, but it may even be that Macclesfield are demoted two divisions, straight into the National League North. That’s what happened to Boston United in 2007, and after failing to come out of administration by the end of the 2007/8 season they were demoted again, this time to the Northern Premier League.
With the League Two season due to start on the 12th September – just one calendar month away – and the National League due to follow on the 3rd October, it’s small wonder that some are up in arms about the timing of the decision, even though it doesn’t really feel as though anyone has been particularly dragging their feet over this particular question, when we factor in the exenuating circumstances surrounding it. But this will have a significant knock-on effect on divisions below the EFL, regardless of its right or wrongs. Indeed, it’s already had a significant effect upon Macclesfield Town. Manager Mark Kennedy resigned earlier today.
Macclesfield Town are on the precipice of a complete free-fall now, following a set of circumstances that would be difficult to recover from if we hadn’t been living under the extraordinary restrictions of Covid-19. Owner Amar Alkadhi resigned his position as chairman of the club last week, handing it over to a “senior management team” while a replacement is found. His malign influence over the club, however, seems likely to continue for now at least, though. He may no longer be the chairman, but he remains the majority shareholder, and whilst his stated ongoing desire to sell the club is almost certainly the best thing for Macclesfield Town, there may not be too many people queuing up to throw money onto this particular bonfire, considering both the state of the club itself and of the wider economy.
There are, of course, still questions. Did the EFL give the slightest amount of thought to the knock-on effect of this decision on the divisions below them? Should decisions of this nature really be made just a few weeks before the start of the new season? And why, when the seasons had ended in both cases, was Macclesfield’s points deduction applied this season when Sheffield Wednesday’s, which was also announced after the end of the season and was deferred to the following season, even though punishment for last season would have relegated them? If it wasn’t too late for Macclesfield Town, why was it for Sheffield Wednesday? But that’s been the nature of the EFL over these last few years, a regulator that doesn’t want to regulate, overseeing 72 clubs that don’t want to be regulated. And what’s happening to Macclesfield Town right now is yet another example of what happens when this is the way things are. Stevenage, presumably, are thanking their lucky stars.