How does non-league football move on from lockdown?

We live in extraordinary times, with Coronavirus paralysing the world. Many people look to football to provide a distraction from the daily grind, but the beautiful game has, like everything else, been halted by the unprecedented pandemic.

There's been no senior football played in England since 14th March, which was the last matchday staged by the National League, Northern Premier League and a smattering of Step 5 competitions. At the time of writing, the UK is in lockdown for at least three weeks and football at all levels is suspended until 30th April at the earliest. We don't know when it will be safe to play again; while the professional game might be able to respond quickly to a resumption of sport in May or later than that, the non-league game would face different challenges.

One of the biggest is administrative. The FA has been working on restructuring the National Leagues System and intended to launch a new division at Step 4 (Level 8) and two new divisions at the next level down. The idea is to reduce the amount of travelling clubs have to do and create a 'pure pyramid', with the National League at the top and the number of divisions doubling at each lower level. Steps 2 and 3, with two and four divisions respectively, already fit the model, so to make the next two tiers of the non-league game fit, the governing body had created a system of play-offs and promotions which meant that the Leagues needed to have played their regular season matches by April 25th.

Obviously, that can't happen now and depending on how long the containment of COVID-19 takes, it might be mid-summer before it is safe for non-league clubs to get back on the pitch. It would be absurd to attempt to finish this season then; some clubs share their grounds with cricket, while for others the logistical challenges posed by trying to cram more than a dozen League matches (plus Cup games in some cases) into three or four weeks before going straight into 2020-21 would be an extraordinary task for volunteer-run clubs.

So, what should The FA and Leagues do? The Alliance Leagues, which cover Steps 1-4, held a virtual meeting today (23rd March) to discuss their options. The FA is holding a similar session with Step 5 & 6 Leagues tomorrow. Ahead of the WebEx, the Western League made their position public:

There's a certain logic to their argument; there are a lot of games unplayed. I'm a member of the Media Team at Prescot Cables and a club in their division has only played 66% of their matches. However, the team at the top of the table, Workington, have played 82% of their games and the side with the most games to play - Pontefract Collieries - would have considered themselves contenders for the promotion play-offs, at the very least. So neither is likely to be overjoyed were the season to just be wiped from the records. This is how the table looked when the season was suspended:

 

 

But, if the season can't resume and declaring it 'null and void' isn't an option, how can the deadlock be broken?

When comparing teams from different divisions from the same step, The FA uses Points Per Game or PPG and I suspect that this might be the route they take now. Using the Northern Premier Division North/West Division as an example, this is how a table based on PPG would look:

Now, on the face of it, this table seems pretty uncontroversial. The top two are unchanged, as is the club at the bottom. Pontefract move up to third, meaning that they are not penalised for having played fewer games and my own club, Prescot Cables, drop a place. In many ways, this is a fair method of sorting the clubs, because it rewards consistency and doesn't hammer the clubs with games in hand.

However, there are scenarios where rankings based on PPG create surprising outcomes. For instance, Prescot Cables Reserves currently enjoy a commanding lead at the top of West Cheshire League Division Two:

That lead doesn't guarantee the team the Championship though:

While this shows that no tiebreaker is perfect or entirely fair, using PPG ratios does place a lot of weight on winning matches, which is why Aintree Villa jump from fourth to first, despite having playing just over half their matches.

Although PPG is an imperfect solution, it is a tool already included in the rules governing Non-League football; The FA uses it to allocate promotion places and reprieves from relegation where neccesary. It will become essential if a line is to be drawn under the 2019-20 season and the desired number of teams placed at Steps 4 and 5 to complete the restructuring.

While there is no certainty as to what the FA will do, here's what I'd suggest:

Promotion from Steps 1-4

Using PPG to calculate the League Tables, promote the relevant number of teams with the highest scores. So in the NPL North/West Division, Workington and Ramsbottom United would be elevated to Step 3.

Relegation from Steps 1-3

Those clubs who are in the relegation places once a PPG Table is finalised are relegated in the normal way.

Promotion from Step 5

Again, rank the teams using PPG. Promote all those teams who would have received automatic places - that is, the top three in the Northern, Northern Counties East and North West Counties Leagues, plus the champions of the other eleven Leagues at Step 5. The four best runners-up from those Leagues are also due to be promoted, with the other seven going into play-off matches against the clubs which finish last in the Step 4 divisions.

I would scrap those play-offs and promote all eleven runners-up. However, in the interests of fairness, I would also reprive the Step 4 clubs which finished at the foot of their divisions. This would potentially mean seven out of next season's Step 4 divisions running with 21 clubs and relegating an extra team at the end of 2020-21.

To me, this seems the 'least bad' way of providing clubs with a route forward. By ending this season and allocating clubs to their 2020-21 Leagues now, The FA would give clubs all over the country some idea of what they need to prepare for when football eventually resumes, whenever that is.

I don't have any special knowledge of what might occur and it might be crass for me to speculate at a time of crisis. But for me and so many, football is an important distraction. While there are no games being played, writing about the sport is a useful surrogate.

© 2020 Gareth Coates