2019-20: The season that never was

If a week is a long time in politics, it must be a veritable era in non-league football, so dizzying have the events of the last seven days been.

On Monday, I predicted the season would be brought to a close, because of the Coronavirus pandemic. I was right about that, but my view that promotion and relegation would be determined by 'Points Per Game' ratios, or PPG, proved to be off-target.

Instead, on Thursday, The FA announced that:

"The FA and NLS steps three to six have reached a consensus that their 2019-20 season will now be brought to an end, and all results will be expunged. This will mean no promotion or relegation of clubs between NLS steps three to six, and no promotion to NLS step two.

"These decisions will also apply to the leagues and clubs who play at NLS step seven.

"We will continue to assist and support the National League (NLS steps one and two) to determine the outcome of its 2019-20 season as quickly as possible. The planned implementation of the restructure of the NLS will also now be deferred until the start of the 2021-22 season."

I wholeheartedly agree with calling a halt to football for as long as is required; the game pales into insignificance at times like these. However, I was left reeling by the decision to expunge all of the results from Step 3 to Step 7.

It felt, frankly, like a slap in the face.

Yes, that sounds melodramatic. It could even be argued that given that rendering the season void benefited a club close to my heart, I should have been happy with the outcome. But I'm not, because it disregards the work done by players, coaches and volunteers, like me.

Between July and October, I designed and edited nine editions of Prescot Cables' programme, The Walloper, putting many hours into each one. After I stepped down from that role, I continued to administer the club website and provided radio commentary on several occasions. All of that time and effort counts for nothing now; I put my energy into games that, in the eyes of the governing body, simply didn't happen.

The idea that, as far as future generations will be concerned, the 2019-20 season didn't take place, is what bothers me. It shouldn't, I know. People are dying and preventing the spread of the virus must be everyone's priority. But there were five weeks left of the season at the point when the decision was made, so simply wiping out the tables seems over the top to me.

Speaking to The NPL Show on Friday, Northern Premier League Chairman Mark Harris indicated that the NPL's first choice was to use PPG to decide who goes up and down. However, Mr Harris also disclosed that the League still had 25% of the matches in its three divisions to be played and pointed out that the League would have breached their own rules if they had promoted more than one club without using play-offs. The NPL's position was just one view which would have been considered alongside the positions taken by the Southern and Isthmian League, plus the Step 5 and 6 competitions. The decision to declare the season "null and void" would presumably have been a majority view.

Therefore, if The FA Council ratify the proposal, the campaign will never have happened. That is extraordinarily harsh on a couple of Step 6 clubs - in the North West Counties League, Vauxhall Motors had already clinched promotion, as had Combined Counties League side Jersey Bulls, who had won all 27 of their fixtures in that competition. At the top of Step 3, South Shields were 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals in the NPL Premier Division, while Worthing were 7 points clear at the top of the Isthmian League. Both would have considered themselves 'set fair' to reach Step 2. Both clubs have indicated their intention to fight their corners.

There's no 'right' answer to this problem; clubs relegated on PPG would argue that they might have picked up the points required to survive. If the tables had been fixed in this way, how many clubs would have gone up and down? For many clubs, just drawing a line under things now makes sense. As I alluded to earlier, Ashford Town (Middlesex), of whom I am a Life Vice-President, have had any worries about relegation eliminated at a stroke. But try telling Jersey Bulls, or Vauxhall Motors, or Lower Breck, or 1874 Northwich, that wiping the slate clean is the best way forward.

It remains to be seen whether those clubs looking to contest The FA's decision will be successful. Either way, the events of the last week will go down in the game's history.

© 2020 Gareth Coates