The much ridiculed European Super League you say? No actually, the National League. If in years gone by we ever thought some of the Ryman League decisions might be called amateurish, the people running the National League take this to an unprecedented level.
I wrote in a blog a few months back that I didn’t think the season should go ahead through the pandemic. For me it has been an unmitigated disaster. It has risked the short term health of players and officials, the long term health of member clubs and given up the integrity of the very competition it purports to hold dear. All of this sacrificed on the alter of the only thing that matters, keeping two promotion/relegation places with the EFL.
It seemed to me that in the midst of the pandemic sending players and officials up and down the country was hard to defend, morally or thinking about the health of those involved.
As winter arrived, and the Covid statistics went mad, we saw clubs postponing matches regularly, as players (or those close to the players) showed symptoms. Given the rest of the country had basically shut down what was the benefit in keeping non league football going. I can sort of see why the Premier League or Championship continued, with so much live coverage made available for millions stuck at home. For so-called elite sportsmen they had constant testing regimes, ‘bio bubbles’ and whatever other precautions or support were available.
The National League? No testing support, until way too late. To me it seemed there was zero concern about the potential of illness or spreading the virus. Imagine if a player or more likely an older coach/manager/official had caught the virus from a player and ended up seriously ill or worse. Way to go National League.
But it wasn’t just a lack of testing or medical support was it? This is the league that said “we won’t play without fans” unless grants were made available. Initially they were so the season started, not without controversy in the way they were given out. The National League then appointed former FA Chairman to investigate the handling of the grants. What did Bernstein end up saying? He called the National League’s actions “concerning”. He referenced a “lack of concern” around potential conflicts of interests”. And he described “a lack of courtesy in acknowledging our efforts and in responding to correspondence and can only interpret that as an attempt to undermine the credibility of the independent panel”, a panel the National League themselves set up.
Then we were treated to the “he said she said” embarrassment where the government said no to future grants – loans instead – and the National League said, well what did they say? That no minutes were taken from the meeting wasn’t it?
This government can be hard to believe most of the time, but if the choice is who do you believe between the DCMS or the National League, well I might be tempted to give the government the benefit of the doubt.
So no further grants and no fans, but we played on. Well most did, Dover didn’t. Dover said that with revenues almost zero they couldn’t afford to play. That isn’t the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. Of course with no sense of irony, the penalty for not being able to afford to play is a £40,000 fine. You couldn’t make it up. Unless you are on the National League Board of course.
While there is sympathy with Dover, what of the many other clubs struggling to keep their heads above water with no income, like ourselves. Continuing to play must have cost way more than £40,000 and for what reason?
Because this league received a number of ‘basket case’ clubs from the EFL in recent years, they set themselves up to be a model for financial propriety. That’s basically been thrown out of the window.
If putting people’s actual health and Club’s financial health at risk wasn’t enough well the very integrity of the competition has also been summarily dispensed with.
Given my earlier view, I supported ending the National League North and South seasons early. But not the National League itself. So no relegation. Not even for Dover bizarrely, rather the aforementioned fine and the a 12 point penalty next season, a season where we’ll continue to have an odd number of teams in the league.
And what does no relegation mean? Simply, it means no point.
But we do have promotion. And at the top end of the table we have clubs who continue to splash the cash with the aim of securing one of those two coveted promotion spots; with Stockport rumoured to have bought a player recently for 250,000!
If it wasn’t men against boys before well what is now? Clubs like Wealdstone took the only sensible option open to them to stem the losses and try to put in measures to safeguard as much cash as possible for next season. Players were furloughed, kids came in and squads were cut to the bone.
It is hardly surprising that we are losing matches by big scores. And yet it doesn’t matter. Only it does, in the moment. Even though I’ve stopped watching the live coverage. the pain as each of the goals conceded comes up on the score notifications doesn’t go away. For Wealdstone you can only think we would actually be doing better if relegation was still a possibility. But without that motivation, it is incredibly hard. it’s hard enough for fans to watch but for the rookie management team, not being given the tools to show what they can achieve, it is incredibly tough.
And then, at the end of May, it will be over and instantly forgotten. Hopefully the away days that we so wanted in this league might be available to us next season when we can have a proper go at this league – a proper go given our resources. We may still struggle, we may even still get relegated but I hope we can do that properly getting as much value from the budget available to us.
What I realised a long time ago was if it was just about watching football then I might drift away from the game. This season the National League has done its best to accelerate that. But football is about much more than what happens on the pitch. it is about seeing your mates, spending time with people you’ve been friendly with for 30-40 years, enjoying the same old jokes and meaningless conversations. That is why supporting a Club is important. The emotional ties you have go far deeper than any set of results.
As for the National League. The National League lost its General Manager in December and Chairman Brian Barwick will step down at the end of the season. Perhaps that tells you something. I am so pleased I’m not involved in football administration any more. When I was Chairman, I often wondered what the motivation was for those administrators who ran leagues, but at least the people I dealt with came across as principled people, with a deep desire to take the game forward. I guess that remains, as long as taking the game forward means keeping the two promotion places.
My own view on the Super League this week was that the announcement was inevitable, crass and then a complete PR disaster. Perhaps they hired people close to those running the National League to advise them.