The FA’s reaction to the Covid-19 health crisis is evidence of a crisis in the health of the national game. No, I don’t agree with it, and yes, it negatively affects my team, but the manner of the way it was reached, and the behaviour of the establishment that we can extrapolate from it, should alarm us far more than any of that.
Any piece about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on football must acknowledge the situation the country finds itself in. This is a global issue that is affecting every aspect of daily life. Thousands of people will lose their lives not just here but around the world, and we are facing extended disruption to society and prolonged lockdown procedures in order to best protect a health system that stands like a light blue line against a potential catastrophe that it is scandalously ill-equipped to deal with.
Had better decisions been made at an earlier point, a decade of austerity not pared back the NHS, or the nation’s air was less polluted, then perhaps we’d be in a position to better protect the vulnerable among us. Once this is all done with, we will owe a great deal to a great many, and ask justified questions of many others.
Though perhaps that is a topic for another day. Or another zine entirely.
Against any such backdrop, football pales into insignificance. I’m sure I speak for all contributors past and present when I say that I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and keeping well, and that you make efforts to support those more vulnerable than you where possible.
The recent decision by the Leagues’ Committee to null, void, and expunge the 2019/20 season, for everyone from Step 3 down in the men’s game and everyone from the third tier down in the women’s game, appears to me to be, not just the wrong one, but also indicative of some worrying trends within our governing body. It is ill-considered, was shambolically announced, and requires far more interrogation that it has been awarded so far.
These are severely testing times, and I’m not here to pour scorn on anybody sincerely trying to do the best they can in the circumstances. Many are out there fighting for the teams, leagues, and sport that they represent, and I respect that. However, the number of people that statement applies to appears to dwindle the further away from the game you get.
And I appreciate that there is no perfect solution, I really do. Any of the final options will lead to disgruntlement somewhere. It’s human nature. But the sense of injustice would unquestionably diminish if it was felt due diligence had been undertaken, and all avenues properly explored.
This decision appears to be unbelievably hasty, scarcely thought through, and misjudged. By rushing through this decision, apparently without representation or adequate consultation with the lower leagues or any at all from the women's game, there is the distinct sense that we are being treated as the poor relation of the superstars. The top levels of the game won’t look to us for leadership or precedent on how to resolve their seasons, so why are we so keen to decide our level of the game first?
From the snippets and glimpses that are coming through on Twitter, and in club statements and open letters, we are seeing some pretty horrifying things being hinted at. Committee members being left out of discussions, ‘consensuses’ being announced without any proof of such actually being provided, fait accompli, only finding out through social media, and so on. Paul Lawler and the NWCFL have been particularly transparent in their approach to the decision making process, and whilst I thank them for that and am grateful for it, it does rather show up the lack of communication coming from those who’ve actually made these decisions.
Please note also, I am staying as far away from the PPG question as I can – I’m not a journalist, I’m just someone who was passionate enough about their club to start a fanzine – and I don’t think the issue of PPG vs Null and Void should even come up until we know for certain that this season is definitely over, something I don’t believe we should decide until we know what the timescale for the resumption of football will look like.
I do think it’s reasonable (considering it was always planned for use this year in deciding relegations from Step 5), but there is no way I could argue that point here without my undeniable vested interest being waved in my face.
Except, whenever any club makes a statement on PPG they will have an interest one way or the other. The opinion of a club that would be promoted through PPG isn’t any less biased than that of a club that would be relegated by it just because it’s a benefit rather than a punishment. Both opinions are imbued with the weight of protecting self-interests, which is a perfectly natural response. Although it does strike me that those vehemently against the idea of PPG are surprisingly quiet when it comes to the issue of Vauxhall Motors and Jersey Bulls, both of whom were already mathematically promoted and wouldn’t even have required PPG.
Of course, PPG or not PPG is far from the only question raised by this decision that I simply don’t have time to delve into at present – not least the issue of the Step 4 restructure, and the application of new teams into the structure from Step 7 and beyond. There are a growing number of open letters and club statements that will tackle those issues with more information and clearer insight. I leave it to them. Instead, I am tackling what I perceive to be the bigger issue.
It is my opinion that there is more at stake here than simply whether or not my club gets promoted, an opinion formed by considering several of the apparent gaps in the decision making process.
For a start, why are we prioritising next season over this one? Nobody has the faintest idea when we’ll able to start playing football or have mass public gatherings again, so why force through the cancellation of a season that is at least 70% complete in almost all cases for the benefit of a season that seems unlikely to start on time? Why the haste? We’re not going anywhere… There are all manner of compromises that could be applied to a season that hasn’t happened yet, and plenty of time to agree on them before it would start, so why the desire to mess with a season that is already so close to finishing?
Many point to the financial aspect in response to the above, which I do see both sides of. At higher levels, clubs have contracted players that they may not be able to pay without gate money coming in. Cancelling those contracts through the termination of the season would seem to grant those clubs a lifeline, and give them more time.
On the other hand the termination of the season still doesn’t solve issues like ground rent, water rates, or other outstanding bills and invoices. Cancelling contracts would free up funds for those bills, yes, but what happens to the smaller clubs who may not have any contracted players? Clubs that rely on gate receipts to pay not for player contracts but for their rents. How does the termination of the season help them? Maybe they haven’t really registered on the radar of clubs calling for a void on financial grounds, yet. Clubs already reeling from flood damage, with a disproportionate amount of home games left this season due to postponements, will be devastated by this decision.
Many clubs at all levels are going to end up requiring financial aid as a result of this crisis or face going under. Nobody wants to see that happen, so why don’t we tackle that first? Properly. There are no doubt some legal means that could be introduced allowing clubs to free themselves from as many damaging outgoings as possible. Could the 2019/20 season not officially be ‘ended’ by converting it into a 2019/21 season? I’m no expert of course, but if the Government can manage to enact unprecedented economic policies right now, what’s stopping a business as wealthy as football?
Timescales may also have to change, but in a world where a World Cup can be moved to December and everyone has to deal with it, I fail to see the insurmountable problems involved with that. Where there are issues, as no doubt there are, it would appear the FA simply can’t be arsed to deal with them for clubs at our level.
Of course, it is feasible that the virus disappears shortly and we do end up in a position to start next season on time. In that unlikely circumstance I will bow and concede I was wrong. However, if we are able to safely play in August, that still wouldn’t justify cancelling the rest of this season when we have all seen how quickly teams can fit games in when forced to. But, if we can’t play until November... what then? Both seem equally possible at this point in time. Why try to produce the answer to an equation when we don’t even know what the question is going to be yet?
What we definitely shouldn’t do is end up in a situation where the professional game is able to run a reduced pre-season and get started on time, whereas semi-professionals feel pressured into choosing between getting businesses back on track or playing football. Or worse, having to start pre-season before it is safe to do so, simply because the FA have decided next season must start on time, come what may, for, so far as I can tell, zero reason.
At current, this isn’t a decision that fits all, or even most. It suits a very specific group of clubs, and even then for most of them it is only suitable within the setting of a very specific set of circumstances that, at present, we don’t know are more likely than any other possibilities. A true plan for all eventualities wouldn’t rule anything out at this point, and that should include picking up the season at a later date.
After all, if it’s good enough for the competitions that the FA ‘completely coincidentally’ sells tickets for…
Furthermore, the decision to expunge all records of games played up until the point of suspension is ludicrous, and almost haphazardly risks a highly damaging wave of disenfranchisement across the semi-professional game. Particularly when referees have been told that their records will stand, and you can bet that fines and league fees won’t be repaid or refunded. Many leagues and clubs have already come out and said that they will be wilfully ignoring this decree, but why was it made in the first place?
Scores of good people have been informed their blood, sweat, and tears have been in vain, and we risk a tidal wave of enthusiasm leaving the game. Even if it is rolled back, the damage may already have been done for many. How can any organisation that claims to act in the best interests of a national sport even contemplate enacting a decision that would allow for this to happen?
If you were to apply this same rule at the top of the pyramid, it would raise all sorts of questions about parachute payments, European qualification spots, prize money, and more besides. I find it hard to believe clubs at that level will stand for it either.
Whilst we don’t have financial implications of the same magnitude affecting us, I fail to see how that makes it permissible. It is hard not to see this decision in any light other than we are being treated as an inconvenience. Something to get out of the way before tackling the bigger issues. Or maybe that should read ‘before tackling the issues that bring more money in’?
It is true of course that these are unprecedented circumstances, but unprecedented circumstances call for swift radical thinking, decisive leadership, and clarity of action. Right when we really needed these things from the national game, they have supplied none of them and instead appear to have made snap decisions in private and then bulldozed their way through the ‘consensus’ stage in order to take the easy way out. Big decisions need to be made, yes, I appreciate that and it can’t be easy. So far however, all the evidence points to the FA shirking that responsibility as soon as they could.
As the open letter from South Shields, Hashtag United et al so accurately states, this is a watershed moment for the FA and the relationship it chooses to with our level. It is important to get these decisions right, and to have ensured fair and reasonable discourse. If they can’t see that, then my hope for a constructive future is fading fast. It is a decision that will affect huge numbers of people, and for the same reasons that you aren’t going to please everyone, clear explanations and rational arguments and justifications will need to be presented. None have so far.
After all, when all is said and done, I think the vast majority of us would able to see the sense in a decision that boiled down to “promotion and relegation is cancelled because there was a global pandemic on”.
On the other hand, “nobody’s season ever existed in the first place because we’re taking the easiest route to temporarily protect some teams that haven’t lived within their means” would be a much harder pill to swallow.
If we can’t see the processes that lead to this decisions being reached, we’re all free to fill in the gaps and reach our own conclusions aren’t we. So, why don’t the FA care about that? Either we’re right, or they think they’re so untouchable that our opinions and trust don’t affect them and aren’t worth the effort. Neither is a happy denouement to arrive at.
Nobody – and, faced with a charade of insincere misinterpretation from many it is important I reiterate this – nobody at all is suggesting that we should be playing football for the foreseeable future. My main argument hinges on the opposite, in fact. It would be feckless and wilfully irresponsible for any club at any level to endanger their communities by leading them into unsafe environments. To claim otherwise and attack such a strawman in order to avoid acknowledging the very real and legitimate concerns that over 100 clubs have with this decision would be ignorant at best, and deliberately disingenuous at worst.
Neither is it fair to wave your arms and cry that no other thing should be discussed at the same time as there is a pandemic raging. Different things are allowed to matter different amounts to different people at the same time. ‘Real life comes first’, of course, but many are searching for some distraction during this turbulent time, some flotsam to cling to, and planning meticulously for the resumption of normality seems like as acceptable a response to this crisis as any. Pandemics are scary and lockdowns are alarming, and I’m not here to stand for any attacks on how people are occupying themselves in order to deal with that.
Mental health is so important, and you don’t find many casual fans behind the scenes of non-league football, do you? Anybody with hopes and ambitions tied up in their club doesn’t just experience football, they live it. We’re all in. Any assault on their club is therefore an assault on their lives and their weekly routine. It is perfectly natural therefore that people should seek to redress the balance when something threatens that.
It’s how we’re wired. At the end of the day, we’re just animals with language systems and opposable thumbs. Self-preservation instincts are perfectly natural. “If I can’t affect the pandemic, I’ll turn my attention to something I can affect.”
Football matters. Not as much as a global pandemic, but it does. You can’t stop people caring. It's important they do. You might as well try telling someone to ignore food 'because there’s a pandemic on.'
And herein lies the crux of the matter, which in my opinion is the most egregious effect of this decision. An effect that doesn’t just freeze the efforts undertaken thus far by hardworking clubs up and down the country, but one that actively seeks to undo it.
The health of the nation won’t just be measured by a falling number of patients that are using ventilators. When football restarts, and it surely will, there will be a great focus on the importance of sport for society, and how the resumption of competition is a key turning point in this fight. This is of course true. Broken societies don’t have organised sports leagues, and the collective yet distinctly tribal sense of community that sport generates is a singular phenomenon, irreplaceable by other means.
Plenty are licking their lips already at the festival that the Olympics will bring once they finally happen, and when top flight football returns you will see an onslaught of fanfare from the mainstream press. Not just the sports pages, but from all corners of the press, as they inexorably use the return of Harry Maguire’s forehead to public life as an indicator of the nation’s health. Proof that we’ve passed the litmus test for normality.
“Hooray! The Slab hath returned from the dark ages! Truly, normal life is returned to us, for once again we can rejoice at the altar of the Barclays, the High Priest Vardy, and Klopp’s Disciples.”
This is all well and good, and I for one would gladly watch a nil-nil draw between two mid-table cloggers right now, but the same effect doesn't stop applying simply because we play at a lower level. The Pandora's Box that I think has been opened with this decision suggests that our own governing body for the sport thinks otherwise.
“Hooray! We are back! Look, we always told you football was important. Except you, Lower Leagues, we cancelled you because it was easier than doing anything.”
We put the same effort into this game, and we deserve to get the same intangible benefits out of it. If necessary, we should fight to make sure we do.
We work hard to come together and provide a community at our clubs, and we try to be positive forces for good in our wider communities. Decisions like this destroy that work. Why should our food bank collections and early mornings for pitch maintenance be worth any less than those of a club that can afford to pay people full-time to organise those things?
We have effectively been told we don't matter. Players, officials, and volunteers will all have reached personal milestones during those nine months plus of hard work and effort, only to be told it was all for nothing. Expunged into nothingness. Wiped out. This is outrageous, and affects every single team at these levels of the game, not just those teams pushing for promotion.
The fact the league pyramid exists, and the fact that we take part in the same FA Cup as everyone else does, means that we are physically and tangibly joined together into a national system. What is more important however, and what links our game to the game at the top level, isn't that or the fact we show early and late kick-offs in our clubhouses either side of our own matches, but is instead the simple fact that we play the same game, with the same rules, in the same way – arguments about the rules of Heads and Volleys notwithstanding.
Players move, teams rise and fall, new managers return to where it all began to start their next chapter, and everyone in the game understands why someone, somewhere, cares about it. If you were to tell me about the best goal you ever scored in the park, I’d get it. The integrity of our competitions is inherently woven through the shared history of our beautiful game as a crucial golden thread. If you destroy this thread by treating leagues differently, you break that link. We will no longer be playing the same game. You will have destroyed the integrity of not only our leagues, but the entire pyramid as well, simply because when push came to shove the leadership scattered, acted in their own interests, and deemed the health of the game at grassroots level as not worth the effort.
It is heartening to see many teams for whom promotion and relegation were out of the question anyway throw in their support, including some in the EFL against whom no decision has even been made yet. Gratifyingly, it would seem this isn’t a lost fight yet, and there are some in the professional game who still realise the importance of non-league. If society can pull together during this pandemic then surely so can football.
When Jordan Pickford finally squeezes his hands into his little gloves once again, how can any organisation have the cheek to cheer on the other side of their face for the health and wellbeing of a nation provided by the return of their sport, when just months prior they were looking to rubber stamp a decision that proved they were perfectly unfazed by the idea of volunteers leaving the game in their hundreds?
It demonstrates extreme hypocrisy. Not only that, it reveals that the FA isn’t merely failing to address the ‘us and them’ culture of imbalance that exists in the national game, but is actively or at least tacitly working to maintain it by inaction. You only have to look at the furlough plans of some teams at the very top to see the depths to which some are willing to sink in order to maintain their status quo of hyper-distilled capitalism.
Yet on a fundamental topological level, rules and systems that are deemed to work for those at the top of the game should also work for those at the bottom. And that should go for the rule-makers as well. We should be looking to heal the fissures appearing in the game, not encouraging them.
This isn’t just about 1874 Northwich, it’s about ‘For All’ or ‘For Some’, and the FA just failed their healthcheck.
We exist. It happened. We matter. Let us play.
I write this as somebody who started a fanzine between a cup final victory and during what had the potential to be the most successful season in 1874 Northwich’s short history, so it will come as no great surprise to anybody reading that I haven’t really had the chance to flex the muscles of the zine in its traditional sense.
In the past, zines lead campaigns and forced real change on the terraces. By providing DIY platforms for free expression, inherent politicism and irreverent rebellion, they are by definition linked to creative punk subcultures and the idea of standing ‘against’ as much as ‘for’.
I on the other hand, attempt to write jokes and make silly pictures.
I’m well aware that the giants on whose shoulders I am standing might well be rolling their eyes a tad, but even so; in our one season of coverage so far things have been pretty good. There has been, by and large, extremely little to complain about. We dipped our toe into being angry about the continuing spectre of racism that looms over the game in Issue 002, but that’s basically been it so far. Until now. Not everyone will agree with the opinions expressed here, and that’s fine. But then, that’s sort of the point of a zine, isn’t it?
The irony of the situation from the zine’s point of view is of course that the very condition that prompted the null and void decision is the same condition that has stripped me of a platform – preventing me as it does both from games to sell the zine at and printers through which to produce it.
Hence the birth of this website. Gritting my teeth, I’ve turned from print to digital. Hopefully the content won’t always be this heavy.
Solidarity always. Stay positive.