You ever get that feeling that you've been here before...?
“Hey, you know the Chinese word for ‘crisis’? The way they write, yeah, with their symbols? Yeah, it’s made of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.”
Ah, the ‘pub fact’; handed down from boozer to boozer in the true British tradition. I mean, it absolutely isn’t true, but since when has that been the point of pint glass wisdom?
Having said that, a quick bit of research reveals that the definitions of the individual characters translate closer to ‘dangerous’ and ‘change point’, so, as is often the case with commonly repeated folk misconceptions like this, the truth isn’t actually a million miles away. Just, not nearly as close as Dave from the Dog and Duck would have you believe.
The question I want to ask though is which of those two definitions best matches the FA’s interpretation of the current situation in non-league? An opportunity from danger, or a dangerous change point?
In fairness, it is a tough opportunity to make use of. Certainly, it is almost impossible not to sound unconscionably glib when you even dare to suggest that it could be possible to see an opportunity in a tragedy such as this global pandemic. Keeping people safe is the first priority, but, admittedly, it is hard to do that with any sort of tangible élan. And I’m not talking about hawkish wartime profiteering here, I think we all have the same opinion on that kind of ‘opportunity’.
No, what I’m talking about is the idea that when a system breaks, you build it back better. When holes appear in a methodology that has failed to keep up with events, you update that methodology. When the people you lead are worried, concerned, or otherwise lacking direction, you strike out with clear intent and creative interventions to inspire confidence. Crises require problem solving, paralysis is often more damaging than doing the wrong thing, and the opportunity is doubtless there for someone to fulfil that role. We are at war here with a deadly virus, and lord knows how the British feel about a wartime leader.
True, you could argue that many of the choices the FA are having to make are being foisted upon them by larger institutions further up the food chain that are equally bereft of leadership, and that the FA’s deficit of thought is only a symptom of that wider national situation. After all, it isn’t exactly difficult to research government’s track record of adopting the official recommendations of inquiries they themselves called following failures or disasters – look at Grenfell.
But then, surely all the more opportunity to show up those other leaders by providing that contrast? Next to a fool, even the most basically competent would look like a beloved hero. And what have the FA made of this opportunity?
Very little, I’d argue. It is a huge organisation; creaking, wheezing, and struggling under the sheer weight of blazers. We need decisions, we need creative solutions, and we need to know what the plan is.
This article was originally written back in December 2020 as a contribution for the Hereford fanzine Talking Bull. At the time, although it already feels like a whole lifetime ago, it had become apparent that the NWCFL had been rebuffed by the FA in their attempts to continue the league schedule into June because ‘the rules do not permit for this.’ Forgive me for being a cynic, but if you can’t see sense in changing the rules to make space for contingency plans in the event of a global pandemic then… when exactly would you consider doing it? A zombie attack perhaps? All-out war?
Or, what if the Big Six suggested it?
Ah, now. This is just speculation, but maybe then someone with an expensive watch might decide there was some merit in the idea.
Of course, as things transpired, we had no idea at the time just how much the R-rate would spike in December, and the NWCFL's plan probably would have been rendered inadequate pretty sharpish.
But at least it was a plan. At least they were trying things.
As I type these amendments and updates into this piece, it's clear to anyone that competitive fixtures will be almost impossible to realise before the start of next season. If we're very lucky, and the vaccine distribution starts gaining momentum, we might be able to squeeze in a little friendly tournament before May, but even that feels unlikely.
There is news also that a survey about what to do about the dregs of this season will be circulated amongst clubs in the coming days by the FA. And in related news, I think I can see a horse in the distant horizon from my vantage point next to a slowly closing stable door.
Why wasn't this done before the start of the season?
Why, when it was clear even back in April to half-intelligent fanzine editors that the virus wasn't going away, wasn't a plan for what to do with this season put in place before we started? It feels like deliberate negligence, and, once again, I am forced to consider with ill omens abound how the FA views the status of our game down in non-league.
I don't know what's going to be in this survey, but I'd wager good money that it's full of questions that we should have been asking last July.
If a fanzine could've predicted it, why didn't the FA?
I didn't want PPG last time, and I don't really want it this time either to be honest. But players have put sweat blood and tears into this game, for our benefit, and the thought of them going another twelve months without anything to show for it - not even a final league position - beggars belief.
And if PPG was unpaletable on ~70% completed fixtures, I can't see how it can be anything like acceptable on ~15%. Anyone who called for null and void last season but is happily hoping for PPG this time around after winning four from five is simply a hypocrite that doesn't deserve to be heard out. And there's plenty of them about, sadly, but there is no argument against PPG from ten months ago that is made invalid by completing fewer fixtures.
If the FA is going to insist on their non-league pyramid restructuring (which, who even knows which way they're going to go on that one, you might as well flip a coin), then they have to consider applying both incomplete seasons' results into one big PPG pile. It's the only way the PPG argument gets stronger. The RFU managed to weight it based on home and away fixtures last season, I see no reason why football can't follow.
Oh, wait. Sorry.
Perhaps I should rephrase that.
"I see no reason why football shouldn't follow."
So, yet again, with a crushing sense of déjà vu, I once again find myself hoping, as weird as it feels, for a great big pause button to be pushed and for things to be picked up again when it's safe to do so. In all likelihood, this could be after the summer ground maintenance window is allowed to run through relatively naturally.
However, something tells me we'll see the FA wring their hands and tell us, in the manner of Boris Johnson kicking the can down the round until he discovers he's actually in a cul-de-sac, that they're now forced to choose between the two unappealing outcomes above: either utterly demoralising fans, players, and volunteers alike once again, or, applying a mathematical formula that, however fair they manage to make it (and I think there is a sliding scale there), a large vocal minority will be upset about.
But given this is a problem of entirely their own creation they'll find little sympathy from me on this. It was within their powers to avoid this situation, and they actively allowed it to happen through inaction. And look at the mess they've made.
Where was the creativity when we needed it? How utterly bereft of imagination do you have to be to not even consider the possibility of further lockdowns?
As angry as I was last year when this happened for the first time, I am absolutely staggered but wearily not surprised to see it has been allowed to happen again. I'm just waiting for someone in a suit to suggest that this (*gestures at everything*) was collectively the fault of 'the clubs' as a whole because some leagues lead the charge for null and void and I'll be able to complete my bingo card.
The least the decision makers could do if they're going to make decisions that affect us all like this is have the basic dignity to own the consequences of their actions. Or inactions, as the case may be. As far as I'm aware we're yet to even see that, let alone sneak even a hint of an acknowledgement that perhaps, just perhaps, they made the wrong decision ten months ago.
It all rather makes me wonder what the Chinese characters for ‘chaotic leadership’ translate as…