Isthmian LeagueNews

Isthmian League pitching to Null and Void the season again

Our Chairman, Nick Robinson, has today written to all clubs spelling out the issues that the Trident Leagues face in dealing with the challenge of Covid-19. Here is a copy of that letter…

Dear Colleagues,

I am following up on the statement issued by the Trident (Northern Premier, Isthmian and Southern) Leagues last Friday, ahead of the Club Survey which will is due to be issued to all clubs by The FA today.

Thank you to those who have taken the time to register their views with the league, in response to which I want to provide as much context as possible. I also want to address several misconceptions evidenced by some Club statements.
Where are we now?

All Step 3 and 4 Clubs can give their views on whether the 2020/21 season should be terminated now and made null and void or, if not, which alternative option they prefer. Clubs can also put forward their own ideas as this is not a formal vote in response to a series of fixed options.

Alongside this consultation, the boards of the Trident Leagues feel it is important to provide direction to Clubs by making clear their unanimous belief that the best way forward is for the 2020/21 season to be terminated and made null and void at the earliest opportunity.

Is this a done deal?

No, it isn’t, the outcome must apply across Steps 3 & 4 as there can be no league-specific solutions. Clubs at Steps 2, 5 & 6 are also being consulted, the former via the National League and the latter via the FA Leagues Committee. A consistent approach across the National Leagues System is important.

FA Rules state that the final decision rests with FA Council, acting on a recommendation from the Alliance Committee, informed by the results of the survey. There is an obvious risk that Clubs’ views will simply reflect self-interest, so we are looking at how to use statistical analytics to filter out Clubs simply taking the easy option.

Why have the board recommended that the season be terminated and made null and void?

Our board’s decision is based on what we know now. First, nobody knows when lockdown will end. Government has given various dates, ranging from mid-February to April, but exiting lockdown clearly depends on the R rate of infection, compliance with existing restrictions and the efficacy of the vaccination programme.

Next, when lockdown is lifted, we do not know whether government will re-introduce the Tier system, or whether our Clubs would be in Tiers that allow non-elite sport to take place. 100% of our Clubs were in Tier 4 when the latest lockdown was introduced, and we could not stage games unless a substantial proportion of clubs across Steps 3 & 4 are downgraded to at least Tier 2.

The overwhelming feedback from Isthmian Clubs, replicated by the Northern Premier and Southern League Clubs, is that resuming competitive football is not financially viable unless paying fans to Phase 2 levels are permitted and Clubs able to derive secondary income from clubhouses or alternate sources. We have no control over the first two although we remain hopeful of good news on the third.

We currently have 1220 fixtures left to play across our four divisions. If circumstances permitted a re-start in March, at least two weeks would be required to bring players’ fitness levels up to scratch. This would mean clubs playing three times a week (and sometimes four) to enable a full fixture programme to be completed by 31st May.

If the 2020/21 season were extended into June, or it was not possible to resume the 2020/21 season until April (or later), we run into additional problems including players & volunteers wanting to take holidays (travel restrictions permitting), grass pitch maintenance (usually ten weeks) and the start of the 2021/22 season, in which the FA Cup qualifying round dates are pre-set to achieve the broadcasters’ target first round date.

We would also need to find a solution to Player contracts requiring Clubs to pay wages through to the end of the Playing Season. If 2020/21 is extended into June or beyond, the start of 2021/22 would probably be delayed, by which time the early FA Cup preliminary rounds would be played. triggering player wage payments.

No club has yet played enough games for final positions to be decided, and even if we re-started the season later, we would probably have to complete 75% of fixtures across each step to justify promotion and relegation.

Where are we with government funding?

We are all frustrated that the National League clubs have received compensation for not being allowed crowds, whilst no provision has been made for clubs at Steps 3 – 6 since we were denied crowds via the tier system and lockdown. Initially, government offered only loans; hopefully there will be better news shortly, although this will not be dependent on the continuation of the season.

What about fans, volunteers and sponsors?

There is a risk that, if the season is voided, spectators may drift away, season ticket holders may demand refunds and sponsors the same. Those risks exist whatever is decided. If your club’s fans want to make their views known, they should contact the Football Supporters Association, which is represented on the Alliance Committee.

Does termination have to result in Null & Void?

Yes, because results are then expunged. However, if an alternative solution can be found that upholds sporting integrity, addresses player contract issues and meets Clubs wishes, then that solution will be fully explored.

Several alternative options will be detailed in the FA’s club survey, the split division format outlined to clubs earlier in the season is only one option. The financial viability of the number of games that could be played is debatable. What is clear is that this would leave us well short of even 75% of fixtures completed that may be required to render a Points Per Game (PPG) calculation viable.

Other options have either been considered by the Trident Leagues or suggested by member clubs and are shown below. Whilst not listed in the survey, should you support them, please say so. Please note that some may have to be discounted due to regulatory issues. For now, however, all options remain on the table.

Every club plays every other club in their division once.

Such a model would force a PPG model to be used to determine final placings. Anecdotal evidence suggests the EFL will require 75% of games to be played to trigger PPG; the National League will probably follow the EFL and Steps 3 and 4 may then come under severe pressure to follow suit. This option would also require additional work to find a balance between home and away games. Inevitably, some Clubs could lose out.

Suspending the season until it is safe/viable to return.

We don’t know how long any hiatus might last. What we do know is that a lengthy suspension could see Clubs incur substantial extra wage costs. Other problems including pitch renovation, holidays and 2021/22 FA Cup qualifying rounds.

Merging 2019/20 season and 2020/21 results.

We have requested clarification from the FA, considering last summer’s decision by FA Council, whether it is possible to re-open a season previously determined to be closed and results therefore expunged. There may be other factors too. In the meantime, if you favour this option, please indicate in your response to the survey.

Suspend 2020/21 season and resume in August 2021.

This option would see the season suspended and then resumed in (say) September when Clubs would play remaining fixtures. To date, Clubs have only played 4 – 12 fixtures, and this option would provide plenty of time in which to complete the 2020/21 season even if there is further disruption. The challenges relate primarily to player wages, on which we will again seek advice from the FA.

Rules & Regulations

There’s no escaping the fact that each of these alternatives to termination will require changes to existing Rules. Such changes must pass through several FA committees before being implemented, and this takes time. As a League affiliated to the FA, the Isthmian League must abide by all the Rules of the Association so there is no “tear up the rule book” option.

What’s Plan B for next season?

Once the current season started, as a league we were not in control of government restrictions. Some may claim second sight, but I do not think anyone could be foreseen the intensity of the second wave, the arrival of a new variant and government’s reaction to each one. That said, the events of this winter will help us to plan for 2021/22 and when we can share plans with you, we will.

At this stage, we do not know how effective the Covid-19 vaccines will be in halting the pandemic; whether restrictions will still be in place in August or whether there will be further outbreaks requiring football to be suspended once again.

The Trident Leagues are looking at the fallback options, with further discussion taking place this week at Alliance Committee level. My starting point is that these would be like the plan shared with Clubs prior to the start of this season.
In my view, we also need a set of emergency rules are required that can be implemented in the event of a similar crisis. I am discussing this with Trident colleagues Mark Harris and Anthony Hughes.

Giving leadership

Whatever the process for determining the outcome of this season, we will not satisfy everyone. Some clubs say that they want our board to show leadership, whilst others demand that their voices are heard.

By surveying Clubs and providing a steer, we are trying to lead and give Clubs the opportunity to express their views. Further consultation may be necessary and, if so, I will keep you informed.

Kindest regards

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