Non League Clubs demand FA rethink

More than 100 non-league clubs have sent an open letter to the Football Association, calling for it to “urgently” reconsider the decision to expunge their seasons.

Some MPs have also told clubs they will write to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport asking for intervention in what one described as a “disappointing” decision.

It was announced last week that football in England below the National League’s three divisions would end immediately with results expunged.

It means there will be no promotion or relegation in these 91 leagues. The same applies in the women’s game below the Women’s Super League and Championship level.

The letter says: “Our concern is grounded primarily in the needless and inexplicable haste exercised in reaching the decision, coupled with a total lack of substantive dialogue or consultation with affected clubs.

“The decision also disregards the millions of pounds invested and countless hours expended collectively by clubs, and so has critical financial implications.

“In writing this joint letter, we recognise that the decision to expunge results for the 2019-20 season still pends official ratification from the FA Council.

“However, we believe it is unacceptable that such a decision has been handed down to us in this manner. We urgently seek constructive dialogue with the FA with the aim to have the decision reconsidered.”

There has been communication between clubs and their local MPs demonstrating that they have written, or will be writing, to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on this issue.

The letter says that if there is no consensus reached with the clubs, they will “embark on potential legal recourse”.

In a statement, the FA said: “The decision taken to end the 2019-20 season across steps 3-7 of the National League system, the women’s football pyramid and the wider grassroots game was made by committee representatives for the respective leagues, and was supported by the FA Board and the FA Women’s Board.

“It will now go to the FA Council for ratification. We fully support the decision they came to during these challenging and unprecedented circumstances for English football.”

Below is the letter to the FA in full, originally signed by around 60 teams before others added their names.

To the Football Association, 30th March 2020

We are writing to express our profound concern and displeasure regarding the decision to
null and void entirely the 2019/20 playing season from steps three to six of the non-league,
as well as tiers three to seven of the women’s non-league.

Our concern is grounded primarily in the needless and inexplicable haste exercised in
reaching the decision, coupled with a total lack of substantive dialogue or consultation with
affected clubs. The decision also disregards the millions of pounds invested and countless
hours expended collectively by clubs, and so has critical financial implications.

In writing this joint letter, we recognise that the decision to expunge results for the 2019/20
season still pends official ratification from the FA Council. However, we believe it is
unacceptable that such a decision has been handed down to us in this manner. We urgently
seek constructive dialogue with the FA with the aim to have the decision re-considered.

Before continuing, it is crucial that we extend our appreciation to all governing bodies,
leagues and respective chairpersons for their continued hard work at a time of such
adversity. We are markedly conscious of the seriousness of the public health situation, which
undoubtedly takes precedence over football. Consequently, all clubs agree with the decision
that the current playing season should be indefinitely discontinued until it is safe to resume; it
would be both irresponsible and reckless to consider resuming playing football at this time.
We would like to take the opportunity to echo government advice for everyone to stay home
to protect the NHS, and thus save lives.

Over the last few days, we the clubs have reached consensus in our views regarding the
manner in which the decision to both terminate, then expunge the current playing season
has been delivered, seeking to clearly express them below:

– Why was the FA decision reached so hastily when there is plenty of time ahead in
the coming weeks and months that can be utilised to sensibly consult with leagues
and clubs?

– The official FA statement online states that: “The FA and National League System
(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”. No such consensus was
ever reached amongst the NLS steps three to six, some leagues were barely
consulted.

– Affected clubs were eager to open an official consultation process with their
respective leagues and the FA, to work on an agreed and constructive outcome.
Many leagues across the country assert that no vote had been put to them by the FA,
and that leagues at steps five to six in particular felt the decision had already been
made by the time they had been consulted, rendering the ‘consultation’ process
insignificant. Many clubs were never given an opportunity to vote, only to suggest
possible conclusions to league officials. There appears to have been little-to-no
attempt to consult deeply and widely and so formulate a clearer idea of what any
‘consensus’ amongst clubs might be.

– On a similar note, leagues and clubs at step seven of the non-league pyramid were
not consulted whatsoever in the decision, in spite of the fact that the ruling affects
clubs in step 7 as well.

– NLS steps one to two are not in the same “null and void” decision – it is understood
they were removed from the ruling at the 11th hour. How can the FA possibly justify
treating different steps under the non-league banner differently? Particularly given
there now is the possibility of relegation from step two but no promotion from step
three? It is incomprehensible to treat leagues differently; you cannot undermine the
integrity of the footballing pyramid by applying a different set of rules to one group
and not to the others.

– Voiding the season has immense financial implications on clubs, their sponsors and
local communities. Why did the FA, in reaching its decision, not discuss the huge
financial impact during their ‘consultation’ process? Are clubs expected to foot the bill
for playing a season of ‘friendlies’?

Whilst we are deeply dissatisfied with the manner in which the decision has been reached
and delivered, it is imperative to consider the ramifications of the decision itself on clubs,
from a footballing, financial and community perspective.
Most clubs in steps three to six have now completed 70-80% of their league fixtures, and it is
incomprehensible that these results should be delegitimised and expunged on the basis that
the final quarter of the season cannot be fulfilled in the future. Simply put, there is no valid
basis to expunge an entire season, especially at this stage.
We are led to believe that the option of the “extension of the playing season” was discounted
because of the issue of player contracts and wages becoming a problem for clubs; we ask
only that the same logic be applied to our leagues that is being applied in the rest of the NLS
and the EFL. Where necessary (many of the clubs in question do not have such player
salary concerns) we can work with the FA to develop a solution that helps the clubs, whether
that’s leveraging the government subsidies on offer or liaising with players to be flexible with
the clubs they represent. This is far from unfeasible.

Clubs including Jersey Bulls FC and Vauxhall Motors FC have also already mathematically
secured promotion this season – what are the grounds for them not to get promoted this
season? Especially when they have clearly outgrown their respective competition? Other
clubs also stand on the verge of promotion. It is patently unjust to have a season’s tireless
work annulled in such a manner.

The issue, however, goes far beyond those clubs expecting promotion. Many clubs backing
this letter do not currently stand to get promoted yet still offer their support because of their
belief in upholding the integrity of the footballing leagues. Our demand for the FA to
reconsider its decision is also about sending a message to the fans of our clubs, who have
spent hard-earned money to follow their teams up and down the country, letting them know
their support was not in vain. We know it is well within the powers of the FA to ensure that
this is the case.

Despite the declaration to have our seasons expunged from record, the FA remains open to
completing many other competitions under its jurisdiction, including the FA Trophy and FA
Vase. The FA Trophy presents a particularly interesting case where one semi-final pits step
three Halesowen Town FC against step two Concord Rangers FC. How can one club have
their season expunged yet compete in the same season against a club who may fulfil their
season entirely? The issue of unequal treatment across tiers also pertains to the women’s
footballing system, whereby clubs in tiers one and two have not had their seasons
expunged, unlike clubs from tiers three to seven.

The decision to null and void the season is also at odds with the FA’s Strategic Plan, which
includes a commitment to boosting participation in women’s football and to achieve ‘trusted
regulation and efficient administration’. The move to entirely expunge the 2019/20 playing
season undoubtedly risks jeopardising further participation in football across the board as a
whole, as many may feel disenfranchised with the sport altogether – a potential direct
consequence of the FA’s decision.

Furthermore, The FA cannot disregard the potential mental health impact on those involved
in the running of non-league teams affected by the decision. Football plays a monumental
role in the lives of so many people, young and old, and the footballing authorities have rightly
started to acknowledge this on a national scale. So we question whether this aspect has
been considered when rushing out a decision as important and drastic as this.
The consensus that we have reached is to take a similar stance to what the Premier League
aims to do – wait several weeks to see how the public health situation unfolds before
deciding next steps. This is sensible in circumstances where it is by no means certain that
we will even be able to start next season in a timely fashion. Among the options for serious
consideration should be deciding final positions on a Points Per Game (PPG) basis, which
unlike expunging the season, is rooted in the results of fair and meritocratic competition, and
bears reflection of the hard work that clubs across the country have poured in this season.
The FA has already used a PPG basis to decide final standings before, and many teams
under the league re-structuring plans would stand to get promoted on the application of
PPG.

A crisis like this is a watershed moment for the FA and the relationship it chooses to have
with non-league and grassroots football. It is imperative to solve this issue sensibly and
democratically over the coming weeks, with transparent, constructive and fair dialogue with
respective leagues and clubs. The alternative which would certainly not reflect well on the
FA, is forcing clubs to embark on potential legal recourse, which is wholly unnecessary and
financially burdening to clubs. However, we reserve all our rights in this respect and this
letter is without prejudice to any legal arguments which may become required to be made in
due course.

We urge the FA to reconsider its decision and to slow down the whole process, offering
proper consultation with afflicted leagues and clubs as the picture becomes clearer, before
deciding a way forward. We stand ready to play our full part to help achieve a fair outcome,
allowing the integrity of England’s football pyramid to be upheld in such a period of national
adversity.

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