‘Null and Void’ the likely outcome for Non League football

Non-elite football in England has been suspended since 4 January, having already seen leagues paused in November and 2019-20 campaigns voided, due to coronavirus.

As in many walks of life, the ever-changing dynamic has caused uncertainty and pushed many community clubs towards financial breaking point.

A second season voided?

In March 2020, all football in England below the National League North and South was ended immediately, with results expunged; the 2019-20 campaign was declared null and void and there was no promotion or relegation from the leagues.

Ten months and two lockdowns later and the same clubs are staring down the barrel of another incomplete season which will likely count for nothing.

Some decisions have already been made, with the 11th-tier Lincolnshire Football League and West Lancashire League seasons being declared void.

“At no point throughout summer did anything come back from the Football Association as to what was going to be the situation if this season were to be curtailed. It was fairly obvious that it was quite highly likely that it was going to be,” said Steve Richardson, chairman of ninth-tier side 1874 Northwich.

“We worked incredibly hard to bring grounds up to Covid assessment standards. We were then told that football was starting again in August and now we’re in that situation again, where we’re expecting in the next few days that the season is going to be totally null and voided.

“That’s two seasons where volunteers have put time, effort and commitment into trying to keep the game going at our level and have got nothing back.”

Jeff Newman, manager of North West Counties League First Division South strugglers Maine Road, says voiding the season is “the only outcome”, describing the past 10 months as “a bit of a rollercoaster”.

A questionnaire has been sent to clubs by the Football Association asking their opinion on how to proceed – with options including trying to finish the season in full, deciding promotion and relegation by points per game and starting alternative, smaller-scale, competitions.

The FA itself said: “We are working closely and in consultation with the relevant leagues, clubs and committees to explore various scenarios for this current season, in response to the complex situation presented due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The Isthmian League board, along with the Northern League and Southern League equivalents at the top levels of the non-elite game, think this season should be declared null and void – but member clubs will get their say.

Isthmian League chairman Nick Robinson says the board are “really concerned about overplaying players” and “very concerned” about the prospect of players spreading the virus through football.

“We don’t want any deaths because of somebody playing a game of football,” he told BBC Sport.

“We knew at some stage there was going to be a second wave. We just didn’t know when it would be. Throughout my time with the league I’ve been really anxious not to play matches that won’t count.

“The view of the boards was ‘let’s work towards the second Saturday in August, let’s work towards having a really good 2021-22 season’. We put two bad seasons behind us and we really work positively towards that.”

How are clubs surviving?

During the first lockdown there were several warnings that clubs in the English Football League would go out of business, let alone smaller teams further down the pyramid.

Thankfully that has not yet materialised, but concerns remain.

“Back in March I was very pessimistic, I genuinely felt there would be carnage in terms of the ability of semi-professional football to survive this crisis but that, so far, hasn’t happened,” said Poole Town chairman and member of the FA alliance committee Chris Reeves.

“One of the reasons, I suspect, that hasn’t happened is that clubs are such important parts of their local community and there are so many people who care so deeply about the clubs’ survival that each club will somehow find its own way of surviving.

“I suspect there will be clubs that go to the wall and I suspect there will be a considerable number of clubs that will have to lower their horizons.”

Maine Road boss Newman says his side are “teetering on the brink of folding”, but like most are hopeful of surviving.

In November the government announced that clubs at the four levels below the National League would receive £14m of emergency funding to get through the pandemic, though how that will be broken down is not certain.

“We are waiting to hear what that will be,” said Isthmian League chairman Robinson.

“It will be a lifeline – what we’ve said is that loans are not good, loans have to be repaid. Grants are needed as most of our clubs have paid out a lot of money.”

The final word goes to William Nash, who plays for Faringdon Town in the Hellenic League.

“We’re in such a serious situation all day, every day at the moment – it’s work and, when you’ve finished work, lockdown,” he said.

“Just for that 90 minutes, two hours, when you’re at the football match, you forget about what’s going on.”

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