By Alex Narey – editor
Last June, at the National League’s end-of-season AGM and summer awards, I sat and had an afternoon drink with the league’s CEO, Michael Tattersall.
We were discussing the points raised at the meeting – which I didn’t attend – and he was giving me some pre-embargo information for the following day’s paper.
The subject of our chat: The National League’s restructure of the play-offs, a controversial move that opened the door to six teams instead of the four that English football has long been accustomed to.
Michael is an innovative, forward-thinking chief executive; he’s also a guy who sees the bigger picture for all clubs, irrespective of size or location that come under his remit. But as he confirmed the rumours of the play-off shake-up, I remember thinking this was a boat that didn’t need to be pushed out further. The water was way too choppy as it was…
Let’s cut straight to the chase: the play-offs weren’t designed with fairness in mind. The majority of championship battles come down to two-horse races, so if a fifth-place finisher having a chance to go up was enough to agitate, the thought of a side cut adrift in seventh getting a sniff of promotion was sure to get the backs up of the masses.
Taking last season as a case in point; Barrow finished seventh, some 20 points and a few light years in class behind second-placed Tranmere. I rest my case.
We broke the story in The NLP the next day and the response was typically vitriolic. “A tinpot decision from a tinpot league,” was how one fan put it during a brief exchange on Twitter.
I remained highly sceptical, but the system now has my full backing. Why? Firstly, I’ve seen a tighter and more competitive National League this season across both steps.
Clubs lingering in mid-table, like Ebbsfleet were two months ago, know the door is still ajar and so performances and standards don’t dip. More clubs are switched on, which means less players taking an early ‘holiday’.
Even for those teams safely within the top seven, their finishing spot carries greater meaning than it did before, with those down in sixth and seventh place having to do it the hard way via an away eliminator followed by a semi-final, also on the road.
And then there is the structure; now we have a system that is designed with fairness in mind because it weighs so heavily in favour of the second and third-placed teams.
Over two legs, as it was before, a weaker side had more wiggle room. They could manufacture the tie but now they have to deliver over one sitting at someone else’s table.
For many, the play-offs will never offer justification. I can see that. Why do we even need the play-offs when the league delivers the best two sides over the course of those 40-plus games. But this post-season showpiece has become part of the fabric of the English game, and it would be a lot worse off without them.
I genuinely believe the National League have struck gold with a system that delivers all the thrills we love as football fans, while also being fair to those clubs who deserve special treatment for their greater efforts in the regular season. Would Tranmere fans agree?
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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