Mark Harris column: It’s a situation that none of us can control

The Trident Leagues have recommended that the ‘non-elite’ leagues at Steps 3-6 cease immediately

The trouble with having no football is that some people have too much time on their hands.

They fire off indignant messages on social media, blaming anyone and everyone for doing anything with which they disagree. Football administrators are an easy target, often rightly so, but not always.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” is an accusation repeatedly thrown at league boards, including the NPL. Usually they come from people with
little or no understanding of the processes involved in major decisions.

Sometimes, however, they come from those who should know better.
Here are some painful realities. Leagues’ primary objective is to fulfil their full season’s fixtures. It’s what we do. Until the third lockdown was introduced, there was still a possibility – however remote – that we might
be able to do so. But when 83% of the clubs across Steps 3 and 4 found themselves in Tier 4 after Christmas, those chances were severely undermined.

Some might claim anyone could see that happening; football administrators have to deal in facts. Driven by the arrival of the new variant, ‘non-elite’ football (Steps 3-6) cannot be played until the lockdown is lifted. So it’s
unlikely that the leagues could resume competitive fixtures until early March. We’d then need at least 14 days grace to enable players to regain full fitness.

Currently, the Northern Premier, Isthmian and Southern Leagues each have 600-650 fixtures left to play, whilst extending the 2020/21 season into June
would increase clubs’ salary costs and deny them the time to refurbish pitches, give players and volunteers the opportunity
to take holidays.

Even if the season was extended until May 31, most clubs would be playing
three times a week, and some possibly four, raising significant player welfare issues.

The National League delayed the start of its 2020/21 season to allow for the completion of the previous one, but this is impractical at our level because the dates of the FA Cup qualifying rounds are set by broadcasting commitments, so we need the 2021/22 season to start on time.

The overwhelming feedback from clubs across the Trident Leagues is that they cannot afford to stage competitive football unless they are allowed
to admit paying spectators at Phase 2 levels and have access to bar income or revenues that replace lost bar income. Neither of these is within the FA, let alone the leagues’ gift, but we believe both should be pre-conditions of any restart.

There is a miscaption that the football rulebook can simply be ripped up in unprecedented times. I wish that were true, but it isn’t. Every league in
the NLS is affiliated to the FA and has to follow its rules and regulations. It is not within any single league board’s power, if it wished, to simply terminate the season.

That decision can only be made by FA Council, acting on a recommendation by the FA’s Alliance Committee. And before anyone reaches for their keypads, nobody is wearing any blazers, or enjoying prawn sandwiches right now. Instead, members are giving many unpaid hours of their time,
every week, to ensure we are all across the position nationally and on the same page.

There are lessons to be learned from the way in which last season was declared null and void. The FA Alliance Committee wants to ensure that
a major decision such as continuing the 2020/21 season, or otherwise, is not taken without taking clubs’ views into account.

Next week, The FA will issue a short survey to all Step 3 and 4 clubs, copied to clubs at Steps 2, 5 and 6, asking whether they believe the season should be terminated as soon as possible and, if not, what the alternative should be. This is not a formal vote; the results of the survey will be reviewed by the Alliance Committee and inform its decision making.

To disappoint conspiracy theorists, there are no done deals or decisions
already made behind closed doors. However, the latest lockdown has severely restricted the options available to us. The boards of the Northern
Premier, Isthmian and Southern Leagues met this week and have all recommended to our clubs that the season ceases immediately and is declared null and void, although clubs have complete freedom to choose
alternatives from the options listed in the survey. Any consultation takes time.

Realistically, it will be early February before the Alliance Committee formulates its recommendation to FA Council. It takes time for clubs’ views
to be collected and analysed. Nobody wishes to see a legal challenge delay the outcome and most clubs’ players have been furloughed until the end of April. This leaves them with only a couple of weeks’ wages to find for contracted players.

And whilst clubs are not bringing in any revenue, neither are they incurring incremental costs. We remain hopeful that we will receive financial support from government to offset some of the losses incurred by clubs so far this season.

In the meantime, the Trident Leagues have all postponed all fixtures up to and including Saturday March 6. What happens after that will be hugely
influenced by clubs’ views.

So are the lessons to be learned from the season so far? Firstly, a set of emergency rules created that can be implemented quickly in the event of the same, or similar, happening again. This rules would provide the ability for leagues to be more agile in responding to crises such as Covid-19.

We also need to get rid of the distinction between elite and non-elite which has (unintentionally) created second class citizenship within the NLS. As
it stands, however, we remain in a situation we do not control.

Mark Harris is chairman of the Northern Premier League at Steps 3 and 4.

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