In a recent article, I outlined the necessary-yet-absurd Operation Restart – the resumption of the Premier League season after 100 days of postponement. However, for the English lower leagues, where money is not in abundance, there has been little reason to restart. In this article, I will take a look into how the English Football League has failed to uphold any level of sporting integrity in its conclusion of the footballing season.
For the purpose of transparency, I would like to state that I support a team who have been directly and negatively affected by the EFL’s abysmal decision-making in this recent period. I have skin in the game, remain cognizant of my bias as I write this – but also attempt to understand this maligned point of view.
On the 15th of May, a vote was taken by the 24 constituent member clubs of the EFL League Two to cancel the season. The vote passed unanimously. The reasoning given by most clubs was that it was not financially viable to host home games and to travel to away games, without any fans to produce ticket revenue. League Two club, Cambridge United’s Chief Executive, Ian Mather, commented after the vote that to complete the final 9 games would cost the club something in the region of £200,000 – which clubs at that level cannot afford. Mather called the cancellation “the best outcome in a bad situation”.
As many reading this will be aware, in European football, a system of promotions and relegations take place each season, with the top few teams in a league being promoted to the league above, with the bottom few teams being relegated to the league below. This only happens after the full round-robin system has been played, however – only once every team has played every other team home and away. Anything less would mean that potentially, other teams have played harder opponents than teams around them.
If we took the Premier League as an example, assuming that the season was cancelled with 10 remaining games, a club like AFC Bournemouth may have played the big clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham twice already this season, both home and away. Whereas Watford FC, only one point above them, may have only played those bigger teams once, with the majority of their remaining games being against those bigger sides (meaning they are unlikely to pick up many points in their remaining games). Cancelling the season at that point would make it appear as though AFC Bournemouth have had a worse season, when they are likely to pick up many more points than Watford FC in the remaining games, likely overturning the deficit. It would be demonstrably unfair to relegate AFC Bournemouth without giving them a fair shot at staying in the league.
However, that is what the EFL decided to do with League One and League Two – to relegate the teams who happen to be sitting in the relegation zone with nine games to go. The only team being relegated from League Two, my local club Stevenage, are one point behind 23rd placed Macclesfield Town. But what makes the situation even more infuriating, is that Stevenage has played one fewer games than Macclesfield Town! All Stevenage would need to do is win their game in hand, and they stay up.
In a previous article entitled How Should We Finish the Season? I argued for a null and void solution, to essentially cancel the entire season as if it never happened. No winner, no relegation, we start from scratch whenever it is safe. I have since reversed this opinion, in light of new information on the financial implications of a null and void decision. However, in the How Should We Finish the Season? article, I specifically said that it would be ridiculous for the Premier League to award Liverpool the title, but to effectively assume that the bottom three teams would end up being relegated anyway. That would undermine the entire process of the ‘relegation battle’.
And that is what the EFL has decided to do. They have relegated the team(s) who currently sit in the relegation zone, but have awarded the teams who sit in 1st and 2nd the league title and promotion to the next division, as well as holding the end of season play-offs, for the teams who finish 3rd-6th to compete for the final promotion spot. It is an utterly ridiculous situation which sees three clubs in League One lose their spots, and sees Stevenage lose their Football League status – dropping into Non-League football (i.e. Moving from full-time professionals to part-time semi-professionals. This generally means players’ careers as professionals are over for now unless they can get a move back into the Football League).
For me, regardless of who you support, football is about those amazing comebacks and those unbelievable performances. Footballing history is littered with not only amazing underdog stories, like Leicester City winning the Premier League title, with 5000-1 odds before the season but also hundreds of survival stories, in which a team looked doomed to relegation for the whole season, only to manage a run of games at the end of the season which ultimately secures their status in the league.
Indeed, I mentioned Leicester City’s unparalleled Premier League season of 2015-16. Although, what is often overlooked about that team’s success is that they were bottom of the league for the majority of the year in the season before they won the league (2014-15). In fact, in the 2014-15 season, Leicester City was the team at the bottom of the league with only 8 games remaining, having been there for the majority of the season. Had Coronavirus caused the season’s cancellation in 2014-15, Leicester City would have been relegated, and we would have never seen them pull off a miraculous survival to remain in the Premier League, and we would have never seen them win the league the following season. Who can make a case for relegating a team with nine games remaining now?
There is simply no good reason for relegating teams in this situation. So, what do I propose?
Well, I will take my lead from the aforementioned Ian Mather and assume that continuing the season for League Two (and probably League One) clubs is not financially viable. So, here, in a division that is not going to be affected by television income, we should absolutely null and void the season. There are clubs who are going to be promoted who have not yet earned it by completing a full season, and there is a club, Stevenage, who are due to be discriminatorily relegated from league football, and plunged into non-league obscurity, because they were not afforded the opportunity to play their way out of a bad situation. If you want to see teams promoted and relegated, you have to restart play and allow that to happen naturally. If the constituent clubs of the league vote unanimously against that, then you are forced to void the season, you cannot use this halfway house, because it is not a sporting solution.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to counter some of the arguments I have seen online that advocate for this ridiculous halfway house situation. I am sure you will agree that the EFL’s current solution is a ridiculous compromise and an entirely unsporting one at that, so this should be like fish in a barrel.
Okay, so as we all understand, this logic is flawed. By arguing this, you are arguing that by having the fewest points at an entirely arbitrary point in the season, you deserve to be relegated; regardless of the number of games played, regardless of who you are yet to play. This argument does not stand up whatsoever. Furthermore, a cursory look at this Neil's account shows us that he is from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. The town’s club, Barrow AFC, were sat at the top of the National League at the time of postponement and are set to take Stevenage’s place in League Two should the current relegation plans come to fruition – his interest is undividedly on arguing for his club to be promoted and thus helps us to understand his flawed logic.
Leicester City had a grand total of 4 wins with 10 games remaining, one more than Stevenage currently have. By @MatthewPWoods' own logic, we should have relegated Leicester City in March because clearly, they weren’t good enough then, what makes us think they’d improve in their final 10 games? Oh wait, they did.
Despite the atrocious grammar, this tweet does make some big points; we have a fairly comfortable end of the season compared to other teams around us, we have an extra game to play over our relegation rivals and the team who are one point above us are circling the drain of financial insolvency, having been threatened with relegation themselves should they be found by a court of law to have failed to pay tax, a hearing which was adjourned until September. Clearly, this pandemic has saved them in more ways than one. Also, the sum they need to pay is closer to £72,000, not the mere £20,000 claimed by this user.
When all is said and done, Stevenage’s forthcoming relegation from league football is entirely unjust in my opinion. I will be the first to tell you that we have been terrible this year. Considering we came within a point of the playoffs last season; this season has been painful to watch. That said, my hope is that the EFL decide to show a modicum of sporting awareness here and understand that teams can so often overcome what looks like insurmountable odds to remain in a league. Furthermore, that overcoming those odds is the very essence of what is special about football. To relegate Stevenage Football Club would be to deny a community club, who have done so much work for the vulnerable residents of Stevenage during the Coronavirus pandemic, the right to decide their fate on the football pitch, as opposed to it being decided for them in a boardroom.