When the National League north and south divisions were declared null and void on 18 February, anyone expecting that to be the end of the matter would have been naive in the extreme. England’s sixth tier is a perplexing tangle of competing motivations but a sizeable number of those who had been outvoted found themselves united behind one target: to complete the 2020-21 campaign on the field, whatever that took.
The picture is only beginning to clear now but, over the coming days, those that wanted to play on should find out whether they will get their wish. A knife-edge set of negotiations between the clubs involved has, the Guardian understands, resulted in a proposal for an elegant solution being put to the National League. If they and, subsequently, and Football Association wave it through – perhaps as soon as next week – the season will be played out in an improvised format that ensures promotion challengers do not have to endure their ambitions going up in smoke.
It is little surprise that Gloucester City and Dorking – the divisions’ leaders – have led the crusade to play on. Both have threatened legal action against the null and void outcome and they have been motivated in part by the slim margin by which clubs in the north and south voted to end the season. The vote was passed by 24-19, with a majority in the south in fact wanting to continue, and it escaped nobody’s attention that the number of dissenters would be sufficient to proceed with a rehashed competition among themselves.
That led to an open letter, signed by 18 clubs, being sent to the National League general manager Mark Ives on 19 February. They asked that the league “strongly consider that the two divisions at step 2 continue playing their seasons, either separately as one”; Ives said earlier this week that it would “consider an alternative, viable solution” and those involved are optimistic their exhaustive efforts stand a chance of bearing fruit.
A senior figure at one club that wants to keep playing said they were more confident of a resolution than they had been at the outset. Granular detail of what the proposal is hard to come by given a non-disclosure agreement was signed between the clubs working to continue. The plan handed to the National League is likely, however, to involve a single cross-country competition that is open to anyone who wishes to compete, whether or not they previously voted to end the season. Teams would only play each other once, with midweek travel localised, and there would be two promotion places – one automatic, one via a play-off – to the National League’s top division.
That would mean the top flight, which voted to continue without relegation and will put on a full schedule this weekend, swells to 25 teams next season. The picture becomes fuzzier if the teams’ different positions when the music stopped are taken into consideration: most wish to carry on because they sense at least a faint whiff of success but should Gloucester, who have 35 points from 18 games, begin on level pegging with Hemel Hempstead – who have amassed 20 from 18 – or will proceedings restart with points per game carried over?
There is an awareness that any new format needs to be cleared by the authorities quickly: 20 March has been mooted as a start date but there is, at least among some clubs not directly involved, a sense of scepticism over the prospect of administrative hurdles being cleared by then.
One bone of contention may lie in the league’s hands. A suggestion put to the Guardian was that the scheme may be put to another vote between clubs in all three divisions, which would risk eating up time and fomenting dissent. That idea has been questioned by at least one club owner but it suggests the best-laid plans may yet meet last-minute hurdles.
Some of those who originally sought an on-pitch conclusion have opted not to prolong their fight. “It’s just the wrong thing at the wrong time for us,” says the Havant and Waterlooville director Trevor Brock, whose club announced on Thursday that, despite signing the original open letter, they will not participate further. “Our players are on furlough and out of training so it would be difficult to field an appropriate side. Playing in this league would only be about getting promoted and it would cost us too much to get involved, particularly if we have to pick a lower-level team.”
Concord Rangers have made a similar judgment and it is understood others may yet fall by the wayside too. Meanwhile Gloucester are among those raring to go and will face Oxford City in an “extended training session” on Saturday. They and their peers feel sponsorship deals and other financial opportunities hinge on continuation, quite aside from the prospect of promotion. The stakes feel higher than ever; pulling off a balancing act that allows a semblance of normality to reappear would be all parties’ greatest achievement of the most turbulent season in memory.