Although confusion and conjecture continue to reign, the English Football League (EFL) have moved to clarify a number of key points regarding the coronavirus affected 2019-20 season, writes Tom Howe.
On Wednesday, the Board met to discuss matters, including the indicative vote taken by League Two clubs and the League One impasse which both came to light the previous Friday. While the majority vote signalled a desire to end the fourth tier, move forward with the play-offs and scrap relegation; the 23 League One clubs maintained a difference of opinion and were unable to reach a decision. Having weighed the many proposals and counters, the EFL have plotted their own path through the minefield and announced both promotion and relegation will continue throughout the divisions, including into the National League, although there will be no extended play-off campaigns as had been suggested.
While the Premier League and Championship continue their course to resumption, League One clubs now need to decide whether to follow in their footsteps, or that of League Two. Should they choose the latter, their table, like League Two, will be finalised on an unweighted points per game system. That formula would see Plymouth Argyle promoted automatically out of League Two, while Exeter City would battle Colchester for a play-off final against either Cheltenham or Northampton.
Exeter club chairman, Julian Tagg, was one of several League Two bosses who expressed doubt over football’s return. He told The Independent that, while there is disappointment the season could not be played to completion, his players are ready for whatever comes their way, as the Grecians eye a third stab at the play-offs in four years.
“There’s still going to be some to-ing and fro-ing about people who are going to play and those who aren’t, and while most are confident that there’s going to be football before too long, there’s still a bit of conjecture about whether it’s right to do so,” he said. “I think there’s still some water to go under the bridge. We’re hoping that the Government could be looking at phase two, where there can be contact.
“We, of course, would have liked to finish the season but there’s no doubt that the costs of doing that would have been restrictive for those in our league. Everybody is disappointed that there’s no football because they’ve fought to get us into an automatic promotion position. Whilst everybody is thinking about what comes next, it’s worthwhile thinking about the players who have been very dedicated in trying to achieve that.
“Whilst the play-offs isn’t our first choice, although it’s better than no choice, there is still that disappointment that the competition can’t be completed. From the players I have been in touch with, everyone is extremely keen to get back playing, whatever that format is. Although they work in extreme pressure, playing football is something they love to do.”
Meanwhile, League One clubs were due to meet on Friday in the hope of finding some common ground and, with as tight as a 51 per cent sway counting as a majority, a decision is expected early next week. It is understood that the cost of testing squads for coronavirus, which is estimated to be in the region of £140,000 per club, could price many out of being able to resume the season, especially due to the loss of revenue brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and the prospect of playing behind closed doors once football does restart. And so, while Premier League clubs returned to non-contact training on Tuesday and those in the Championship, including Bristol City, will do so tomorrow (Monday), there are twists and turns yet to be manoeuvred lower down the order.
Some clubs on the fringes of promotion or play-offs believe they can pick up enough points to change the order before season’s end and, likewise, clubs at the bottom think they have what it takes to escape the threat of relegation.
While admitting a resumption of the season with the existing format remained the most appropriate course of action from an integrity perspective, the Board ‘accepts’ there are circumstances that may lead to a curtailment, as has been demonstrated with League Two, or a situation that subsequently transpires whereby the season is unable to conclude. Following this week’s developments, hopes have risen once again that two teams will be promoted from the National League. Yeovil Town found themselves well within the play-off picture when the curtain came down and in with a shot of following champions-elect Barrow into League Two.
The unweighted points per game ratio would see Stevenage go down from League Two – pending the chance of Macclesfield Town incurring further points penalties for repeated non-payment of players – with a second National League club required to replace expelled club, Bury, in the Football League pyramid.
In the National League’s feeder divisions, promotion and relegation outcomes remain ‘under careful consideration’ and implicate both Weymouth and Bath City, who both looked odds on to secure at least a play-off spot in National League South.
Additional reporting by Andrew Clayton.