The 2021/22 season is now very much in full swing. As the major leagues make their first kick offs, continental competition is already a few rounds in, and the final stragglers are mere days if not hours away from getting underway.
For many fans 2021/22 will hopefully be a return to normality. After a year of following from a TV screen with artificial crowd noise pumped in, stands are beginning to fill up again, in some places back to full capacity. Travel for continental competition may remain difficult, but it will be a step in the right direction.
A few leagues down, however, 2021/22 will be significant in more ways than one. The pandemic has hit non-league football hard – clubs heavily dependent on gate money for their continued existence have seen it dry up into nothing.
But it is important not to treat non-league as a homogenous blob. While all clubs are reliant on support, circumstance means some weathered the storm better than others. Regional leagues such as the Northern Football League, composed of semi-pro teams located in a specific geographic area, were able to shut down entirely and hibernate through the crisis. While not ideal, it ensured survival.
This is in stark contrast to the top end of non-league: the National League. The final hurdle between the fabled 92 and Everyone Else. It represents the meeting point of professional and semi-pro football, usually composed of teams of both kinds, and over the past year a conflict has been brewing.
Firstly, it is worth remembering that the National League is more than just its top division, usually still referred to by its old name of The Conference. It is also composed of its two geographically-split lower divisions: the National League North and National League South. All of these contribute to the administration of the league.
This makes the National League one of the roughest leagues to negotiate as a club, both on the pitch and off. It is swamped with clubs with completely different backgrounds, histories, fanbases and priorities: for every Notts County, with money to spend and a several thousand-strong fanbase, there is a Solihull Moors or Bradford Park Avenue, punching above their weight and doing their best to succeed within their means.
The cultural split has always been obvious in how fans treat each other: smaller clubs are used to being referred to as tinpot and irrelevant, while larger clubs are mocked for their delusions of grandeur as they’re beaten 3-0 by a team led by a part-time plasterer.
But nothing exacerbated this divide harder than the pandemic. In a time of crisis everyone regresses down to fighting for their most basic needs, and in a league like the National League, where everyone wants something different, a clash was inevitable.
The beginning of the pandemic in early 2020 passed with a few grumbles but somewhat uneventfully. Most of the season had been played by that point, so it was easy enough to transition to playoffs to tie up loose ends, and begin afresh in 2020/21.
But 2020/21 could only begin with a lot of assurances. The National League is financially ruinous at the best of times: regular national travel for teams drawing gates of a couple thousand if lucky. There is a TV deal with BT Sport, however it is more akin to a zero-hours contract, with games chosen selectively and kick-off time changes enforced upon clubs at short notice, and naturally the biggest clubs are favoured for selection.
The National League was able to give this reassurance: they had received a grant from the government that would see them through the season. They could play on behind closed doors. Reassured, the clubs began playing.
Halfway through the year, however, the cracks formed. As the pandemic worsened postponements for positive tests mounted up. The first club to put their foot down was Dover Athletic. After 15 games, they downed tools and furloughed their staff. They could not afford to continue.
It was around this time that the lie broke to the public: there was no season-long grant from the government. By Christmas, what money had been allocated had run dry. The National League then asked clubs to take on loans to see out the rest of the season.
Given clubs had not only been lied to but asked to take on costly loans they could not afford to repay, it was hardly surprising that many clubs refused. They refused to fulfil fixtures despite threats of fines, forcing the league to hold a vote on whether or not to continue the season.
The outcome of that meeting was the National League North and South voting to end the season there and then, while the National League itself opted to continue. The former composed mostly of semi-pro, small budget teams, while the latter having a core of full time professional clubs.
🗣️ “It was great to have the fans here – the coaching staff had to have earpieces in as the atmosphere was buoyant.”
The crowds were back in this weekend for clubs in Vanarama National League North and South 👨👩👧👦⚽
— The National League (@TheVanaramaNL) August 16, 2021
The clubs were not done, however, especially when the National League board followed through on their threat of fining clubs that refused to fulfil fixtures. The clubs’ response was to undertake a Vote of No Confidence in the National League board.
Ultimately the vote was a damp squib: only 7 of 31 votes were in favour of deposing the board; 22 against, and with 2 abstentions.
Regardless, this action was unprecedented in the history of the National League, and the voting system used hides the reality: National League clubs have one vote each, while North and South hold a combined eight.
With 23 National League clubs at the time of the vote, even in the best case scenario where all bar one voted Against the overwhelming majority of the North and South’s 43 clubs were very much in favour of kicking out Brian Barwick. Once again, the divide had reared its head.
This was the most dramatic of several clashes in the National League during the pandemic, and as 2021-22 gets underway these still linger. As well the aforementioned distrust of league management among divided lines, there are clubs frustrated at being denied promotion; clubs frustrated at being relegated in 2019-20 when there was none in 2020-21, and clubs below the National League like South Shields angry at being denied promotion after two consecutive first place finishes while the National League gratefully accepts Grimsby and Southend from the Football League.
All of this feeds into why 2021/22 is so important for the National League. The divides and differences that have for so long festered have been brought to the surface. The board has lost a lot of goodwill after lying to clubs and treating their protests with contempt; the blood of Dover Athletic coats their hands.
This year is meant to be the light at the end of the tunnel: things get back to normal, games get played, fans return and bring the money needed to exist, and all is well in the world. However, as I sit writing this my team’s opening game has been postponed due to a positive COVID test in the opposition camp.
It’s a sobering reminder that not only is this horrific pandemic far from over even if we pretend otherwise, but that the dramas of the past year in the National League are within touching distance of happening again, and this time there is no more goodwill left to burn through.