The FA Council has today (Thursday) ratified the decision to conclude the 2019-20 season across Steps 3-7 of the National League System, Tiers 3 to 7 of the women’s football pyramid and the wider grassroots game.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been working collaboratively with the leagues within the National League System, the Women’s Football Board, the Women’s Football Conference and the wider grassroots game to identify the most appropriate way to conclude the 2019-20 season at each level.

The request to end the 2019-20 season was taken to the FA Council by the representatives of the relevant committees having been fully supported by the FA Board.

The FA Council’s vote today was overwhelmingly in favour of ratifying the decision.

The FA’s head of National League System, Laurence Jones, explains the complexities and reasons for the decision to end the 2019-20 season at non-League and grassroots level.

“This is an unprecedented and extraordinary time for football, at every level of our game.

Whilst football is a hugely important part of all our lives, our primary concern will always be for the safety and welfare of clubs, players, staff, officials, volunteers and supporters.

In recent weeks, we have worked closely with committee and league representatives of Step 3 and below to help identify a way through the impact of COVID-19 on football.

In this instance, our role is to support as much as possible; we can guide the leagues on their potential options going forward, offer our support, and to provide clarity where possible. We will look to the league and club representatives on the relevant committees as they know their leagues better than anyone else and they will always make decisions that are in the best interest of their clubs and leagues as a whole.

During this very challenging period it’s important that our processes are robust and that we work closely and collaboratively with league representatives to come to a collective decision that’s in the best interest of the wider game.

Today, the FA Council ratified the decisions made by the committee and league representatives to end the 2019-20 season across Steps 3-7 of the National League System, the women’s football pyramid and the wider grassroots game. This ratification was an endorsement that the correct decision was taken across those Leagues subject to the decision.

The result of today’s vote from Council members was overwhelmingly in favour of ratifying the decisions.

We know that it is impossible to reach decisions that will please everybody. We entirely sympathise with the teams that oppose the decision affecting their leagues, some of which have perfectly understandable reasons for wanting to see the 2019-20 league season continue. But it is important to emphasise that the decisions they took were made in the best interests of all the Leagues, as a collective, and in consultation with key stakeholders across English football.”

Decision making

“Steps 1-4 are represented through the Alliance Committee, while the Leagues Committee represents Steps 5-7.

In this case, the FA Board also considered the decisions and were supportive. The relevant committees presented their collective decisions to the FA Council for ratification.

The FA Council comprises 118 Council members with representatives across every level of English football. 16 of the Council members are non-voting, which means that 102 members were eligible to vote on this decision. The threshold for approval and ratification is a simple majority, which was calculated as a percentage of all those who voting for and against the decision.

Ending the season

The overriding and understandable message from across the leagues was that clubs wanted and needed a quick decision on how the 2019-20 season can be most appropriately concluded.

The current reality is that there is uncertainty regarding when the ongoing and necessary social distancing measures can be removed to the point where football can safely resume at this level.

The overwhelming feeling across the Leagues and the FA was that temporarily postponing the 2019-20 season, and resuming at a later date, would create great uncertainty on a number of issues which include: player contracts and squads; scheduling of the 2020-21 season; and the ongoing financial impact on clubs.

In some leagues, clubs have as many as 16 matches left to play. On the basis that a club was able to play up to two matches per week, this would require at least eight weeks to play out those fixtures. This is before consideration is given to time needed for players to become match fit and for play-off matches to take place prior to the beginning of the 2020-21 season. Notwithstanding the fact that it may not be possible at this level, practically or logistically, for clubs to play up to two matches per week.

With any restart highly unlikely before 1 June 2020, the situation regarding the expiration of many players’ contracts and registrations would also add uncertainty for many clubs, and it may not be possible for players to play more frequently due to the requirements of their primary jobs.

All these situations pose significant operational challenges in managing the scheduling of the remaining fixtures across these Leagues and, as a result, consideration had to be given to any consequential promotion or relegation at the end of the 2019-20 season.

With these challenges in mind, the consensus reached by the FA through relevant committees comprised of league representatives, was to bring the 2019-20 season to an immediate end with no promotion or relegation. It means clubs, players, volunteers and supporters are provided with certainty and allows focus to turn to preparing for the 2020-21 season.”

Points Per Match vs expunging results

“I understand that this decision has inevitably caused some clubs, players and supporters to feel a sense of injustice and those feelings are entirely understandable. This is not an easy time for anyone in football and we understand that there is no decision that will suit everyone.

We sympathise with those clubs that are currently occupying promotion spots – or those hopeful of securing promotion. Some believe that it would be better to opt for a Points Per Match [PPM] model to conclude the remainder of the season, as oppose to expunging results.

Both options, and the potential implications of each, were considered at length by all involved.

The truth is that the consequence of clubs being promoted is that others will need to be relegated. The application of a PPM model would result in certain clubs that currently sit above the relegation zone falling into those places.

Equally, there would be certain clubs that currently sit in a play-off position that would not qualify as a result of the PPM Model. The PPM model also doesn’t address the issue of how to deal with play-off matches and how to identify a winner who would consequently benefit from promotion.

In addition, most of the clubs facing relegation will be of the view that they stood a chance of avoiding it due to the number of games remaining in the season and they may consider it to be unfair for them to be denied the opportunity to secure safety through sporting merit.

It is impossible to find a solution that works for everybody, so the decision was based on two main factors. Firstly, the potential financial impact on clubs during this uncertain period, and secondly, the fairest method on how to decide the sporting outcomes for the season, with the integrity of the leagues in mind.

Some have referenced the fact the PPM model has been used to determine promotion and relegation in the past, which is correct, but only in cases where clubs are compared across different leagues, with the season having been completed and all clubs having played their fixtures.”

Next steps

“This has been a robust and thorough process that has seen the FA and leagues across all Steps consider each viable option in light of COVID-19. We always keep the integrity of competitions at the forefront of our minds in making the decision.

The constitutions for Steps 3-7 will remain the same next season, and we will continue to reposition Step 7 as Regional NLS Feeder Leagues.

We’re also continuing to undertake a review of the ground-grading process, having recently extended our deadline to 31 July 2020 to give clubs more time to complete any works.

We know that at this level of the game, the biggest challenge facing clubs is finance. We continue to work closely with Government to ensure that the financial impact on clubs, many of whom play a crucial role in their local communities, is highlighted and that clubs have the same opportunities to access financial relief support that the Government has put in place for COVID-19.

I personally want to thank the football community for working towards a solution during this hugely challenging period. Our thoughts remain with those affected by the outbreak of COVID-19 and I look forward to a time when we can enjoy the game again, together.”