Last Saturday’s important victory over Kidsgrove Athletic put me in a pretty good mood but, as happens so often, this beautiful game we’re all mad about was winding me up again pretty quickly.
The postponement of the North London Derby on Sunday left me baffled. The idea that Arsenal – one of the biggest clubs in Europe and a founder member of the ill-fated European Super League – didn’t have enough players to take on Tottenham Hotspur struck me as laughable. So, I did some research.
According to the club’s own website, their Men’s First Team squad has 34 players in it, while there are another 37 in the Academy squad. That’s SEVENTY-ONE professional players under contract. Then it transpired that there were only two confirmed cases of COVID-19 affecting the squad.
So why were Arsenal allowed to postpone the game, if they didn’t have a major outbreak of COVID-19? Nine of the senior squad were out on loan at the time of the postponement, as were four Academy players and there were three First Teamers away on international duty. However, these were known variables which the Gunners could and should have mitigated.
The Premier League – unlike other competitions – also doesn’t expect clubs to ‘play the kids’ if they have availability issues. On it’s own website, the Premier League indicates that “Where a club cannot field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper either from its squad list or its appropriately experienced Under-21 players, the match will be postponed.” Allowance is made for “injury and illness” in addition to the dreaded ‘rona.
By contrast, the Standardised Rules under which the various competitions in the National Leagues System (including the Northern Premier League) operate, make specific reference to an ‘epidemic’ affecting a club before going on to say that:
“Requests for the postponement of a match for any reason will not be considered more than forty-eight hours before the scheduled time of kick-off. Medical certificates for those Players affected, signed by the Players’ own doctor, must be forwarded to the Competition Secretary within fourteen days of the postponement, along with a full list of contract and Non-Contract Players currently registered by the Club at the date of the match which was postponed, giving full reasons against each name for the Player’s unavailability.”
Not for the first time, I find myself asking why it is that clubs in the eighth, ninth and tenth tiers of English football are working under more onerous rules than the highly paid professionals of the Premier League. This is just one example where the rules drawn up by The FA and which the Leagues are forced to implement are harsher on semi-professional players and volunteer administrators than on those at the top of the pyramid.
Not only do the Premier League get an extra body on the bench before they have to play (clubs in the Trident Leagues are expected to fulfil fixtures with a matchday squad of 13), but they can use player absence for non-COVID reasons in their justification for calling off matches. Meanwhile, New Mills of the North West Counties League Division One South were hammered with a £1,000 fine (of which £250 was suspended) after they expressed concerns that they would not be able to comply with the entry policies laid down by the Isle of Man Government for an away game against FC Isle of Man.
At the time of the postponed fixture, which was due to be played on 27th November, the Manx Government required visitors to be double-jabbed but, the vaccine rollout in England hadn’t extended to second COVID-19 vaccinations for people aged under 25, meaning that the bulk of the Millers squad would have not been allowed to enter the Island. In fact, they would have had only 11 eligible players out of an active squad of 24. The club’s position is that they notified the League of this on 9th November, but that the League told them to make “alternative arrangements” without specifying what these should be. It wouldn’t exactly have been easy for New Mills to go out and get a squad of vaccinated players, would it? Nor would signing a team from the Manx League en masse have been possible, so what exactly were they supposed to do?
It’s not even as if Arsenal have been the only big club to have benefited from the Premier League’s approach. Closer to home, Liverpool successfully lobbied for a postponement of their League Cup semi-final against Arsenal due to an alleged outbreak of the virus, only for Jurgen Klopp to talk about “a lot of false positives” a few days later. Compare that to Cables (and a whole raft of other clubs both last season and this) being forced to withdraw from the FA Trophy because of COVID-19 cases.
In total, 22 Premier League games have been called off due to player availability in the last month, yet last week there were around 30 positive COVID tests out of 16,000 across the League. Compare that figure with our League if you like… it won’t take very long!
The FA need to take a long, hard look at the rules they set and how clubs are treated for perceived transgressions, especially in the current climate. Yet again, the hard-working players of the non-League game have been harshly treated by the governing body which should be praising their resilience and commitment.
The Business End
With the season reaching the ‘business end’, supporters may be wondering what the Pesky Bulls need to do in order to banish the spectre of relegation.
Ironically, the demise of Bury, Macclesfield, Droylsden and others may prove helpful to Cables; under normal circumstances, the bottom two clubs in each Step 4 division would be relegated automatically, with the sides finishing third bottom and fourth bottom going into Inter-Step Play-Offs against a runner-up from one of the 16 Step 5 Leagues. However, because of the vacancies throughout the National League System caused by insolvencies and resignations, the FA have made some changes.
Specifically, finishing fourth from bottom at Step 4 now equals safety, while two of the clubs who finish third from bottom will also avoid the Play-Offs, while 10 of the 16 second-placed sides will be promoted automatically.
That still leaves six Step 5 runners-up looking for an opportunity to come up, so the Play-Offs will still be taking place, just without the two Step 4 sides with the highest ‘Points Per Game’ ratio (PPG).
Last Saturday’s win over Kidsgrove moved Cables to 17 points from 24 matches, giving the Pesky Bulls a PPG of 0.708. According to the spreadsheet prepared by Ware fan Peter Miller, which can be found online at bit.ly/nonleague2122, Prescot would rank sixth out of the eight Step 4 clubs who would usually be asked to play-off.
PPG also comes into play in determining which of the Step 5 runners-up are promoted automatically. The United Counties League Premier Division South club Harborough Town currently lead the Step 5 rankings with an extraordinary ratio of 2.75. Ranked 16th – albeit with a still impressive 2.040 Points Per Game – are our old friends Skelmersdale United.
The Inter-Step Play-Offs will be one-off matches where a Step 4 club plays at home against the most geographically appropriate Step 5 runner-up. Therefore, if the season had concluded after last weekend’s game, the Play-Offs would have looked something like this:
Bideford v Mousehole
Hertford Town v Stansted
Sutton Common Rovers v Saltdean United
Prescot Cables v Skelmersdale United
Wisbech Town v Malvern Town
Sheffield v Boldmere St Michaels
A Cables versus Skem derby with promotion and relegation on the line would be an extraordinary occasion and surely draw a massive crowd but, equally is to be avoided if at all possible! Therefore, results over the next few months will be key. The goal is obviously to move out of the bottom three altogether; last Saturday showed that our squad is capable of overhauling the six-point gap between Cables and Kidsgrove. However, in the event that Prescot does end the season in the bottom three, a PPG of around 1 should be enough to avoid the play-offs.
If we assume the old cliché remains true and that 40 points should be the target, then Cables need 23 points from the remaining 14 matches. There are various ways to achieve that but a victory this afternoon would be a very big step forward, not that Newcastle Town will make life easy for the Bulls. However, building on the momentum generated last weekend would be very helpful as we seek to retain Step 4 status.