The talk of the football world recently has been the return of the Premier League on the 17th June. However, for lower league football fans the drama begins on the 18th with the first leg of the League play-off semi-finals. League will follow two weeks later, meaning that both leagues will be wrapped up by the middle of July. Clubs will have only had around 3 weeks of training before playing, which should make for interesting viewing.
In League , Coventry and Rotherham will be promoted to the Championship, and Portsmouth will play Oxford United while Fleetwood will play Wycombe Wanderers in the play-offs. In League , Swindon crowned champions and Crewe Alexandra and Plymouth Argyle promoted automatically, leaving Exeter to play Colchester and Northampton to play Cheltenham in the play-offs.
The decision to end League was far from easy. There is a huge difference in club budgets in the league, meaning that some were eager to continue the season,. Clubs like Portsmouth have a large following and budget, and with a shot at automatic promotion, wanted to continue playing, while this was not feasible for smaller clubs. Therefore, the decision came long after League had informally agreed to end the season.
It was still all to play for in League when the season ended as, like usual, the league was tight. The decision to use points per game was a controversial one due to the dramatic change in league positions that it caused. In League , the only change at the top of table was Cheltenham overtaking Exeter to finish 4th, while in League, Wycombe Wanderers leapt from 8th to 3rd, causing Peterborough to drop out of the play-off places.
League agreed to ending the season fairly quickly. Only Stevenage and Forest Green Rovers wanted to continue playing, with the former wanting to because of its position in the relegation zone, although relegation to the National League is yet to be confirmed. The primary reason for ending the season was for financial reasons and many of the clubs severe problems in the upcoming months. Therefore, it seemed unfair that four clubs were suddenly asked to fork out money to play the extra play-off games. In order to raise the money, fundraising initiatives have been launched. Cheltenham and Northampton have opted for cardboard cutouts of fans in the stadium that will be sent back to fans once crowds can return to matches, something that will also hopefully provide a lift for the players.
However, finances are not the only source of controversy. In the first round of testing in League , 7 out of 135 players and staff tested positive for coronavirus, a number that many fans deemed too high to allow the play-offs to go ahead. It was an especially worrying statistic given the number of players who had already expressed their concerns about playing. There were calls for the fourth team in the league to be promoted automatically to avoid health risks to the players and their families, but the pleas were in vain. Luckily, the rounds of testing since have produced zero positive tests.
It will be interesting to see what effect playing in the play-offs will have on next season. For the vast majority of clubs in both leagues planning for next season can begin. However, for the play-off teams it is difficult to sort players’ contracts if they do not know what league they will be playing in next season. Furthermore, three teams in each league will have forked out large sums of money only not to be promoted. But hopefully, the financial impact will not be too extreme.
Nevertheless, despite the controversies surrounding the play-offs, lower league football fans have something to look forward to over the next few weeks, especially as the three months without competitive matches means that the result is completely unpredictable. Watching the play-off finals take place at an empty Wembley will undoubtedly be eerie but the excitement of promotion should lift the mood. It is certainly a chance that all eight teams should grab with both hands and I am sure that all the players will be ready to go.
I was against the play-offs happening at first due to being from a family of Cheltenham fans. Cheltenham lie 4th in League on points per game and many fans, myself included, believe that automatic promotion was on the cards before the season came to an abrupt end. If the play-offs had not gone ahead and four teams had still been promoted, the champagne would have been opened by now. But, now that they are, I’m looking forward to sitting down with my family and cheering Cheltenham on from the comfort of our sofa.