Will League One and League Two be suspended due to coronavirus?
Another EFL season looks increasingly at risk midway through the campaign – so what action will they take this time around?
As last season was called to a halt, three points separated table-toppers Coventry City and eighth-placed Sunderland in League One, while only five points lay between Tranmere Rovers in the final relegation spot and MK Dons in 18th.
With nine games remaining, the stage was set for one of the closest run-ins ever seen in the EFL.
But then, it was all over. Following weeks of arguments amid the first national lockdown, clubs in Leagues One and Two voted to end their seasons early, with the final standings decided via a points-per-game system, while the Championship and Premier League resumed.
Many clubs were furious. Peterborough United felt they had been "cheated" (opens in new tab) out of a play-off spot while Tranmere, who had spent big in January, were relegated straight back to League Two despite a strong run of form seeing them into lockdown.
At least decisions like this would never have to be made again. Or so the EFL had hoped.
Fast forward 10 months, and with 54 games already called off for Covid-related reasons in the Championship, League One and League Two since September, the governing body is facing mounting pressure to perform a depressing throwback and make a similar decision.
David Bottomley, chief executive of Rochdale – who are currently hovering just above the League One relegation zone – has come out to insist that a break is needed (opens in new tab) until the virus is under control again.
The UK is recording over 1,000 Covid-related deaths a day, higher than at any point during last year’s lockdown, but the EFL insist that there are no plans in place to introduce another circuit breaker – despite the lower leagues not being under the same pressures as the top-flight to finish in time for this summer’s European Championships. Similar noises were made in March of last season.
“The primary objective, in order to protect competition integrity, is to deliver a successful conclusion to the 2019/20 season,” the EFL said in a statement at the time (opens in new tab). But following plenty of protest from clubs, concerned that continuing the season would lead them down a road to financial ruin thanks to the combination of no ticket sales, necessary testing and a lack of financial aid, the campaign was curtailed.
One big problem the EFL face is that this season’s integrity could be more at risk if matches continue as planned. Lincoln City sit top of League One with 21 matches played, suffering no postponements. But, if Accrington Stanley win all four games in hand they would leapfrog the Imps into first place.
If clubs like Accrington were to see more postponements, we could have a situation where teams are unable to complete fixtures before the season ends, leading to potentially sour circumstances where clubs can play out mutually beneficial results once others are decided. A month-long break, as proposed by Bottomley, could at least allow for these clubs to catch up.
Last week the Isthmian, Northern and Southern Leagues decided to consult clubs on cancelling this season entirely, with all results so far to be declared null and void. They were the first tiers to do so last time around too.
Bit of breaking news... the Isthmian League, Southern League and Northern Leagues' boards agree that the season should cease immediately and be declared null and void. Clubs to be asked their views. Story coming up.January 8, 2021
Ultimately, any suspension of play will not be the decision of the EFL. If enough member clubs feel that the health situation is becoming too perilous or the financial aid provided is starting to run dry, leading to an inability to mass test players again, there is every chance that we could be facing another break.
"I have lost count of the number of chairmen who have sympathised at the unfairness of our plight, while still voting for it,” Tranmere chairman Mark Palios said of last season’s outcome, highlighting how decisions very much lie with the clubs and not the governing body.
While for now the EFL are insistent there will be no break in play, if there is one thing we should have learned from this period, it is that those in power are never far away from a U-turn.
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