Lockdown wrap: Analysis of League 1’s paralysis

I went to America a few years ago, flying into Boston Logan Airport we arrived around lunchtime. Feeling jaded, we headed over to pick up our hire car. In a tightly packed multi-story car park, we were shown to our new whip. It was a Qashqai, although the Americans feel the need to give it a bit of good ole’ American machismo by calling it a Rogue Sport. Grrr. 

Assuring the attendants that we were very experienced drivers we swerved their offer of a demonstration of the car. Inside, alone, we surveyed the cockpit; the car had no key, no gears and no handbrake. We turned the engine on with a button, then proceeded to push buttons and tug at levers in attempt to make the thing move. No matter what we did, it simply wouldn’t engage or move forward, so we had to sheepishly recall the attendants to show us round. 

“You can actually drive, sir?” one said. 

This is the fourth Lockdown Wrap and had been earmarked as one to look at what we might have learned from this period and how football might change in the longer term. I had assumed we’d be on some kind of glide path to resuming the season.

And yet, like sitting in that Rogue Sport, regardless of the buttons we press, the league seem incapable of moving forward. Is that in gear? No, it’s the windscreen wipers.

Let’s recap – last week the EFL issued their framework for resolution – quite simply, the league resumes or it will be curtailed with the retention of all relegation, promotion and the play-offs. To agree this, 51% of clubs would need to vote for it. So far, so late, so good.

Then on Friday, a week later, they resorted to type; the clubs had provided feedback on the proposals and now there would need to be a regulation change, which they would need to be agreed on the 8 June.

Into the void came yet another club with another ‘solution’. This time from Tranmere Rovers who are threatened with relegation. Their idea was, on top of a points-per-game system, a margin of error should be applied. if you sit outside that margin of error, you’re invited to take part in the play-offs regardless. That makes some sense, it starts to address Peterborough’s prime gripe, which is that their points haul to date is low because of how their fixtures have fallen. Crucially with the Tranmere, while they are all for applying this to promotion which doesn’t affect them, it shouldn’t apply to relegation, which does.

This looks like a brazen attempt to win votes from teams at the top with the specific objective of saving them from relegation. It also hides the fact that according to my rough calculations, historically teams are more likely to fall away towards the end of the season than they are to surge. So despite Peterborough’s assurances that the best is yet to come, they are statistically more likely to fall away.

You might assume that 10 weeks ago the EFL would have realised a regulations would need to be change. It wouldn’t be hard to insert a rule which allowed an alternative approach to resolving the season in the event of a significant problem.

You might also think that by now the EFL would realise beyond playing, there is no wholly accurate and fair resolution and what you’re looking for is the next best solution. Every option has a margin of error, but perfect solutions are not what we’re trying to find. A reasonable, if flawed, pathway forward is.

So, the earliest this is set to be resolved is the 8th June, which given the preparation time needed to get players back up to fitness, pushes any resumption deeper into the summer. 

Players are already being tested across the Football League for CoVid19 in preparation for some kind of resumption. Seventeen positive tests were returned across the Championship and League 2 last week, League 1 isn’t even involved. 

So, the bickering continues to kick the issue down the road, making the prospect of a full resumption increasingly unlikely. If the season does need to be curtailed, the EFL are backed into a corner, which will only increase the prospects of arguments. All the while, the EFL are sat in their hire car jabbing at the radio trying to turn on the headlights.

Originally, I thought I’d be writing about the longer-term prospects of us as a club and the league we play in or perhaps arguing the case for re-starting where there are doubts. Given the last few weeks it would seem that only government intervention can release the game from the grip of incompetence and self-interest. Given the bumbling administration currently in place at Westminster, you have to wonder if we’ll make it off the parking lot before the holiday is over.  

Lockdown wrap: The club’s world class response to the lockdown

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of our Conference Play-Off Final win against York. You may have noticed. I wonder what how it might have been marked in normal circumstances. A livestream? A podcast? We might have been basking in the glory of a 2020 promotion season, maudling at throwing away a golden opportunity, preparing for another shot at the play-offs and Wembley. Sure, we would have marked the occasion, but would it have enjoyed the same prominence in our consciousness, would we have come together on a Saturday afternoon if there had been the distractions of normality?

There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, about who they played when they were the first and only club around. The answer is obvious; themselves. Sheffield FC was a club in the truest sense; a place for people to gather with a common interest. Only later came the notion that clubs would send representatives to play against other clubs. Later still that we might pay those representatives. Even later than that was the idea of football as a business separated from the original concept of a club.

The lockdown has removed the business of playing games from our lives and revealed the club on which we’re built. The club’s response has been nothing but exemplary; the branded facemasks, players and management phoning vulnerable and lonely fans, the podcast, the mental health advice. I don’t pay much attention to other clubs, but if the biggest ones are doing the same thing, even with their gigantic marketing machines, it hasn’t permeated my consciousness.

The club could have simply folded in on itself; mothballed its activities until it all passes. Oxford United is a small business, shutting the shop would have been perfectly acceptable. 

Karl Robinson contributes a lot to that; he has always got the concept of a club from his Liverpool days. In fact, when times have been hard for him on the pitch he’s almost too much of a fan; too involved. He wants to please, to entertain, he wants to create something meaningful. His wife is a health and wellbeing adviser and the club have been quick to respond to the mental health challenges evident across its community. Listening to Dan Harris and Gary Bloom talking about the welfare of players, from juniors to the first team, and the duty of care they have to them is as reassuring as it is impressive. Most of the youngsters in their charge won’t make it to a professional football pitch, but they will all walk amongst us in society.

None of this could happen without the support of the club’s sponsors; Tiger and the rest of the board. When you have ‘foreign owners’ – it’s easy to think of nefarious means and dirty money – that fans are consumers and stadiums are real estate. But the owners confound that unfair assumption.

The club’s regular podcast has been a particular joy; the limitations of technology and the detachment from the corporatisation of the club means that the discussion is authentic and candid whether it’s talking to Paul Moody or Ryan Clarke about mental health or giggling incessantly about The House In Kidlington or naked kickabouts in 2016. 

It’s not just boorish lad speak, while Simon Watts bonds things together, Chris Williams is often master of ceremonies, a fatherly figure both proud and exasperated by those in his charge. He’s spent time with them all and knows them as people. Fans have a very simplistic relationship with players and managers – to most Ian Atkins was a tactical caveman, Williams introduced him as ‘the man who taught me everything about football’. With him is Kath Faulkner, one-part club insider to two parts fan and Jack Brooks brings his experience from professional cricket, bridges the gap between those paid to do the job and those paying. 

And in essence, that’s the club; people who have been in and around it for years. Our representatives – the players – come and go. I’ve always said that all I want for players is for their experience to be the best of their career. That they take a little bit of the club with them and tell others about how good it was. Listening to Mark Creighton describe the excitement of Wembley, Steve Kinniburgh taking a moment to absorb the atmosphere against Luton in 2009 or Alex MacDonald’s memories of playing in derbies makes you feel like we can achieve that goal. It’s also the bonds that still exist between them – Chey Dunkley’s deference to Johnny ‘Uncle Muls’ Mullins, even when Dunkley’s career is on an upward trajectory. Or how the class of 2010 listened to Ryan Clarke as talked about mental health – confiding with Alfie Potter at Northampton, and Adam Murray chipping in with warm words of support. And then, click, Clarke is describing Matt Green as ‘a cannon and a mess’ on a night out and everyone is laughing with him. Normal guys, with otherwise normal lives, nice people who work hard and sometimes do silly things. There isn’t one that I haven’t liked.

Those within the club should be proud of their response to the lockdown, it could easily have been different and we probably wouldn’t have complained if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. If there is to be a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud, then the reminder of what a football club is and should be may be one if its lasting legacies.