Liverpool have waited 30 years to scratch their title itch. Leeds, meanwhile, are approaching the 16th anniversary of their relegation from the Premier League — a scar that will only start to heal once they return to the top flight.
With Liverpool 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds top of the Championship, seven points clear of the playoff positions, prior to the coronavirus-enforced suspension of football across the globe, both teams were undoubtedly close to realising their ambitions.
But while two of English football’s biggest clubs anxiously wait to discover their fate this season, they would be wise to keep a close eye on the situation in the National League — the fifth tier of the English game — which has left Barrow AFC in limbo, just as they looked set to “right a wrong” stretching back almost half a century by earning promotion to the Football League (EFL).
Barrow’s fate will be followed by all of those clubs in the Premier League and Football League whose pursuit of success has ground to a halt this season because, if the National League can come up with a non-playing solution to divisional placings, it could set a precedent that could be incorporated all the way at the very top.
“We have just as much to lose as Liverpool or Leeds,” Barrow manager Ian Evatt told ESPN. “Liverpool are on the brink of being champions for the first time since 1990 and Leeds stand to earn around £130m by being promoted back to the Premier League.
“For Barrow, the £80,000-a-season we get from the National League would jump to £1.2m in the EFL, but it’s about much more than money. We are talking about rewriting 48 years of history and righting a wrong.”
Back in 1972, Barrow were voted out of the EFL by their fellow clubs, falling victim to the old system of the bottom four teams in the basement division having to seek re-election.
Despite finishing third-bottom, eight points clear of bottom club Crewe, Barrow were voted out because, isolated on England‘s remote north-west coast, nobody wanted to endure the arduous journey to the town for away games. The same fate would befall north-western neighbours Workington in 1977 and Southport in 1978.
Barrow is so far off the beaten track that the United Kingdom builds its fleet of nuclear submarines there — the team’s club badge features a submarine, to reflect the town’s shipbuilding history.
“We actually train in Manchester [120 miles away] because Barrow is so distant from anywhere else that players don’t want to live there,” Evatt said. “It is the biggest cul-de-sac in the world. There is one road in and one road out.”
Evatt took charge of Barrow in June 2018 and, after a mid-table finish last season, he had guided the club to top spot in the National League, four points clear of closest challengers Harrogate Town and in pole position for promotion back to the EFL, until the league was suspended in mid-March.
Barrow’s brand of football under Evatt has earned them the nickname Barrowcelona, but the admiration for their style will not be enough to secure promotion as their fate once again rests in the hands of others. The National League is canvassing clubs for their views on what should happen next — the table being left to stand as final positions and null and voiding the campaign are both potential outcomes. A final decision is expected next week.
“The options concerning the sporting outcomes of the 2019-20 season remain under careful and timely consideration, and further updates will be given in due course,” the National League said in a statement.
If the season is declared void, there will be no promotion to the EFL. But while that would be the nightmare scenario for clubs at the top end of the table, handing Barrow the one automatic promotion spot — a second spot goes to the playoff winners — would also face opposition.
“Barrow have had a great season and played some fantastic football, but it is not definite that they would go on to win the league,” Harrogate manager Simon Weaver told ESPN. “This isn’t a Liverpool situation where they have a huge lead. We fancied our chances to catch them.
“A lot can happen in the final weeks of a season. Teams can gain and lose form. We know that a solution has to be found and it won’t be easy. It may be a case of having playoffs and Barrow being involved in those.”
Just as in the Premier League and EFL, there is no obvious route to a satisfactory outcome.
English football, at all levels, is waiting on government advice before committing to a roadmap towards completing the 2019-20 season. Testing for COVID-19 remains the key, and until the game’s authorities are satisfied that enough tests are available for football not to become a drain on the resources of frontline services, a return to action will be on hold.
Both the Premier League and EFL remain committed to completing the season, but if the logistics of doing so ultimately render that ambition impossible, finding a way to resolve league placings, without voiding the season, will make the National League’s decision on Barrow a key precedent to what may happen further up the football pyramid.
“The irony isn’t lost on the people of Barrow that, having been relegated from the Football League by a vote all those years ago, it has come down to another vote to decide whether we will return, 48 years later,” Evatt said.
“In every potential scenario in terms of deciding final positions, we would be top, whether it is average points-per-game, the table after each club had played each other once or as the table stands now.”
For Evatt, though, the ramifications of the National League season being declared null and void, thereby denying promotion for Barrow, would stretch far beyond the football pitch.
“When I arrived in Barrow, it was a miserable place,” Evatt said. “There were no smiles, it wasn’t particularly welcoming to outsiders. The town hasn’t had a lot to cheer about over the years.
“But with the success of the team, the whole community has developed a sense of civic pride again. You can see that when the players visit schools and hospitals.
“The club hasn’t been close to getting back in the Football League since it lost its place nearly 50 years ago, so you can only imagine how the town will feel if we are on the wrong end of a decision again this time.”
Dutch disappointment in season’s annulment
The reaction in Dutch second-division side Cambuur’s boardroom as the KNVB’s (Dutch Football Association) decision to annul the season was read out was firstly disbelief. And then came disappointment and anger.
When Dutch football was halted in mid-March due to COVID-19, Cambuur, who play in the Netherlands‘ second-tier Eerest Divisie, were already planning for promotion to Eredivisie where they would mix with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.
“We are 11 points ahead and have played 76% of the matches,” Ard de Graaf, Cambuur’s managing director, tells ESPN. “The chance of promotion is 99.5% according to data experts!”
Everything at the club is geared towards the Eredivisie: they are building a new €72m stadium on the outskirts of Leeuwarden. And when they gathered in the Cambuur boardroom on Friday to hear what the KNVB had decided, following a six-week process to determine how best to either restart the league or end the season, Cambuur were optimistic promotion would be rubber-stamped.
The 34 clubs in the first and second tier of Dutch football had registered their thoughts — 16 clubs voted for promotion and relegation, nine voted against and nine clubs abstained or did not vote. As there was no majority, the decision lay with the KNVB. It allocated European places in the Eredivisie but opted against crowning champions or implementing promotion and relegation.
“There is a great sense of injustice among players, staff, supporters and board,” De Graaf says. “We believe that in sports decisions should be made based on sports arguments, even if the finish is earlier than planned. The KNVB has adopted these arguments for assigning of the European places but has devised its own bizarre solution for the promotion scheme.” De Graaf points to the decision in France to uphold promotion-relegation and crown Paris Saint-Germain champions as a fairer outcome.
There are other pressing concerns. De Graaf points to the financial losses Cambuur will incur if they are not granted promotion with the difference between the two leagues (totaling sponsorship, ticketing and TV revenue) coming in at €3m and leaving the club with a shortfall of €1.5m. Cambuur are now seeking legal action over the decision.
“We hope that we can come to a better solution in a meeting with the association and the other clubs. We only have one goal and that is promotion! We don’t talk about relegation of other clubs. We are in favour of expanding the Eredivisie from 18 to 20 clubs.
“There is a great sense of injustice among players, staff, supporters and the board.” –– Tom Hamilton