The Dover dilemma: The big question National League clubs are asking which could impact Hartlepool United, Torquay, Notts County, Stockport and Wrexham's promotion hopes
We are heading into the business end of the National League season, the fourth quarter of a deviant and perplexing 2020-21 campaign – yet there is still one big unanswered question...
It has been almost a month since fifth tier clubs received confirmation that the season would continue with promotions to the Football League honoured.
Welcome news for Sutton United, Hartlepool, Torquay and several others who are striving to rid themselves of non-league football’s tormenting grasp.
In an exhausting season of turmoil and uncertainty, there is a clear path to the EFL without any real threat of null and void or points per game tedium.
But it’s a different situation for National League North and South clubs, who have had their season voided. Even the 18 sixth tier sides who proposed setting up a new ‘mini-league’ that would result in promotion to the National League, saw their ambitious proposal rejected by the FA Alliance Committee.
The FA Council will meet on Thursday, March 18, to ratify the Committee’s recommendation.
The fallout will result in no relegation from the fifth tier for the first time since its inception in 1979.
So teams at the top get to compete for a place in the EFL while the teams at the bottom can play out their season without the threat of relegation looming over them.
All plain sailing from here, right? Well, not quite.
Even an untrained eye looking at the National League table will point to the club sitting bottom of the division and know something isn’t quite right.
Basement club Dover Athletic ceased footballing operations just 15 games into their turbulent campaign due to the funding crisis which plunged the season into uncertainty back in January.
Last month, Whites’ owner Jim Parmenter made the desperate decision to cut costs and preserve the future of the south coast outfit by shutting the club down while the rest of the division played on.
It’s hard not to sympathise with the Dover players and staff, including former Pools favourite Nicky Southall who felt ‘cut in two’ after being furloughed.
"Football has been my life since I was 16 and now I’m on furlough watching results come in. As you can imagine, it’s tough,” the Dover coach tweeted.
What is happening with Dover? The question on everyone’s lips.
The club are in limbo and the repercussions of their shut down have not been forthcoming – though you fear they could be significant.
As bad as their situation is, it also creates several logistical issues that are yet to be resolved.
According to the fixture schedule, Dover are still set to travel to promotion chasing Hartlepool (who currently sit second in the table) on the final day of the campaign on May 29.
In an ideal world, that match will be played at 3pm at Victoria Park as planned. But we’re not that naive.
The final day of the season almost always has all clubs kicking-off at the same time in order to avoid any form of unfair advantage that could materialise as a result of a side completing their campaign earlier than another.
As a result of Dover being unable to play, Hartlepool will have technically already completed their season before May 29, leaving them at a potential disadvantage.
Pools’ rivals will go into their matches knowing exactly what they need in terms of a result in order to overtake them – potentially into a crucial play-off or promotion spot.
Playing at the same time retains the sense of competition and avoids any Disgrace of Gijón-esque scenarios potentially unfolding.
And Hartlepool can only hope Weymouth, who also don’t play on May 29, agree to rearrange their league fixture to that date.
We can harp on about the ‘integrity’ of the competition but, in reality, that went out of the window the moment clubs were promoted and relegated based on an equation.
Just over a year ago, the 2019-20 season was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has not been kind to the National League or its clubs in particular.
What used to be pure competition, now factors in safety (no fans) and financial preservation (suspending seasons, furloughing staff, issuing grants and loans).
Without the threat of relegation, the division loses its competitive edge as clubs can afford to lose games and play weakened teams without any real consequence.
Even if Dover suddenly decided to resume playing, they simply couldn’t. After Tuesday night, many clubs will have played almost twice as many matches as the Whites.
They’ll have 10 weeks to play 29 games of football, the majority of a season. It’s simply not feasible and, unfortunately, their season is over.
But it isn’t for the remaining 22 clubs in the division, some of whom are yet to play Dover.
The most logical and fair solution would be to expunge all of Dover’s results so far this season, which will have consequences at the top of the division.
If this proves to be the case then Pools and Sutton would come off favourably due to them not playing Dover so far this season. Promotion rivals Torquay, Stockport County and Wrexham have all beaten Dover and would be three points worse off should their results be expunged.
Meanwhile Notts County, who lost to Dover on the opening day of the season, would also benefit with the added bonus of a marginally improved goal difference.
“Obviously we don’t have any inside track on what’s going on in terms of what the league are doing with Dover, or what conversations they’re having,” Magpies boss Neal Ardley told Nottinghamshire Live.
"Certainly with the Dover situation, it’s becoming more and more apparent that they will not finish this season.
“So what are we going to do about the results from up until now? Let’s get that clarity now, not with five games to go or three weeks until the end of the campaign.”
Over to you, National League.