There’s some merit in ‘sporting merit’ rule for every league - Stuart Rayner

UEFA was only talking about the top end of its top divisions when it rolled out its mantra of “sporting merit” this week.

Promotion and relegation issues still to be decided.

Sheffield United’s European fate will be decided on whether they deserve to play Continental football next season. With Europe’s biggest clubs increasingly trying to fix Champions League qualification around who you are, not what you are doing, it was not a given.

At times, football has looked for one-size-fits-all solutions to the coronavirus pandemic when the issues are too complicated and effects too wide-ranging. But the idea of “sporting merit” should apply across the board.

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With hindsight, it would be nice to already have rules for when a season is abandoned, removing self-interests. As it is, we are left with clubs looking after number one.

More of those battles may be looming at the top level, but they are already here in non-league.

This week, the National League – the Conference Premier, North and South – accepted defeat and ended the season. Ending the spectre of having to continue paying players until 2019-20 finally ended was the easy bit. Deciding what to do next is much harder.

Some Leagues One and Two clubs fear they might have to go down the same route, although it did not help that when Mansfield Town’s John Radford wrote to the league with what he stressed were not demands, but which looked a lot like them, only 37 of the 47 clubs signed his letter.

Some people are holding onto the fact Germany’s Bundesliga is gearing up for a May return. If Britain’s infection rates, contact tracing and testing were on a par with Germany we could take some comfort – although not too much because it is still no more than a hope.

In setting out what will happen if leagues cannot be completed – and the Premier League and Football League still hope theirs will be – UEFA’s main concern was that the fair thing be seen to be done.

If we were five matches into the season, that would be a doddle but 34 out of 42 – 81 per cent – as Conference North leaders York City have played? Second-placed King’s Lynn Town have only played 32, and on points-per-game, would be top. Either way, they would be the two candidates for next season’s Conference. Harrogate Town would be second on points-per-game in the Conference, which also has two promotion spots.

York are pushing for promotions to be “honoured”. A decision is expected this week.

Unfortunately, the nature of sport is you cannot have winners without losers. Bradford Park Avenue are bottom of Conference North, 12 points adrift of Kettering Town from two games more. Barnsley are bottom of the Championship.

With some clubs, sadly, destined not to survive this crisis, plenty could be spared relegation anyway.

If only UEFA, who issued “strong” but still vague recommendations this week, were brave enough to define “sporting merit” more clearly?

Rules on what stage a division cannot be voided, and how final placings, promotions and relegations are decided if we come to an abrupt halt would be handy. We keep using the word “unprecedented”, but what if we have to end the season again, as we did in 1914 and 1939? What if some environmental disaster or another pandemic hits?

A bit of one-size-fits-all would not go amiss in that respect.

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