Holly Hunt looks back at what has been a turbulent year for the English Football League, as football was called to a halt for the first time since the Second World War…
COVID-19 wreaks havoc on EFL schedule
The 1939/40 Football League season was in its infancy when Germany invaded Poland, marking the start of World War Two. Teams across the divisions had played just three games when it was announced that Britain had waged war on Germany one Sunday on 3 September 1930.
Similarly, large gatherings were banned but for very different reasons. This time, it was a Friday afternoon when the EFL confirmed that the Championship, League One and League Two had been suspended on the back of the Coronavirus outbreak, and although the powers that be set a restart date of 30 April, nobody could’ve predicted what would unfold in 2020.
Last time football was suspended, Blackburn Rovers sat 20th in the First Division, with just a point on the board. Fast forward nine decades and Rovers attacker Elliot Bennett was the first player across the EFL to return a positive test, with two unnamed Hull City employees also contracting COVID-19. Soon enough, entire squads were forced to isolate when players began show symptoms.
Fond farewells and fresh faces
The EFL set a restart date of the weekend of 20 June and while there was much doom and gloom in the sporting world, with major events cancelled left, right, and centre, Simon Weaver gave Harrogate Town supporters something to cheer about. The West Yorkshire side won promotion to the EFL for the first time in the club’s history, beating Notts County 3-1 in the National League play-off final at Wembley Stadium. Harrogate joined Barrow, who went up as champions when clubs voted to end the season early, having dropped out of the league back in 1972.
Across the A61, the EFL bid a fond farewell to Leeds United on the back of a 16-year stay. The Whites topped the Championship table, 10 points clear of West Brom in second place in a historic season for the club. Marcelo Bielsa guided Leeds back to the promised land with two games to spare in his second season in charge and the city even named a street after the Argentine!
Points deductions, reformations and historic promotions
At the other end of the EFL, despite finishing rock bottom of League Two, Alex Revell’s Stevenage were offered a reprieve when Macclesfield Town were dealt a points deduction for non-payment of players’ wages. Boro recorded just two wins in their last 23 matches but managed to retain their place in the EFL for another season. Macclesfield, on the other hand, were wound up by the High Court in September and reformed as Macclesfield FC in October.
Wycombe Wanderers also made history, edging Oxford United 2-1 at a cavernous Wembley Stadium in the League One play-off final, earning promotion to the Championship for the first time in the club’s history. Gareth Ainsworth didn’t get a road named after him but he did promise to release a single with his band, The Cold Blooded Hearts, should his side win promotion, which we’re still waiting for.
Wigan down to League One, Salford City enter EFL pyramid
Then-Championship side Wigan Athletic heralded in a new era in May, after being taken over by the Hong Kong-based Next Leader Fund, but four weeks later, their decline began. On 1 July, Wigan, who sat 14th in the Championship and eight points clear of the drop zone, became the first club to enter administration since the beginning of the pandemic, with the club facing a 12-point deduction. The penalty was issued in July, after the club lost the appeal against the EFL and it was back to League One for the Latics.
In the cup, Salford City reached the final of the EFL Trophy in their inaugural season in the EFL pyramid, but the showdown against Portsmouth was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 crisis. And while the Class of 92 club wait to play out the game, which has been dubbed ‘football’s forgotten final’, Salford did enjoy a solid start to life in League Two, finishing the 2019/20 campaign in 11th.
Home sweet home
While Brentford narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League, the West London club did leave Griffin Park behind, vacating the iconic ground at the end of the season for the newly constructed Brentford Community Stadium. The Bees, who share their new home with the London Irish Rugby Club, christened the new ground on 1 September in a pre-season friendly against Oxford United, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
Elsewhere, AFC Wimbledon made a long-awaited return to Plough Lane in November. Named after the club’s original ‘spiritual home’, Plough Lane opened its doors in November this year, with Joe Piggott scoring the firs goal on the hallowed turf against League One rivals Doncaster Rovers.
Clubs and communities come together
In the absence of EFL action, clubs across the Championship, League One and League Two took the time to give back to local communities and help those struggling amid the pandemic. Most notably, England ace Harry Kane pledged his support to the club that handed him his professional debut, Leyton Orient, by sponsoring the League Two side’s kits for the 2020/21 campaign. The home shirt features a thank you message to frontline NHS workers, the away shirt is sponsored by Haven House Children’s Hospice, and the third strip pays homage to mental health charity Mind.
Meanwhile, Hector Bellerin invested into League Two side Forest Green Rovers. The Arsenal defender became the second biggest shareholder in the only fully vegan and carbon-neutral club in the world, backing the Gloucestershire-based club’s environmental initiatives and working alongside chairman Dale Vince as part of his new role.
Well-earned retirements… or not
It appears that Neil Warnock just can’t stay away from the EFL as the 72-year-old stalwart took the hot-seat at Middlesbrough in June, succeeding Jonathan Woodgate, who became the 38th managerial casualty across the English football pyramid. The Sheffield-born boss led the club, who were sitting outside of the relegation zone on goal difference when Warnock took the reins, to Championship safety. Boro finished the 2019/20 season in 17th place and Warnock agreed to stay on for yet another year!
While Warnock placed retirement on the back burner, Birmingham City took the rather unorthodox decision to retire the number 22 shirt in Jude Bellingham’s honour. The 17-year-old left the Midlands for Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund in late July for a reported fee of £250 million and supporters took to social media to express their confusion. A local non-league club mocked Birmingham, tweeting out: “Stourbridge will retire the number 22 shirt following Birmingham City’s decision to retire Jude Bellingham shirt. This is due to the fact we play non-league and we think shirt numbers over 20 are pretty ridiculous!”
Fans make long-awaited return
Although sport was allowed to resume there was one key component missing; the fans. At the beginning of the December, football made a breakthrough after the UK government agreed to lift the spectator ban for clubs in Tier 1 and Tier 2. Teams were permitted to fill stadiums to a limited capacity, depending on which tier the region had been assigned to.
Up to 34 clubs across the EFL welcomed fans, who adhered to strict COVID regulations, back through the turnstiles, including Cambridge United, who held a pilot trial earlier in September. The U’s employed 91 stewards for their League Two clash with Mansfield – one steward for every 22 supporters – meaning most clubs made a loss as supporters returned to stadiums.
However, shortly after, the Premier League came to the EFL’s rescue after agreeing upon a £250 million bailout package to mitigate the financial impacts of the pandemic on clubs across the Championship, League One and League Two, and stop teams from following in the footsteps of Macclesfield and Wigan.
The only way is Crawley
Things got progressively more strange as the year drew to a close, when former reality television star Mark Wright signed for League Two side Crawley Town on non-contract terms in December. The 33-year-old was on the books of Tottenham Hotspur’s youth team once upon a time, but aside from the odd Soccer Aid appearance, hadn’t pulled on his boots since 2011.
And Wright will shine the spotlight on his new club in a BBC documentary titled ‘Mark Wright: The Last Chance’, which is set to air in the next few weeks and go behind the scenes of the celebrity personality’s last chance at making it as a professional footballer.
Festive fixtures go ahead
For many supporters, football and Boxing Day are synonymous. However, the ritualistic tradition of attending a game on the annual holiday was thwarted by coronavirus. Nonetheless, the festivities went ahead at all but eight EFL clubs – six in League One and two in the Championship – who were forced to postpone games due to COVID-19 outbreaks among their respective camps.
In the Championship, Rotherham United were due to host Middlesbrough but Paul Warne’s side recorded a number of positive tests across the first-team squad, and Millwall’s trip to Bournemouth was called off on the same basis, bringing their 2020 to a premature end.
Follow Holly on Twitter @hollyhunt10