When the League Two clubs voted last week to cancel the 2019/20 season, they turned the clock back 34 years. Stevenage finish bottom but (subject to ratification) remain in the league. In effect, they have become the first club to be chosen by their peers to stay in the Football League since Exeter City, Cambridge United, Preston North End and Torquay United on 23 May 1986.
It used to be known as ‘applying for re-election’. There was no formal application in last Friday’s deliberations. Stevenage were bottom of League Two with 10 games to play when the current season reached what turns out to have been its conclusion in March. They were three points adrift of Macclesfield but had a game in hand. The League Two clubs apparently took the not unreasonable view that it would be grotesquely unfair to relegate Stevenage without giving them a chance to play their way out of trouble.
The support of other league clubs also formed the basis of the re-election system. As a means of deciding what happened to the teams in the bottom four positions of the fourth tier, re-election always looked like something of a formality. In theory, 112 non-league clubs might have ascended into the Football League in the 28 seasons during which the re-election process applied, from the founding of the Fourth Division in 1958 to promotion/relegation from 1986 onwards. In the event, five scrambled on board.
The non-league community used to regard re-election as an example of the ‘Old Pals Act’ in operation. When Saturday Comes pulled no punches: “In the smoke-filled rooms of London’s Café Royal the same old representatives of the same rotting clubs gathered enough votes each year to remain stagnant at the bottom of Division Four.”
Among the repeat offenders at the league’s lowest levels, Hartlepool United successfully applied for re-election 11 times in this period. That’s not far off every other year. On the other hand, Oldham Athletic provide a kind of vindication for the system by having gone through the process twice before becoming founder members of the Premier League.
The expectation is that Stevenage’s good fortune will not be at the expense of Barrow. The Cumbrian club has led the National League since mid-November and had a 4-point lead on 14 March. Poor Bury will have to be replaced in the EFL structure and that leaves an opening for Barrow.