With reports the National League playoff final is set to take place at West Ham United’s London Stadium, the decision has already caused outrage amongst fans of the potential finalists.

By Amos Murphy

Contempt for fans rife as National League playoff final decision shows

With the Easter weekend fixtures firmly behind us, supporters of clubs up and down the country are beginning to count down the games and tally up the points. In the National League, it’s no different, as relegations, playoff spots and a title are still to be decided.

While the bottom three look unlikely to change and Stockport County are cruising at the top, eyes remain fixed on who will finish inside the top seven.

As the table takes shape, the likely playoff candidates are becoming clearer, with an increasingly northern-based set of teams currently occupying the top seven. Of the teams within the playoff mix, only London-based duo Boreham Wood and Dagenham & Redbridge can truly be considered as teams from the south.

Fixtures in the top-seven for much of the season, the likes of Wrexham, FC Halifax Town and Chesterfield are all tipped as favourites to earn promotion behind Stockport. Whereas Solihull Moors, Grimsby and Notts County are all vying for various positions within the upcoming playoff eliminators.

Given the make-up of prospective playoff-competing sides, and their overwhelming northern nature, the rumoured decision taken by the National League to host the playoff final at West Ham United’s London Stadium has already left supporters feeling short-changed.

Wembley was for a long-time the designated venue for the fixture, with England’s national stadium hosting every National League playoff final from 2007, all the way up until 2020. The only time the playoff final was moved away from Wembley before last season came in 2011, when Luton Town suffered defeat to AFC Wimbledon at Manchester City’s City of Manchester Stadium.

Due to England’s role as a host nation in last summer’s Euro 2020 competition, the National League playoff final was forced to relocate from Wembley, with Bristol City’s Ashton Gate the controversially chosen venue. It was the first time in over a decade it didn’t take place at Wembley, with a different stadium set to house the fixture this season.

Although there are no matches scheduled at Wembley for the weekend of the playoff final, it’s believed the London Stadium will be chosen to host the last game of the National League season, with the match taking place on the afternoon of June 5th.

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Originally built for the London 2012 Olympics, the 60,000 seater arena was reinvented as a football stadium, before being inherited by Premier League West Ham in 2016. Criticised for its unwanted ability to subdue atmospheres, the decision to host the playoff final at the London Stadium seems to throw up more questions than it provides answers.

Given the northern locality of the playoff contenders, it’s likely at least one set of supporters will face a lengthy trip down to the capital for the final fixture. If the kick-off time is adjusted and moved around for television purposes, it could cause problems for fans on an already busy Bank Holiday weekend.

With celebrations ongoing in London for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, capacity on road networks and train travel could begin to get stretched. While not the most arduous journey for supporters based in the north, a weekend in the capital could prove an unwanted drain on the purse strings, at a time when the cost of living is already through the roof.

Additionally, the match at the London Stadium is unlikely to even come to close to being a sell-out, with large areas of the stadium expected to be left vacant. Given its problems with atmospheres in the past for full capacity Premier League fixtures, supporters can expect their songs and chants to be drowned out by the stadium’s poor acoustics and echoey carcass. Not ideal for a fixture with so much on the line, both emotionally and financially.

Poor attendances have plagued playoff finals in the past, with a crowd of a Wembley crowd of just over 8,000 people at the 2019 showpiece fixture between AFC Fylde and Salford City. While a move away from Wembley does provide an opportunity to improve the atmosphere at the playoff final, a switch to another large stadium in the capital does not represent the answer.

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So why not target a smaller stadium, which can be easily accessed by the fans of the clubs involved? Well, it seems as if the London Stadium may have been the only venue available to the National League at this late stage of the season.

As is the case most years, elite clubs tend to relay their pitches at the end of most campaigns, with lengthy bedding in processes needed to prepare the new turf ahead of the new season. Such actions may eliminate the likes of Leicester City’s King Power Stadium, or Aston Villa’s Villa Park from hosting the National League playoff final.

Whereas the London Stadium, which is set to host Soccer Aid the following weekend, will still have its pitch intact for the playoff final weekend.

Of course, a little bit of organisation and planning ahead could avoid this situation from unfolding, yet given the National League’s track record when it comes to putting fans first, that was always going to be a stretch.

Supporters are still prevented from viewing match highlights from their club’s weekend fixtures until the Monday morning after a Saturday game.

Ironic considering just one year ago, in the wake of the European Super League debacle, the decision-makers were so quick to champion the ‘Football without fans is nothing' tagline. Well, just weeks before the playoff final is due to take place, it looks as if that same contempt for supporters has returned in abundance.

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