After pre-season action it was finally time for league action and points on offer as 2021/22 kicked off for me and James Easton at Mill Road Arundel in the Southern Combination League Division One.
Midhurst and Easebourne were the visitors on a glorious sunny afternoon in West Sussex with both sides wanting to get their campaign off to a winning start. A summer of change for the Mullets in Jason Mines coming in to manage the team, assisted by Arundel veteran Richard Towers, both I know well from Wick FC days.
With Mines unavailable for the game, Towers was assisted by Aaron Millar, another known to me from those days at Crabtree Park and with a very young side in the red and white, it was interesting to see how they would fair against a visiting side who were in and around the thick of the promotion race last season before a halt was called.
Both sides were keen to knock the ball around on the slightly long playing surface which did make passing a little difficult if not needing to be very precise. Towers was forced into an early change on 26 mins, Ollie Hawkins replacing a limping James Ayling.
The Mullets thought they had taken the lead a minute later; the impressive Josh Mines shot was tipped onto the post by Josh Bird and then rolled along the goal-line without going over.
Midhurst did have the ball in the net on 35 minutes but the effort was ruled out for offside whilst five minutes later Mines had other shot tipped by Bird, this time onto the crossbar.
Then came the big talking point in the game and one that effectively decided the second half mentality. Hawkins was adjudged to have fouled his man just outside the penalty area and was promptly sent off, protests from the Arundel sideline that the decision was harsh, backed up by some independent spectators view that the foul wasn’t even really worthy of a yellow, the referee actually quite card happy throughout the game with yellow cards flying here there and everywhere.
The free kick came to nothing and the sides went in level at half time, both probably feeling they could have been a goal in front.
A man short saw Arundel look to contain the visitors and some dogged defending at times ensured they made it look as if Midhurst were going to be denied anything more than an opening day point, Chris Wyatt coming closest to breaking the deadlock hitting the post just after the hour mark.
As it was the pressure told just minutes later, substitute Liam Dreckman slotted home after a bit of pinball inside the area, latching onto the loose ball and giving Mullets keeper Jack Hickman no chance.
Marcus Bedford doubled the visitors lead two minutes later with a smart finish inside the area as the extra man was starting to pay dividends for the Stags and the tired legs of the young Arundel side were starting to flag.
Ten minutes from time the seal was put on the visitors second half performance, fellow substitute Kieran Carter tapped in at the far post for a third Midhurst goal after a superbly flighted cross from the left hand side to send the Stags home with the three points.
No doubt the game changed on that sending off decision, both sides were fairly well matched despite a clear pitting of youth against experience in favour of the visitors, but the extra man for the Stags was clearly the difference with Arundel unable to fashion many notable second half chances.
So there we go, number one in the bag for the season and Mr Easton’s first trip to Arundel ticked off the list, fingers crossed I can find a destination for Tuesday or Wednesday evening.
After much waiting and wondering but with little expectation the FA finally released details of the Step 3-6 season for 2020/21. As commonly thought the league season is over but the use of wording leaves a lot more debate and opinion to be had.
Null and void were the words used on the 2019/20 season as quickly as the pandemic struck and in hindsight which we all know is wonderful it can well be taken as hasty given the little number of games we managed to play this season.
Void of course means it never happened, those games those appearances those goals no longer exist in the record books. The wording this time around of curtailing a season to me and others puts a different slant on things going forward.
Still correct in the fact we won’t see another league fixture in 2020/21 but there is scope for the FA to be creative or imaginative if you will. Not a lot of credit is sent the way of the FA and opinion from me is rightly so, that’s not to tar some county FA’s with the same brush.
But, by not going down the full void route I feel they will look to see if they can make this season’s results count, maybe not at all levels but if we’re following the lead from the National League of no relegation from Step 2 for a second year running then that has to be applied throughout the pyramid.
Whether they can make it work is another question, do you also call in that famous word of integrity whereby a squad of players this season has achieved eight or nine results only for next seasons squad to be different players which in non-league circles is highly likely..
The second part of this action the FA could take is to complete their restructure of the perfect pyramid which was delayed last year and in all honesty may not happen until a full season is completed.
Project Non-League (@Projectnonleag1 on Twitter) have been campaigning for the FA to reward those who deserve from the course of two part played seasons to move up the pyramid but with no relegation occurring.
There are gaps right from the National League downwards and with the creation of an extra division at Step 4 it will allow for movement and progression for some from Steps 4-6 for those who have spent two seasons trying to do just that.
Steps 1-3 is maybe a little more complicated to agree on who and how they would promote, one or two gaps with possibly the ability of four or five clubs feeling they deserve to be promoted.
I’m sure some clubs if not a lot of them are frustrated at having to play the same sides in the same division for a third year running, if it comes to that it has to be a completed season this time around, no questions.
This morning, I’ve spoken to a club manager at each of the four levels to get their reaction to the decision and what their opinion is should the restructure go ahead.
Adam Hinshelwood, whose Worthing side led the Pitching In Isthmian League Premier Division on both occasions when the season stopped, agrees with the decision to curtail but isn’t convinced at the proposed restructure taking place:
‘I don’t think was any other option to finish the season now especially with spectators not allowed to attend until the end of March, it would mean disturbing the start of next season which we hope is going to be the shining light.’
‘That next season we can have spectators back in and no disruption hopefully, we can then get back to a bit or normality for everyone.’
‘The potential restructure is just another sign of the inconsistency throughout the FA decisions, I saw somewhere that a member of the EFL saying they wouldn’t relegate teams if the National League didn’t and they felt that whatever decisions were being made needed to be consistent at all levels.’
‘I feel that teams who have shown ambition are getting punished the most, it’s all become a bit of a shambles now. If they had kept with consistent decisions for all the levels then there might not have been as much upheaval as we are seeing in my opinion.’
Sevenoaks Town manager Micky Collins had his side in the Pitching In Isthmian South East Division play-offs places when the season was suspended late last year and admits this is the right decision being made:
‘I think it’s the correct decision to curtail the season as opposed to null and void. It leaves the option for the league to revisit the finished totals at a later date if required, null and void would have ended that scenario,’
‘With the on-going crisis who knows what could happen in the future (next season) I think in hindsight the leagues and the FA probably wished they had curtailed last season instead.’
Richard Styles’ Step 5 Tunbridge Wells team were in the top 5 of the Southern Counties East League when the season was suspended back in November, but he agrees there was little option but for things to end for second successive season:
‘It was pretty clear the FA were going to wait for the government roadmap announcement before making a decision. It seems in all honesty they have found a new word to use instead of “null and void”.’
‘I do think it strange to continue the FA Vase at our level though and slightly unfair on players and clubs to rush to get ready to play again with a lot at stake in these games.’
‘As for the restructure I don’t think there should be any promotion or relegation, purely on the fact that not enough games were played, had there been over 50% of games completed it’s a different situation, I can’t say it’s deserved for anyone after 12 or 13 games.’
‘Again, any decision that’s made will not please everyone but it’s about doing it the right way. I think had they decided to restart when we can or continue this season in August wouldn’t be correct either. Clubs, staff and players can all look to pre-season now to prepare for a fresh start.’
Simon Hull whose Step 6 Arundel side had a slow start to the season in the Southern Combination League Division One also felt there was no other option than to finish the season here and now:
‘All things considered namely where we are with the roadmap out of Covid and the time left to complete the season it was the logical thing to do. Clubs can’t survive without generating revenue and sustainability of a football club has to be the number one priority.’
‘I think everyone would like the restructure to be completed following the standard process of a season being completed. I would defer it again until the completion of a full set of games.’
There are a few points to come out as well in the past 24 hours too, as Richard alluded to above the FA Vase is to continue and it will be interesting to see which of the clubs want to carry that on or withdraw from the competition, would we assume that it’s going to be played on consecutive Saturdays until completed ready for a May final? We know this is driven by sponsorship money to continue; we can see that higher up in the game.
I’ve certainly seen more and more leagues starting to release details about possibly holding cup competitions for a month or two. Myself I feel this is needed because there are clubs, players and staff who want to be back involved and fans who want to watch. Absolutely there should be no pressure from anyone anywhere to play in these tournaments should they go ahead, personal choice at the forefront of it all.
For all of those four sections of people listed above, its that little bit of hope and relief that’s been in short supply for a majority of the last twelve months, a brief glimmer we enjoyed in September and October.
It’s the mental health for all that does need some addressing and that’s included in all categories, it’s your own personal opinion if you feel it’s right to get some football in or it’s a wait till pre-season.
Some players might see it as an audition for the new season, getting in the shop window early, some just want to kick a ball again after so much lost time. The same will go for club staff, wanting to get an early mark in front of others, fans will be happy to see the one thing a lot of them live for week to week.
If none of above come off then so be it, but out the box thinking and discussion right from the FA down to the County Leagues should be applauded, it’s not been for the want of trying. A beer and a burger sounds good though to me alongside some football on the pitch, it’s all we’re waiting for………….
Football! It’s back, how long for we don’t know with decisions made by those not understanding the non-league game at all but here we are ready to go again and of course you’ve got to make the most of every opportunity.
With the go ahead given last week but not a re-start for everyone, local games to go to where I hadn’t been so far were a little bit in short supply with no Step 3 or 4 action for around at least two weeks more so I settled on Wick vs Arundel despite having seen both in action in the first two months of the season.
I had been hopeful of heading to The Hive to finally get to see Barnet in action and not on a stream, they put paid to that before the weekend with season ticket holders only being admitted. Then they threw a spanner in the works announcing on Monday individual tickets were on sale for Tuesday night’s game.
Can’t say I wasn’t tempted, but with friends not able to make that game I stayed with my local choice and headed to Crabtree Park for the second time this season. The first was the opening Saturday of the season for the Southern Combination when Bexhill Utd recorded what was a comfortable 3-0 win, Arundel I saw go down 3-2 to Oakwood in the Sussex Senior Cup in October at Mill Road.
Both sides sat middle to lower half going into the game and this being the first action for four weeks and being a local derby too, an added couple of extras going into the game and by the time the final whistle went this one certainly didn’t disappoint.
On a fresh, cold December night, both sides were intent on playing football rather than reverting to banging the ball long to skip across the crisp surface, Wick had the better of the opening exchanges and were in front on 14 minutes, Jake Hawker heading home unmarked at the edge of the six yard box to give the home side the lead.
It wasn’t all one way traffic although the home side just had the edge and were awarded a penalty on 36 minutes, striker Dan Simmonds’ effort well saved by Mullets keeper Lewis Broughton, but he couldn’t prevent Connor Bull from firing home the rebound to put Wick 2-0 up.
Arundel brought themselves back into the game superbly just two minutes later, striker Ben Gray operating as a left back curled a free kick into the far top corner giving Wickers keeper Jordan Matthews no chance, a worldie if you like and a way back into the game for the visitors.
The game however turned on the next decision just a few moments later, Mullets John Phillips given a straight red card by referee Mark Spence reducing the visitors to ten men although no change in the scoreline as the game moved into half time, Simmonds hitting the post just before the interval.
Wick certainly made use of the extra man in the second half, Arundel a bit more tentative to push forward given the closeness of the scoreline and it was no surprise the next goal went to the home side.
A ball played in by left back Jack Bingham found Rob Hutchings, dual signed from Pitching In South Eastern side Chichester City, who controlled with one touch and unleashed a fierce shot giving Broughton no chance five minutes into the second half.
Three minutes later and Simmonds added his name to the scoresheet to put Wickers 4-1 up and in complete control with a clinical finish. Gray gave Mullets a glimmer of hope ten minutes later with another sweet strike that flew past Matthews only for Simmonds to pounce for his second just two minutes later after a defensive mix-up allowed him to score, 5-2 to the home side.
The striker then completed his hat-trick in the final 15 minutes, a miscued defensive clearance fell to Simmonds in the penalty area and he made no mistake firing past Broughton and a sixth goal for Wick.
There was time for Shane Brazil to time his run and lob the ball over the on-rushing Matthews into the net for a third consolation goal from 25 yards out, Wickers running out 6-3 winners.
Credit to both sides in what was a very entertaining affair and neither side seemed affected by tiredness or fatigue after four weeks of no games, the scoreline I felt was reflected in the decision of the red card I don’t think we would have had such a goal fest otherwise.
Attention is turned to the weekend now and the decision is between a local game or branching out into the National League, it’s great to be back once again……….
Tuesday evening this week took me to Arundel as they took on Oakwood in the Sussex Senior Cup 1st round. There was much debate up and down the country as to whether County FA’s would run their own senior competitions this season and it’s been pretty mixed, some are and some have postponed them until next season.
Sussex recently went for it and drew their competition a few weeks ago, only county league sides involved in this round but with the incentive of drawing the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion Under 23’s, Crawley Town, Eastbourne Borough or one of the Pitching In Isthmian League sides in the next round, money spinners for some even if big crowds are not allowed to attend.
On a crisp, but damp evening after early afternoon rain the Mill Road looked in good shape. It looked on arrival that the visitors might have had a delayed journey heading to West Sussex as they seemed to be kit changing at the far end of the pitch although these days with grounds being configured differently due to the covid restrictions that might well have been their changing area for the evening.
Both sides have made poor starts to their campaigns with neither side having registered a league win so far, not surprisingly the opening exchanges were tentative as both sides struggled to find a rhythm on a quick pitch.
It took 26 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, and with Oakwood making most of the early chances it was the visitors who went in front, Aaron Ryder scoring from a corner.
The lead only lasted four minutes, the Mullets Ben Grey equalising with a well taken penalty after that notorious handball law made the call. From that point I was expecting it to give Arundel the confidence to take hold of the game and make Oakwood work to win the game.
But it was the visitors who took the lead again on 36 minutes, a deft finish from Sam Cane past the hosts keeper Lewis Broughton was no more than they deserved and were well in control of the game at the half time interval.
The second half took a little while to come to life, neither really finding enough to test the goalkeepers and the midfield battle looking very even on the whole. The Mullets pulled themselves back into the tie as Grey with a small suspicion of offside got clear to lob the onrushing Greaves for the ball to land perfectly under the bar and level the scores once more.
Mullets had the chance five minutes later when from a corner defender Rob Madden met the ball perfectly but his header hit the outside of the post. It was left to the visitors substitute Oluwaseun Olabiyi to notch the winner ten minutes from time although Madden had a late chance to take the tie to penalties but scouped the ball over from three yards.
Impressive performance from Oakwood’s Arnold Saurombe who gave the Arundel defence problems throughout the game with his direct running and coming in off the left flank with no one sure who was tracking him. The Mullets desperately need an injection of confidence before they find themselves too far behind the top teams in the league, they do have a couple of games in hand but they need to won or mid-table might beckon this season…………
Last week I caught up with Arundel FC boss Simon Hull to gain an insight at how Step 6 clubs have coped with the lockdown period and this is what he had to say:
TK: When football was suspended by the FA back in March Arundel had nearly half a season to play in around six weeks, how much pressure do you think that would have put on the players to manage 3 or even 4 games a week?
SH: It would have been a real challenge and tested the depth of our squad to the limit. Considering our players have full time jobs and aren’t afforded the luxury of rest days it would have been tough undoubtedly.
TK: How did you approach the lockdown period once the season had been marked null and void?
SH: We (the coaching staff and myself) made multiple plans for various start dates, a best guess exercise really. I also kept in regular contact with our players advising them and updating them to the best of our knowledge. It was difficult but everyone has been in the same boat.
TK: Has it been easy or sometimes difficult to keep the players you have close and to approach players you want without a start date in mind?
SH: Our players have been first class, I can’t speak highly enough of them. Almost all have committed to the club for next season too, we have approached a couple of players with a view to adding to the squad and giving us more depth and quality, honesty is the only approach that works in my book. Fortunately, we have been able to offer 1 to 1 sessions and now group work courtesy of my coaching staff. They have been working around the clock to accommodate all the lads and deserve a special mention.
TK: Now that we have a tentative start time as September, is your planning now able to become a bit more through so you are ready to hit the ground running?
SH: Yes, we have things planned for the players which are now ongoing until the season commences, all things being equal let’s hope it is September. We have been training in small groups as per the guidance and also individually for a month now so we’re relatively in a good place.
TK: How do you think the football landscape will look at Step 5 when the season begins?
SH: Purely speculation and opinion, let the powers that be provide guidance and an exact start date ensuring safety is an absolute priority, lives come before football. I expect and hope we mirror last season with the number of promotion places up for grabs and being able to enter the FA Cup and Vase. Whilst I understand there may be time constraints for the Cup there has to be an element of common sense to work around this. Steps 4, 5 and 6 clubs place huge emphasis on being able to compete for prize money and to miss out would be terrible for clubs at the lower end of the pyramid. Whilst be financially important for clubs, it’s a highlight for players and coaches alike. Scrap all replays but don’t devalue the competition by reducing the entry.
TK: Has the club been able to maintain itself over the last three months and be in a position to begin once again in the next couple of months?
SH: It’s been a challenge! We have lost all revenue streams without the bar and clubhouse. Fortunately, sustainability is at the forefront of the Arundel model. It’s an expensive business but we have prudent people who look after the clubs finances so we should get through it but it’s not easy.
TK: Given the make up of Division One should look the same as it did last season, what are you expecting to happen?
SH: I’m hoping it’s the top 4 being promoted again as was supposedly the case last season for the restructure. Time will tell and we shall see, but I expect to see the same sides challenging again.
TK: Finally, the lockdown period can be viewed as a great time for reflection and for re-set. What things if any have you yourself from a football perspective felt a good time to change?
SH: We have had a slight restructure with regards to the management set-up and introduced a reserve side instead of the Under 23’s alongside our existing Under 18 team. We analysed closely last season what we did well and more importantly areas we felt we could make improvements and have implemented some change we hope is for the better.
My thanks to Simon for his time answering these questions.