The beautiful game looks about as ugly as it ever has been

So then. The last 24 hours or so, read lots, spoken to a number of people, answered lots of messages, here we go then the National League ladies and gentlemen!

A warning this might be a long blog, there’s a lot to get through, reactions from those inside the clubs, my own thoughts and what I see as stumbling blocks going forward from today, it won’t be pretty, you might not agree, but above all it’s an opinion nothing more, it’s neither right nor wrong.

Before we get to the main points though as a Barnet fan I’m embarrassed we’ll stay up through default. On the face of it, it looks like Tony Kleanthous made the correct decision in the summer not to spend, to severely undercut the football operation and six months later he’s looking good.

We should have been doing it on the pitch for the next four months or so to get out of the mess we created for ourselves which is what I would have preferred to happen, sink or swim by your decisions, not of others. But, for all intents and purpose it is what it is and Barnet have the opportunity to put a proper club in place under Tim Flowers over the remaining months of the season, a silver lining if you must but a hollow one at that.

Onto the main meal then and once again here we are in the midst of controversy. Whatever this final outcome was to be there was never an option to please absolutely everyone and there will be ramifications to come for days and the next few weeks.

I don’t believe there was ever a doubt in outcome of the vote, heavily weighted towards the top division and with the EFL relationship at the forefront of that it won’t have come as a surprise, but it’s been more how the situation has been dealt with.

A real lack of transparency and leadership is evident which you can trace back to the play-offs last season and continued into this. Commendation maybe for ensuring we had play-offs eventually completed for all three divisions last year but a lack of foresight when attempting to get this season worked has been forgettable.

Funding of course has been the full issue in where we have gotten to now, we are all aware the National League have no minutes of the meeting with the DCMS over what was on offer for the full course of the season is at best incompetent. I’ve served on league and club committees throughout my lifetime, to not have something so simple but vital can’t suggest anything more than a cover up of mismanagement and hanging all 66 clubs out to dry, effectively what they have done.

Two days ago I was informed players and staff in the South and North divisions were told, not via official communications, that no testing was to be carried out ‘a waste of tax payers’ money’ which in effect said null and void was coming. Excuse me, what about some of the £11 million pounds of lottery money than has now been poured down the drain?

While I write this now, I see across social media fans, clubs and chairmen attacking each other because opinion is so divided on what should have happened.

My opinion, well every club of those 66 is vital, vital to someone, vital to its players, vital to its staff and mostly importantly vital to its supporters and its community. The same applies for Steps 3-6 as well and every club has quite rightly looked after its own house but should they have been left to fend for themselves while the league banner they play under seem to not want to get involved.

Last night I spoke to various people around the situation to gauge a bit of reaction:

David Blackmore, chairman of Eastbourne Borough was ‘absolutely gutted’. He said ‘We have been cut adrift by the National League. A majority across all three divisions wanted to continue, majority in the South wanted to continue, yet we don’t continue.’

David’s manager at Priory Lane Danny Bloor is frustrated the season has now ended, ‘Our club just wanted to keep playing; at the conclusion of this we sit 3rd in the league a position we’re very proud of and I hope we can regroup and replicate that again next year.’

Steve McKimm, manager at Tonbridge Angels who had to furlough their players this week in order to protect the club, was gutted at the outcome ‘I don’t think the process was fair, how can the National League have it’s members vote against each other but not in equal amounts.’

Ben Strevens, manager at Eastleigh, is unsure what the future holds for the top division ‘seven teams voted for null and void, what exactly is that going to mean after this weekend for our teams?’

Andy Hessenthaler, manager of Dover Athletic who seem most at risk of not seeing out the season, said ‘I think the mess is just going to continue because as you said nothing has changed, still no money. Seven clubs voted to null and void so will be interesting with what’s going to happen now’.

Kevin Watson who recently returned to the game at Billericay Town like most wasn’t shocked at the decision, ‘No surprise at all to be honest, just really disappointing.’

Adam Hinshelwood whose Worthing side have twice been in pole position for promotion to the National League South questioned the timing of the announcement, ‘It seems strange with the government telling us on Monday the plan for the country and for the National League to not follow suit and also not to stay in line with each other.’

‘I feel for Marc at Dorking who invested in a great team at that level and to see it null and voided again seems wrong on the face of it. It does seem likely Steps 3-6 will follow; we will be ready for whatever decisions are made for our club.’

An increase once again to the furlough scheme as the North and South clubs put their players and staff on leave once again from this morning and attention turns now to the can which is just getting kicked down the road.

Already we see legal action from clubs going in today which if they feel is the right thing to do for themselves so be it, I’m not here to judge the rights and wrongs of what each club feels is its chosen path. Whether they can get any joy or a reversal of decision remains to be seen.

Then we have the seven who voted in the top division to null and void, the next can of worms. What now if those seven, and I’m led to believe Barnet were NOT one of the seven, decide with no further funding their club would go under and quite rightly want to preserve their future? Do we play on with 16 teams expunging all results of those not playing as there is no relegation? Do those seven get asked to furlough the first team and play weakened sides in order to complete the season? Do the National League push Sport England to help these seven clubs as soon as possible? So many questions but when do we get the answers? And these are just the beginning.

To read this morning though that two clubs in the top division didn’t bother replying at all beggar’s belief! Now either they’ve got deep pockets so it makes no odds to them or purely ignorant, surely out of respect to the other clubs in your division you would have abstained?

In all likelihood Steps 3-6 will now also null and void with no chance of Step 3 promotion to the National League North and South bringing another premature end to the season for a second year in a row. The hope now will be for the FA to see sense and take the time to implement their restructure of the perfect pyramid and with it some movement for teams upwards which is deserving, the benefit to playing exactly the same teams for the third year running, not one I can see.

And for the second season running it appears as if the National League and South will run with a team less once again, granted it’s difficult to now work out who would take the missing spot in each division but a lack of contingency plans is as well not their finest hour.

Just a sidenote to this as well, the FA Trophy and Vase. One continues, one suspended and last year’s finals still be played with one of the four participants an EFL club, go figure!

The beautiful game as it’s often referred to looks about as ugly as it ever has done in non-league circles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a vote of no confidence in both the National League and the FA in the coming months, not a chance this is all going to go away easily…..

Watson: It was a call I wasn’t expecting, I wanted to stay at the club

Here is the final part of the interview with new Billericay boss Kevin Watson:

TK: Contract termination at Ebbsfleet and despite everything that was going on around at the time, had you one eye on planning for next season?

KW: I had more than one eye on it yeah, pretty much before they decided my contract wasn’t being renegotiated. We had the Zoom call between Damien (Irvine), Steve (Lovell) and me, deciding who we were going to keep and who to let go. Steve had the easy job; I had the six difficult phone calls for those we weren’t retaining, something that has to be done if you don’t want to be in the same scrap the following year.

But those boys then messaged and called me two weeks later when I received the same phone call I had to deliver to them, that’s a measure of their attitudes despite not being involved at Ebbsfleet anymore, a sign of the relationship I had with them.

It was a call I wasn’t expecting, I wanted to stay at the club and have another crack at it with your own squad if you like, but it’s football, I was disappointed at the time and everyone knew that. It was then a case of getting over that disappointment and dusting myself off for the next opportunity.

TK: Being an out of work manager during a pandemic can’t have been easy and as I mentioned I chat to Darren (Currie) quite often, he is quite keen to get back into the game as you yourself were.

It’s no secret I championed you, Ian Hendon, and Andy Hessenthaler for the Barnet job at the end of the summer pretty much because I saw what you did at Ebbsfleet in the way you turned them around from a fractured team into a togetherness as a group of players. Did you actually get a call from Tony (Kleanthous) or not?

KW: No! Barry Neville who I got to know through Teddy, represents me and I got through the CV reading stage but that was it, you, and I both know how football works though and I have to say the Billericay one was done so differently and well. I think it went over five weeks in all, three Zoom calls and various interviews with each of the five owners there but they made me feel at ease throughout the process.

And to get yourself in front of 50 or 60 other applicants makes you feel good as a manager or coach especially when you go for a job and hear of some of the other names linked with the vacancy.

The set up though is fantastic, from the first team through the Under 23’s to the ladies’ team and the youth set up each owner has a vested interest in one part of the club to bring to the table, it’s a club that now is moving in the right direction.

TK: The likes of yourself, Darren, Hendo out of work during a pandemic how was it watching football going on but not being involved yourself?

KW: It was difficult yeah I had set myself a target of late November early December when things might start to happen and as it was turned out to be a little bit after that, but there was very little happening. I think there were only one or two jobs coming up in all three divisions, Gloucester I didn’t get to the final stages there, Barnet of course as we mentioned and that was it until I went for Billericay.

TK: Did you get around to many games to watch whilst you were waiting for an opportunity? And when you’ve been in a job do you feel some added pressure when you see out of work managers sitting behind u in the stand?

KW: Oh yeah I had that at Ebbsfleet when I was in interim charge, it was like a who’s who of managers sitting behind me, but then I was thinking what will be will be. Luckily for me the players did well for me and got me the job, but you know why those people are there, either a manager is under pressure or someone is in that caretaker role.

I did get to games, as many as I could but I really wanted to be back in that dug out and for me I was pleased I wasn’t out of the game for longer than a few months.

TK: And of course now back in the game at Billericay Town and despite of course doing a lot for talkSPORT did you feel at any point that the route back into the game wouldn’t come?

KW: At times you do, you don’t want to be out of the game for too long. May to November/December is a fair amount of time and you don’t want to feel you’ve like fallen off the map and will people still remember you and what you’ve done but it’s good when people like yourself who know football still put your name out there and into people’s thinking its then not me spouting off or anything.

In the current conditions we’re playing in, it’s strange, very strange to not have fans inside the stadium, twelve months ago we had all that. You have literally two teams, your staff, their staff, people who work around the ground and the media guys and that is it!

But, as you mentioned when speaking to Smudger there are still three points to play for and of course the games are being streamed so people are still watching despite not being there, but it is weird and I think fans are something that have been taken for granted, we certainly can’t wait to have supporters back in the ground and I’m sure that can’t be any different for any club up and down the country.

TK: The current situation we have with the National League vote and not to get too political with it all, how do you think it will pan out? All three divisions finishing or just the top division carrying on?

KW: I’ll be honest, I have no clue, no clue at all! It changes on a daily basis it’s impossible to predict. I try not to get involved with the technicalities of it all and as a manager and players as players we’d all love to carry on being out there but it literally is politics with the government.

If the funding comes through though as grants we carry on, I have heard murmurs of fans being back in grounds before the end of the season which would be fabulous to see and as we seem to be coming out the other side of this pandemic slowly it’s something we’d all like to do, to welcome them back.

As you are aware our club have gone down the route of fielding our Under 23’s and Under 18’s to protect the future, the first team players are furloughed until things are resolved and they gave a great account of themselves at St Albans, really proud of them for how they played that day.

TK: Is there an eye on what happens beyond this season with all the uncertainty and expectation that the vote will go against playing on?

KW: No, not yet. I think once we get to that point where the decision is made then we decide that we move on and with our thinking too. If we null and void then it begins and of course my players contracts will be up for most in the summer, those I’d want to keep, to bring in. The young lads who played in that league game have given me some headaches to come into the thinking too, but that’s what I’m paid to do, make tough decisions, and put together a good enough squad for next season.

TK: Touching on that performance at St Albans and having to use the players as you did, are you a bit surprised at the time more haven’t gone down the same route? (since the interview, clubs are now starting to explore the same route)

KW: The owners decided to go down that route as not to impact the future of the club whilst we wait for decisions to be made and resolved. So we have five non-contracted players who we put together with the selected boys from the Under 23’s although the oldest one there is only 20 years old, trained on Thursday and played the game on the Saturday.

I’m open and honest enough to say I didn’t expect to get any kind of result there, but I feel I did them a bit of a disservice as to a man they were brilliant all afternoon.

There are a couple within that bunch that I want to tie down for next season, if we carry on this season I’d like to think I’d have them involved.

And if others decide to go down the same route as we’ve chosen to then we might get to finish the season as a whole with everyone playing but not everyone is going to have an Under 23’s to use so we’ll just have to see.

My thanks to Kev for sitting down and putting this all together with me, fingers crossed the next time will be face to face in an office rather than the endless Zoom calls we’re all involved in at the moment.

Watson: I felt everyone’s hard work had gone to waste

Part two of my interview with the new Billericay boss Kevin Watson is below, Kevin talks about his time at Ebbsfleet and what happened in and round the time the season was halted last year before we went into the lockdown:

TK: I watched you three times last season, firstly at Barnet when we won 5-2.

KW: That was a going over that night!

TK: I think it wasn’t long after that game things started to come together for you.

KW: Yeh it was, that game though! We got back to 2-2 and I thought we looked like the only team to go on and win the game, but we conceded immediately after equalising which deflated us and I had turned to Trist (Lewis) after we scored and said we can go on to win this now because we’d started so well but that third goal really did it for us.

I wouldn’t say it was a one off night either as we got a good tonking at Barrow as well but they were a very good side and that game was probably my lowest ebb in football, sitting on the train on the way back was just the worst.

TK: Then I saw you at Maidenhead, they were going downwards you were heading upwards in the table, the performance that night was very strong and the momentum carried forward into the Halifax game which I sat and watched on TV as it was the only game going on in Europe let alone England.

KW: The boys’ strength of character in that Maidenhead game on a Tuesday night not long after we’d been beaten 4-0 at Chesterfield was excellent. I’d made a point for the Chesterfield game in leaving out both forwards, I felt they were stale, Gozie Ugwu and Josh Umerah, and it was a bit of a kick in the teeth for them but also to the detriment of the team that day.

It was 0-0, nothing in the game until the last twenty minutes. Then Nathan Tyson who I played with at Reading came on and scored a hat-trick and it looked like a real thumping on paper but it wasn’t, a capitulation at the end for sure and the goals we gave away were poor, the final score looked far worse than it was.

What I liked though about that game was Gozie only got ten minutes so no time to affect the game at all, Josh I left out of the sixteen completely but after that game he was sweeping and tidying our dressing room and I thought then he recognised he needed a break, his attitude was superb that day.

Both of them were back in on the Tuesday night at Maidenhead and as you saw they were both unplayable, so I took a little bit of credit for dropping them and losing for the response in the next game, That first half at Maidenhead was special no doubt about it.

 For the last few games after that they were fantastic as a pairing and as a result Josh got his move to Torquay and Gozie is up in Scotland doing well.

TK: Watching the game on that Tuesday night you see the togetherness that possibly wasn’t there when you go back to for example the game at Barnet and at Barrow.

KW: Yeah, we definitely ended up with that. We were a work in progress that did get better and better until the season was stopped. We had setbacks, but we always bounced back from them, I think from the 29 games we played from when I took over we never lost two in a row and that shows some resilience from the players.

It’s a very, very tough league as it’s shown again this season, the top 8 will comfortably compete in League Two. We ran Notts County close in the FA Cup, Stockport at home played very well but lost in the last minute, we competed well in most games, just the odd ones like the Barnet’s and Barrow’s in my mind where we came a cropper.

TK: And then waiting to find out you’d been relegated by 0.002 points to the National League South must’ve have been the toughest point to take after the run of form you had put together.

KW: Regardless of what happened to me leaving the club, I felt everyone’s hard work had just gone to waste, where was the integrity in that when we still had seven games to play?

We were fourth in the form table and were due to play Bromley on the coming Saturday and I said to Smudge (Neil Smith) as they were going the opposite way down the table that he wouldn’t have wanted to play us at our ground at that time, he was probably doing handstands at the time!

Great lad though Smudge, have got a lot of time for him, we were together at Spurs and we’ve shared a few phone calls over the last few months, he did invite me down to Bromley to share ideas while I was out of work, very kind of him.

Watson: It was a challenge, a challenge I enjoyed

It’s been a long time coming but this week I finally sat down with Billericay Town boss Kevin Watson to talk about his time at Ebbsfleet Utd, how it was being out of work since his recent appointment in Essex and what it’s like being a manager under the current conditions, here is part one:

TK: One of the things I noticed is on your CV you’ve got a lot of promotions as a player and a coach; do you think it’s something that surprises a lot of people?

KW: Yeh I think so. My playing career was very successful, four promotions at three different clubs, captained Rotherham Utd to back-to-back promotion campaigns, went to Reading and got another one there as well and ended up at Colchester where I picked up the final one.

I was never brash or ‘out there in your face’ as a player and just did what I had to do, all in all nearly 500 games if you all count all the mickey mouse cups as well, so not a bad career overall.

I finished up at Luton Town under Mick Harford with a six month contract around the time they had the money troubles and financial irregularities but ended up retiring as a player there in Dec 2009 after my achilles and calves had had enough so I became assistant to Mick there, we went to Wembley and won the Johnstones Paint Trophy in front of around 52,000.

From there it was Soccer Saturday with SKY for five years and onto Stevenage with Teddy Sheringham which was an eye opener for me, the first real foray back in the coaching game. Then followed a stint as Bishops Stortford manager where I brought a lot of academy kids through having also worked with them whilst managing the first team, the last matchday squad I had there contained seven boys who had come through with four of them starting that day, that was pleasing to see.

After Stortford it was teaming up with Ronnie Moore at Eastleigh, we were going really well there, 7th in the table and having just beaten Swindon in the FA Cup who were a League One side at the time, and then Ronnie was relieved of his duties which we only put down to a clash of personalities with the chairman and that was me done there.

Hungerford was my next stop as assistant to Ian Herring who to this day has become a really great friend of mine despite us only knowing each other about two and a half years, I actually looked forward to doing the two hour drive there and back on a Tuesday and Thursday night getting back at 1am, and on Saturdays because I loved the place and the people there.

For us to stay in the National League South on the budget we had was like winning promotion and we told the boys that, staying up on the last day of the season.

Then November 2019 I had a call from one of the lads I knew at Ebbsfleet Utd who said he thought Ian Hendon was leaving and there might be an opening there and would I be interested. So I went along, had a chat with Garry Hill, drove to Hungerford that evening and told Ian I would be leaving, it was an opportunity for me.

I took training that night and Ian nicely dropped me in it with the lads ‘Watto’s got something to say to you all’. It was a bit emotional I’ll admit as I felt very comfortable there and grown with those boys but there it was and the next day I was in at Ebbsfleet with Gary.

Then literally ten days later Garry lost his job and he said to me not long before ‘there might be a chance for you here, I’m a couple of defeats away from losing my job I think’, but that’s not the reason I wanted to go there, it was a National League club and I wanted to progress back up the ladder.

I was in interim charge for I think five games, winning three and drawing and losing one each off the top of my head. There were loads of impressive CV’s on the chief executive’s desk, some good names in there and I think that those results put me right at the front of the owner’s mind and that’s where the job came from.

TK: And definitely not the easiest time to be involved at the club either.

KW: No, it wasn’t. We had ups and downs I think it’s well documented, and I don’t think I need to go into it too much but it was a challenge, a challenge that I enjoyed and having taken over when we were on ten points from sixteen games I think we finished on 42 points from 39 games and that last win at Halifax effectively pulled us out of the bottom three.

We knew it was only three going down due to the Bury situation and we felt it was such an achievement for not just me or the staff but the players as well as we worked hard on the pitch, in training, we had a settled team and formation of 3-5-2 which I like so much and we nailed it, won the last three away games and from the last nine that we played we had a better record than Barrow who went up at champions. It was a really good time and we were just disappointed that lockdown came about just when it did.

Thanks for the memories

July 2019. Darren Currie and I, you don’t ask you don’t get and Darren duly obliged with an interview the first National League manager I had ever sat down with. Fast forward 13 months and now my phone contacts list looks like a who’s who of great people who have hit the highest level of non-league management.

That month set this bog on the way to the figures I’m now getting today, it went nuts for views and visitors wanting to hear what he had to say, some insights you normally wouldn’t hear, exactly as I have tried to do with all managers and ex players I’ve interviewed and had live on video. I owe some thanks for that to DC and I know he’d be the first to say ‘it’s not me but the way you wrote the words’.

Today, Wednesday, the Barnet love affair is over for Darren with contract negotiations ending earlier this week for both himself and Junior Lewis. Very randomly Darren phoned me on Sunday evening, no need to but wanted get some bits out I guess about Southend and his own situation. I value the things all these guys tell me and I hope that I release the right things and keep some things close to me as I feel they should be, its hard because sometimes you want to tell everyone exactly what’s going on.

Whether you believe it or not, Southend was all paper speculation, looked to me like giving their fans some hope that an up and coming manager was the answer to their prayers. Some wondered why Darren didn’t take to Twitter and quash the speculation, I don’t blame him for having a couple of weeks off after the play-off loss and then seeing that team disintegrate before his eyes, but knowing that was going to be the case if promotion wasn’t achieved. I knew then also that Barnet had yet to offer him and Junior new contracts, a good two weeks passed since the Notts County defeat and not a word of contact from the chairman, does that sound like someone trying hard to keep hold of someone?

Darren wanted to stay, the chance to build his team, maybe on a much reduced budget but nonetheless an opportunity. I messaged him on Tuesday afternoon, Monday ‘didn’t go well’. That was my confirmation his time was up, never wanted to admit that to myself but it is what it is. I’ve had a blast being close to these guys all season, we’ve kept in touch through lockdown and hopefully I’ve got a few extra friends for life including Darren.

So now we move on again, but have we missed a trick? Despite whats going on around the world and here of course, could we have found some way to get some continuity at Barnet FC? Could everything have been communicated better? Yes and yes, the latter being the biggest reason this club has a divided fanbase because in my opinion they aren’t treated well. Not many people know this but a couple of fellow fans felt I should offer my services to the club, PR wise, to help things get better so I did.

I did get advised I probably wouldn’t get a reply, needless to say I haven’t and I’m not expecting one either, I’ll happily carry on what I’m doing now. Wednesday’s later statement I thought was a huge kick in the teeth for the supporters of the club, everything was ok with it until money was mentioned. Having ripped the soul out of the team, albeit the right thing to do with parachute payments gone and income scarce, but then unable to give your head coach and his staff contracts to continue their good work, we’d like to take your money for a season ticket despite the fact we have no management team nor 11 players to field, please part with your cash.

Why was that not split into two separate statements with the season ticket info coming later this week? So far by Wednesday, I think I’ve seen two positive reactions to that statement in contrast to more swear words than you’d hear from Danny Dyer’s mouth, an utter kick in the teeth in my opinion and another opening of the divide between the club and fans that Darren had being bridging with great success.

So then, attention turns to who is next in the hot seat at The Hive. Speculation will grow aplenty over the next few weeks and I have my own ideas on who might be in the frame and one or two who might not be.

Luke Gerrard at Boreham Wood will be top of a lot of lists, worked wonderfully well up the road from us and two great seasons for them out of the last three, but nice secure job currently why swop it?

Graham Stack would be welcomed back to The Hive should this be his first chance in permanent charge after assisting Hayden Mullins at Watford but also unless the Hornets dispense with his services then hard to see why he’d take the move.

I expect to see Ben Strevens’ name mentioned, also Neil Smith, people being impressed with both during my video interview when they joined Darren, however again both in secure jobs and unlikely to walk away from what they can achieve where they currently are.

My real outside choice is Kevin Watson, formerly of Ebbsfleet. When you look at his coaching CV it’s pretty impressive and I don’t doubt that had the season continued the Kent side would have not been relegated such was the good form they were in and he knows how to deal with reduced budgets, he’s one that might appeal.

There are also one or two more that stand out in the Isthmian League, lower wages are also an appeal here if thats the route Barnet are going down.

My personal choice would be Ian Hendon, Andy Hessenthaler and Lee Harrison as a trio but not sure the budget would allow for that to happen! Two who know the ethos of the club inside out and a third with unbridled passion and a future unknown at Dover Athletic, something that might appease people but they would have to hit the ground running.

For now though, thank you Darren Currie, been a pleasure to sponsor you for the past two seasons and setting this blog on its way to smashing its own records on a monthly basis, once a Bee always a Bee………….