Back we come, but not for all

I’m sure I’ve said it before that a week is a long time in football and sure enough it’s proved no exception in the last seven days. Cast your mind back to this time last week and a majority of us were looking forward to coming out of lockdown and football back before our very eyes.

Fast forward to now and the picture isn’t as clear, a re-start or half a re-start is what we’re going to get between now and 16th December and possibly longer. Whilst understandably clubs in Tier 3 have declined to want to play without fans inside their grounds, full leagues in other parts of the country have decided to carry on the season’s pause and will not see any action at least until the government review on the tier levels are carried out later this month.

This weekend also sees the return of the FA Vase and Trophy before league matches start to resume next midweek and there are many opinions and rights and wrongs in the eyes of clubs, the fans, boards of directors up and down the country.

You can sympathise with those who could have played on in front of zero spectators. We know from top to bottom with no one inside the ground to bringing income into the club in the form of gate receipts nor secondary sales of alcohol and food clubs will not be able to survive, there has to be fans watching games from Step 3 downwards.

Its quite ironic that as we get fans allowed back into National League games in all three divisions that below that level it’s now deemed not safe to attend games where prior to lockdown there have been none or indeed a very limited number of outbreaks of Covid amongst supporters.

And for those that can attend games the restrictions on clubhouses and confusion created around the selling of food as well has only made clubs have to work harder to ensure they’re doing as much as they can to avoid the club disappearing altogether.

I think the fact we have just fourteen days or less until the Trident leagues review their situation that surely those clubs that do want to play could have fitted two or three fixtures in and gotten on with things as they wanted to. I have no issue with those clubs who feel it’s not safe to play games and they don’t want to be responsible for families suffering an outbreak over the Xmas period, but is the country any less safe than it was four weeks ago and if you don’t catch it there in places where it’s deemed safe, then avoid the supermarket, pubs, other shops?

The loans and grants offered by the government has to come in the form of the latter, taking a loan with no hope of recovering enough income to pay bills or players or club wages, without being able to garner every single pound coin that can come through the doors will leave a lot of clubs wondering if actually opening the doors again is worth the struggle.

And it also makes you wonder how much more is left in any grant pot to be distributed, that surely can’t go on forever and if it can’t then a way has to be found to actually help these clubs get back on their feet instead of hindering every move.

It’s so difficult not to make it a political post nor push my feelings of the entire country situation out into a blog, so I hope it comes across from a football point of view and pretty much nothing else.

I’m back to football on Tuesday evening with a likely destination of Wick vs Arundel, a local derby in itself to start off with and fingers crossed in a couple of weeks’ time more grounds I can add to the list for a potential visit, now where’s that substantial scotch egg and a pint………..

The wait for some is almost over

I’m not sure as I write this which I am more pleased about following the government’s decision on Monday to definitely release us from a second lockdown on 2nd December, coincidently my birthday, the fact I may well be able to attend a National League football match or the fact I can resume writing programme columns and even think about trying to get some more clubs on board.

No one can deny this hasn’t been the year for very much, granted this blog has been outstanding to write and to see the viewing figures and visitors on a daily, weekly, monthly basis has been the one shining light through 2020.

As most of you reading will know I backed the #LetFansIn campaign way back at the end of summertime, started by Dorking Wanderers and taken on by the many. Whilst at Steps 3-6 we saw supporters from the first game of the season in September the promise of that for the National League ‘elite’ from 1st October was dashed away just days before reality.

Now as we head into December and dependant upon what tier they decide your club’s area will fall into, some fans should be watching top level non-league football for the first time this season and about time too.

In my opinion there was no reason why a dumbed down version couldn’t have been started from that October date with pilot event numbers of around 1000 fans, whilst I appreciate cases were rising it was no different across the world and especially in Europe where they decided to allow fans into watch and across the pond in the NFL it’s been going on for weeks.

The next few days will doubt be full of speculation as to whether you will indeed be watching your National League team in person or still via a stream. Not everyone will be comfortable in attending, it should be down to personal risk and your own choice whether you decide football is safe enough for you, if not I hope clubs persist with streaming games, its vital for a lot of people’s mental health to be able to watch their team in some shape or form.

Despite allowing fans back in, some clubs are going to be under capacity for what they would normally be allowed across a standard season, this however is the start and unlike Steps 3-6 where it was a one size fits all for levels 3&4 and for 5&6 regardless of your average support, the NL has put it together on a club by club capacity basis.

I believe there should be a re-think of the levels allowed now for the rest of non-league football. There are a few clubs who hit the 600 and 300 maximum mark a few times during the opening two months. I’m not suggesting we go crazy here and make it almost a free for all, but we’re in the open air, transmission levels we know are much lower and there is space to social distance. I believe allowing an increase of 200 on those levels would be enough to allow more income into these clubs which has been sadly lacking since March.

Most clubs will not hit these figures especially if some of those who have been taking in games after not being able to watch their own team in action decide to return to those clubs.

The next question will be away fans or not? Whilst it would make things easier to police for a lot of clubs would it be detrimental to the action on the pitch? And by that I mean if the home side is not in the ascendancy and their fans start to get on the player’s backs then advantage to the away team, I’m sure it’s a big discussion point across meetings at this very moment.

I write currently for three clubs, East Preston, and Langney Wanderers in the Southern Combination League and Met Police in the Pitching In Southern League, the latter beginning literally just before lockdown. Two of the three have their own custom written column which changes every home game, no two pieces are the same.

I’m really looking forward to getting back to having deadlines during the week, a bit more normality as I had during September and October. Needless to say there will be plenty to write about as always and with this four week break in proceedings more midweek football to find and write about to keep this blog smashing the figures it keeps doing…….

Time to act before time runs out

Waking up this week to see the National League clubs are still waiting for the government to give them the money they need to survive made me want to have a rant.

In the current climate it’s difficult not to turn anything into a political debate as the conversation always comes back to covid and how it’s being dealt with but football is the topic here.

I have various people I know at clubs in both the National League and National League South and they must be mystified as to why they were allowed to start the season nearly two weeks triggering players contracts into effect yet here we are still waiting to see that bail out money reach the club coffers.

What do these people think clubs are surviving on to run? Fresh air? Goodwill and fortune? Having listened to various people and reports over the last few days there are around half of League Two just above us in non-league unable to survive past Christmas and that now is not too far away, I suspect the figure in League One is slightly lower, it may not be, but how can a business be expected to survive and pay its employees without any income?

The latest set of restrictions being enforced mostly in the northern part of the country is causing confusion as to whether fans are in, fans are out, players and staff can move between tier counties etc, why can’t it just be in simple terms we can all understand?

As it was the London FA on Thursday released a statement cutting step 5 and 6 capacities from 300 people to 150 for this coming weekend only to retract it two hours later with normal service resumed.

And why are we still battling to get fans back into football when more and more indoor venues are re-opening, not insisting on mask wearing and where we know the virus likes to spread?

Of course we know covid doesn’t appear before 10pm and is in bed by 5am, knows whether you’re a Step 1 or 2 supporter, if you’re a home or away fan and only attacks you if you get up from the table in the pub to leave or visit the toilet, only it doesn’t seem to know how to spread as effectively outside where funnily enough we watch football, but it can find you in clubhouse if you forget to wear a mask while you grab a beer, but it couldn’t do that 3 weeks ago.

So why are we not allowed from top to bottom people inside grounds? Each club has completed their risk assessments in time for 1st October, they were ready. If the biggest issue is people using public transport to get there, then how do they think people get around to other places? Not everyone drives and if they actually took a look at the fact trains, tubes and buses are pretty much empty then they would actually see there is no problem.

And then instead of bailing out our clubs use it on places that really need it, like indoor venues that can’t social distance. Let them get on with starting to regain some income before they disappear for good, and lets also remember that it’s not just a club that goes under, a community loses their asset, businesses that supply the club with anything from printed programmes to food get squeezed even further.

More importantly, the mental health of this nation has been battered beyond belief over the past six months and the relief of those able to get back to watching their team on a weekend has provided no end of joy for many desperate for some sanity.

If the DCMS can’t provide any scientific evidence which they appear unable to do, then let a maximum amount into all grounds that are comfortable, do all the checks that need to be done and begin to return things slowly back before we find a complete devastation across the country, it’s starting to look like it’s not too far away………..

Clubs simply will not survive

The latest change in the restrictions could sound the end for many non-league clubs over the course of the next few weeks and definitely months. Less than 24 hours after it was announced clubs were already beginning to make noises to suggest this latest change could mean closure for some.

Clubs at Steps 3-6 have been fortunate to have fans attending their matches since the beginning of September and currently appear to exempt from the news rules coming into force this week although most are aware that can change at a moment’s notice.

The National League who are due to start their season a week on Saturday have once again been told no fans will be attending their matches due the ‘elite’ status placed upon them. It is no different right to the very top and whilst financial blows can be absorbed at the top end of the game, there is little to share around the further down the pyramid you go.

Whilst there maybe a handful of clubs at non-league’s top level who could survive for a short while, the consensus is the majority cannot. Fans being inside grounds are the lifeblood for all non-league clubs, that ship has sailed from the top table and while grounds are soulless in the Premier League gate receipts are mere pocket change but the atmosphere is the game changer.

It’s not just getting the fans inside grounds it’s also the food outlets and bars that provide much needed revenue for all clubs and without being able to open those places for hire income streams are still very much marginalised and they need people in them just as much as ticket sales.

The loss of any club will have far reaching implications on a wider scale than just a football club disappearing. Jobs will be lost at each club, businesses who supply them and those around some of the grounds will see a drop in income as we are seeing in cities across the country with people not returning to work.

The mental health aspect of shutting everything down once again will tip a lot of people over the edge and once things re-open again, will there be much to re-open afterwards? I don’t want this to get too political as it’s about football but there are more far-reaching consequences this time around.

I’ve been to around 10 games since the beginning of the month from Steps 4-6 and each one has been different in its approach inside the ground. I was expecting it to be in all honesty, whilst all clubs can undertake a Covid review of an empty ground, policing it all is a different matter. Volunteers run these clubs, not business owners and those of you and I who attend games know there isn’t a huge abundance of volunteers coming forward for any club.

Some grounds have been set out well, others don’t have the ability for separate entrances and exits, and they’re not exactly going to be able to build one in a matter of weeks if there is actually room to do so. Clubs are doing this to the best of their ability and are very much reliant on common sense being applied by most if not all. We all know 100% compliance is going to be a struggle with a minority, but with transmission being lower outside is the risk higher or not?

The first club to fall is likely to cause a domino effect and the question then becomes where will it stop? Dover Athletic were on the brink before making some huge cuts to try to remain sustainable, its being reported they are two weeks from closure if fans are not watching games at the season start on 3rd October inside their Crabble ground. Other clubs in the National League South are also making noises about the same kind of thing, it’s not going to be isolated incidents.

Some clubs I believe are asking if they can ‘mothball’ their season, but what happens if half of them want to and the others want to play on to recoup wages they’ve already agreed to pay for a year? It is going to be very dangerous territory for all to step onto over the next few days and weeks and I for one am glad it’s not me that needs to be making decisions.

600 fans allowed in NL stadiums as per the current guidelines for Steps 3-6 is more manageable with stewards and more room for social distancing to be comfortably observed than for clubs at the lower level and more importantly while it’s not a huge amount of people it gives clubs a little bit of a base to build upon, without it your club, my club, your mates club might not be here to see 2021……………

Fans return to live football

During the lockdown period, I had a few guest bloggers produce some articles for me which were pretty well received and it’s always nice when people email you and ask if you would promote their writings, even if their not bloggers themselves.

This one comes from Richard Edwards who is an Essex exile living in Yorkshire  where he juggles allegiances to Colchester United and Bradford City where he now attends regularly. In a distant past life he produced Cool Notes music fanzine in the 1980’s, one of the few at the time to feature football. 

It was a warm evening and I was positively buzzing with anticipation passing through a rough car park in the village of Wrose on the Northern boundary of metropolitan Bradford to arrive at The Mitton Group Stadium, home of Eccleshill United FC (abbreviated to ‘Ecky by many home fans) 

Like many fans I was grateful for the return of live football on our TV screens, but I soon realised that I could not embrace it with any genuine passion. Grounds devoid of fans and matches injected with a fabricated “audio carpet” to simulate the presence of fans represented by cardboard cut outs. It had to be a sci fi nightmare! 

Finding it sterile and hollow my gratitude soon wore thin as I pined for the real thing in any form and you know things are desperate when you start urging your wife to slow down during car journey’s as we passed  a playing field kick about! 

Salvation arrived on the 20th August when the English FA announced  plans to admit a limited number of  fans to lower tier leagues based on a rather complex calculation involving thresholds of ground capacity . Initially this was set at 15% (150) and after a week it rose to 30% (300). This would allow fans to be admitted to the Preliminary Round of the Emirates FA Cup which traditionally starts its marathon journey to the Wembley final in August , an event all too many fans will be oblivious to but which comes with potential financial rewards for competing clubs  

Clubs were reminded that these steps were conditional on all clubs undertaking the FA’s guidance and fans following the Social Distancing measures. All clubs had to complete a risk assessment uploaded to their website and ensure test and trace systems are in place. This is part of a repeated narrative which should be allowed to admit we are all bored with without dismissing its importance.    

Eccleshill United had drawn Silsden another West Yorkshire club close to my home if not quite my heart. This was more than enough to fuel my naive passion for the FA Cup and the prospect of live football. Both teams reside in the Premier League of the Toolstation Northern Counties East League , 8 levels below the pinnacle of the Premier League. I was both grateful and anxious to see a queue, a pre-match queue of any size  gives the match added status , not quite Valley Parade but certainly more than park football. It reminds us that we are not alone in a passion forged in childhood memories. 

Our queue briefly had the unlikely drama of not knowing how near the crowd was to its 300 capacity. Our fears were allayed by a friendly steward who generated non-league banter and gossip on the way in, where we were subjected to test and trace procedures. There were very few masks in evidence and no taped off areas or seats, or bottles of Gel, and thankfully I wasn’t sorry. The attendance looked to be around 150, about 25%  of them Silsden fans. 

‘Ecky started the stronger team in the first half with the Sils under pressure from a confident high paced performance. Luke Aldrich notched their first shot on target within two minutes shortly followed with a close range missed header. 

Silsden fought off this sustained pressure and went 1-0 up just before half time after Matthew Britton connected with a well-timed header from Joe Mitchell’s perfect cross to the far post. 

Silsden were an unstoppable force in the second half scoring two goals within the first six minutes, Britton hurtled down the right wing to deliver perfect pass to allow Anthony Brown to shoot home .Brown then settled the tie two minutes later to make it 3 – 0, a bitter pill for home fans given Brown had previously been an Eccleshill player . A number of them began to drift away, resigned to the £375 runners up award and better hopes for the FA Vase. Silsden will took a hard earned £1,225 from the tie and go on to play Oldham based Bootle in the next preliminary round at home. 

The resumption of live crowds was far more important to me than the score .If COVID has reminded us of anything it’s that we are at our core social animals, personally the spectacle and rituals of going to a match often overshadows the game itself. This match was never going to match the atmosphere at Valley Parade let alone the Premier League, but it was about getting back to those rituals that we might have taken for granted, pies and pints, and the smell of the burger stall, youth team players nearby bragging about how many scouts they’ve attracted and the incessant flow of random bits of  football gossip . The brazen banter and outrageous wind ups from a worldly braggart to your right, the midweek glow of the lights coming off the pitch.

The decision to readmit fans followed the #letfansin  Twitter campaign by supporters and followers of non-league football, at the moment its looking like the right result all round. 

Now for the National League

The joy returns to many tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) as fans are finally permitted to watch non-league football once again although I am well aware some will have watched their first game since March by the time I’ve finished writing this on Friday evening! The success of the #LetFansIn campaign in just over a week superbly championed by the non-league family finally saw the DCMS cave in and allow fans to be admitted to games which begged the question as to whether between themselves and the FA they had starved clubs at Steps 3-7 of almost four weeks of income.

#FansAreBack is the new slogan although National League clubs are still awaiting to see if they are allowed supporters to view their games which I will come onto later. The excitement over Twitter and Facebook groups, across club pages was clear to see earlier this week and whilst there will be some nervousness about how well this will work it’s clear to see people are ready to watch their team in action once again and clubs are ready to welcome them back.

I appeared on the Worthing FC Rebel Yell Podcast last Sunday evening (available on Spotify to re-listen to) joined by Lee Roberts who covers Rocks Radio for Bognor Regis Town FC and Herne Bay manager Ben Smith, hosted by Peter Vale and James Easton. As Ben pointed out prior to the decision during the week they were confident at the Kent club they could social distance 127 supporters in one stand alone, 360 fans could be accommodated around the perimeter of the pitch, which makes you wonder why we’ve had to wait so long for this decision to be reached.

When the news finally came through I bet one or two club treasurers up and down the country were quietly pleased that although this is the first small step on the way back, income was about to begin trickling in to club coffers once again. As we’ve seen though the FA have stumbled a bit giving these reduced capacities a ‘one fits all’ for each step of football instead of a percentage of each club’s full capacity, bit similar to them saying a Step 5 club is the same as a Step 1 National League club, which of course we all know one is so far removed from each other, beautiful of the games governing body to not recognise the difference.

As I mentioned earlier not all fans are yet back in. The campaign continues for Steps 1 and 2 of non-league football who are considered ‘elite sporting teams’, bizarre really when most of Step 2 are part-time players but considered as elite as a player in both the Football League and Premier League. This evening a groups of cross party MP’s have written to the Secretary of State for Sport reminding them that while the players might be considered elite as they derive income from the game, the clubs do not enjoy the same elite trappings their illustrious neighbours enjoy.

So the drum keeps banging whilst we wait for the National League to be allowed to be treated the same as other non-league clubs, especially as two NL clubs in Dorking Wanderers and Concord Rangers threw their weight behind getting fans back into games, it’s only right they get the same crack of the whip.

Something’s got to give

Almost a week ago I blogged having come across the beginnings of this campaign to get fans back into non-league football and in that time it’s been fantastic to see the response of people reading that particular blog and others such as Aaron Moore coming out with further brilliant articles and clubs really pushing the point that we need people back inside grounds before it’s too late.

I make no apologies for sharing the hell of out the slogan and replies all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds all day every day, it needs to be heard and it has to change before we see clubs starting to resign and withdraw from the new season because they can’t afford to go on. More and more clubs have come on board over the past six or so days and of the course the excellent Non-League Paper featured a double page spread with views across the game (for just £1.50 this is a fantastic read every Sunday).

It was interesting to read the views across the section they spoke to, and some of it is just staggering! For example, Mark Harris the chairman of the NPL (Northern Premier League) quoted as saying the issue goes beyond the DCMS and higher up into the government with a lack of communication, that is beyond belief that government departments can’t talk to each other, unbelievable given the current circumstances we’re all living in. It really does in my opinion show the lack of respect from above for the game below National League level.

If the FA have done everything that can, some doubt to that knowing the feeling of how they treat their member clubs, then the DCMS should be banging on every door between here and Boris Johnson to get themselves heard. Their spokesman though as quoted in the NLP, ‘The Premier League has voted to advance funds of £125m to the EFL and National League to help clubs throughout the football pyramid.’

Utter rubbish! The pyramid does not stop at Step 2, how out of touch can you really be? I think that really answers why we are having to battle to get 50-100 people into a venue that in a lot of cases can hold 1000+. Take for instance the government on Friday relaxing rules again and allowing the pilot sporting events to take place, 300 people heading into a 900 person venue inside to watch snooker and not having to even wear a mask.

We all know the risk outside is lower compared to inside but why do they think thats a good idea when we’re asking a third of that level to be allowed to watch games in higher capacity places and in the open air, it beggars belief!

Where do they think the money comes from to put on a football match in non-league? Off the money tree? Every club so far in pre-season can not have made any profit from games so far, yet still expected to shell out for things like the officials and food after the game, not to mention seasonal affiliations and buying new equipment and yet they would like this to continue, its not feasible!

As the Hartley Witney manager was quoted in the NLP, they are at tipping point and I suspect many up and down the country nodded in agreement in that respect, we’ve seen already some go bust, a rescue package has saved FC Romania but I fear that beyond the end of August unless fans are allowed back inside Step 3-7 grounds we will see clubs closing doors and not re-opening because they can’t afford to and that would have a far wider reach in terms of the mental health and well-being among people and it’s community, there is a bigger consequence than just a few football clubs disappearing.

I’m not surprised to see a legal challenge being mounted. clubs can not go on in this way and still be here in September, let alone October. I believe now it needs the intervention of the Premier League clubs to get involved and say ‘we’re ok to wait but these guys aren’t, they need the fans back in’, living in cloud cuckoo land that may be but for the good of the whole game it must happen before this pyramid collapses into itself, for me it’s looking like just a matter of time, something’s got to give…………