Managers have their say

Adam Hinshelwood (left) and Richard Styles (right)

It’s been a little while since there has been much else to blog about apart from the National League on-going saga and the trials and tribulations of Barnet FC! It makes for some reading I agree but the non-league game we know extends further than that.

And for that reason alone I’ve asked around a couple of managers this week to get some perspective on Steps 3-6 which operate underneath the National League divisions as it feels a little bit like they’ve all been pushed to the side somewhat, not that I disagree the NL gets its limelight it’s the full time for a lot of people.

The beauty of our football pyramid is the fact we go down to so many levels beyond the top divisions and there is a lot of opportunity to progress up the ladder.

Last season of course clubs at those step levels saw their season suspended in March and finished as null and void just a few weeks later. Now less than twelve months later those same clubs find themselves in the same situation despite having completed less games this time around.

Whilst we’re in territory we hoped wasn’t going to happen, there are a lot of ways in which things can help clubs still be in existence for a new season later in the year if the null and void does instead come into force over the coming weeks. Grants have been made available for clubs at this level which should enable them all to get through until the season starts again for 2021/22.

There is reason however to believe that just maybe there will be a resumption if restrictions are lifted in March to complete something in some form in some shape, as vague as that might be, everything is still up in the air and could be for a few weeks longer.

Earlier this week I caught up with Worthing boss Adam Hinshelwood whose side were for the second year running leading the Pitching In Isthmian League Premier Division and Tunbridge Wells manager Richard Styles, the Wells very much in the thick of it at the top of the Southern Counties East League Premier Division. Both managers gave me their views on what might happen over the coming months and how vital funding is to keep these clubs alive.

TK: Do you feel Steps 3-6 have disappeared a bit under the radar at the moment?

AH: Yes I do. I sympathise with the leagues and the FA as we are in difficult times right now but I did feel they jumped on their decision to null and void last season a bit hastily. Maybe a two weekly update would be good just to know what they are thinking, obviously it might not work as circumstances around the country are changing so quickly at the moment.

TK: What is your gut feeling in terms of what might happen and do you think we might see a stand off for a few weeks until the National League is resolved despite it might not having a bearing on the outcome for Steps 3-6?

AH: I can’t really see fans back for some time yet unfortunately, so this would make it impossible for us to play at Step 3 level which leads itself towards another null and void season. They may wait to see what the National League decide to do in the next couple of weeks before confirming anything but as I said already I would just like to know where we stand.

TK: How welcome is it though that Step 3-6 clubs have access to funding to help them survive and be here in the future?

AH: It’s a massive bonus to all clubs, I think so many would struggle and local clubs can be the real hub of the community and a place where the whole area can meet and socialise when safe to do so. These clubs are a big part of so many people’s lives so to keep as many of them going as possible is a massive positive.

Styles is also concerned at the lack of communication coming from above and like Hinshelwood feels null and void is the likely outcome to the season:

TK: With the National League fiasco taking centre stage, do you think the rest of non-league has been pushed to the side and almost forgotten about?

RS: The National League has gotten a lot of media attention lately which is right as they are at the top of the pyramid and have a lot of full time members in the divisions. Filtering down there hasn’t been a lot of movement nor communication recently from the FA through the league’s leading to a lot of assumptions as to what is going to happen.

Like anything we’re waiting I think for the National League to sort themselves out and it will then filter down to the leagues below.

TK: Despite the difference in what happened last time around do you think if the National League continues there is a chance Steps 3-6 will do the same or do you feel null and void is set to happen again?

RS: The National League seem to have a financial complication which is causing part of their issues in continuing or not. In terms of steps 3-6 there is already a financial grant I believe we can apply for. Given the time away clubs, staff, and managers have had away from football I can’t see anything other than null and void happening at steps 3-6 to be honest.

TK: If we do go null and void once again would you hope that there are better plans put in place should the game ever find itself in this position again?

RS: It would be helpful for everyone to have a plan or protocol in place for the future should anything like this ever happen again for sure. It’s difficult for the FA to decide how to complete the season in these situations and you’ll never please everyone.

The fairest way possible is with as much communication and guidance as they can give rather than the area of the unknown.

Whilst the National League situation is descending into a farcical situation on a daily basis the FA remain quiet on where they are up to currently, we can only presume they have all the information into them now, you can just hear the silence however……………

Styles: We were down to the bare bones

Earlier this week I caught up with Tunbridge Wells boss Richard Styles after the government announced the return of fans to football after the end of the lockdown on on 2nd December:

TK: How frustrating has it been to have the four week break just when Tunbridge Wells had been enjoying a good start to the season?

RS: The four week lockdown and suspension to the season was always going to be frustrating for all teams, fortunately for us we were really down to the bare bones before the lockdown came in and the squad was really stretched.

This time off we’ve been able to put a positive spin on things and allow our medical staff to work with our players carrying injuries and knocks to recover whilst at home enabling the squad to be at full strength when we return.

TK: That sounds encouraging. Do you think it might take a while for sides to get back into the groove once again?

RS: I think it’ll depend on what clubs have done with their players during the break, it’s not a pre-season type situation when we return. As staff we came together as soon as it was announced the season was being suspended, we spoke to professionals within the industry and came up with a plan to use with our boys to maintain their match fitness levels whilst recovering from any knocks and fatigue.

I feel happy with what my players have done during this period and I think it’s been effective for us. I’d expect any club at this level or above to have the same input and thought process to be honest. If they haven’t then yeah it might take a while for some to get going again.

TK: Are you concerned with a cold start there will be a lot of injuries occurring?

RS: Not really, our players played 12 league games, plus FA Vase and FA Cup since the ‘later’ start of the season so we’ve adapted well to managing the players and the times between games.

I can’t see it being any worse than it was before the lockdown. I do think teams need to utilise their squads correctly with their workload though to ensure they limit the amount that might occur.

TK: Would you be in favour of the use of 5 substitutes per game or happy with the current 3 being allowed?

RS: I’d be happy to go to 5, these players are only part time, they have jobs, families and other commitments etc. so are more inclined to pick up an injury or two or fatigue. At the same time, if it remains at 3 it’s what we know so no major complaints.

TK: What are you looking forward to most when we resume the season in the next couple of weeks?

RS: Looking forward to getting the boys back playing and training again as well as back to some sort of normality. From the football side of things I’m looking for us to hit the ground running and to gain as many points as we can in the upcoming games.

TK: Bearing in mind we’re going to see more Saturday-Tuesday combinations in the coming weeks and months do you expect yourselves or others to add to their squads?

RS: Quite possibly, those with smaller squads will certainly have to look at it. I know we have identified where we felt we could strengthen and have explored some options.

TK: Are you hopeful we could see more than 300 fans allowed into the Culverden Stadium to watch the action?

RS: Certainly, I know I speak for all the playing and management staff when I say we always want as many of our fans as possible at every game. If we are allowed more than 300 supporters safely then I’d welcome it.

NB: Since the interview in midweek, Kent have been placed in tier 3 and with it the suspension of Southern Counties East League until Saturday 26th December.

One step closer

Competitive football finally kicked off on Tuesday evening as the FA Cup rolled into town and for me in particular into Tunbridge Wells FC and the Culverden Stadium. I have an association with the Wells going back a number of years, my youngest brother had a spell playing for a few years back in the early 2000’s and my late father was the club shop manager and programme editor until his death in 2011.

He missed out on the famous run to the FA Vase final in 2013 where they finished as runners-up which of course saw pop-up shops and everything selling merchandise, he would have loved to have seen what he had started blossoming into something special around that time.

Back to the present day and my reason for heading up to Kent was not only to catch up with a couple of very good friends of mine but also to see the gaffer Richard Styles who was good enough to take a little time to do an interview for this blog during lockdown, as were a few others managers, one physio and one club chairman.

As these guys (and Ally) have supported me during that period, I feel it only fair to pop along and support their club and them for a day at least in return. As it is with the current restrictions the home side are using the clubhouse as their changing room so that beer went out the window! Needless to say, I will be back sometime this season, I grew up around that area during my childhood so have many friends that way.

As per my games last week, everything was Covid-safe, and I was just as fine there as at East Preston last week and the 300-maximum attendance can easily be accommodated in that stadium. Unfortunately, it appeared someone forgot between Saturday and kick off time that the pitch needed marking! A frantic effort finally saw the game kick off at 20.05, some 20 minutes later.

I’m really grateful I can watch live football again whatever level it is and wherever it is, I’ve found it more invigorating and taking in every minute, we know how much we hated not being able to watch a single moment of any game in the last few months, not one game will I take for granted this season, it can be snatched away in an instance.

Kicking up the Culverden hill, Wells certainly started the brighter of the two sides and should have been two goals in front before Erith had a sight of the hosts penalty box, two headers both missing the target when easier to score. The visitors then came into the game and with pace up front started to pull the Wells centre halves around the pitch forcing the Wells custodian into a couple of saves with his legs to leave the scoreline goalless at half time, probably a fair reflection.

The first half plan from Styles and his staff was to get the ball wide to both wingers, Regan Corke and Euan Sahadow, they delivered some beautiful balls into the box but a lack of bodies getting into the area the reason why the hosts suffered a blank first half scoreline.

The second half lacked a bit of excitement, flair and entertainment, chances were at a premium with both defences on top marshalling strikers and cutting off supply lines, scrappiness creping in as a first competitive game in months with such intensity and prize money on the line, tiredness came next as the game evolved into a counter attacking mission for both.

There were still a couple of chances for both sides, Aaron Lee-Wharton pulling off a superb mid-flight save to keep Wells in the cup. Just as we were expecting the final whistle to go and heading straight to penalties, a penalty awarded for a handball, the ball having bounced off the thigh of an Erith defender and onto his hand and a chance for the West Kent outfit to take their place in the next round.

Up stepped Brett Ince to coolly send the ball into the net in the final minute and with stoppage time at a premium, Wells stood firm and now host another league rival in Beckenham Town who comfortably beat Mile Oak 4-0 on Wednesday evening, tie to played on Sat 12th September at Culverden Stadium once again.

A great result for Richard Styles, a nice birthday present for Dan Morrin and me a lucky omen? The only time I saw Styles’ team in action last season was ironically on 1st September and also in the FA Cup, history repeats itself, does that mean I need to be in attendance a week on Saturday? We’ll have to see………..

The dream begins

This week sees the beginning of the 2020/21 FA Cup for non-league clubs just 31 days after the 2019/20 final took place. The Extra Preliminary Round kicks off with the first of the 737 teams taking part, 366 start this week in total.

For the winners there’s £1,125 up for grabs whilst the losers of each tie will pocket £375, much reduced levels due the impact of Covid-19 on FA finances. For any club at Step 4, 5, or 6 money from the FA competitions is a small godsend to help with club finances and much has been made of the fact that in the very latter rounds of the competition we still see levels of prize money that Premier League clubs and in some cases  Championship clubs too are merely a drop in the ocean.

Non-league has suffered horrendously since the lockdown began in March and I feel we are incredibly lucky not to have seen more clubs go under than we have lost recently. Maybe that is still to come during the season, time will tell on that score and I sincerely hope no-one loses their club during the upcoming year.

£1.8 million for the winners, a mere piece of pocket change for a Premier League chairman, but for non-league club chairman extending that first winners pot to £3,000 does make a big difference up and down the country. The argument against? The top clubs will treat it as an Under 21 competition apparently, but they’ve all been trumping the ‘squad’ game card for many years now, that’s a poor line to be trotted out from the FA in Sunday’s non-league paper column.

People won’t forget the campaign that clubs had to undertake to get their own fans back into grounds in August, that the FA didn’t do enough to help their member clubs and now once again they’re not doing their utmost to get a little more cash into the right areas of the game.

The FA Cup still means something across the world, it still means something to a non-league player to go into work on the Monday morning (Wednesday or Thursday this week) knowing they’ve played in the greatest cup competition of all. This year it kicks off the non-league season before league competition begins for most this coming Saturday.

Either 150 or 300 fans will be allowed in grounds depending on whether you’ve managed to host a home friendly at the 150 fans level prior to Bank Holiday Monday. That amount for most clubs at these levels will be enough and being the professional game hasn’t yet kicked off, yet a few clubs might find their average gate slightly inflated but with still enough room to fit everyone in socially distanced.

Having watched two games so far in the last week, I haven’t any issues yet in watching and don’t expect to find any when I venture to Tunbridge Wells on Tuesday evening as they take on league rivals Erith Town, ko 7.45pm. The Wells manager Richard Styles was good enough to give me his time for a blog interview over the lockdown period, as were quite a few, and in return I’m planning a visit to them all to support them and their clubs in return, least I can do I feel.

Ironically, the last time I saw the Wells in action was in last season’s FA Cup, an early season visit to Littlehampton Town saw them cruise past the hosts 4-1 on the day.  There should be a decent size crowd inside the Culverden Stadium and this despite the last few years times not being so good for the West Kent outfit although last season they sat in the top ten before null and void came along.

If you find you have a spare evening tomorrow, have a look at the following link (https://www.thefa.com/competitions/thefacup/fixtures) and see if you can pop along and support your local club, they’ll all be grateful to see you.  Also, check out the wonderful @FACupFactfile on Twitter, full of great stuff and of course facts and figures about each tie. Wherever you head to, enjoy it, keep the distance and before you know it we’ll be back at maximum capacity once again up and down the country, you never know we might even have fans into National League grounds before they kick off in four weeks’ time………

Styles: The local community and our fans will be extremely vital

Late last week, I caught up with Tunbridge Wells FC boss Richard Styles to find out what had been happening for him over the last three months and a look ahead to a new season:

TK: I think it’s fair to say before football was suspended in March Tunbridge Wells were enjoying their best season for many a year?

RS: Yes, last season had a lot of positives. I think if I had been offered the way the season had unfolded before it stopped, I would’ve been happy with that for a first year at a new club and a new set-up. We were ultimately disappointed when the season came to an end because we felt we would finish the season strong and still had lots to play for in both the league and cup competitions.

TK: How did you view the lockdown period, a chance to reflect or to take stock and plan to improve further?

RS: The lockdown was initially frustrating because the season ended so quickly but understandably so, and safety is always the main concern. We stayed close to the players during the lockdown and had regular sessions delivered over Zoom as well as training plans set to allow the boys to tick over and recover. As staff we had meetings to reflect on the season and to identify ways, we felt we could improve and strengthen to progress when the new season begins. We haven’t stood still since lockdown came in and have very much been proactive.

TK: Now that we are looking at the new season beginning in September, have you been able to step things up a little and start to talk to potential new signings?

RS: Yes, we have been in communication with all the current squad with a view to returning and they are fully aware of our plans going forward.  We have also spoken to several targets to improve on what we already have, and they’ve been very positive talks so far.

TK: Given the financial struggles most clubs have suffered with during the pandemic how vital is it to get the local community fully behind what you want to achieve as a club?

RS: It’s huge! The local community and our fans will be extremely vital in us getting back into it ahead of next season. Every club has been hit hard by this and we’re all in the same boat. We have a real good community behind us and a close relationship with the supporters here and we’re now looking for that more than ever to continue once we’re able to get back on the pitch once again.

TK: Is this the perfect time for football to maybe take a look at itself and work out a way to live within its means a little more?

RS: There is an argument for that for sure, a lot of clubs will struggle and will have been hit very hard by whats happened and some will be unable to commit to the playing budgets they had previously. Players will have missed not being able to complete the season and as a manager you can get a feel of a player’s value in terms of playing and see whats important to them.

I don’t think that will happen next season personally because I think there will always be several clubs willing to have a bigger budget in chasing success.

TK: Are you expecting a similar competitive league once we begin?

RS: Yes, I’m expecting it to be as tough as last season. There are a number of teams who will feel they have some unfinished business, there are a lot of teams who will look to strengthen further and a there will be a lot of players dropping down levels as teams higher up go with small squads. Some big budgets and aspirations will also be out there too.

TK: What will be the expectations from the chairman and the board for Tunbridge Wells this season?

RS: The vision and expectations going into the second season have always been the same. I’ve been in close communication with the chairman ever since the season ended and there’s a clear outlook from both sides. We want to progress each season and push on the best we can, last season we were on course to achieve what we wanted which was to put some stability back into the club, the main objective. We kept ourselves in the top five all season and next year we want to build on that foundation we’ve made and hopefully have a successful season.

TK: And finally, what would be your message to anyone wanting to attend a game next season but nervous about being out in a crowd?

RS: I can fully assure anyone that Tunbridge Wells FC are working currently to put all things in place at the Culverden Stadium to ensure a safe environment and experience for all. By the time the season begins everything will be in line with the government regulations for our level. It will be great to have our crowd and families back to watch us again and I can’t wait to see that!

My thanks to Richard for giving me his time to answer these questions.