Live football at last

Football. Fresh air. Fans. Tuesday night up and down the country was the moment non-league supporters had been waiting for since mid-December, a return to the stands and terraces that was long overdue.

However, most clubs have finished or didn’t even begin to play and a lot of fans will be eagerly anticipating pre-season friendlies which will begin in around four or five weeks’ time for Step 5 and 6 clubs.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything to significantly blog about other than the National League and the sorry state of Barnet’s season. So the announcement of one of my local sides, East Preston, to host a friendly against Pitching In Isthmian Premier Division Worthing was always going to get me into the ground.

It was the first time the PNLP (Premier Non-League Podcast) boys minus the northern based Chris May were out together at a game, a project I’m involved in with five other guys, 15 episodes in so far which isn’t bad considering we’ve had a real lack of football to talk about in months, available across all podcast platforms twice a month.

Regular readers will know I also write a piece for the EP programme, a different one for each home game and unique to them as I try and build a career. They were also my focus club last season when Terry Dodd became manager, an idea given to me by someone else so duly done. Terry obviously then left, Chris Horner took over only to be replaced by Under 23 duo Mike McCaffrey and Lee Thompson who were in situ when football ceased in November and took charge of the side for the recent Supplementary Shield games.

Since then McCaffrey left the club, Thompson was relieved of his duties in the past two weeks and chairman Terry Doyle installed ex Arundel boss Simon Hull as the new man in charge days after his release from the club up the river, McCaffrey has since returned to take the Under 23’s for next season.

With a new man in charge this was always going to be a bit of a scratch side for a one off as far as EP were concerned and with a side full of quality as the Rebels possess and some promising youngsters on the bench it was a good test for the home side.

It was no surprise to anyone to see Worthing dominate possession and whilst they were creating chances, the EP defence were just about equal to everything and it took an Ollie Pearce strike on 22 minutes to open the scoring.

Joel Colbran and Ricky Aguiar added further goals, the latter’s effort drilled from the edge of the box to give the visitors a commanding 3-0 half time lead.

The fourth goal arrived courtesy of Shaq Gwengue after a fine move and a smart finish, Rebels manager Adam Hinshelwood then making a raft of substitutions with most of the senior players making way.

EP’s best chance of the game came from a free kick just outside the box, the ball clipping the top of the Worthing crossbar on it’s way over and into the trees behind the goal.

As EP legs naturally tired as the game wore on Worthing added another three goals to the scoreline to give it a flattering look of 7-0 by the final whistle but a good workout for both sets of players.

On Wednesday morning I caught up with both Simon and Adam and both agreed having fans back in to watch was the biggest part of this game.

‘Fantastic to see fans back in the ground’ remarked Hull, ‘it gives everyone a lift and there was a great buzz around the Lashmar last night.’

‘Last night was an opportunity for us to have a look and learn about our youngsters. As yet we’ve been unable to have any training sessions with them but a great test against Adam’s quality outfit.’

‘That’s it for us now this season although we are planning pre-season training and that will start very early. Plenty to do but the boys are keen and the coaching staff are very willing.’

Hinshelwood was also very pleased to have supporters back, ‘it was great to play with fans in attendance again, it felt like a bit of normality for all of us.’

‘It’s been way too long to have that feeling, a simple cheer after a goal goes in, makes the game seem so much better and real.’

‘It’s been so important for us I believe to get together as a group for two reasons, firstly it would have been a long time if we had waited just for pre-season to get some match practise into the legs and I believe this would heighten the risk of injury.’

‘Secondly, for the players and everyone connected to have that engagement with the group again for mental health reasons and general well being it’s been massive for us all.’

And I think fans can identify with the mental health part, so many people I’ve spoken to over the months wanting a bit of normality, indeed seeing so many familiar faces in the crowd of 250 people shows how much it was wanted.

Great to be out with mates just enjoying the game, hopefully The Hive beckons for me for the next week to finish off the season then the hard work starts again trying to get this writing career off the ground, if any clubs are interested in what I can do for them you’ve only got to ask East Preston, Langney Wanderers or Met Police……………….

Hull: It’s been a challenge

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.