Has the time come?

Have we reached the saturation point of the season? That really should be on the minds of most in the footballing world and starting to be talked about with regards to the remainder of the season.

Despite an almost blanket cover of the South in tier 4 for non-league football and for a majority no football played since the beginning of November, the question now is whether the game and its players will be harmed more in 2021 trying to finish off a season that in some cases has barely begun.

The Christmas and New Year period has seen the ‘elite level’ of non-league football in the National League suffer from no fewer than 12 clubs across their three divisions postpone their next three games after positive covid tests.

Having started the season later than most in October due to the late resolution of the play-off system and despite the season likely to end in June it is looking like a big ask for those with smaller squads to perform to a good standard playing twice a week until then.

With the FA seemingly hell-bent on completing this season FA Trophy despite last season’s final still not being held and played yet more postponements in the new year will see clubs struggle to play at 100% capacity for every single game they face.

And when you think a majority of these clubs are full time, imagine how it is for those part-time clubs that make up the remainder of the footballing pyramid.

Those in the South have on the whole completed almost one third of their season when you look down at Step 5 and 6, Step 3 and 4 are not so fortunate in most cases and as you head further North the picture looks even bleaker.

There are sides who have completed somewhere in the region of 2-6 league games only, that is an alarmingly small rate for any club to be looking at if they are committed to finishing the season to ‘preserve its integrity’.

Whilst I’m an optimistic person to the hilt, surely this is beyond the scope of part-time non-league clubs to be able to finish 34-46 games this season in time before the thoughts would turn to a new season beginning.

The biggest worry though has to be the issue of player match fitness. By the time the end of December comes that will be two full months of no games for players, are we expecting them now to come back and play at full pelt for around six months and not suffer physically? Is their room for another mini pre-season before we get started again? Quite frankly, no! We shouldn’t be expecting it and I think the next couple of weeks will see some serious discussions across the country which need to be led by the FA to help these leagues sort out the mess that it currently is.

This time the FA must show some stellar leadership rather than the whimper they provided the game back in April. It also can’t and shouldn’t be a one size fits all scenario, I appreciate though that this time that might have to be the case but explain it clearly and simply and you might get a more measured response from people.

Plenty will not agree with whatever decision is made, just the same as earlier this year, I’m not sure you can have half the country able to finish a season and the other half with an impossible situation.

Whether it can be completed with sides playing each other just once if there are under a certain level of games played in a division I don’t know, it’s surely an option to happen and would allow time for clubs to get themselves settled and organised again.

I don’t envy anyone involved in making any of these decisions for a situation we haven’t been involved in ourselves before, you just pray some common sense and logical thinking comes into it, hold my beer…………….

No corner turned yet for East Preston

Tuesday evening saw the last scheduled midweek game for East Preston after a busy couple of months cramming games in a fixture list than began a month behind its usual start date in August.

Like most clubs at this level and I know I’ve mentioned it fairly regularly, but they’ve done well off the pitch to keep people safe at games against a backdrop of diminishing volunteers and a constant battering of regulations to further reduce income that keeps these smaller clubs alive.

On the pitch things haven’t gone quite as expected since the game began again on 1st September. Just one win in all competitions in nearly two months wasn’t the way it was supposed to pan out and this time last week Terry Dodd tendered his resignation to the club committee which was accepted, Terry as we know through this blog doesn’t like losing and maybe just felt there was little he could to change things around despite his best efforts, money talks at all levels of the game.

Step forward Chris Horner! A rapid rise from the Under 23’s to 1st team manager in a few weeks, football does not stand still. As expected and often happens in the County League when a manager leaves, players invariably do as well and this situation is no different.

Despite most playing in the weekend defeat to Longfield, around eight left the club prior to Steyning’s visit to the Lashmar, Guy Church and Tijan Sparks appearing to be the only survivors from the Dodd reign and the side littered with new signings and promotions from the Under 23 squad.

Having seen EP two weeks or so prior to this one, they put up a strong fight in the Vase against Fisher, but capitulated three days later, 4-0 down at half time to Hassocks before rallying back to 4-3 which in a way leaves you unsure which EP makes its onto the pitch.

It did look to be a long night in front of the home side as they dealt with some strong attacking pressure in the opening minutes, the visitors coming close to opening the scoring on eleven minutes the EP defence just managing to clear off the line after pinball in the penalty area.

The hosts were able just to deal with everything the visitors threw at them and a fine save from debutant keeper Adam Brodrick kept the scores level. Steyning though eventually took the lead just before the half hour mark, an unmarked George Cousins on hand to fire past Brodrick, who was unable to hold onto the ball, and give Town a deserved lead that they took into half time.

With the ball just not holding up with the strikers, EP struggled to fashion many clear cut chances despite the midfield promptings of Jamie Frankling and the returning Tijan Sparkes.

The lead was increased for the visitors on 58 minutes, James Magrath’s header from a corner couldn’t be kept out and EP were now having to take a few more risks to try and get back into the game.

The introduction of Matt Storm from the bench provided a few flurries in the visitor’s penalty area and EP indeed should have pulled one back but as so often this season the lack of attacking intent send the home side to another league defeat.

Plenty of work to be done for the new boss and I caught up with him after the game to see what’s planned to try and turn things around:

‘My first objective is to get the goal average down and I guess we did alright with that tonight, that was our lowest defeat for a while, but at the same not clinical enough still in front of goal. I thought Adam did well in goal for his debut and will get sharper with games.’

‘Both of my strikers are deadly in front of goal and once they get into a good rhythm as a partnership I’m hoping things change.’

‘I am actively looking to bring some more experienced bodies in, I have dialogue open with a few clubs, but they have to be the right person both on and off the pitch to take us in the right direction. With no budget it is making things harder, but watch this space……’

Have to mention Dan Howick who had a fantastic game alongside skipper Charlie Robinson at the back for EP, head or foot on everything that came his way, those two could be key along with Sparks and Frankling in front of them plus three or four players with good experience to get the side up the table.

Pie and a pint for your money

Sunday’s Non-League paper has pulled up a great debate via the Tony Incenzo column and one that has a lot of mileage. If you haven’t heard of Tony he has an incredible record of non-league games attended at many levels all whilst working for talkSPORT covering his beloved QPR.

His column at the weekend centred on ways to get some new fans into non-league football and keeping them there. Of course, there will always be those who have a side they go and watch or follow when their Premier League or Football League are away, I don’t think some of those are for converting.

But, there are over the next few months and possibly years many who will start to find themselves priced out of the top end of the game as personal finances get squeezed even tighter. I found that years ago although I’ve been watching non-league football since before the age of ten, that affording a day out at the top level was rising more than my wages and so sometimes you have to make a choice.

Non-league won, I was still watching football and I wasn’t burning a hole in my finances every week. This pandemic will hit the average person hard for a while and as Tony remarked it’s a good time to get people into our clubs and spending what to them would be less money, but to some clubs a small fortune per person.

At non-league level, you get remembered, respected more and in a lot of ways thought of. Most inside the grounds and clubs are volunteers, doing it for the love of the game and the club inside their community and that community is so much more important now to ensure we don’t lose any more clubs whilst we come out the other end of this tough time.

The debate comes in the form of how to market clubs to see how attractive they are to watch a game of football. A pricing structure was proposed for Step 5 and 6 of £10 based upon entry of £5 or £6 to include a drink and a pie. Now I’ve been to Step 5 games twice this side of lockdown where the admission was £8 and £7, Step 6 £6 entry for the games at that level.

So, you add in a pint £3 and a pie (best guess here) £2, possibly more and clubs at Step 6 would be losing £1 on each person who comes in for that so that would need tweaking. Step 5 would be losing £4 or £5 per person so in principle the idea is good but the logistics of the finances needs some work.

Could the admission price be reduced as part of the deal? Well, that is an option, but does the person who only wants to watch, pays his admission and then decides at half time he does want some food or a drink will they feel they are getting as good a deal?

National League at £25 is a great price for this deal, take for example last season a seat at Barnet was £24 in the Legends Stand so to get a drink and food for £25 makes a bargain for the supporter, but a loss for the club unless they source their materials at much lower prices and I feel that across the pyramid all clubs charge differently and throw in their own incentives that maybe work better for them.

What if you prefer a burger or a hotdog instead of a pie? Will that make things a bit messy trying to do changes pricewise? Is a drink classified as a soft drink or alcoholic?

I might be picking holes a bit in this, but clubs need to make a profit on it not a loss and at all levels there are huge differences. I do however think it’s an idea on the right lines but needs more work doing to make it attractive to both the supporter and the club. It might to hard to work it across all steps at the same price with different admission pricing quite evident at grounds but it’s a project to get behind and I think that once fans are allowed in at all levels of non-league football it’s something that can be put together and out to the public in double quick time, another campaign brewing?

Fans and Money

21st August. The date Nigel Huddleston of the DCMS Department received a letter from 41 MP’s asking when National League clubs will be allowed to admit fans in once again.

I know there is some healthy debate to this scenario with this ‘elite’ tag and some arguing that with the National League going ahead with their play-offs that they should be treated the same as the EFL clubs, but is that going to sustain these clubs going forward?

As we’ve now seen on Monday evening via the brilliant Ollie Bayliss the DCMS have said no different from fans returning to stadiums from the 1st October and applications made I presume by the FA and National League have been submitted for test pilot events. I would hope these test events are scheduled as soon as they can be in order for clubs to get themselves ready to go.

I believe that despite clubs managing to survive through the lean months with no income and this includes the lower two EFL divisions that worse is yet to come, some of that might and I stress might be avoided if capacities are used to determine the amount of fans allowed per ground rather than a ‘one size fits all’ as they for Steps 3-6, I hope I am completely wrong, but some of that money has been used to cover some of the summer months from advances, careful budgeting is going to have to be the norm.

But there is some good news which was announced in the middle of last week, the creation of the Matchday Support Fund of which financial help comes from the Premier League. If you’ve missed it, it stretches from Step 1 down to Step 6 with a maximum of £20,000 available to top clubs and £2,000 to the lowest level. When at a game this past weekend we were remarking about the game being awash with too much cash in the top-flight and none of it making its way down to help those who need just a little bit to get by.

It’s great news to read of it and it’s been welcomed by clubs in Sunday’s Non-League Paper, but it must be ensured this is available every year for all clubs regardless of what happens in the future. The full amount if every club applies for the grant is pocket change to the 20 top clubs and they can afford to do this, maybe even raise the bar and up the totals year on year, that remains to be seen.

There are stipulations as to what it can be spent on, how that is policed I have no idea unless they ask for some kind of photographic evidence? The link for any club officials reading this is www.footballfoundation.org.uk and is open until Wednesday 16th September for applications.

There are clubs who are already on the ball and it’s definitely going a small way to help out with those costs involved with making grounds Covid-19 compliant. If it is available every year then it is set apart from clubs needing to match grants for any projects they want to undertake, it must however always be ring-fenced to stop it being used just to pay someone an extra £50 a week and as time goes on I expect the system to be more robust to stop that happening.

Money makes the world go round, money makes football go round, but the hope is we’re seeing smiles and laughs at grounds before long while money is making the tills ring, the former is important to make the latter work…………

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…………