Stoppage time goals the undoing of Angels

Tuesday night saw a trip to East Sussex and down to Priory Lane, home of Eastbourne Borough as guests of the Boro’ Chairman David Blackmore, another first for Gaz but a return trip for me.

Last season though my visit was to watch the now defunct Langney Wanderers whose matchday programme I was writing for but I also managed to speak to David that afternoon for the first time instead of via Twitter and text!

A couple of weeks ago the chairman appeared on our Premier Non-League Podcast to talk about the leadership issues the club was facing and thankfully resolved within a few days, but a great insight into the way their club is run.

The visitors were Tonbridge Angels, managed by a good friend of mine in Steve McKimm, and on the back of a fine away win at the weekend ending Dorking Wanderers 10 game winning run. Borough themselves are having another very good season and are firmly in the hunt for a play-off place.

It was the Angels who got off to a fast start and were in front inside five minutes, Ibrahim Olutade timed his run perfectly onto a ball over the top before setting up Adrian Coombes to curl the ball past Lee Worgan for the game’s opening goal.

There was a frantic pace about the game with both sides keen to break quickly when in possession and there wasn’t much surprise when the equalising goal arrived soon after.

Dom Hutchinson drifted in from the left hand side and after seeming to evade a couple of tackles he managed to find a way past Jonny Henly and the ball nestled in the far corner to give us two goals before ten minutes were on the clock.

The Angels were looking the more likely to score during the rest of the half, but you knew you couldn’t rule out Borough at any stage and whilst actual chances being created were at a premium there was plenty of attacking intent to keep the crowd occupied.

Just as it appeared the sides would go in level; the home side snatched the lead in first half stoppage time. Charley Kendall, who secured a move to Lincoln City this coming summer before the January transfer window ended, was fed a lovely ball by Charlie Walker and after beating Sonny Miles Kendall slipped the ball passed Henly for a Borough half time lead and Tonbridge possibly wondering how they weren’t level at a minimum.

The visitors were very much on the front foot at the start of the second half but it was the hosts who almost went further ahead four minutes in, Henly racing out from his goal to thwart Kendall outside of the penalty area only to see Hutchinson return the ball towards the net, Harry Hudson with a headed goal-line clearance to keep the deficit at one goal.

Tonbridge were still pressing hard for a way back into the game but found the Borough defence not very giving despite a lot of probing and were cautious at the same time of the hosts breaking fast and sealing the game.

As it was Eastbourne did finally put the game to bed in stoppage time as Joel Rollinson broke clear of the Angels backline to lift the ball over Henly cool as you like to ensure the points stayed in Sussex and Tonbridge went home empty handed.

The result meant Danny Bloor’s men moved back into the top seven and as David put it on Wednesday morning, one point from safety! Different targets for different clubs of course but Borough most definitely back in the thick of a promotion race.

Steve McKimm on the other hand bemoaned getting punished for their mistakes once again despite dominating the game. Whilst Borough were clinical with the few chances they did have, Tonbridge certainly looked the more threatening going forward, attention for them though turns to a Kent derby in the FA Trophy this coming Saturday as Bromley visit Longmead.

Impressive performance from Aaron Smith-Joseph down the Angels left hand side, a real handful and fantastic delivery into the box all evening meant the Borough defence couldn’t rest for a moment whilst for the home side the sharpness of Kendall made you see why he’s earned his move, good to see Chris Whelpdale get some more minutes under his belt, a key figure in last season’s halted campaign.

One final note, David was expecting a crowd of around 500 so to see the figure at 710 was pretty good given the cold night and of course football on the box as well.

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Food and football the combination at Hungerford Town

The last day of the festive period saw another Bank Holiday and finally gave me the chance to get to Hungerford Town in the National League South. A while back last year someone posted a picture of the burger served up at Bulpit Lane, courtesy of @FootyScran on Twitter. It looked the business and something I thought I needed to get there and try.

Not long after that I became aware of their fantastic offering ‘4 for a score’ which comprised of match entry, matchday programme, either burger, pie or sausage with chips and a pint or soft drink from the bar. Now if that wasn’t excellent value I’m not sure what is!

I had a brief Twitter chat with the Crusaders chairman Patrick Chambers to see if the offer had seen a rise in their attendances and sure enough they had seen an increase in numbers from pre-covid times which is encouraging, I promised him I would get to a game and this was finally the one.

Patrick actually looks after the scheme mentioned above on the gate, could I imagine Barnet Chairman Tony Kleanthous personally welcoming supporters into the Legends Bar at The Hive, certainly not! It’s a nice touch at this level too, not often will you see that happening. A token for your food and drink and a matchday programme in my back pocket and off I went in search for the burger.

Patrick’s wife Nicky serves the food whilst doubling up as the Commercial Manager, it’s that kind of club. As soon as I said who I was to both of them instant recognition, some nice words and a warm welcome what we like perfectly about non-league.

The burger lived up to its reputation, so much I had a second one at half time! I make no apologies for adding the picture below, certainly a big winner for me and it made my Twitter page ping for a good while after.

But it’s not just the food that’s getting rave reviews. On the pitch Danny Robinson’s team are competing very well with sides around them who have much bigger budgets. I was also looking to see Ryan Seager in action, scorer of a good amount of goals so far this season.

The ground itself, the classic non-league looking one which was just what I wanted to be seeing, but with plenty of seats and covered standing for all. The game itself began at a very frantic pace and to be honest it didn’t let up for the majority of the 90 minutes.

The home side drew first blood inside ten minutes, Sol Wanjau-Smith was upended in the box, Ryan Seager’s penalty flew past Alan Julian for the opening goal.

Both sides then traded possession but still at a good pace to the game before Town upped the ante again. Just before the half hour mark Wanjau-Smith broke clear of the visitors defence and looked set to double the lead but shot over as the defenders did just enough to put the striker off his stride.

The other side of the half hour mark brought the best out in Julian, a curling shot from Seager looked to have found its way over the head of the stopper into the top corner but at the last minute a fingertip save kept the scoreline down to one goal.

There was one more chance before the interval for Seager to add his and Hungerford’s second, but he shot straight at Julian, a single goal lead for the hosts going into half time.

There wasn’t long to wait for the second goal, just six minutes into the half Wanjau-Smith danced his way into the box and crashed a shot against the bar, the ball fell kindly to Seager right in front of goal and he nodded home for his and the home side’s lead to double.

The points were secured on 64 minutes, Rhys Tyler letting fly from 20 yards giving Julian not a sniff of the shot and a comfortable 3-0 lead for Hungerford. Seager did have the ball in the net ten minutes later but was denied his hat-trick by the offside flag.

There was one final chance for the home side to put the icing on the cake four minutes from time but neither Seager nor substitute Nana Kyei could get on the end of Matt Jones’ cross, but three points and three goals for Hungerford to end the festive period of games.

The win puts Town back into the play-off places and in amongst illustrious company too, given the budgets generated by the support levels of some. Hampton never really got going in the game and the early goal against I think knocked their game plan from the off.

Seager certainly looked hungry for goals after a little lean spell while Wanjau-Smith was a willing runner alongside him until his substitution. Keith Emmerson marshalled the back four well that Luke Cairney only had a single save to make all game.

Certainly not an easy game for Tonbridge this coming weekend as the Crusaders make the trip to Kent, they hustle and get very tight waiting to pounce on the mistake.

The Chambers have a lovely club here and hopefully the support continues to grow throughout the season, 496 were here to watch this one, it’s well worth a visit for the food, but just as much for the football.

One final word on referee Jason Richardson, brilliant performance in the middle explaining his decisions if questioned and generally talking to the players on the same level, some of his contemporaries higher up could do with taking notice of this.

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Xmas cheer for Ebbsfleet

Twas the Saturday before Xmas and my first Saturday game in five weeks. This weekend was a trip home to Kent to visit Ebbsfleet Utd as they hosted Bath City in the National League South.

I worked out it’s been about 16 years since my last visit to Stonebridge Road or the Kuflink Stadium as it is now known that last visit was three more points for Barnet on their way to the title under Paul Fairclough with goals from I believe without checking Liam Hatch, Dean Sinclair and Nicky Bailey.

Whilst the place hasn’t lost much of it’s character it’s clear that if the rest of the stadium follows the front end development it will look one hell of a ground once finished.

I last watched Ebbsfleet under Kevin Watson at Maidenhead before we entered the first lockdown and at the time they were flying and odds on to avoid relegation. As the season finished and was decided by points per game, the Fleet went down by the merest and slightest calculation to the South Division and were in good shape last season when once again it was cut short.

This time around Ebbsfleet are right in the thick of it again and after a few wobbles over the past few weeks appear to be finding their form once again. The top end of the division is very tight with a lot desperate to get out of this division and into the National League top flight.

With both sides missing a host of players and only able to name three substitutes each there was a lot of onus on the starting elevens. The game began at a good pace with Fleet trying a little too hard to force the issue at times while Bath were able to contain the home side with a press high up the pitch on the home side’s defence when playing the ball out from the back.

It was City who had the first real chance to take the lead on 17minutes, Chris Haigh saving well from Cody Cooke and then should have taken the lead less than ten minutes later, after indecision between the Fleet defenders David Sims-Burgess found himself with a free shot at goal but dragged it wide of Haigh’s right hand post.

Just after the half hour mark Sims-Burgess headed straight at Haigh after lacking power to test the keeper, another good chance going begging for the visitors who could have been two goals in front.

The City defence were busy blocking everything Ebbsfleet tried to throw at the them and it looked as if they would be frustrated by the resolute rear guard but a little game of pinball in the Bath penalty area saw the ball eventually land at the feet of Elliott Romain and the striker arrowed the ball past Ryan Clarke for the opening goal a minute before half time.

The second half had only just begun when Romain slipped a lovely little ball into the path of fellow striker Dom Poleon who rounded Clarke and slipped the ball into the net to double the lead.

Whilst Bath were coming to terms with a two goal deficit it got worse just three minutes later, Romain bursting clear of the City defence and while Clarke saved his first shot the striker was on the rebound in a flash and slotted home his second and the third for Ebbsfleet, effectively killing the game off.

Romain had a chance for his hat-trick just before the hour mark but Clarke saved well from the impressive front man whilst the other side of the hour saw Poleon latch onto Ben Chapman’s through ball but Clarke was equal to the shot.

Bath rallied in the final ten minutes but couldn’t create any clear cut chances whilst the hosts were content to soak up any pressure and play on the counter with pace from Poleon and Rakish Bingham who was moved up front after Romain’s substitution.

A comfortable win for the depleted hosts who moved to the top of the table on goal difference ahead of the Xmas and New Year fixtures but with a lot of big games to come and with so few points separating the top seven there are plenty more twists and turns to come.

Romain certainly looked hungry from the start ably assisted by Poleon and with a lack of personnel available Bingham filled in nicely down both flanks in either half.

Had either or both City chances gone in during the first half the crowd of 795 might well have seen a different outcome to the game, fine margins I’m finding in a lot of games I am watching at the moment.

Nice to catch up with Natalie Edwards, who appears to do rather a lot on a matchday, friends we’ve been for a few years and both her and her dad wrote guest pieces for me during that first lockdown, wherever I go there’s always someone to see at a game!

Cupsets galore but not done yet

Sometimes sitting at home and watching the day’s football unfold across numerous teams and leagues seems just as enjoyable as watching one game take place in front of your eyes.

When it also happens to be FA Cup weekend it’s almost a double bonus. Those of us non-leaguers know the competition started way back in early August, not the First Round proper when the TV companies become a bit more interested and not the Third Round when the Premier League sides introduce their second string to the nation.

Making it to the Fourth Qualifying round when the National League sides enter for the first time is the final time it’s solely about non-league but 90 minutes away from being in the draw to entertain a Football League side.

The draw had pitted the chances of numerous upsets among the sixty-four teams, some made it, some went very close and some found the gulf in class and depth against them.

Starting closest to me in Sussex, Isthmian League Premier Division Horsham in front of a crowd a shade under 2,000 shocked National League Woking with a solitary late goal to book their place in Sunday’s draw. League form definitely went out the window with the Hornets struggling to get going so far this year whilst the Cards had picked up some great results over the past few weeks.

Not to be outdone Bowers & Pitsea from Horsham’s division also knocked out National League opponents in Aldershot whilst Harrow Borough who reside in the Southern League also at Step 4 sent National League South Chelmsford City packing having been 2-1 behind on the hour mark.

Two more South sides in Dartford and Bath City found themselves on the wrong end of score lines, AFC Sudbury accounting for the Darts while Banbury Utd needed just a single goal to dispose of City.

Some sides came very close to an upset, Corinthian Casuals Step 3 Isthmian Premier were denied victory by a last minute St Albans equaliser while Folkestone Invicta from the same division let a 3-0 half time lead slip and also conceded the equaliser from Eastleigh in the final minutes, Spitfires boss Ben Strevens no doubt with a huge sigh of relief they’re still in the competition.

Marine, who enjoyed a fantastic run in last years competition before finally going out to Spurs were seconds away from knocking out the big spenders of Wrexham. Hayes and Yeading looked as if they would account for South division Dorking Wanderers but a replay is needed to separate the two sides this coming week.

Both Chertsey and Hungerford took the lead against National League opposition but Southend and Bromley proved too strong in the end with 4-1 and 2-1 win’s, respectively.

Talking of replays there are fourteen happening this week, where in all bar two of those ties there are twelve more chances for an upset and of course those sides will know by then who they face in the First Round Proper.

Watching it all unfold this afternoon was actually pretty good fun having taken in Grimsby starting the day off with a 5-0 away win at Bromsgrove Sporting but back to watching the live stuff this midweek and next weekend.

Playing the waiting game

Being out of a job as a football manager can be a lonely time. Out of the spotlight and seemingly forgotten about, there is little you can do apart from keep applying for jobs left, right, and centre if they come up.

Last season was particularly tough with only the National League completing their season in full and with that in mind there was very little managerial movement unless you were in the Barnet hot-seat.

That of course was understandable across football given the lack of income going into clubs, very few could have afforded to sack a manager and pay him off along with the coaching staff and with no relegation on the cards anywhere no reason to either.

This season has already seen some movement in the opening couple of months and it’s not surprising given clubs needing to operate at the levels they are now and not dip down into the relegation places.

A settled season we so desperately need for clubs, players and managers to revive aspirations and ambitions, another year of stagnation for nearly all clubs is not good for the game.

Speaking to Neil Smith and Darren Currie, two current ex-National League managers out of work, over the summer both were waiting for someone to be doing a bad job to get back into the game. Not the nicest thing to be wishing on anyone but that’s of course how the management game works in some respects.

Neither have yet returned to the dug-out, a sign there aren’t enough vacancies yet or the right job hasn’t appeared if indeed they’ve considered some. On top of those two, Kevin Watson returned to the ‘unemployed’ pool earlier this week. Having only gotten back into the game earlier this year, his few months at Billericay Town interrupted by the null and void decision of last season and a start to this current one that just didn’t take off.

Junior Lewis, who was Currie’s assistant at Barnet, has only just got back into the game at Welling Utd under Peter Taylor, again having to wait for the Wings to start badly and Steve Lovell resigning.

Those on the outside will be looking closely at those clubs in or around the relegation zone and that goes for a majority of the non-league pyramid at all levels.

We’ve seen in recent weeks as well as Billericay both Aldershot and Barnet relieved their managers of their duties along with Gloucester City in the North, the fear of getting stuck into that rut of not winning games and the return of relegation haunts boardrooms. Those two I doubt will be the last of course and there will be guys out there like Smith, Currie and even Watson wanting and itching to get back into the game, I’m sure it can be a hard place without the feeling of a nine month season playing and training.

Hopefully, these guys won’t be out for too much longer but it’s very much a case of the waiting game for them all and I haven’t even touched on others I know such as Ian Hendon.

As we’re only around just over two months into the season there will be more manager’s losing their jobs one way or another, it’s part of the game and when it happens the ball starts rolling for fifty candidates at the top level to a chairman’s phone ringing off the hook at Step 5 or 6, glad it’s not me chasing the job or wanting to drop the phone in the bin……………..

Supporters are the lifeblood of every club

Being innovative in football is something you have to constantly be. Finding new ways to promote yourself, your club, your brand has to be done in order to avoid stagnation unless that’s something you’re happy with.

Since the interruption of non-league football over the past two seasons there is a clear eagerness from top to bottom inside clubs to play, to enjoy things a bit more and just as importantly to attract not just the loyal supporters from before but new blood as so to speak to ensure clubs keep on surviving.

There are many ways depending on the size of the club that you can attract new supporters but at times also rewarding those who’ve been coming for a long time, it’s not just about getting new support, retaining what you have is just as important.

I’m picking up on this with a range of different things I’ve seen, witnessed myself and heard from supporters of other clubs over the opening couple of months of the season.

A quick start at National League level and back to the summer, Bromley trying to over-extend their season ticket prices and after much disgruntlement quite rightly amongst their fanbase given the huge rise, they backed down and not surprisingly the price went to a point supporters were comfortable with.

I take my club Barnet charging £22 to sit down, no terrace option, it’s that price or nothing. Personally I believe £20 is more than enough, throw in the £8 parking as well and that’s me seeing almost three Isthmian League matches for that price only two levels lower.

Whilst the club might argue it’s reasonable for the level etc, lack of communication meant no reasons were delivered and quite understandably supporters start to shun and vote with their feet, it’s so easy now to find something else to do which no doubt some people did over the course of the last 16 months.

Effective communication is the bottom line, so many channels available these days there is almost no excuse. Clubs raising beer prices which can be understandable if the brewery has done so, but not finding out until you buy that first pint of a new season is likely to come as a shock, again look after your regulars via a membership scheme or something similar, if new supporters want to come more often and save money they’ll join it trust me!

Just over a week ago I saw National League South Hungerford Town come up with a fantastic offer. £20 got you match entry, a programme, a meal deal of either chicken, sausage or pie with chips and a pint, now it’s impossible to follow every single football club on Twitter, but please tell me if you can find a better deal than that, it’s superb!

Now, not content with rolling it out last weekend which then prompted me to mention it on our Premier Non-League Podcast (available to listen to on all the usual listening platforms twice a month) they’ve gone for it again this weekend in the FA Cup and during next week I will try and catch up the Town chairman Patrick Chambers to find out how much of an impact it’s had on attendances.

I’m not implying here every club has to do the same nor bankrupt themselves whilst doing so, it’s not something you can repeat every single game but surely offers are worth a try throughout the season are they not?

Simple things like a free hot drink as the weather begins to turn, kids for a quid over half term week or the Xmas holidays, small but effective if marketed well.

 I did see as well during the past week Dorking Wanderers in the same division offering a family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) FA Cup football for £20 which was available all week until midnight on Friday, again great value to try and get a few more in through the door.

Going back to Barnet once again I would like to see a £2 reduction if you buy a match ticket before matchday, with £22 being the price being bought on the day, Hungerford have this option at least for their FA Cup match thankfully not at that price to begin with. That way you’re committed to going and it might only be a couple of quid but the next time it might encourage you to buy earlier.

Another one I’ve seen is Wealdstone offering match tickets for £5 for their BT Sport live game against Solihull Moors next Tuesday if you buy online with Under 14’s free with a paying adult; a great idea to see a packed stadium while the nation’s camera’s are watching instead of 200 sitting at home on the sofa seeing the game. You can almost guarantee it will attract some floating fans and pretty sure they’ll spend more once inside the ground too.

The key is looking after the newbies whilst not getting the backs up of those who regularly attend, but it’s easy to do and if marketed right then you’re onto a winner and hopefully some bigger attendances going forward.

As I’ve noticed since the season began crowd figures have been very impressive and have continued to maintain themselves at most clubs which is fantastic to see, but why not go that one step further and gain a few extra, that should keep the club treasurer with a smile on their face………..

National League North and South preview 2021/22

This coming weekend sees kick off for the National League North and South divisions, a further week to wait for the top division to get going but the two underlying sets of teams will be desperate to complete the new season for the first time in three years.

Two years without a completed season and minimal promotion from both divisions and no relegation has in my opinion led to a bit of stagnation, similar to Steps 3 and 4.

There is no doubt in my mind clubs are desperate to move and some of the signings this summer have been what I call intent! Intent to win, intent to compete, intent to give it a go.

Over this blog I plan to take a look at those I feel should be in the mix come the end of the season in both divisions, this game of opinions won’t please everyone and I don’t want it to, that’s the beauty of the game we love.

Starting in the North and being a southerner I can’t confess to following it as closely as the other end of the country but the eyes are on it don’t you worry! In both divisions there are some big clubs, big by name and history and big by the support they command. That though means nothing when it comes down to 11 vs 11 on the pitch.

When the season finished for these clubs in February, some let out a sigh of relief that things hadn’t gone to plan, namely Darlington and Blyth to pick out just two. Others such as Gloucester, AFC Fylde and a clutch of clubs just outside those play-offs who felt they had a chance of getting into those end of season games and probably let out sighs of anger instead.

And when you look at the quality that have arrived this summer in the North division, you know teams mean business and are desperate to get promoted. Striker Clayton Donaldson returns to York City to form an impressive front line with Kurt Willoughby and Jason Gilchrist, Steve Watson’s men were on the fringes of the play-off’s last year and those three the reason why they’re one of the bookies favourites.

AFC Fylde under Jim Bentley will be expected to challenge for the title as a full time outfit and having secured a majority of last season’s squad Bentley will hope continuity provides them with promotion foundations along with Stephen Dobbie as their stand out signing.

Gloucester will be looking to show last season was no flash in the pan and like quite a few other clubs have also retained most of last season’s squad. With experience at both ends of the park in Jake Cole and Matt McClure manager Paul Groves will be expecting more of the same from his side.

Boston Utd are another team who are one of the favourites to progress in front of their own fans at the new Jakemans Community Stadium. Impressive signings added to last season’s ranks include experienced defender Jake Wright and striker Danny Elliott, the latter a National League promotion winner at Hartlepool just last season.

A season that promises so much in the North, the title could go to a number of clubs in all honesty and I think if you finish in front of these four clubs then it’s all yours. One last word on this, the likes of York, Darlington, Chester, Gateshead and Spennymoor will believe the chance is there for them too and I can’t wait to watch the race unfold over the next nine months.

The South meanwhile has a few friends of mine in it, but that’s not going to cloud the judgement as we take a look at their division. Like the North division there were massive disparities in games played and while Dorking Wanderers were starting to pull away and an eight point gap from the last team in the play-off’s to the next games in hand for those below could have changed a lot for everybody.

As strong as Dorking were last year, they’ve strengthened again. Experienced keeper Lee Worgan and midfielder Bobby-Joe Taylor are two in the door and of course the goals of Jason Prior will keep them in the hunt. Dartford under Steve King are always there or thereabouts and the signing of striker Jake Robinson and once again shows they mean business.

Eastbourne Borough were third when the season ended, surprising a few people but not themselves. Danny Bloor is a very canny manager and gets the best out of his players, despite losing keeper Franco Ravizzoli to MK Dons they have retained most of last season’s squad and their strong link with QPR should once again see one or two on loan at Priory Lane.

Billericay Town under Kevin Watson are starting to build a good team and I expect them to be in the mix. Like quite a few other clubs in their division the ability to persuade players to drop down from the National League top division can well be the difference in quality, Charlie Lee and Marvel Ekpiteta are two who have made the move and with Watson able to keep the likes of Lawrie Wilson at New Lodge then play-off’s should be the ambition.

Maidstone Utd and Havant & Waterlooville will also be expecting better this time around, Haken Hayrettin at the Gallagher Stadium has also put together a squad with all his hallmarks on it while Paul Doswell will be hoping after a much changed squad last season didn’t quite get going consistently things improve this time around.

I like the signings Steve McKimm has made at Tonbridge Angels and they should certainly improve on what was a steady campaign last time out, the experience of Doug Loft has added to what is already a good spine of the team in Jonny Henly, Sonny Miles and Joe Turner.

Ebbsfleet have also recruited well, nine in total I believe it is now, and were going close last year at the time of the season’s suspension. Like a few others they have persuaded players to drop into the South such as Alex Finney and Craig Tanner from Aldershot, Joe Martin from Stevenage, whilst Elliott Romain has moved across from Dartford.

Not surprisingly Dorking and Dartford are seen as the favourites and like the North division, finish in front of those two and the title will more than likely be yours. However, this is a division of firepower and it might well come down to goal difference if someone is going to steal a march on another or someone is going to spring a surprise from within the pack of clubs I haven’t mentioned.

Come April next year we’re talking about an exciting season full of moments, drama, title wins, play-off wins and heartache and relegation despair, only then will we know football is truly back……………..

Is it fine or not fine?

This piece is likely to provoke a lot of debate or at least I hope it does, but I couldn’t get away with not blogging about the fines and points suspensions being handed out by the National League this week to eighteen clubs.

There appears to be quite a split between the fans of clubs who have carried on, those who wanted to carry on and those who feel their clubs have taken the right decision to call a halt to things.

I think we can all be agreed upon the fact that if the National League had made clear in late September/early October there was to be a problem with grant funding within the confines of the season then I don’t believe we would have kicked off without the concrete assurances of either fans back inside stadiums on an agreed date or funding to compensate for as long as it takes.

There has been a lot said about the plight of Dover Athletic, a side who we knew at the beginning of the season were in poor shape then to kick off. A lot of people don’t have the time for Jim Parmenter the chairman, but they cut their cloth accordingly to put themselves in position to start. They even stated then that if either funding didn’t continue or fans were not allowed back into the grounds they would struggle to continue.

They were however one of the clubs believed to have benefitted when the grants money was handed out by virtue of Parmenter’s place on the board which is why a lot of people don’t have a lot of sympathy for Dover and I get that, but I’m looking at this purely from the point of view as a fan.

We take Chesterfield, approved for a £1 million pound loan from Sport England to underpin operating costs. Now that loan might be low interest split over a number of years, but that repayment figure has to factored into budgets for years to come whilst having a squad able to compete at the right end of the table or surely there is no point to be out on the pitch? It might not sound a lot split over the time but still another cost impact to complete a season.

Then we have the North and South division clubs fined for not fulfilling fixtures in a competition that no longer exists in the record books, absurd as that sounds it’s quite true. What has been appalling the whole way through this sorry episode is the clubs having to make their way with no leadership from the competition they play in.

We have a governing body giving out fines to clubs whose reason for not playing was due to the fact there are no funds to cover playing these matches, you couldn’t make it up! It’s no surprise most if not all of these clubs are looking to appeal, where do the National League think the few thousand pounds are going to come from?

Each club took the option most viable to them, to protect themselves against not being here next season or to carry on playing because they believe they could sustain it.

In my opinion the totally correct decision if I were a fan of any one of these clubs, and as a fan of another club I would want all of these clubs to be here to begin next season, why should 500-10,000 fans miss out on football and have no team to support because they took the right decision to protect the precarious financial situation of their club?

Dover are taking a lot of flak, but just for the next few minutes put yourself in the position of a fan in the white shirt. You play on this season you finish the season and as soon as the last ball is kicked the club announce closure due to being fully insolvent. That could be your club, any one of the other 65 that make up the National League. I’ve been there growing up seeing it happen at Maidstone Utd, I very nearly experienced it at Barnet as well, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone because if I am correct this Thursday is the deadline for applications for entry into the pyramid system and after that date well no football for you next season if you go bust.

What I do agree with is there should be a punishment handed out as per the league rules but the opposite way round to the way they have handled things. By all means make the points deduction stick but hand out suspended fines only invoked in a new season. That might still not please clubs but it’s what I believe to be fair given we are in the most unprecedented of seasons but under National League jurisdiction there appears no room for manoeuvre.

The next question then comes when clubs reply there is no £2000 or £8000 in the club to pay the fine, what then? Another fine? Suspension of the club affiliation by the FA until the monies are paid? We could be treading a very dangerous path.

Like most of this past year, common sense and a little leeway has been in very short supply in a lot of aspects of daily life. If the aim has been to trim down the number of clubs we have in England then they’re going about it the right way.

So much of this could have been avoided from the very start and I’m not surprised to see talk of a vote of no confidence in the National League board they’ve not covered themselves in glory throughout this period and the communication over the last few weeks has been non-existent. No doubt this one will run and run for a little while to come…………………

Dining at the top table leaves an uncomfortable taste

In the midst of all things Barnet going through yet another managerial change it hasn’t gone unnoticed the Friday decision of the FA’s Alliance Committee over the ongoing National League saga for the North and South divisions.

With 18 clubs wanting to continue their season at Step 2 a proposal was tabled which I believe was to use a mathematical formula to take into consideration the starting points total for each club ending with promotion for two teams, one automatically and one via the play-offs, but no relegation from the top division.

The Alliance Committee however rejected the proposal and backed the original decision on the vote to null and void the season for both divisions meaning a second successive year for a season that failed to complete.

How did we get to this situation whereby clubs were having to fight a battle to want to play football? And why were there not any contingency plans put in place for an interrupted season in which we got less football at the lower levels than we did last season.

There can’t be much disagreement in saying the National League board have generated a lot of the in-fighting, the feeling of discontent and the need for some independent focus within the top echelons of the non-league game.

And for that it starts way back in the summer and last season’s play-offs. Dearly hanging onto the EFL coattails for promotion and relegation into the Football League sought out a need for the competition to be granted ‘elite’ status within the game, which brought the National League in line with those above up to the Premier League.

In order to promote upwards the NL were told by the EFL they had to relegate into the North and South which in turn you would say caused their play-offs to happen.

But it seems that rather than deal with those end of season games and then look at whether that was the correct decision it was popped in a drawer and tucked away, knowing full well it was likely to resurface and need to be dealt with.

Then we come to the beginning of the season, all ready, fans anticipating watching in stadiums once again and the rug was pulled sharpish back to behind closed doors at a time where there was concern cases were rising across the country days after test events had been underway.

At that time fans were still allowed up to a maximum of 600 people at Steps 3 and 4 and 300 at Steps 5 and 6. I still maintain that test events should have continued at Steps 1 and 2 until the second lockdown occurred but that’s my own opinion.

So now we get to the funding, provided by the National Lottery having been brokered by the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media, and Sport). £10 million pounds of lottery money to cover clubs from October through to December whereby the next level of funding will begin, well so we thought and so did 66 club chairman.

For the National League not to have any recorded meeting minutes to prove this was the case is without doubt their biggest failure as a governing board. Without that assurance I would imagine all 66 clubs would not have started the season and we wouldn’t be sitting here with half completed seasons for Step 2 nor clubs being ‘creative’ in the top division, as a board they sold their member clubs down the river.

Would the previous chief exec Michael Tattersall not resigned if things were honest and above board? Big accusation maybe but he’s not the one tasked with sorting out the mess him and his fellow board members created.

The creative part for me is clubs using the furlough scheme and I use it in the loosest sense of the word. Creative because it’s a loophole being explored, but also abuse of a system for people who physically can’t do their day job. It’s not something I agree with clubs doing at all for their players, especially not when they have signed players to replace those furloughed.

With Friday’s decision and despite the FA Council still needing to ratify the null and void decision, there will be no relegation from the National League. So for the likes of say Barnet, Kings Lynn, Weymouth, Wealdstone, and Woking, possibly more, why not furlough the lot and bring in youth team players or non-contract players and save a few quid?

After all, seven clubs voted to end the National League season originally, with only Dover currently refusing to play any more games. It’ll be interesting to see how stances will change if at all in the coming weeks for other clubs with no threat of relegation.

It’s far from being less farcical in any stretch of the imagination, when in reality we should all be talking about how refreshing it is to currently have a three way title race and below them as many as 13 clubs chasing play-off aspirations given that only eight points separates 4th place and 16th place at the time of writing with clubs having all manner of games in hand on each other, this is where the focus really should be.

None of these clubs have to my knowledge received any outside funding since the end of December, some must be running on fumes week to week and I’m happy to be corrected if wrong on the opening line of that paragraph.

So for all the effort clubs put into games in the North and South divisions amounts to nothing, time given up by volunteers and money spent by sponsors and on streams by fans the net result is zero.

And to next season, what becomes of the division numbers? This year we have seen odd numbers for both the top division and the South division, logic would suggest that Dover will face demotion for failure to fulfil fixtures, ironically protecting the future of the club, which makes an even 22 clubs all round.

So, that’s a wrap for all things North and South, mothballed until the summer comes around, I have a feeling though it might an uncomfortable AGM for the league when it takes place, nothing more really than they deserve……..

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…..