The Unknown Knowns

“It’s as if the league doesn’t want anyone to play football”

This was just one of the comments I saw on Social Media over the weekend in response to the update that the Isthmian League would not be putting a cup tournament in place before the end of the season. Trust me, there is nothing I or any of my colleagues on the Isthmian League board would like more than to be watching football again, but that simply isn’t an option for many clubs now or in the next few weeks.

Prior to the announcement of the FA’s decision on the future of the 2021/22 season, the Trident Leagues (Isthmian, Northern Premier and Southern) had said that unless fans could be back in grounds by the 1st April then it would be almost impossible for any games to be played before the end of the season. As it was, the Government announcement didn’t give anyone any hope that this could happen, with outdoor venues not being able to open until at least 12th April AND fans welcome back to stadiums some four weeks later.

But the main point to stress here is that it was the clubs, not the league, who decided to end the season without another ball being kicked. Every club at Steps 3 to 6 was given the opportunity to vote on the future of the season by the FA and make any suggestions for consideration. The result of this exercise was an overwhelming majority of clubs indicating they did not want to continue the season. Perhaps any anger, frustration or disappointment from fans should be directed towards their own team rather than the footballing authorities? Possibly, but those who have an understanding as to how clubs operate would not be so judgemental.

Slipping on my Club Chair’s hat, here’s the reasons why Lewes wouldn’t have taken part in any competition that could have been organised before the end of the season.

  1. Player registrations – For those players who are non-contract status (90% of our squad), their registrations will end at the point when the FA Council ratify the decision of the clubs to end the season. That means if there was a tournament in a month or so, players would either need to be retained, and thus clubs incur unnecessary costs, or there would have to be some sanction of the tournament to ensure that players and clubs are insured.
  2. Player safety and fitness – Players have not trained together since late December. In a normal season, players would go through around six weeks of pre-season off the back of two months rest at the end of the season. Government restrictions mean that squads cannot train together until 29th March – by that stage it will have been approximately 14 weeks since they last trained. Personal training plans during lockdown such as running, cycling and doing weights are good to keep basic fitness but not match fitness which will take at least six weeks from the end of March, meaning that they won’t be fit until mid-May.
  3. Fans in the stadium and secondary spend – Who benefits from playing a tournament at the end of the season if fans can watch the game in the stadium? Nobody really. Clubs would incur costs in hosting a game, players would need/expect to be paid, officials would expect their fees and expenses. So unless fans can come in AND spend their money in the bars then they will incur additional costs and losses. The Government has said it will be 12th April AT THE EARLIEST before outdoor bars/beer gardens can operate. Many Non-League clubs do not have that luxury nor is there really a compelling reason to build something just for a couple of games AND assuming that fans could come in prior to the 17th May.
  4. Volunteers and Covid-19 safety – Hosting any games requires staff, whether you have fans in the ground or not. 99% of these people volunteer to do the role at their local club. It is an unnecessary risk to expect them to return for such a short period of time. Whilst the Government is being very bullish about the roll out of the vaccine, it is highly unlikely that many volunteers will have had both of their vaccines within the next two months and thus there will still be risks of infection. Why put the health and safety of the core assets of a Non-League club, the volunteers at risk now?
  5. Other operating costs – Most clubs have been able to “mothball” in the past six months – essential costs have been reduced significantly and staff have been furloughed. If a tournament was introduced, the clubs would have to come out of that hibernated, unfurlough staff and start incurring costs without much sign of any income. Many will simply see the costs as unnecessary.
  6. Pitch – To quote Mark Harris, Chairman of the Northern Premier League when he was on the Non-League Show last week, “Grass doesn’t grow in January or February, it grows in April, May, June and July’. There’s not a lot anyone can do about that – groundsmen will have already put their plans in place and booked resources. By pushing back that essential work by 3-4 weeks it will impact the availability of pitches in July and August when clubs will be able to have fans back (hopefully!).

Some will look at the above and call them excuses – everyone is entitled to their opinion but for clubs, who have suffered so much in the last year, the risks far outweigh the limited rewards of running a competition for a very short period of time. We can all hope that the Government will review their timelines but history has proved that when they do, it is to push timescales out not in.

Football is so important to all of us. Would we rather put the long-term health of the game at risk for a very short-term plan? I certainly wouldn’t want to with my Club hat on and I hope that most fans will see that. For those who don’t, perhaps offer to volunteer at your local club and see for yourself the work that goes on behind the scenes that means football isn’t always as simple as it seems.

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