Non-League Football’s New Normal

by | Sep 7, 2020

“They are partying in Wuhan and we’re doing this.” At least one non-league football fan was not pleased to see his club’s hand-sanitised volunteers in, mostly, club-badged masks, testing the new method of letting fans at Step 3 of English club football’s National League System (NLS) into grounds.

This fan may or may not believe that facemasks CAUSE coronavirus (Covid-19) or that the virus is a Chinese laboratory invention or some kind of worldwide conspiracy. But, either way, they will have to get used to this mode of ground entry. If they are partying in Wuhan, China, the recognised source city of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is because China’s authoritarian government could REALLY lock people down. Our democratically-elected government, correctly, did things differently, whether they did them well or not. So, facemasks etc it is.

Isthmian League Premier Division Kingstonian last played competitively on 11th March when, as I wrote then, their defence blazed the social distancing trail in a 4-2 home defeat to Cheshunt (intriguingly, current Covid-19 policy almost encourages such defending, with setpieces to be taken “promptly, to limit prolonged close marking.”

After the longest close season since, literally, World War Two, Ks began their pre-season with a 1-1 draw at Southern Combination League Horley Town on 15th August. And last Tuesday’s hosting of Isthmian League South East division Ramsgate was a preparation for the season starter next Saturday, an FA Cup preliminary round tie (despite reaching last year’s second round proper) at home to…Horley Town.

First, a hill of thanks to Ramsgate, whose evening was as fraught as anything Ks’ volunteers faced. The Kent coast side were last-gasp replacement opposition, after county colleagues Sevenoaks Town had to withdraw over the weekend. And with coach travel to games a victim of current social restrictions, the Rams management, players, fans and, it seems, kit-carriers had to make private transport arrangements.

This initially emerged as problematic when the first batch of Rams reps was not followed by a second batch until far too near to the scheduled kick-off time of 7.45 for 7.45 to BE the kick-off time. One player had an unexpected answer when asked how he’d managed to arrive timeously. “I’m only 20 minutes away, over there,” he smiled, pointing towards Kingston town, 20 minutes away. But his colleagues, unsurprisingly, had no such luxury.

Enough Rams arrived in enough time to facilitate an 8.15 kick-off, although eventual kick-off was 8.20, after a minute’s applause to mark the passing of veteran Kingstonian, Brian Newman, whose funeral was that afternoon. His warmth, willingness to help and unfailing good-nature in all circumstances were sorely missed on a complex night.

After kick-off, those of us who thought “Ramsgate’s kit is good, looks like our away kit,” were only wrong because rather than “looking like” our away kit, it WAS our away kit. This, perhaps, explained why Ks players picked out so many Rams players with passes in the first quarter. Yes, let’s say that. But Ks eventually won 1-0, thanks to Rams sub Will Thomas possibly thinking “well, I’m playing in a Ks kit, I might as well score for them.”

But the game wasn’t the night’s big issue. Most lessons to be learned were off the pitch, mostly before the game. On 18th July, the FA issued the cumbersomely-entitled “National League System Club Guidance Covid-19 Return to Football,” the day after the government approved their plan. But it wasn’t until 19th AUGUST that plans were published for the “phased and limited” return of fans. Expectations were for the season to begin “fan-free” and some clubs were caught out by this news, with many pre-seasons long-started. Indeed, some clubs are still having to cancel friendlies and/or play them fan-free, even though Step 5 seasons have already started.

The NLS requirement for clubs to appoint a Club Covid-19 officer was so important that it came even before Step One of the two-step arrangements. Kingstonian’s Covid-19 chief is John McCormack, son and namesake of Ks’ second-highest all-time goalscorer. McCormack senior was club president from 2013 until his passing in 2017. The, delightful. family are a major part of the volunteer base, especially since Ks began playing at Corinthian Casuals’ suburban Surrey ground in Tolworth in 2018. And John is now THE major part. God bless/help him.

Under stage one, from 22nd-30th August, spectators could attend “providing that their number does not exceed 15% of the minimum ground grading capacity.” And clubs who didn’t host a game in that week-and-a-day had to play “at least one fixture in accordance with its respective level of spectators” before moving to stage two. For clubs who did host a game, stage two kicked in on Bank Holiday Monday, doubling the number of allowed spectators. And clubs also had to be “satisfied” that they could comply with governmental “guidance on the return to recreational team sport.”

These attendance restrictions brought to mind September 1989, when the gargantuan terraces at Dulwich Hamlet’s old Champion Hill ground were closed and the capacity limited to 300. At their sturdiest, those terraces accommodated 20,000. So, it was surprising that no-one at all was allowed on them. Mind you, Ks’ fanbase did have some ‘sturdiness’ back then. Taunts of “you fat bastard” from Aldershot fans when Ks played there in 1993 were met with the, genuine, query “which fat bastard?”

But I digress. Neither the Hamlet or Ks were then attracting enough fans to threaten that capacity. But matters might be different this season. Ks hosted a “strong” Crystal Palace under-23 team on Saturday 22nd August, but without spectators. So they only moved to stage two after Tuesday, which limited the capacity at Casuals’ King George’s Field ground to 300. Thus the old line informing interested outsiders about Ks games, “it’s not all-ticket,” became “erm, actually, it IS all-ticket.”

Tuesday was an entirely new experience for many volunteers, if not quite for those who went to Ks’ friendly at near-neighbours, Combined Counties League Cobham, seven days earlier. Ks were obliged, as “part of our risk assessment control measures,” to “remind” (inform in most cases) all club people “of the need to comply with the latest Government regulations for travelling to and from matches,” although given this gloopy government’s propensity for U-turning on virus spread prevention regulations, that was not necessarily easy.

This advice is a polite but involved way of saying “don’t go,” by suggesting “minimising use of public transport and limiting car sharing” and to “walk or cycle if you can.” Now everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. And Ks fans have been doing charity walks for ever. Even I did (and co-organised) the first two. FOURTEEN miles, from Ks’ then ground, Kingsmeadow, to their last away game, at Dulwich twice {thanks fixture scheduler}. Nowadays, I get knackered looking at 14 miles on a map. But there was never likely to be a long march to Cobham. Or a peloton. And Cobham station is a mile-and-a-half away. So, I didn’t go.

Plenty did, though. The Covid-enforced capacity at Cobham’s “Leg O’ Mutton Field” (no…really) was 150, as they are two steps below Ks in the NLS. And crowd estimates suggested that this was approached. A Ks fans’ forum contributor noted the screens in the bar “to protect the barman from the customer (and vice versa).” Inside toilets were closed. And there were notices informing fans of an email contact for “track-and-trace” purposes; tracking and tracing attendees with the virus.

This latter arrangement relied on supporters’ unenforced co-operation…and memory. As the Ks forum contributor noted, pertinently, the next day, “I have only just remembered now, so I’m not sure how useful this will be.” This was a factor in declaring Ks/Ramsgate all-ticket, via on-line purchase which required such details. And fans unable to buy on-line had to provide their details with their (£7) admission fee on the night, either via a phone app (as the kidz say) called “EvePass” or in writing to the kindly old “turnstile” operator.

The inverted commas were necessary. This summer, Casuals rid the turnstile huts of piles of football detritus and painted the huts unsettlingly brightly. Not in Casuals’ own chocolate-and-pink but Ks’ away-strip yellow-and-blue, which will irk the less-casual Casuals fans. But the speed with which the OK was given to letting fans in crushed efforts to erect protective screening timeously. Thus, turnstiles were tables. And the operator had to amend his patter to incoming customers from “£10 to get in, £20 to get out” to “can I take your name, contact number and bank account details” (I said “amend” not “improve”).

Covid-19 policy requires “random temperature checks.” And Tuesday’s crowd was small enough to facilitate everyone being “probed” by two McCormacks who rather enjoyed pointing gun-shaped thermometers at peoples’ heads. Enjoyment born of their good-nature, but disconcerting viewing nonetheless. “Oooh, I like being probed,” said way too many men. “You’ll not find anything in there,” said a few-too-many men AND women, although at least I had the excuse of being correct. But hopefully this good-nature will continue as fans adjust to a potentially alarming matchday welcome.

Another turnstile ‘favourite’ is “Keep the change? Thanks very much” when £20 or £50 notes appear. This, uniquely, always gets a laugh, albeit one of snorted derision. But “keep the change” was a policy on Tuesday, which proved less funny. The match’s ticketing arrangements included notice, in bold, that, for “fans and volunteers” safety, only “correct cash payments” were acceptable, “deposited by you into donation buckets” for “Covid-19 security reasons,” to “avoid exchange of any forms of cash.” Incorrect money-holders could buy three-quid’s worth of tickets for regular matchday fundraising draws or straight donate to the club.

Plans were made to have some “washed” change ready for anyone absolutely needing it. This was, wisely, not publicised. Mixed messages and all that. But the eventual decision to not have the washed coinage readily available was less wise. Enormous thanks to all who offered to “go to the bar” (well inside the ground) to get the right change…and came back with it. But apologies to anyone (and there was at least one) involved in a fruitless search for a stand-alone £7.

Others who worked more than me (i.e. everyone) will have had issues too. But the practical experience of Tuesday will be invaluable when Horley visit. And the experience of both games will be even more invaluable when well-supported Worthing visit on 26th September. Last season, Worthing’s visit attracted 384 punters, one of five fixtures to top 300 in Ks’ 13-home game truncated league season. Mercifully, future capacity will be 600, as Ks are at stage two (and not because fans have halved in size during pre-season, as I originally thought). However, this capacity was exceeded last season for the bigger cup games, a number of which any ambitious club would want.

This is why club volunteers should have been given more time to test the newly-required match-entry systems by those newly-requiring these systems. Everyone needs a pre-season. Why should Covid-19 officers and volunteers be any different? Still, from a government which (to pick one of many possible examples) launched an “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme EIGHT DAYS after launching an anti-obesity campaign, and from football governing bodies for whom the Latin for “knee-jerk reaction” could be a motto, what did we really expect?

Ironing out creases in the system will thus be an on-going task. Indeed, John has just invited me to “box office training via Zoom,” words which I know individually, but not Zoom as a noun, and not in that order. My learning curve needs flattening. But, partying in Wuhan or not, this is and NEEDS to be non-league football’s new normal. Possibly for a bit, as who knows how the virus will behave in winter?

So, be prepared. Bring a mask (Ks’ £5 underpanty-looking masks are very effective…people say I should have been wearing one for years…wait…what?). And get ready to be asked for your bank account details by that moaning old sod manning the turnstiles.