Non League Football’s Crisis Management

by | Mar 16, 2020

“He was fuming!!” Variants on these words had already boomed out more than once across the office of the Non-League Paper (NLP) (available from all good newsagents every Sunday/Monday for £1.50).

To misquote Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head while all around are losing theirs…you haven’t assessed the situation properly.” And this appears to have been the case this weekend. Thus, throughout my sub-editing shift at the paper, on Saturday night, National League managers were, ahem, ‘expressing their disappointment’ at having to fulfil that day’s fixtures while much of the rest of the game beneath the suspended Football League (EFL) decided to use “an abundance of caution” in response to the coronavirus.

Last Friday, the 13th, the FA summoned all the leadership qualities for which they are globally renowned to remind “each league within the National League systems” that they were, erm, “autonomous bodies” and should make decisions “at their own discretion.” But with the UK government ready to ban “mass gatherings of 500 or more,” the National League’s decision not to suspend its on-field activities seemed a very improper situation assessment.

Leagues from the Southern and the Western to the Northern Counties East decided to suspend their on-field activities, while what the NLP’s front page referred to as the “Covid Crisis!” developed. Although even these leagues left long grass up and down the country clogged with decisions kicked into it, by saying they would look again in two or three weeks. Because, by then the virus will be in nationwide retreat, according to absolutely no-one whatsoever.

“Mass gatherings of 500 or more” at matches in leagues such as the Hellenic are almost as rare as rocking-horse sh*t. So, there was a perverse logic to those leagues shutting down while the National League, where such mass gatherings and more are the norm, went ahead. It was odd, too, that the Southern League called a halt while the Northern Premier League (NPL), on the same level of The “Non-League Pyramid,’ said ‘keep calm and carry on.’ Southern softies, eh?.

However, despite the National League and NPL bucking the suspension trend, individual member clubs postponed fixtures anyway. Six National League and five National League North games were drawn P-P, although no National League South games went ahead (southern softies, eh?). Likewise, seven NPL Premier Division games, although three of them were because of waterlogged pitches; remnants those halcyon days when the names of the weekly weekend storms were such pressing concerns.

The league round-ups coming into the NLP offices on Saturday afternoon were a little repetitive. There are only so many ways you can write that a league has been suspended because of a virus. And so desperate was I to shoehorn in something different that I amended the opening to one report of a game which actually happened to read: “Jamie Sleigh rode to a hat-trick…” With apologies to the author, Dave Lawrence.

National League managers’ “fuming” took various forms. Maidenhead United boss Alan Devonshire (yes, West Ham fans, the very same) took a hard-headed “f**k football clubs” line, adding that “someone could come home and give their nan a dose of the coronavirus. How (will he) live with himself if that happens? Maybe I should have lied and said one of our players had gone into self-isolation but that’s not us. The powers that be are mucking around with people’s lives. The National League is a disgrace.” Games may not have been suspended. But Devonshire might be.

Eastleigh boss Ben Strevens was equally forthright: “It went ahead is because whoever sits on the board of the National League just cared about the money. Simple as that.” Chesterfield supremo John Pemberton labelled the decision “stupid” after the Spireites official statement on Friday had made it clear that they didn’t “support the decision at all.” And a number of other managers made elderly mums and dads the reason why games should not have gone ahead.

On the flip side of the, almost literal, coin, NPL club Whitby Town’s chairman Eddie McNamee told ESPN’s Mark Ogden: “No club at this level could sustain paying wages without playing and people coming through the gates. Most are hand-to-mouth, week-to-week, so it will be a major problem. Our players earn around £200-300 a week, but there are 20 in the squad, so it’s substantial for us.”

Meanwhile, National League chief executive, Michael Tattersall ‘explained’: “It’s a time for reflecting on what’s happening in our society.” The league might have better reflected “our society” by halting  games, despite the above average crowds at those which happened. And the league’s second official statement, on Saturday night, “sincerely” thanking everyone involved in playing, staging and paying to watch those games, brought another wave of managerial ‘fuming’ into the NLP office discussions, mostly variants on “thanks for nothing.”

Opinion on the suspensions was as divided among fans as it was among clubs. The Isthmian suspension surprised me. And I was torn between regarding it as over-cautious and wishing they’d done it before my team, Kingstonian, came third against Cheshunt on Wednesday night, with our back-four “social distancing,” days before it became a thing. “Mass gatherings at Ks” are oxymoronic; I am not A but THE turnstile operator at all-but-the-busiest league games. But I still had to wear surgical gloves to handle Wednesday’s gate receipts. By Friday, I was temporarily on the turnstile scrapheap. Life comes at you fast.

Many Isthmian keyboard warriors were at keyboard war. And the vitriol moved the league’s twitter account administrator, Ian Townsend, to post on Saturday night that it would be boring if we “agreed with each other all of the time. But if you resort to throwing abuse, please remember that the only person who will have to read it is me, and I’m just ‘social media guy.’ The last 24 hours have been no fun. Please, be nice.” Indeed, it was indicative of the vitriol that most twitter responses to the Isthmian and National League’s contrasting decisions were among the “additional replies, including those that may contain offensive content.”

Of course, league suspension will have a more damaging financial impact among the mix of semi- and full-time professional National League clubs. But it was disheartening that finances played such an obvious part in National League thinking, especially as their statement on Friday claimed that “the welfare and well-being of all those involved in and connected to its competition” was its “highest priority.”

NPL chairman, Mark Harris, was more honest, telling the NLP on Friday that their “primary responsibility is to our clubs” who “are under massive financial pressure” after losing “a lot of fixtures to the weather.” However, the NPL “reluctantly” suspended its fixtures “until further notice” as I was typing this. And the National League is now suspended until 3rd April, understating grotesquely that it was “not practical for its fixtures to be fulfilled in the immediate future,” whilst offering no clue as to what they expect to have improved by then.

This week’s NLP editorial suggested, via headline, that “financial help is vital for survival.” It correctly urged “the Football Association and all the leagues to lobby the government and the Premier League for financial assistance.” And, emptying the book of semi-patronising, heartstring-tugging non-league clichés, declared that “it is not about hand-outs…but…keeping the heart of the game alive…clubs run through the fibre of their communities…lifeblood of football in this country…” etc.

But all clubs, regardless of how “mass” their average “gatherings,” will have to innovate to keep in monetary shape. Barrow, for instance, are advertising, at £7-a-pop, a “Pretend You’re At A Match Starter Kit,” a “programme, team sheet, old ticket, empty cup and stirrer, pie bag and fork and Bovril cube.” There is already interest, with fans asking, among other things, if the cup comes flat-packed. And, against club expectations, it is selling, which says a lot about the (stereo)typical non-league fan, as the whole thing is clearly a clever, amusing pastiche. Isn’t it?

There was an end-of-term feeling about the NLP office as Saturday’s printing deadline neared and the work of the more under of underlings such as myself was done, the consensus being that the season is already over. “See you in August, Mark,” they cried, for once not just wishful thinking from those bored with me moaning about the InDesign typesetting system we use and the creaky office computers we use it on. Instead it was a jokey but likely accurate appraisal of senior non-league football’s lack of short or medium-term, future.

Life IS moving fast. Again, while typing this, all pubs in Ireland have closed until further notice. And while its shock value is enhanced by stereotype, that development and its general acceptance by the populace makes it clearer than ever that the times they are a-changin’. If Irish pubs are closed ON ST PATRICK’S DAY, non-league football doesn’t stand a chance. As Ian King eloquently opined on 200% last Tuesday, “it’s time to stop the football.” ALL non-league football should have taken heed.