Stocksbridge Park Steels manager Chris Hilton is pleased Non League Football is returning, but has warned that there are huge challenges ahead for clubs and leagues.
The FA have confirmed plans for a September start for Non League Football, with competitive matches in the case of the Northern Premier League beginning on the 19th of that month. Clubs can play pre-season friendlies behind closed doors in August.
However, the potential problems ahead for Non League clubs are like discovering a bath full of live grenades, never mind a minefield. Travelling, clubhouses, toilets, changing rooms, the age of large number of volunteers are just some of the issues going forward.
Hilton agrees that there are many obstacles to jump through and he says clubs must stay within the rules set out by the Government and FA.
“Whilst I’m happy, a lot of what was published regarding dates and crowds is unclear and confusing,” Hilton told Non League Yorkshire.
“But we all want to get back playing football and we can play friendlies behind closed doors next month and we can have full contact training before then. It is all positive and a move towards normality.
“However, although it will be great to play friendlies, we don’t want to overdo it by stretching the rules. I’m sure some clubs will look at doing that, but we can’t.
“We can’t be doing things half-hearted and having supporters in and not abiding by the rules because it will set everything back.
“I know it sounds boring because we everyone is excited about Non League coming back, but we don’t want to go forward and then take two steps backwards
“If we do (not abide by the rules) there’s a chance it may delay the start of the season because (the Government and FA) will say ‘well there’s not listening to the rules on the friendlies, why will they listen when the season is open’.
“We have to do everything by the book to ensure everyone is safe and so we get the season started sooner rather than later.”
The FA has yet to announce their structure for the National League System for 2020/21, but many expect it to be effectively the same as last season.
Several managers have called for restructuring to reduce travelling, with one saying because of the ongoing world pandemic clubs should not be travelling far to play fixtures.
Hilton is open-minded, but accepts if local lockdowns are ordered and bad weather strikes, the new season could turn into a fiasco.
He said: “Do they regionalise the leagues around for a year so teams are playing local opposition each week in smaller leagues?
“I don’t know the answer to that. It is a difficult one. For me, I wouldn’t want to mess around with the league format. I would want the leagues to stay the same, even though we’ll be playing more midweeks.
“If they messed around with it, would there still be promotions and relegations? I wouldn’t want to manage for six months without no promotions or relegations. We need to aiming for something otherwise it is pointless.
“But is a difficult one because there is the risk of lockdowns on certain towns. I don’t think they can get around that even if they regionalise it.
“If towns gets locked down by a council or Government it is an interesting one because that will throw fixtures around because games will get postponed.
“Barnsley is one of the Government’s areas of concern because of the number of cases. If Barnsley gets locked down, what does Stocksbridge do then? Six players and myself as manager would be locked down and we wouldn’t be able to attend matches during the lockdown.
“Then you throw in bad weather from October onwards, the fixture schedule could become absolute carnage when we’re already playing more midweek games than ever.
“There’s so many scenarios that could happen and I think we just need to pick the best way forward to get the leagues set up and get things near as normal. As things arise and crop up, we’ll just have to adapt to them.”
Hilton also agrees the age of a substantial amount of volunteers adds concern for clubs, along with the issue of travelling to matches and access to changing and shower facilities.
“I wouldn’t say people have got their eyes closed, but I don’t think people realise what actually goes into running a club and who is behind the scenes,” he said.
“A lot of volunteers at Non League clubs are of a certain age which again gives another obstacle to get over. They tend to be the older generation who are retired.
“We forget that clubs are not run by people in their 20s and 30, they run by people in 60s and 70s and being able to run matches is going to be a complicated scenario for some clubs.
“I’ve also seen a comment about players having to wash their own kit. With my players, you can imagine ‘I forgot to put my kit in the wash’ and we’ll have ten clean shirts and one not clean!
“Some of the points I get like the hand sanitisers, having your own water bottles, but I’ve been a player and trusting players to wash their own kit and bring it all back and not forget anything, it isn’t going to happen.
“Are we able going to be able to use the changing rooms? Does it mean players are going to have to travel two hours in a kit, run around for 90 minutes plus the warm-up, get all sweaty and then travel back two hours without being able to clean themselves?
“These are things we need to think through? I wouldn’t be happy if we had to do that. If the powers that be say we have to, we’ll have to. We don’t know either about how we can travel.
“Has everyone got to travel separately? Are we going to have 16 cars turning up? Surely by September or October if they are going to allow crowds in, surely four people will be able to travel together in a car?”
It is now a month since Stocksbridge’s players completed their 100k running challenge to raise money for the club. Led by Ross Goodwin, the players raised over £1500 to add to the fund for essential maintenance work and tools and Hilton has paid tribute to them.
“It was really refreshing to see players fundraising for a club who hadn’t paid them for the last month of the season because they had donated their wage back,” he said.
“They did the run to raise £1500 and it shows that I have a group that care about the club and want it to survive and it shows they all want to play together,
“As I’ve spoken to everyone about potential deals elsewhere. they’ve all said they had no intention of going anywhere because they love playing for the club. Some who have been offered more money, some double, by other teams in our league and the league below.
“It is heart-warming what they’ve done for the club because we all know there is a lot of players in Non League and the professional game who just chase money. You’ll always get that. They’ll pick the best offer and not care if the pitch is decent or how the team plays and whether it suits their style. They just look for the pound signs.
“I have a good bunch here who are not here for the money. The players organised the run themselves, the club didn’t organise it or get involved in it. It was fantastic and Ross Goodwin deserves a lot of credit for setting it up.
“Luckily we didn’t need the air ambulance for me. I didn’t have to run all the way from Fox Valley. I started halfway up the hill which was helpful because I reckon if I’d had to run all the way I wouldn’t have made it because I didn’t realise how steep that hill is.
“You know where you put the car in first gear up there and it is screaming, I was running up it thinking ‘wow’. But we made it to the top and it was fitting that Wardy (kit man Gary Ward) do the last 100 yards and carry the baton over the line. I thought it was a nice touch and that was the players’ idea as Wardy is a big part of the team.”
In addition to last season’s squad who are all staying, Hilton has persuaded old star striker Joe Lumsden to return to Bracken Moor. He is the only ‘new’ face to join and Hilton admits he is not actively pursuing further signings.
“We have a few trialists coming, people who have asked to come for a trial and people who we have talked to in the past who are coming to have a look,” he said.
“But as far as I’m concerned unless someone makes me stand back and say ‘wow, he’s better than we’ve got’ (we won’t add to the team).
“What we have got is last season’s squad plus Joe and we’re quite happy because we think it is enough for us to go and compete in this league at the top end by pushing for the play-offs.”
If you have enjoyed this interview, please consider making a donation to the not-for-profit organisation NLY Community Sport which provides sport for children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. CLICK HERE to visit the JustGiving page.
There is a video at the bottom of the page showing our work.
NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams so when the green light to return is given, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.
We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.
We have enjoyed great success over the past three years. Several of our players have represented Mencap GB in Geneva, including Billy Hobson from Selby and Greg Smith, whose story is quite inspiring.
Like most organisations, we have been affected financially by the Coronavirus and we have incurred losses which we cannot recover. We have not been hit as badly as other organisations, but we do need raise £2000 to put us back at the level we were at in mid-March and enable us to make a difference once again to our players’ lives in the future, without having financial worries. As each day goes by, a substantial number of our players become further isolated so we need to be ‘ready for action’ when restrictions are lifted.
Any amount raised above £2000 will be put towards new projects (when the world returns to normal) designed to further benefit people with disabilities and learning difficulties. You can learn more about the organisation HERE and on our Facebook page.
Watch the video below to see highlights from our three years as an organisation. The video was produced for our players at the end of March to remind them of good memories from the last three years.