Harrogate boss unimpressed with NCEL restart

Harrogate Railway manager Mick O’Connell

Harrogate Railway manager Mick O’Connell is unimpressed with the Toolstation NCEL’s decision to restart the season earlier than originally advertised. 

The NCEL were hoping to get the league back underway in January and most clubs had written December off. 

However, the surprise announcement of spectators being allowed into grounds in Tier 3 areas led to the NCEL bringing forward the restart to the 19th December.

Railway now face a Boxing Day trip to Christian Fox’s Selby Town and O’Connell is not full of Christmas cheer for a few reasons.

“They’d have sprung it upon us and every club at our level are too far underprepared for playing football,” ex-professional sportsman O’Connell told Non League Yorkshire.

“It has come around too quickly.

“One minute in you are in lockdown, you’re then out of lockdown and they’ve told us we’re playing again on January 2nd.

“We’d planned for that and then all of a sudden you’re playing Hall Road next week (on the 19th December and later postponed after the weekend’s heavy rain).

“I was stunned. All our preparation was for the 2nd January and the lads had it in their heads that they had Christmas off this year with no Boxing Day game.

“Don’t get me wrong I’m delighted to have football back as it is what we want to do. I have missed it really badly. You don’t realise how much you’re missing it until it is taken away.

“But from a professional point of view, the preparation has been horrendous. We’ve had two training sessions and one friendly against a team two divisions below us.

“If you ask any strength and conditioning coach or sports science people or physios up and down the country it is ludicrous to be playing on Boxing Day when we’ve had this kind of preparation. It is only going to cause injuries.

“We’re so far behind anyway so what does another game matter? We’ve played eight games so what difference is playing one game make?

“If you ask the players they’ll 100% want to play because all they focus their minds on is turning up on a Saturday, putting their boots on, playing a game, having a beer and going home.

“But there’s a lot more to running a football club and there’s a lot of volunteers whose Christmas has been thrown a little because of the Boxing Day.

“We have to grit our teeth and get on with it. We’re not complaining but it isn’t ideal.”

Both Selby and Harrogate are Tier 2 areas so neither clubs face the kind of restrictions Tier 3 clubs face. 

Those curbs have led to a vast number of clubs in the Northern Premier League refusing to play because of fears of putting themselves in financial jeopardy by playing without the vital match-day revenues.

O’Connell who has observed the recent behaviour by the FA and other leagues, says the FA only have themselves to blame for the fixture crisis because they failed to look at the bigger picture in the summer.

“Most of Non League clubs rely on the income from their bar and selling food,” he said.

“We don’t have that. We’re in Tier 2 and we can’t open our bar at the minute because we don’t sell food in the form of a substantial meal. 

“A lot of Tier 3 clubs can’t even open their bar at all.

“I just think everything is short-sighted in general, the FA, the leagues.

“Everything seems off the cuff with no planning going on.

“With the break we have had they have never been in a better position to restructure the leagues and look at things.

“I’ve said it all along, this year should have been exception (because of the pandemic and the likelihood of further restrictions) and the FA should have regionalised it.

“If they had split the leagues into ten clubs each we would have got most of the games in by now and we could have come back in March and finished it. We then could have gone into a little play-offs to decide promotion and relegation.

“That would have kept the pyramid system ticking over rather than the season stopping and not in danger of not finishing again. 

“In my personal opinion if we go into another lockdown in January you can forget about the season.

“I was looking at the North West Counties league and some of the teams have played two or three games and it is the 21st December. It is crazy.

“If I’m totally honest I think we’ll be locked down in January again.

“Northern Ireland is going into lockdown, Scotland on the 28th are going into a three-week lockdown. Wales are going back into a lockdown.

“If previous lockdowns are anything to go by, they go into lockdown and we follow suit. 

“It is not looking good, especially with this new variant down South and it is not looking good for the season finishing.”

Although not particularly happy at being made to play, O’Connell is still taking the NCEL Division One match at Selby very seriously.

“100% we’re going there to win the game,” he said.

“It is a winnable game. I respect Selby, the manager, the players but we won’t fear them. 

“We will go there and take the game to Selby. We’ll be disappointed if we don’t come away with maximum points.

“I feel we’re in a strong position because we have some key players back from injury.

“We’re settling down and we’re finding some rhythm and I’m looking forward to the game.”

Captain Dan Thirkell will likely lead Railway out for fourth time since the trumpets were out to welcome his return from Knaresborough Town.

The signing of Thirkell was meant to act as a bat signal to other top local players but so far further additions have not been forthcoming. However, O’Connell admits the lockdown and the danger of another has put recruitment on hold.

He said: “I have had positive conversations with two players but how do you convince someone to leave a club when you are in the middle of a lockdown?

“It doesn’t feel right so I’ve put new signings sort of to the back burner at the minute because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world.”

If you have enjoyed reading Non League Yorkshire over the past few months, 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. When we properly return to ‘action’, 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.

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.

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