Yesterday evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the November lockdown.
The good news is for Wealdstone FC and the other 22 National League Clubs (not forgetting National North and South) is that as we are considered ‘elite’ sport, we will carry on playing. So that’s good news. Isn’t it? Actually I don’t think so and find myself asking myself “what exactly is the point of this season right now?”
Winning the National South title would be a momentous milestone for any Club. For Wealdstone FC it was the culmination of 32 years of work, determination and sheer bloodymindedness from so many to get back to where we wanted to be – the top level of the non league pyramid.
Unfortunately, though entirely understandably, Covid meant our amazing championship season under Dean Brennan was stopped abruptly. The trophy was awarded behind closed doors and the celebrations were denied us. But at least a new season, due to start in October, when the Covid situation would allow fans in meant we could start dreaming of trips to places like Notts County, Wrexham, Chesterfield, Stockport County and of course, finally, the trip to play local rivals Barnet at the Hive – a trip which I suspect means a lot more to our fans than it probably does to theirs.
But then Covid happened…again. No fans allowed. Clubs playing behind closed doors, Two games a week to catch up. Streaming services were hastily introduced and the season kicked off. And for us, it’s been a great start with three successive wins taking us to the heady heights of 6th (we’re currently 8th having not played yesterday).
So this should be the most exciting time to part of Wealdstone FC, shouldn’t it? I can’t help but think the opposite right now.
The government have provided funding to the National League to keep several clubs afloat. For us at Wealdstone, with a desire to succeed (or at least stabilise) at this level, costs are higher than at any time in living memory if you include all the ground works we’ve had to complete (remember to play in front of no spectators currently). For most clubs income is almost non-existent. Nothing through the gate other than from the generosity of fans who have bought season tickets even if they may not see any football (and donated an amazing £50,000 through the. Stone Share promotion scheme in the run up to the season); hardly any bar revenue (you can’t even open your bar on days when you have a home match); and no doubt sponsorship and commercial revenues will be even more difficult than usual as businesses are unlikely to be prioritising sponsoring non league football at a time when they might be struggling to pay their own employees.
Football, particularly at our level, is an entertainment, not really a business. Sure we need to run the Club as sensibly as possible – whether to reinvest or to stay afloat – but ours is not to achieve profits to pay shareholders. But what is the nature of this entertainment? It is being there, the atmosphere, the anticipation, the emotion, the heartbreak. It isn’t really watching on a tablet or phone or whatever with the Flashscore notification coming up seconds before you see the goal go in (I swear I’ve turned off the notifications but that doesn’t stop it)!
Wealdstone’s six league matches so far this season, possibly with the exception of the turgid 0-1 loss at Dagenham & Redbridge, have been the definition of entertainment with 28 goals in the other 5 matches. Yet despite that I for one (and I know I’m not alone) am finding it hard to muster that much enthusiasm in the lead up to a match, given the prospect of watching it alone on my sofa or at my dining table.
When I stepped down as Chairman of our great club (4 years now amazingly) perhaps not surprisingly I found myself missing more matches than I had in many years as I allowed myself to indulge other interests, particularly horse racing. But I realised more than ever that supporting a club like Wealdstone week in week out, was as much as spending time with friends I’ve known for over 30-35 years as it was to actually go to the matches. So I started going again, more regularly particularly to away matches which was always the ‘real’ Wealdstone experience. Saturdays was not just about anticipating 3.00 but the whole day; the early meet, the weird pubs, the nonsense spoken, the same hackneyed jokes we’ve been telling each other for years that really aren’t funny to anyone else and then, and only then, the match. Now those things have been taken away from us. A What’s App group or weekly zoom call is good but isn’t nearly the same.
And then there’s the health situation. We will all have our own opinions about Covid, whether the dangers of this disease or the ways that the government or football authorities have acted.
We’re now seeing a number of Clubs postponing matches because of Covid outbreaks in their respective squads. Yesterday four matches were called off in the National League, including ours as our opponents FC Halifax Town were affected. Notts County had to forfeit their FA Cup tie due to the virus. Given the surge in infections this situation will surely be around for weeks and will most likely get worse.
Clubs at this level can’t exist in a ‘bio-diverse’ bubble like the England cricket team did earlier this summer. I wonder how many players need to get Covid? How many are already passing it on:? While we believe that young, fit sportsmen will typically shake off the virus after a few days, what happens if someone gets really ill, or god forbid dies as a result. Is football worth this risk?
I’m left wondering who is benefiting from the season continuing right now? Maybe the players, though they are risking their health. But otherwise I’m struggling to see it. Clubs can’t afford it and will require even greater bail outs in the future, and most of all there is very little for supporters to get excited about.
I can see why the Premier League (and maybe the Championship) should continue, or the national cricket or rugby teams, or horse racing etc at the highest level. They reach many millions more people than the National League (or Leagues One and Two for that matter).
I’d vote for stopping the season now. Furlough the staff if necessary, protect people and protect the Clubs and focus on getting us all to a situation where we can conquer this virus and get back to enjoying the experience of football, not just the streaming of it.
I don’t know if I’m a lone voice here. I’d be interested to hear what others think. Let me know.