There would be chaos if non-league football shut down because of the latest Covid-19 wave. The public health situation may yet render it necessary but, having worked through all the problems we encountered earlier in the pandemic, I would worry about the consequences. Have the National League made a plan for what happens if the campaign gets cut short or games move behind closed doors? I saw no evidence of one at the start of this season and can only hope they are putting financial measures in place.
At Hereford, we are still dealing with the fallout. We received a short-term grant of £36,000 a month from the league in October last year, when fans were not allowed in, but it was not enough to cover the overheads of a club our size. The allocation of that money across different clubs was inconsistent and it has hurt us. Our finances have been decimated and it has had devastating ramifications for the budget I work from. We are pushing to make the play-offs but our fans will be disappointed if they expect new signings in January: it is more likely I will have to trim the squad.
Our attendances are about half what they should normally be. Around 1,400 came to our last home game and that is largely down to the pandemic. The demographic of our fanbase is older than many, and people are rightly concerned about crowding together and catching Covid. We are no longer allowed to stream our games so do not have that means of making up the revenue, or allowing those who cannot attend to stay close to the action.
There would be consequences for the players, too. We have guys who have never worked outside a professional football environment in their life; last time around they took pay cuts and had to get different jobs, such as becoming Amazon drivers. The pandemic has given some footballers a wake-up call in that sense, reminding them to think of what careers they might pursue after the game, but it is hardly an ideal time to learn that lesson.
Until recently there had not been too much talk about a shutdown, or circuit breaker, among my friends in football but it is starting to creep in now. It feels as if a short pause may be what happens, so that everyone can get themselves in order while the worst of this Omicron wave passes, and if that is the case I hope the clubs are supported properly.
In the meantime we are doing everything we can to keep our season on the road. It can be hard to keep up with the rules: when we played at Boston in October, one of our players tested positive and had travelled there with four others, but we were told to carry on and play. Now the stipulation at our level is that a game will be postponed if three of the squad record positive PCR tests.
Other clubs in our divisions have had problems with cases recently and we will be prepared if it hits us. We have registered our youth team players for National League North action in case we record a number of positive lateral flows before a game and are required to fulfil it; a number of them train with us regularly and they would have to step up.
I have sat down with our players and reminded them not to come in for training if they have any symptoms or feel remotely ill. Two of them didn’t attend on Thursday because they felt unwell, although it turned out they did not have Covid. We understand the need to be vigilant and extra cautious. I have reminded them not to mix too much outside of football, but there is only so much control you can expect to exert on people’s lives so you trust them to do the right thing.
The same goes for vaccinations. The league sent round an advisory that everyone should be vaccinated and asked the players to say what their status was. Again, I don’t believe in holding a gun to their heads and expect them to take responsibility for themselves.
Last season we were fortunate that we could keep playing and, in our case, enjoy an FA Trophy run to Wembley even after the league was declared null and void in February. We took our privileged position seriously: there are people in far more important jobs than ours but we were able to try to offer entertainment for the hundreds of thousands who love this league during a difficult time.
That would be the case in a repeat scenario but there is a pressing need to ensure provisions are made for something worse. If football cannot continue for any length of time, thousands of players will risk going without work and being unable to pay mortgages or household bills. The authorities have a duty of care to ensure there is a plan that can swiftly be implemented.
We had our own pause for breath this weekend, not brought about by Covid, because our next game is not until Boxing Day. Over the festive period we will play Kidderminster twice and host Gloucester: big occasions in our league. We hope we can fulfil them and that, in football and wider life, this situation passes quickly and people stay healthy. Nobody wants a return to the turmoil of last year.