Lockdown life - Counting down the days to when grassroots football can kick off again

The latest in our sport in lockdown series focuses on non-league football. Stuart Rayner gets the views of a striker, manager and club chairman on how the pandemic has hit the game they love.

For Danny Earl, football is “not just a hobby but a way of life”. It has been on hold since Christmas. The aircraft engineer plays for Bridlington Town for love, not money – he is not under contract. Covid-19 has taken it away from non-league footballers like him for much of two wasted seasons.

The last two campaigns have been voided below Conference North/South level (the sixth-tier divisions were abandoned too in 2020-21) and even attempts by 12 Yorkshire clubs to play a post-season Yorkshire Trophy due to start next week have been put on hold for a month because the Government thinks standing socially-distanced in a football ground is more dangerous than sitting in a beer garden.

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For the clubs it means vital revenue lost, for others records – Earl’s 10 goals for Pickering Town last season and 11 for Bridlington this officially never happened – as well as chances of silverware and promotions. For Earl, it just means taking away something he really looked forward to.

Danny Earl: Missing the action.

“You start thinking, ‘What do I do with my Saturday?’” says the 26-year-old, whose team were second in the North Counties East Premier Division when the music stopped. “I see non-league football or even grassroots football as not just a hobby but a way of life for a lot of people – not even just the footballers, the volunteers as well.

“I haven’t dealt with mental health issues but you can see how it might affect people. Saturday non-league is a part of their routine. I’ve started getting into the garden to do keepy-upys.

“Some players in the higher steps have a job which just ticks them over and a lot of their income comes from football so that’s their way of living.”

Gav Connor is joint manager of North West Counties League Division One North Golcar United with his brother Ash.

Ash and Gav Connor: Matches chalked off.

“It becomes a part of our lives,” he says. “We probably talk two or three times a day about how we can improve things. Everything just sorts of drops into place for a game on a Saturday.”

What has most frustrated Earl is not knowing where he stands.

“I played Navy and UK Armed Forces football and the military just stopped all sport but the FA seem to be picking and choosing with non-league,” he says. “It should have been one or the other (play a full season or none).

“We started the season thinking this would be over by Christmas. We got a limited amount of fans in, then they upped it from 150 to 300 and you started to think we were getting back to normality but at the end of the year it just crashed again. We came back for a Boxing Day game, then it was cancelled. It was stop-start – you can train, you can’t – a bit mental, really.

Waiting to return: Golcar United supporters.

“Now the season’s been curtailed you wonder if this was worth the effort. I think we’ve been forgotten about.”

When I spoke to the Connor brothers, they were still waiting to hear if the season would continue and looking forward to a significant milestone. In their boredom, they totted up how many games they had been in charge and realised it was 198. Ash revealed the 46 games managed in the last two seasons have been wiped out, taking their official total down to 152.

Unusually for a centre-forward, Earl is unconcerned by numbers.

“I know and I hope other non-league players know I’ve scored those goals if it’s on record or not,” he says. “Maybe it’s more relevant for players trying to get back into the pro game.”

For Golcar, who brought the Connors together as joint managers in 2014-15 when Ash was still their goalkeeper, it has stunted their progress, winning West Riding Amateur League and Huddersfield FA Challenge Cup doubles in 2017-18 and 2018-19, turning semi-professional, joining the North West Counties League when theirs folded, building a proper clubhouse and small stand, installing floodlights and levelling the Longfield Rec pitch.

Chairman James Howard felt Northern Premier League Division One North West side Brighouse Town were heading in the right direction, too.

“I’ve got several businesses that have also suffered during the pandemic so it’s been a challenging 12 months in terms of making sure the club not only remains well but has a future,” says the owner of Yorkshire Payments. “It’s very hard unless I’m prepared to put in £15,000, £20,000 a month and it’s just not a financially viable option.

“The big thing we felt very much on top of prior to Covid was our PR, marketing and comms. We’re a very forward-thinking club and we feel we have a stronger connection with fans than maybe some more senior clubs in the wider area.”

The question now is how non-league recovers whenever normality resumes.

“I can see it going one of two ways – either people coming back and being stronger, fitter and ready to go and a lot more people attending, or people might not start coming, and some players are going to have injuries in pre-season because we’re not trained professional athletes.

“I’ve been telling my partner I am going back to football and you can see older lads with wives and kids wondering if it’s worth all the arguments. Some might ask whether they’ve still got the legs and younger players who are released from academies and filter down into non-league at 19 have missed two years.”

Howard and Earl share a similar hope.

“Next season people might have missed football that much, they can’t get into a pro game so they come to non-league,” says the latter. “Some people think non-league is like pub football but it’s a very good standard.”

Howard says: “At the beginning of the season, we had fans turn up from Leeds United, Halifax Town, Bradford City, Huddersfield Town who couldn’t watch their first club.”

Earl speaks for many when he says: “I hope a lot of non-league players are now not going to take it for granted. Football is a big part of my calendar. I can’t wait to get out there again.”

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