COVID-19: WHAT NOW FOR NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALL?

English football will be suspended until at least 30 April because of the continued spread of coronavirus.

The Football Association has also agreed that the current season can be “extended indefinitely”. For clubs in the Premier League, this doesn’t pose too much of a problem. The sums of money earned through sponsorships and broadcasting deals, dwarf that of the money made on a matchday.

But towards the bottom of the English footballing pyramid, the contrast couldn’t be harsher. Matchday income is the heartbeat of any non-league club. For most, it is essential to survive. That’s why these unprecedented times could be devastating for teams throughout non-league. We are stepping into the unknown…

2020 has been a tough year thus far. At Woking Football Club, the awful weather has meant our training ground at Kingston University has been flooded for months. To counteract the weather, we’ve had to find 3G pitches amongst the community and train however we can. To compound matters further, there’s numerous players in our squad who have previous injuries and have been advised by surgeons and physiotherapists to not play on the plastic surface. Not ideal to say the least. Despite these challenges, the coaching and playing staff have responded well to our shaky Christmas period and have collected a healthy number of points leaving us 3 points off the playoff spots heading into the closing fixtures. But with the intervention of COVID-19 and the suspension of all football in England, will the remaining fixtures ever be played?

It’s impossible to say right now. With so many unknowns and nature of the virus unpredictable, I think it’s a waste of time to discuss these matters. But what we can do is call upon the FA to help clubs navigate the treacherous waters they find themselves in. One hopes that the pools of money the FA and the Premier League have accumulated over these past decades, can fall through the system to save and sustain the smaller clubs. But why does this strike me as possibly naïve and over ambitious?

The player’s view:

Like the rest of the working population, part-time players who are self-employed are going to find it really tough over the next few months. Personally, the coaching work I do in schools has dried up now since Boris Johnson called for them to be closed. The FA has advised all youth football to be suspended too. This has halted the coaching I’ve been doing with the Woking youth team (something which I’ve really enjoyed).

The coaching staff at Woking have given the players some football specific training which we can do on our own. No doubt this is proactive, but there’s no way we can replicate the intensity of our group training sessions, let alone match sharpness we gather on weekends. However, it is important us players keep fit none the less.

In response, I’m seeking to coach 1-2-1 football sessions for players/children who also want to stay sharp over this ‘early off season’. Details for these are on my social media accounts.

Non-league is so special to many because it’s unique. The sense of community at the clubs is unparalleled and it’s this community spirit which we must harness in these unnerving months ahead. I know our manager Alan Dowson has voiced this opinion online and I concur with everything he said. It’s important that everyone becomes closer together when facing this adversity (even if some of us remain in isolation). Be sure to follow government guidelines and stay safe. 

But to the big football chiefs who run our game, I plead. Make sure the clubs who need this money the most receive it first before… it’s too late.

COACHING DEBATE: SHOULD WE BAN OUR CHILDREN FROM HEADING FOOTBALLS?

Last week, it was revealed that the Scottish Football Association are set to ban heading footballs in training for children under the age of 12. This comes as a result of a study by the University of Glasgow which found that former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia or other neurological diseases. Are these the suitable measures to take and should the English FA follow suit or are the SFA being over cautious?

For the past four years, I’ve coached football for children from the ages of 5-16 in Surrey. Specific sessions based around heading has always been something the company I work for have avoided. Any sort of head trauma, big or small for a child is dangerous, so, designing football sessions which would increase the odds of these sorts of permutations would be ridiculous. Parents would know however, that any sort of heading is quite rare in youth football. When the ball is in the air, players normally avoid heading it and let the ball bounce instead. On the odd occasion when a young player does head the ball, I have found myself celebrating it and congratulating the child audibly. Is this the right thing to be doing if there’s research out there suggesting it could be potentially harmful?

Unfortunately, the findings from the University of Glasgow could not attribute the increased chances of dementia to heading footballs specifically. Repeated concussions and old fashioned, heavy leather balls could have also been factors. Balls have certainly become lighter nowadays, so you would assume the risks are less, but why let there be a risk at all?

I’ve not scored too many headers in my career

I think coaching for Under 12s should be technique orientated with the ball on the floor. The most improvement and learning can be made in these early years, in my opinion. All my sessions at this age, focus on technique, ball skills, passing, shooting, left foot, right foot. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. If you make the sessions enjoyable the kids love it and improve rapidly.

But how do you stop children from heading the ball in the back garden or in the park with their friends? For example, if their idol Cristiano Ronaldo scores a fantastic header (which we know he’s more than capable of) and they wish to emulate him in the garden, how do you police it? Shade has now been cast on what was originally an innocent thing.

Cristiano Ronaldo with a trademark header

I’ve played with many players (normally centre backs) who’s whole game is based around being a leader in defence with physicality and winning you individual duels. Winning your headers is a huge part of that. I’m sure we all can think of players who spring to mind with these attributes. Would we see a decrease in these types of players and the overall standard of heading if a heading ban was introduced? Would players like Peter Crouch (the all-time Premier League record holder for headed goals), Andy Carroll and Tim Cahill become a rarity? 

It will be interesting to see whether the English FA will follow suit. If they did, it would be a huge change in the youth game as we know it. As a coach, a ban wouldn’t affect my sessions too much. But I’m not a parent. How would this ban on heading 12 affect you or your coaching?