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?

IS THE JUMP FROM NON-LEAGUE PART-TIMER TO PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALLER BECOMING MORE COMMON?

For millions of children across the globe, playing professional football in the English Premier League remains the ultimate goal. With money pouring into the English game and at an exponential rate, the elite clubs now possess scouting networks which can discover any young talent, from every corner of the earth. In fact, clubs like Chelsea have since ran into trouble by using this method of player recruitment so much.

 In 2017, the Premier League had the highest percentage of foreign players of any European League which was an obvious worry for the England manager Gareth Southgate.

So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the old fashion, ‘rag to riches’ route of non-league part timer to Premier League football star is a thing of the past. But you’d be wrong.

Of course, Jamie Vardy’s remarkable rise from Stockbridge Park Steels to Leicester City and England is the most documented example. Vardy had a deadly scoring record in non-league football scoring just under a goal per game for Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town before securing a non-league record transfer to then Championship side Leicester City for £1 million. He since has become an England international and right now it’s hard to argue that he’s the most in-form striker in the Premier League with eleven league goals this campaign.

But Vardy is not alone in climbing the football pyramid from base to summit. Troy Deeney, Charlie Austin and Chris Smalling are just a few who have made the same journey and are now plying their trades in top divisions across Europe.

So, with all this money sloshing around and foreign managers dominating the Premier League hotseats, are these clubs in fact neglecting local, homegrown talent and missing the ‘diamonds in the rough’ lurking down the divisions?

Troy Deeney earns his stripes in non-league football.

I’ve recognised the amount of non-league players transferring to Football League clubs is increasing. I’ve played against many of them. Managers in the Football League now are realising that players from non-league are honest, hungry and experienced in playing men’s football. Three vital attributes that managers want. I’ve never been a big believer of the U23’s leagues which are meant to mould elite young players into becoming professionals. Matches are often slow, lack competitiveness and a hard watch.  Admittedly, they can help the young, potential superstars develop and the teams offer mirror their first team counterparts, but the cold reality is that very few youngsters at these Premier League clubs ever make their debuts.

It’s a stark contrast when looking at the top of the non-league pyramid. The matches are fast and furious. Yes, the style of matches may be less aesthetically pleasing to the football purist, but passion and full commitment are always apparent. 

So, what am I suggesting? It’s a double-edged sword. I think there has never been a better time to be playing non-league football. If you consistently play well and impress, then there is ample chance you’ll get the offer to play higher and turn professional. Some players receive this opportunity but decide to remain part-time rather than become a full-time professional.

It’s understandable because a player can often earn more money for his/her family if they play non-league football and have a regular day job. But I would implore players to take a chance and become the best player you can be. 

On the other hand, if you’re a young professional in the Football League, sitting on the bench for the first team or playing in the 23’s league every week, I would strongly suggest you go on loan to a lower league side. Play adult football, play in front of passionate non-league crowds and fight for the three points every week which means so much to them. 

When at Wycombe Wanderer’s I often sat on the bench as a youngster getting thirty minutes here and the odd start there. I would often make good impacts but overall it was very difficult to play my best football because I was never in a rhythm. I was twenty-four years old when I played my first full season (fifty plus games for Hampton & Richmond). It was the most enjoyable season I had had albeit and a lower level than Wycombe. I learnt a huge amount and played some of my best football. But looking back, I probably left it too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go play week in, week out and enjoy your football!

Being rotated in and out of the starting XI is always tough, I should’ve gone out on loan sooner.