OPINION: To play, or not to play, that is the question
DerbyshireFootball.com editor Mark Duffy on the dilemma faced by Northern Premier League clubs over the coming weeks:
On Wednesday, the Northern Premier League decided to give its member clubs the choice of whether or not they wanted to return to action this weekend.
This was despite the news which quickly followed that the other 'Trident Leagues', namely the Southern Premier League and Isthmian Premier League, had both opted to wait until January 9 at the earliest before expecting their own clubs to play again.
What followed with regard to NPL clubs was, in some cases, outright refusal to even consider playing on Saturday, while others got their heads together to decide whether it was a viable option despite many players not having played or trained for the best part of a month, exceptions there being the likes of Mickleover and Matlock Town who have had FA Trophy ties and behind-closed-doors games in recent weeks which have helped them be more prepared in a playing sense.
The league cited the fact that a 'high number' of clubs wanted to play. The vast majority, however, deemed it impossible at such short notice to be able to make the necessary arrangements both on and off the pitch that would have enabled safety for either their players when it comes to them being anything like match fit and supporters who would be attending, as well as gathering the relevant staff together to run things behind the scenes when many would have been fully expecting there to be no game.
Firstly, anxieties and perhaps desperation are no doubt creeping in once again given the lack of recent games and the finance they bring, so any opportunity to play - on the face of it - would unsurprisingly be too good for some clubs to turn down if it came about.
However, there is of course a much bigger picture here.
The vast majority of the country is currently placed in tier three of the government restrictions, emphasising the fact that COVID-19 remains rife in our communities and despite small outdoor meetings being allowed within reason, the gathering of what would be a limit of around 2-300 people in one football ground would probably be a recipe for concern.
Enforcing socially distanced groups (allowing for 'bubbles' of course) of no more than six people in an environment with a relatively restricted space, in which people are constantly moving around in often tight spaces, is nigh on impossible at the best of times.
Add to that the continued risk to players (and therefore their nearest and dearest too) given the nature of the contact they have with each other and opponents, and it makes little sense that those not in professional bubbles are being given the option to mingle in such a way when the current heavy restrictions are in place, and particularly given how close we are to Christmas.
This is of course happening already in the 'elite' levels above at the semi-professional clubs like Alfreton but without the added issue of crowds being allowed to attend, as well as in competitions such as the FA Trophy and FA Vase which have perhaps controversially been allowed to continue, and at the lower levels of the pyramid where larger numbers of spectators are less of an issue even if the concerns over mingling of players remain.
The NPL has, in my opinion, rightly come under fire from several of its member clubs, not only for breaking ranks with its fellow Trident leagues but also for the fact, regardless of the choice they have to make this weekend, there is currently a mandate in place for all clubs to play their fixtures on Boxing Day and New Year's Day - in many cases those games being local derby encounters that usually attract above average attendances.
The position the league has left its clubs in is one where they are, in a sense, damned if they do play and damned if they don't, such are the financial and health implications of either scenario, although perhaps the league committee could feel the same given they'll feel that they are at least allowing the luxury of choice - or at least they are for this weekend.
Clubs who have put their players on the furlough scheme, in particular, will lose out from having to pay their staff accordingly but without the benefit of as much match income as they might normally have had, with clubhouses and club shops also unable to open and generate the streams of cash they usually do.
Clubs, I'm sure, would rather play those aforementioned local derbies when they are allowed to admit more fans to watch them, perhaps in the extended part of the season in April or May when restrictions will hopefully have been eased somewhat, the weather is better and when more supporters would be protected against the virus if they've chosen to have vaccinations.
It all leaves many question marks hanging over the heads of those in charge and those they guide. The league has a duty of care with regard to its member clubs who in turn have a duty of care towards their staff and supporters. In these tough times, doing the 'right thing' is often a subjective matter even if, one would assume, most would surely err on the side of caution in the face of a pandemic which is still claiming lives in large numbers.
Collectively, we're all 'in this together' and you could perhaps argue there is no right or wrong answer to all of this when it comes to the relatively trivial matter of whether to play football matches, but common sense has to be allowed to prevail, its failure to do so surely threatening to delay the return to normality we all crave.