Frustrated clubs in the West Country have hit out at the FA for refusing to grant leagues an extension to the season, to cope with an increasing fixture backlog brought on by the weather, writes Andrew Clayton.
Both the Western League and the South West Peninsula League revealed this week that appeals to football’s governing body for some leeway were refused, and the FA insisted that it expected all step 5 and 6 seasons to be wrapped up by April 25.
A succession of storms and bad weather has caused chaos for the sport all over the country, decimating weekly fixture schedules and pushing dozens of games toward the final weeks of the season.
While leagues have tried to help ease the burden on clubs, with the Peninsula League announcing that it would extend the transfer deadline to help teams bring in extra players, the reality remains that many sides will be playing up to three and potentially four matches a week from here on in.
An official statement from the Western League highlighted the organisers’ frustration, reading: “Asking part-time players to play three or four times a week for the next two months is less than ideal, but this also has an impact on the integrity of the league competition, as the top five teams in the Premier Division are all facing the prospect of playing three matches a week.
“The Western League have appealed to the FA to reconsider their decision. However, with the FA’s Leagues Committee due to agree the draft step 5-6 club allocations for next season on May 12, even a modest increase to the end of the season is considered unlikely.”
For clubs, however, that frustration is even greater.
Despite being top of the Western League Premier Division, Plymouth Parkway have played the joint-lowest number of games in the division.
Manager Lee Hobbs told The Independent: “It will be long hard slog as we have 18 games in 41 days which means we will drop points along the way by all sorts of teams.
“The demand that will be put on me, my staff and the players is colossal. Why the FA can’t agree to an extension, when safeguarding and duty of care plays a part, I’ll never know.
“How can you ask a man who leaves his door at 6.00 am, gets in at 6.00 pm, then travels to football and doesn’t get to bed until 2.00 am, to be away from home for 18 hours? He then has a normal day, before repeating the whole football process again, that is not acceptable.
“What difference does it make to not extend the league for a couple of weeks? I don’t think it makes a difference to anyone really. So, my stance is that the FA have made a mockery of themselves and all involved with football at a lower level.”
For Bovey Tracey, who play in Peninsula East, the situation is even more dire. At 19, the Devon side have the most league matches left to play of any team at step 6 in the country, but two cup runs mean they could well be made to play a staggering 24 matches in eight weeks.
Their home ground, Mill Marsh Park, suffers extensively from waterlogging and attempts to groundshare or book local 3G pitches have proven fruitless.
“It’s really soul-destroying at the minute,” manager Mark Blake told The Independent. “It’s an absolute joke. The people making these decisions are clearly not football people.
“I was appointed to the Bovey job the week before Christmas, and in that time we’ve played six games.
“Someone in their ivory tower needs to realise that there has been extreme weather and just delay it by a couple of weeks, but they’re just not listening. If they chucked a fourth game a week at me, I’d refuse to play it and we may get penalised for not fulfilling a fixture.”
He put forward the kind of solutions suggested by many managers as of late, adding: “I think you need to load up the start of the season and get two games a week, every week, for the opening eight to 10 weeks of the season.
“If we could start it even a week earlier, you could get another two games in there. I know everything has got to fall in line with the top levels, because we’ve all got to sing of the same hymn sheet.
“If the FA are insistent on this being done by the end of April every year, why don’t they dish out some funding? Or build a 3G pitch that can be shared between several teams and when there’s a bleak winter, you can play there to keep the games being ticked off?”
Bodmin Town manager Darren Gilbert shared Blake’s feelings and accused the FA of showing a lack of consideration for player welfare.
“If the professionals complain about playing twice a week, how do they think the working class man manages? It bemuses me,” he added.
“There’s no one that loves football more than me, but there are limits. How would a manager feel if one of his players went out and breaks his leg or does his ligaments because he’s been playing too much? Players get tired in game and they make late challenges. Something serious has to happen for this to change and it will, but the FA won’t feel responsible for it.
“I’ve been involved in football since I was 13 and this is potentially one of the worst seasons I’ve seen. If the FA asked every manager in this league or the next, they would all say that they would be quite happy to extend the season by a couple of weeks.”