As the middle man between football clubs and the FA, league secretaries have had the unenviable task as of late in trying to combat this season’s fixture backlog, writes Andrew Clayton.
Endless poor weather has caused a chain reaction of postponements across the West Country, while developments surrounding the spread of coronavirus mean the Southern League and the South West Peninsula League have been cancelled for at least the next nine days, and the Western League for a fortnight.
Last week, before developments surrounding the illness, the FA refused to grant an extension to the footballing season from steps 1 to 6. The overload of fixtures has prompted outspoken anger from club officials about the physical and potentially financial impact.
Among those sharing frustration with the situation is Peninsula League secretary Phil Hiscox. Despite best intentions to bring more ties to the front end of the season, the elements have conspired against the league.
Now, with a week struck off and the deadline still set for April 25, Hiscox finds himself in an awkward position should the FA refuse to budge.
“All the best laid plans, sometimes you’ve got to rip them up and start again – I know I am with fixture schedules, it’s an almost weekly occurrence,” he said.
“I have emailed the club secretaries, apologising for having to demand something that I don’t want to demand of them. I don’t get any joy out of it and I appreciate that 99.9 per cent of the clubs have been excellent, in that they know I can do no more with the cards I’m dealt with.”
The facts and figures paint the circumstances in stark clarity. While the Peninsula League has been more proactive than other competitions for staging more games at the start of the season, the scales have tipped the other way.
Hiscox explained: “At the end of October, in the East Division, I was 31 games ahead of schedule and in the West, 41 ahead.
“By the end of February, that has gone from plus 31 to minus 59 and plus 41 to minus 61. We had played 150 by the end of October when 190 is halfway.”
While some clubs have suggested starting the season even earlier, Hiscox explained the practicalities behind his planning.
“You could squeeze in a few more in, but it’s always very difficult,” he added.
“At the start of this season, for example, there were eight clubs without floodlights, so there’s a certain section that every floodlit game had to be played away.
“You also have examples like Godolphin Atlantic and Newquay, for example, who cannot play the first weekend of August because the Boardmasters festival is on.”
For Hiscox, however, the answer perhaps lies in the size of the competition. Before last season’s reshuffle, the South West Peninsula consisted of a Premier Division with 20 teams and a second, lower division for both regions, typically with 18 clubs.
Hiscox suggested: “Long-term, you have to argue whether 20 teams at our level of football is perhaps a couple too many.
“Certainly, if you had 18, that’s four less for everybody. If in the summer, the FA say they can only allocate me 18 teams, I’d rather that than 22.”
Meanwhile, growing fears around the spread of coronavirus have worked their way down the football pyramid. On Friday, the top four tiers of football was postponed until April 3, while the Peninsula League has been recommended by the FA to return on Monday, March 23.
All that secretaries like Hiscox can do, then, is wait. “From a local basis, we’ve got to be aware that if people on the ground have got it, a player has got it and they all need to self-quarantine, it wouldn’t matter what the FA say,” he continued.
“I’m concerned about coronavirus and I think everybody should be. From a footballing point of view, it would be hugely inconvenient and unprecedented, from what we would have to do in terms of final league tables.
“But, equally, from a public health point of view, if that’s what the experts say then who are we to argue?
“I’ve got nothing in the rules, should the FA end the season tomorrow, to decide who is champion and who isn’t. You’d have even more problems at the bottom of the table.”
Despite the confusion, Hiscox is assured that the Peninsula League will, eventually, reach its conclusion this year, adding: “I don’t know how they would sort it out, but with so many games to go I don’t think they will call it.
“With all the invariable appeals that would follow, it would have to be on the FA’s advice and they would have to instruct us and carry the can.”