Comment: While grassroots prepare to return, why Hawks are right to turn their backs on a potential 2020/21 restart
A few weeks ago, and not including Pompey, Havant & Waterlooville were the only football team in The News’ circulation area still playing; it is now quite likely that, in a few weeks time, they will be the only one NOT kicking a ball. Some turnaround, to say the least.
While grassroots footballers are preparing for a return to action following the Government’s lifting of some lockdown measures on March 29 - either via league fixtures resuming or cup competitions being hastily arranged - the Hawks squad won’t play again until the summer.
A few weeks ago, the semi-professionals in the sixth tier of English football - the National League South and North divisions - were playing on while grounds at Gosport Borough, Moneyfields, AFC Portchester and Fareham remained silent, as they had done for months.
The parks pitches - King George V, Farlington, Bransbury Park - only welcomed dog walkers and the occasional kickaround as Hawks played on.
There was no action at the Hampshire FA facility at Front Lawn but, less than a mile away at Westleigh Park, competitive football was taking place - a small slice of normality in these crazy times we are existing (not living) in.
The roles will be reversed very soon. The council pitches will welcome back the ‘non-elite’ - those who play the sport for fun – while those good enough to get paid for playing, the ‘elite’, sit at home no doubt wondering how it has come to this.
It will be a long, long five months - the first few weeks of August at the earliest - before Hawks next play a National League South game.
By the time the curtain is raised on the news season, they will have played just 14 league games (and one play-off semi-final) in 16 and a half months. Having lost the last eight matches of 2019/20 once the pandemic had put society into a stranglehold, the club’s 2020/21 campaign was last month declared null and void.
That followed a vote by all National League clubs in the wake of a funding crisis caused by the Government declaring any future financial aid would be in the form of loans rather than grants.
With games still being played behind closed doors, it left clubs with the unpalatable prospect of paying wage bills with no income coming in apart from a small amount from streaming the matches.
While some clubs - Hawks among them - voted to carry on and complete a pandemic-scarred campaign, the majority of sixth tier clubs chose to null and void the campaign.
So a line was drawn under the 2020/21 National League South and North seasons. Having covered the majority of Hawks’ home games for The News, taking my seat in a near-deserted stadium, I can safely say this: It wasn’t much fun.
Without supporters in attendance, without the heart and soul of Pele’s beautiful game in the terraces and in the stands, games were stripped stark naked of the passion and atmosphere that fans bring. What was left was competitive – five red cards in the last Hawks’ game, for example – but ultimately sterile.
In the end, I (sadly) got used to walking into a near empty Westleigh Park. I got used to it, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.
No, I won’t look back fondly on the 2020/21 National League South season - good riddance to it.
Except that, incredibly, it might not be over. Not yet.
Some clubs remain keen - desperate, even - to carry on to a finish, so long as promotion and relegation with the National League can be maintained.
Unsurprisingly, Dorking and Gloucester City - who were leading the South and North tiers - are among those most in favour of continuing.
Talks are now advanced regarding a possible amalgamation of the teams from both sections into one division.
The Alliance Committee are due to meet next Monday to discuss the proposal, which would require FA backing.
Personally, I’d be staggered if an amalgamated division did restart with the end result of promotion. And even if it does, Hawks won’t be part of it.
The club issued a statement today, saying: ‘Having considered this option at great length, we have decided not to put ourselves forward to participate.
‘It’s our belief that any new competition would take time to be agreed upon and arranged and this coupled with the fact that players are currently furloughed and out of training would make it difficult for the club to field a competitive side.
There would also be the added costs of travelling to play Northern clubs at a time when the club has seen a considerable reduction in revenue.’
It was exactly the right decision, and the only surprise was that officials debated whether to take part at ‘great length’. If I was Paul Doswell or Stuart Munro, it would have taken me less than a minute to make up my mind.
They might not say it publicly, but privately they must know the current squad would have been unlikely to win promotion this season. When the campaign was declared null and voided, Hawks trailed Dorking by 19 points. Though they had four games in hand, Dorking were on a winning streak and Hawks had lost four league matches on the bounce. That will have dominated their thoughts more than the expense of a 560-mile round trip to Fylde or a 514-mile round-trip to Chorley,
CEO Munro told The News earlier this week that the club plan to bring in ‘quite a few’ new faces prior to 2021/22.
That tells you what you need to know. I wouldn’t be surprised - indeed, I expect it - if Doswell is planning another summer of big change.
He signed the best part of a whole new squad in his first pre-season, 2019, and last summer brought in Moussa Diarra, Godfrey Poku, Tommy Wright, Joe Iaciofano, Billy Clifford, Theo Widdrington, Daniel Ajakaiye, George McLennan, Christian Rowe and Lukas Sinclair.
Two of those - Diarra and Sinclair - have since left and it will be intriguing to see Doswell’s latest squad rebuild as he enters the final season of his three-year contract.
The focus at Westleigh Park has to be on next season, even if at present it looks, feels, so far, far away. Basically, Hawks would be wasting their money if they took part in an amalgamated league, even if that does amazingly get the green light from the governing body.
Better to save their cash and put it towards building a squad for a concerted promotion push in 2021/22.
In football, clubs - when offered a vote - will always base their decisions on self-interest. There isn’t a huge amount of altruism in the game, and you could argue why should there be. In that, it only reflects the rest of society.
Last year, Hawks were desperately keen for the play-offs to take place, enlisting the help of local MP Alan Mak to ensure Government were fully on board. They were keen for a reason - their only hope of promotion was via the play-offs.
Fast forward to today and they don’t want to play on, even if offered the chance. No doubt some non-league observers will heap criticism on them for that, but the circumstances are completely different.
Last year, Hawks’ directors would have had to find money to cover the three weeks the play-offs were taking place, but with promotion the prize at the end of the yellow brick road; this year, you’re talking about paying wages for three months - with no real likelihood of promotion.
I cannot believe a single Hawks fan will complain about the club deciding not to take part in any amalgamated league.
In a way, it all goes against what we’ve ever known: Football clubs want to play football matches, and football fans want to watch football games.
But, I repeat, Hawks have made the correct decision for themselves. Let Dorking and Gloucester carry the fight on. I have nothing against those clubs that want to play, but I cannot believe, not for one second, that they will be handed a promotion opportunity in the weeks, months, to come.
They are fighting a fruitless battle. The FA will simply not give them what they want, and there’s no way the National League clubs will vote for it.
How can you relegate, say, Barnet who have completed all their fixtures and promote, say, Dorking in their place who have played only a percentage of their South fixtures and also a few against clubs like Chorley and Fylde?
‘Integrity’ is a word tossed around like confetti by National League clubs in recent months, but where’s the integrity in the scenario I’ve just outlined?
So join me in saying ‘good riddance’ to 2020/21, and in wishing for brighter days in 2021/22.
Let us wish that football grounds - from Liverpool’s Anfield to Baffins Milton Rovers’ PMC Stadiums - are able to let in as many fans as they want.
Let us wish for normality again. Remember that? It felt good, didn’t it.
It felt better than we ever realised ...