The strains put on non-League players
26 April ~ A combination of postponements and cup commitments means many non-League clubs enter the final few weeks of the campaign with a daunting fixture backlog. Concord Rangers of the Conference South played their third game in four days on Thursday night, while Cockfosters of the Spartan South Midlands League have been playing four to five games a week since the beginning of April. Both scenarios seem trivial, however, when compared to the problems Southern League Redditch United encountered during the late 1990s.
Going into 1997-98, United were scheduled to compete in five trophies: the FA Cup, FA Trophy, Southern League Cup, Birmingham Senior Cup (BSC) and Worcestershire Senior Cup. This may seem excessive but it is standard practice for many senior non-League sides. Despite modest performances in the league, Redditch's cup form was a revelation. An FA Cup third qualifying round appearance was followed with progression to the Southern League Cup and BSC finals. As a consequence, a number of league fixtures had to be rescheduled. By the end of March 1998, the club had 16 games left to play in the final four weeks of the season.
The situation deteriorated following further postponements. On Thursday April 23, with just ten days of the season remaining, United's home game against Corby Town was called off due to a waterlogged pitch. Situated at the bottom of a valley and notorious for poor drainage, the pitch had caused significant problems during the club’s inaugural Alliance Premier League campaign in 1979-80, forcing United, who were founder members, to play fixtures at other venues.
With no likelihood of the season being extended, the Reds were faced with playing nine games in nine days, starting at home against Moor Green on Friday April 24. The game finished 1-1, and was followed on the Saturday with a 2-1 defeat at Wisbech Town. Sunday saw a 1-0 reverse at Brackley Town, before a frustrating 3-3 home draw against bottom of the table Corby Town which saw United throw away a three-goal lead.
The next game, a Tuesday evening BSC final against Halesowen Town, represented the most important match of the sequence. Unfortunately, the run of fixtures started to take its toll. Injuries were mounting up, leaving the remaining players physically and mentally fatigued. Striker Paul Burton, who went on to score seven goals in the nine-game spell, spoke at the time of his exhausting schedule: "I work at a chicken factory 45 miles away in Hereford. The shift starts at 5am each day, before leaving at 1.30pm to go to games. I feel absolutely dead." These sentiments were echoed by joint chief executive Rod Laight, who later described the run as "beyond the normal terms of endurance".
Despite victories against Coventry City and West Brom in the earlier rounds of the BSC, Redditch succumbed to Halesowen Town 3-1. Having lost the earlier Southern League Cup final to Margate, their last chance of silverware was gone. A 2-0 away defeat to Ilkeston Town on the Wednesday had an air of inevitability about it, although back-to-back home wins against Stourbridge (3-1) and Racing Club Warwick (2-0) added a veneer of respectability to proceedings.
By the time Raunds Town came to visit on Saturday May 2, the club were running on vapours. Regular keeper Jim Arnold was sidelined through injury, meaning left-back Kevin Nokes had to play the whole 90 minutes in goal. Redditch lost 1-0, although by now the result was probably inconsequential. At the final whistle, many players were suffering with cramp, with some having to be helped from the pitch. The run of games had also taken its toll on the non-playing staff. "The players virtually lived together for the last few weeks of the season," recalled then manager Phil Mullen. "My wife had a picture of me on the mantelpiece at home to remind her she was married."
Despite finishing the season empty-handed, Redditch United supporters have fond memories of the campaign. Andy Mitchell, who attended all nine games, stated his pride in having "been part of a little bit of history" and paid tribute to the gallows humour that got the supporters through an otherwise testing period.
In recent years, there have been other examples of extreme fixture congestion, notably former Combined Counties side Guernsey's 17 games in the final month of last season. The perennial struggle of part-time clubs to complete their season presents governing bodies with a number of questions. If the Isthmian’s League recent decision to expand their three divisions to 24 clubs is anything to go by, it seems they are continually coming up with the wrong answers. Mike Bayly