With no games since March and little clarity on when the new season might start, many part-time footballers below National League level are finding life tough
9 July ~ This was meant to be a breakthrough season for Danny Bassett. With 20 goals and 22 assists at the last count, he was top scorer for Tooting & Mitcham United of the Isthmian League South Central Division. With clubs as high as League Two monitoring his progress, he was ready to consider going professional this summer. “Doing well this season pushed me to believe in myself more and there were a few clubs from higher leagues who wanted to speak to me,” he says. “Now, it’s literally all stopped. It feels like I’ve done all that hard work for nothing.”
Tooting’s season effectively came to an end in mid-March, when the Isthmian League was suspended and then cancelled altogether, along with every other division below National League level, in response to the coronavirus outbreak. While the 24-year-old Bassett has seen the game come to a standstill at a particularly crucial juncture in his career, he is not the only one who has been left in limbo. With non-League footballers often on short-term deals and clubs unsure when games will resume – let alone when fans will be allowed through the turnstiles – hundreds of players could end up without a club this summer and with few guarantees about their future. “We don’t know when we’re going back, we know nothing,” says Bassett. “For a lot of us that’s our income and our work, plus we can’t even work our normal jobs so we’re basically not getting paid. It’s a really hard time, especially when you’ve put in so much hard work individually and as a team. It’s hard to think: ‘I can go again.’”
Though most non-League players have day jobs and aren’t reliant on football as their main source of income, that changes depending on personal circumstances. Inevitably, there are some who need the money more than others and, as those least likely to have established careers outside of football, young players have been among the hardest hit.
What’s more, with many still harbouring ambitions to turn pro, non-League youngsters are having to come to terms with intense anxiety as they wait for news of when they might play again. “Some of the boys, they might only have part-time jobs so the money they get from football is quite important and they still aspire to be professionals,” says James Shaw, Tooting goalkeeper and Bassett’s team-mate at Imperial Fields. Another team-mate, Hady Ghandour, was in the midst of an extended trial with Charlton when football came to a halt. Countless young players will be hoping that similar opportunities do not pass them by as they wait for non-League to return.
Then there is the fact that non-League football is a much-needed escape for a generation of players who have come of age at a time of boarded-up youth clubs, slashed services, intermittent economic crisis and limited opportunities elsewhere. “My friends who are between, say, 18 and 22, they’re struggling,” says Bassett. “When they go and play football it takes their stresses away. Anything that’s going on back home they forget about and it’s their place away from everything, where they can focus on something for 90 minutes. Some people don’t realise that footballers can feel depressed in times like this. There’s nothing you can do to get away from how you feel at the moment. Sometimes you just need a break and no one is getting that.”
Having played in non-League for the last decade, Enfield Town midfielder Sam Youngs agrees that young players could be disproportionately affected. “If there are young guys who have ambitions to go into the full-time game, this isn’t good for them, especially if they’re playing well, they’re on form and everything,” he says. “There are all these young lads coming through, coming to the end of their contracts and there are going to be such limited opportunities. It’s really tough for them and I think, mentally, it could be a real problem.”
Then there are the things that affect everyone equally: the structure and routine of the weekly training schedule, the low hum of excitement on matchday and the intense camaraderie of lower-league football have all been snatched away. Unlike those at the top of the league pyramid, non-League footballers have no idea when they will be back out on the pitch. “Even just seeing the boys three times a week, having a chat, that’s a big thing we’re all missing,” says Youngs. “I think, when it first happened, you sort of deal with it and think: ‘OK, there are actually people dying here, there’s more to life than just football.’ But as we’re getting further into it, you start to think: ‘I’m ready to get going again.’”
On top of all that, many players fear for the non-League game itself. Where the economy of the Premier League dictates that football must go on to keep the television money flowing, non-League clubs are almost entirely dependent on matchday revenue and, as such, games behind closed doors could be financially ruinous. “Obviously what you do worry about is the existence of football clubs, because they’re talking about no crowds being allowed in and so on,” says Billericay Town goalkeeper Alan Julian, a non-League veteran at 37. “You think: ‘If certain clubs don’t get supporters through the turnstiles, how are they going to survive?’”
But, while non-League players find themselves staring into the unknown, there is still hope. “As long as you’ve got something to rebuild once the virus is cleared up, then I think you can rebuild,” says Julian. “The important thing is that the foundations aren’t completely gone. I believe, in my heart, that non-League football will survive.” Will Magee
Photo by Keith Gillard