The local non-league scene may be in a state of flux but its spirit never wavers
The prospect of being placed into a third lockdown inside ten months has provided a gloomy start to the new year. And recent confirmation that stronger restrictions have been put in place across the country have cast further black clouds across the North East non-league scene.
These are, as has been wellversed, uncertain times for everyone across our vibrant non-league community, and the future looks uncertain.
Many questions remain unanswered, enquiries are being met with a stony silence and there is an understandable discomfort about what lies in wait over the coming months.
Our National League and National League North quintet of Hartlepool United, Blyth Spartans, Darlington, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town will continue to play their league fixtures as they are bracketed alongside the Premier League and EFL as elite football.
However, with cases on the rise across the country and more players testing positive, even the ‘elite’ at the top end of non-league football could find their season at risk as they continue to play in front of empty stands and with supporters forced to watch via live streams.
For the Northern Premier League, Northern League and beyond, we are in the realms of the unknown right now, and we can only speculate over how and when this season will be brought to a close.
Will we see a second consecutive season declared as null and void?
Will we see the season completed with a hectic fixture list, with game upon game in the remaining two or three months?
Will there be the possibility of calculating the final standings across the pyramid based on a points-per-game average?
Or will the leagues take a new look, with further regionalisation to limit travel and game time?
The point of this week’s column is not to speculate over what the powers-that-be could hold in store for our clubs, coaches, players, supporters and hardworking volunteers.
The opening thoughts were simply to show just how uncertain an environment the region’s non-league scene is currently experiencing.
Yet despite this, with funds at a premium and supporters at a distance, our clubs have fronted up and shown that they are valuable parts of their local communities.
We are very fortunate to have a non-league scene overflowing with clubs that have longstanding roots in their local villages, towns and cities.
And the passing of time has not diminished the sense of responsibility they feel to the local community, while the physical distance between clubs and supporters has been bridged with gestures of kindness and togetherness.
Over the last month we experienced a very different festive period to the one we have all become accustomed to in “normal” times.
Families and friends were separated, and the usual mental strain of Christmas was only made worse by having to live through a pandemic in this obscure environment.
Our clubs have recognised this and have ensured that they carry on the invaluable work they have carried out throughout the last ten months.
Gateshead’s community wing contacted vulnerable supporters and Blyth Spartans loanee JJ O’Donnell held a charity raffle to provide presents for children in families that are struggling to cope with the severe financial impact of the pandemic.
South Shields supporters have formed an essential part of their renaissance since Geoff Thompson’s takeover just over five years ago, and the club showed that the relationship is very much a two-way street over Christmas.
Volunteers were handed gifts in recognition of the unseen hours they put in to aid their club and other supporters have been sent messages of hope, either over the phone or in person at a distance.
Food banks have been held at the likes of Spennymoor Town, Dunston UTS and Morpeth Town, and a whole host of clubs have called on supporters to get in touch if they feel they need support.
Going further back in the pandemic North Shields, West Auckland Town and Billingham Synthonia players all donated their fine or pool money to local hospitals in their time of need.
Wearside League newboys – if they can still be given that tag – Washington United have worn a new rainbow kit baring the NHS logo thanks to a partnership with Fugati, a sportswear company founded by former Sunderland striker Danny Graham.
And who can forget Ashington’s wonderful gesture towards supporter and volunteer David Bainbridge as he received a personalised home shirt, a training jumper, a hoodie and a lifelong season ticket in an emotional video that went viral on the internet.
There are many, many more examples of our clubs doing the region and, more importantly, their local communities proud throughout the toughest of times.
I can only apologise to any club or person that I have not named, but be sure that your actions and gestures show a spirit and responsibility that I admire greatly.
Despite facing an uphill battle to keep themselves functioning on a day-to-day basis, our clubs have shown an unwavering commitment to the very people that remain loyal to them throughout the thick and thin.
As stated as the very start of this week’s column, we do not know what the coming weeks and months hold in store for the country.
But when we are through the other end of this pandemic, we will be able to look back and appreciate just how important the sterling work and commitment undertaken and shown across the North East nonleague scene has been in their local communities.