Suffolk clubs set to be frustrated as Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier Leagues vote to delay return to action

Bury Town players look dejected after the final whistle sounds in their FA Cup defeat at Banbury United. Bury's campaign...

Bury Town players look dejected after the final whistle sounds in their FA Cup defeat at Banbury United. Bury's campaign will continue to be put on hold after the recent league vote in favour of an extended pause. Picture: NEIL DADY - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s leading non-league clubs will NOT be resuming league action in the near future, after the Southern League, Northern Premier League and Isthmian League voted jointly in favour of the continued suspension of the season.

Harry Knights and Liam Jackson celebrate Leistons second goal, in the FA Trophy victory over Worthing. The resumption of...

Harry Knights and Liam Jackson celebrate Leistons second goal, in the FA Trophy victory over Worthing. The resumption of Leiston's league campaign has been further delayed by this week's vote of Step 3 and Step 4 clubs. Picture: HANNAH PARNELL - Credit: Archant

That means the Suffolk trio of Leiston, Needham Market and Lowestoft Town (Southern League Premier Central) and the trio of Bury Town, AFC Sudbury and Felixstowe & Walton United (Isthmian League North) will not be back in league action within the next fortnight, as was originally hoped, and almost certainly not until January, at the earliest.

The Southern League had earlier in the day posted on its official website that all league matches had been postponed up until Saturday, December 19, which means that the planned games on December 12 (Needham at Barwell, Lowestoft at Bromsgrove and Leiston at home to Stourbridge) are all off and so will have to be rescheduled.

The Isthmian League and Northern Premier League are in the same position, after it was revealed this evening that 76% of clubs across the three leagues (of Step 3 and Step 4) had voted to continue to ‘pause’ the season.

The vote was close among Isthmian League clubs, with 47 voting for the proposal (to continue to pause) and 33 against, with one abstention. By contrast, the vote was 57 to 4 in favour of a continued pause in the Northern Premier, and 68 to 14 among Southern League clubs.

Social distancing at Compton Park on the opening day of a stop-start season, as Bury Town take on hosts Cogenhoe United in...

Social distancing at Compton Park on the opening day of a stop-start season, as Bury Town take on hosts Cogenhoe United in the FA Cup. Picture: CARL MARSTON - Credit: Archant

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The following statement has been jointly issued by the three leagues this evening:

‘Following the statement issued by the Isthmian, Northern Premier and Southern Football Leagues yesterday, further clarification can now be given in relation to the voting following the Zoom meetings held by all 3 Trident Leagues with their Member Clubs to discuss the impact of the raising of the lockdown on 2nd December.

Joe Marsden celebrates converting a penalty during Needham Market's 4-1 win over Three Bridges in the FA Trophy. The...

Joe Marsden celebrates converting a penalty during Needham Market's 4-1 win over Three Bridges in the FA Trophy. The Marketmen do not know when their Southern League campaign will restart. Picture: PAUL VOLLER - Credit: Archant

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‘There were 224 Clubs voting across the 3 Leagues and of these 172 agreed with the proposition to continue the pause in fixtures, 51 disagreed and there was 1 abstention.

‘Broken down by League, 57 Clubs in the Northern Premier League voted to agree with 4 disagreeing, 68 Clubs in the Southern League agreed with 14 disagreeing and in the Isthmian League it was much closer with 47 Clubs agreeing, 33 disagreeing and 1 abstention.

‘The “Agree” vote was therefore 76% and it has been agreed that the three Leagues will not sanction fixtures at this time.

‘It is intended that the situation is kept under review in line with Government review on the Tier allocations and restrictions.

Cemal Ramadan celebrates after scoring what proved to be the winning goal for Bury Town at Cogenhoe United at the start of...

Cemal Ramadan celebrates after scoring what proved to be the winning goal for Bury Town at Cogenhoe United at the start of this season. But when will the Isthmian League start up again? Picture: NEIL DADY - Credit: Archant

‘Accordingly, the next review is set for 16 December and then 30 December. It is the hope of all the Leagues that a date in January can be set for a return to fixtures with Clubs who wish being allowed to play before that date but this will not be until there is a change in the Tiers and/or some progress in the funding of the Clubs at this level.

‘The Government has allocated £25m to Sport England to fund Steps 1 to 6 of the National Leagues System, of which £14m is set for Steps 3-6 but is heavily weighted in favour of loans, not grants.

‘The FA is working tirelessly with DCMS and Sport England to have the funding presented as Grants. However, these negotiations take time, and it is not expected to have an answer or clarification of details of even the loans until mid-January.

‘The deep concern of all involved in the NLS is that circumstances may mean that it is not possible to conclude the current format of competition in a manner in which promotion and relegation can be achieved throughout the whole pyramid with Step 2 being brought up to 48 Clubs and Step 4 brought up to 240 Clubs.

‘If, therefore, no progress is made by the Government on the Tiers in either of the two December reviews, it is the intention of the Alliance Committee to circulate those concerned with a survey to gather the views of the Clubs as how best to finish the season.

‘Options will include an alternative format competition and extending the season possibly into June 2021. However the implications of all such proposals will involve the cost of players contracts and the ability of some clubs to continue playing because of other issues of grounds and the need to prepare grass pitches for the following season.’

All Step 3 and 4 clubs were asked to vote on whether the league season should ‘remain paused,’ with regards the impact of the new three tiered system which replaced lockdown2 and came into force on Wednesday, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

E-mail voting took place after Tuesday night’s meetings, with all votes submitted by Wednesday night.

Bury Town were one of those who voted AGAINST the Isthmian League resolution to suspend the season further, favouring a re-start on Saturday week (December 12) with a home match against Histon.

The Blues have so far only played four league games this season, due to their extended FA Cup run.

Manager Ben Chenery said: “I got the impression that the general feel was that quite a few clubs were not prepared to resume their leagues because of the hospitality scenario.

“But we and the other local clubs in Suffolk were all in favour of starting the season again.

“It’s been a difficult decision. If you ask the players, they all want to play football, and we were given an opportunity to do that by the league.

“But the hospitality side of it had to be taken into account. We at Bury Town are always quite innovative, and we have looked at ways of trying to overcome that barrier.

“It would be very disappointing not being able to start up again, but it’s very understandable,” added Chenery.

In the current three-tiered system, 45 of the 61 clubs in the Northern Premier League are in Tier Three, while in the Isthmian League the bulk of clubs (67 from 81) are in Tier Two, with just 14 in Tier Three.

As regards the Southern League, 65 of the 82 clubs are in Tier Two.

Clubs in tier three were facing the prospect of playing home games behind closed doors, without any crowds.

And although clubs in tier two would have been able to welcome spectators with a reduced capacity, secondary income from hospitality would have been restricted - no mixing of members from different households or different support bubbles inside clubhouses, and alcohol could only be served with a ‘substantial meal.’

- Also: An absolute mess: mishmash to the supposed return of non-league

Suffolk clubs, despite the prospect of reduced income from games, were hoping to resume their league seasons, which had been put on hold since lockdown2 enforced league suspensions for ‘non-elite’ non-league football from Step 3 downwards, for a four-week period.

And Felixstowe & Walton United’s joint chairmen- Chris Daynes, Andy Clarke and Matt Hope – released this statement reflecting the seriousness of the situation:

‘We are incredibly disappointed with this result. We fully understand the challenges going on in the World right now and where football comes in the grand scheme of things. But we now have a situation where the Government has authorised us to play, in a safe, managed way just as we did prior to the second lockdown, having spent many thousands of pounds to create a safe environment for our players, supporters, staff and volunteers, but we are prevented from playing.

‘We of course also recognise the immense difficulties faced by clubs in Tier 3 areas, where it would be impossible to play without supporters, which is why a regional approach should have been taken to a regional problem.

‘We have always been a ‘can do’ club, looking at ways of making things happen rather then reasons why we CAN’T do something. We feel a solution could have been found to take care of those with tighter restrictions, whilst allowing those who can play to do so. Instead, we have a situation where EVERY clubs future has been put at risk, rather than just those in Tier 3.

‘The argument is given that those clubs would have fallen behind in fixtures, but that happens each season anyway, from lengthy cup runs to weather and poor pitches causing multiple postponements. A solution COULD have been found if only we had tried.

‘We were told at the meeting that each club shouldn’t think of their own circumstances, but take into account the needs of all clubs, but I defy any club to vote for something that puts their very existence in doubt.

‘That is why a flexible approach should have been considered to take into account each clubs own circumstances, rather than an across the board decision that affects everyone, when circumstances vary so greatly.

‘This club has overcome many challenges over the years, but after negotiating perhaps the biggest of them all over the last 8 months, we now genuinely fear for its future more than we ever have. Without football, without supporters coming into the ground, without sponsors getting their exposure… but with all our bills still to pay, where do we go from here? If we can’t play now, do we think we will be able to in January? The longer we cannot play, the more grave the problem becomes for us.

‘With the government “Winter Survival Fund’ being made up of loans, rather than grants, it is unlikely clubs at our level would take on any loans to replace lost income, with no prospect of being in a position to pay them back.

‘Despite football being way down the list of priorities in the midst of a global pandemic, the mental, physical and social benefits would have brought about some welcome relief. We can only hope we get the opportunity to bring those benefits to the community once again.

‘We await the follow up statement from the leagues which will hopefully add more detail to the plans going forward.’

Elsewhere, the Thurlow Nunn League and Suffolk & Ipswich League (Steps 5, 6 and 7) are able to resume matches this weekend, although several clubs in the Thurlow Nunn have opted not to start up again just yet.

The second round of the FA Vase also takes place this weekend, involving the likes of Stowmarket Town, Walsham Le Willows and Woodbridge Town, with FA Trophy ties scheduled for next Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, Leiston and Felixstowe & Walton United will play each other in a friendly fixture at Victory Road on Saturday (kick-off 3pm). Admission will be £7 for adults, £5 for concessions (oaps and students), and £2 for Under-16s. Admission is free for season ticket holders.

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