COVID-19 and a new norm for lower league football

It’s Saturday, September 26 at Horsfall Stadium in south Bradford and Bradford (Park Avenue) v Farsley Celtic makes a pleasant distraction for local fans.

The preseason friendly is the clubs’ second meeting in four days after Farsley’s win at Throstle Nest (aka The Citadel) and the second match on the a 3G surface first tested against Yorkshire Amateurs 11 days before.

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Highlights of last season’s final game v Curzon Ashton on March 14 are a semi-permanent feature of the Avenue website. We left that afternoon anxious about the virus and wondering when we’d next see a game. Well, today’s the day.

I get a call from the club on Friday morning asking if I’d like to be one of the 30 admitted on the day. Being personally invited to a game is a first, and a pleasant one. With COVID in mind, only officials are allowed outside during play and in the windowless clubhouse, the screen is our link to a game where just the shouts of the players soundtrack the afternoon. Avenue’s squad includes Jordan (son of Dean) Windass, and with the clubs just seven miles apart, several of today’s players have appeared for both clubs

Pre-kick off, Brighton v Manchester United is on the big screen before the Amex gives way to Adams Park and Wycombe – Swansea. We’re allowed to be unmasked at our tables, but not if standing up. The rules are illogical but enforced. Richard, the ever-enthusiastic Avenue PA man, belts out the line ups to an empty ground, while, the screensaver treats us to Venice, Corfe Castle and Sydney at sunset.

A few minutes later, we’re back in Bradford, and it’s 0-0. Avenue, in garish red, amber and black, struggle to gain a foothold, as the in-house commentary is drowned out by the general hubbub. For their part, Farsley – their regular royal blue swapped for light blue hoops – resemble the Argentine Pumas. Our camera shot is restricted by an open window in the press box which flaps in the strong breeze. The ghost of Larry Grayson barks an instruction, but nobody hears.

People revert to pub mode. A stray flag prompts ‘Give over liner’ from the front row.  We could be watching Match of the Day, sort of. On 42 mins, Avenue go close. ‘That was goal bound there’ says commentator Mick Gledhill, as the window swings open again. With the season imminent, things are competitive, but an even first half finishes goalless.

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At half time, attention switches to the Hawthorns for Albion-Chelsea, as ‘Back Home’ blares out to the houses in Cemetery Road. No sooner has Mason Mount got a goal back than we’re back at Horsfall for the second half.

On 49 mins Avenue go ahead; Brad Dockerty finding the net from 20 yards. ‘An encouraging display’, says our commentator. Sixty-two minutes in and we can relax – a bit – as Lewis Knight doubles the lead to shouts of ‘one team in Bradford’ Soon it’s all over as right back Mark Ross gets the third.

Avenue’s showing is timely, given next week’s testing visit of Spennymoor in the Cup. The clubhouse is buzzing. Not like a regular Saturday perhaps, but this initiative has filled an empty weekend for fans and put money over the bar. Given current restrictions, the idea might catch on, with long midweek trips the prime candidates for TV coverage.

As the game winds down, fans discuss the Byzantine complexities of the National League voting system, with clubs at odds over continuing the season without fans. Players contracts kick in with the FA Cup – hence clubs’ desperation for the return of supporters. BT Sport gives an update;

The National League is aiming to receive news of Government support in advance of the season commencing next weekend.

Meanwhile, the National League website, never knowingly under-hyped tells us that games “will get back underway to a rip-roaring start on October 3.” With the Government stepping in, that now looks likely.

Three-nil is a good result. ‘Good luck against Radcliffe’ says a well-wisher to the Farsley contingent ahead of their Cup tie. ‘We’re going to need it’, is the response. At four o’clock, the players come in and the volume doubles. It could almost be a normal matchday. Almost.

The Author

Paul Caulfield

Freelance football writer with 25 years experience of preview and feature writing for listings magazines City Limits and Time Out, as well as 90 Minutes, Backpass and several non-League publications. I have focussed mainly on the non-League game in my magazine work, with online articles covering professional and international football. I also have experience as a club official with Clapton FC (of the Essex League), and learned the realities of running a club at that level.

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