Tandridge's return to grassroots football

When lockdown hit the UK in March this year, non-essential shops closed, many businesses ceased trading and entertainment halted. And sports, including football, stopped too.
At the end of May, the government ruled that Premier League football would resume mid-June, followed by the Championship. Matches were played behind closed doors, with Premier League games televised. The lack of crowds affected the atmosphere in the stadiums, but fans were safe in the knowledge their teams would return next season, benefitting from TV rights and merchandising.

But how have smaller clubs, who rely on gate money and fundraising, fared? We take a look at two Tandridge non-league clubs, to see how they have coped with the temporary cancellation of grassroots football in the UK.

Whyteleafe FC

Whyteleafe FC's Church Road ground is home to over 20 youth teams, walking football sessions for the over-60s, the Whyteleafe Women's team and the club's first team, who compete in the South East Division of the Isthmian League.

Vice-chairman Clive Davis states:

"We're a long-established football club at the heart of our community. Our managers are volunteers and we've got over 200 junior members who often go from the under-7s through to the seniors. We also have some devoted fans. This situation hit us hard: football is an important part of all our lives."

Whyteleafe's first team had played 28 league games and was seventh in the table, verging on the playoffs. Defender Corey Holder explains how they felt when everything ended.

"We were disappointed, especially because we didn't play well during our last game. We wanted to come back from that and have a shot at the playoffs, so it was frustrating we couldn't finish the job."

The Caterham Pumas

Mike Mihalop is Chairman of the Caterham Pumas, a community football club run entirely by volunteers. Based at the Joliffe Playing Ground, Fox Lane, it is comprised of 32 teams, from under-8s to under-18s. There is also a ladies' recreational team and a free soccer school for 4 to 7-year olds.

Mike comments:

"We had a third of the season left to run. Some of our teams were in cup matches, others were top of their league. Stopping was disheartening, for players and coaches."

Tough times

Clive is frank about the financial effects of lockdown on Whyteleafe:

"We're a community club but also a business, and overnight we had zero income. We rely on the premises being open: the gate money, the bar, the kitchen, and weekend party hires, but suddenly everything was cancelled.

We furloughed our paid staff, but there's still money going out on utilities and equipment leases. We received a small Football Foundation grant, but I also started a Just Giving campaign, bringing in over £4.5k from fans, which was lovely. We also had help redecorating, from donations of paint to people giving up their time to wield a paintbrush, including our first team goalkeeper!"

Additionally, Whyteleafe introduced 'Leafe at Home': order drinks from the club's bar by email and collect by car, to have at home. The profits went towards maintenance and new equipment.

Mike says:

"When lockdown was announced, we locked the Puma's ground down, taking out the goals so kids wouldn't be tempted to play. We've been here mowing and watering the grass throughout.

We had a fundraising day planned, as well as a presentation day, both of which were postponed. Hopefully, they'll go ahead later, but we rely on the money these events bring in to run the club and keep costs down for our families."

Maintaining good mental health

Corey found that having a routine, staying social and setting challenges helped him get through a long period of shielding at home:

"Every day, I joined in with a live personal training session on Instagram, which was something to look forward to, and helped with my goal of keeping in shape while I couldnt train. I've also got great friends and family who stayed in touch. And my partner and I have been learning Spanish!"

As an older member of the team, he kept an eye on the younger ones:

"I messaged a lot of them personally during lockdown to make sure they were ok. I checked they were following the guidelines, keeping themselves busy and staying on top of their fitness."

Mike was keen to ensure the Puma's coaches stayed connected with their players:

"Their priority was to continue to engage with the kids. They created YouTube videos and held regular Zoom calls."

Resuming training

Clive says that, or Whyteleafe, football is coming back gradually:

"In June, the FA said groups of six could resume training, but we couldn't open the changing rooms or the toilets, which made it difficult. The juniors will restart on August 3rd, and we've been working on how we will manage that."

Madeleine Trotter is the Caterham Puma's girls' co-ordinator and helps coach the under-18s girls' team. She was instrumental in getting training restarted at Caterham Pumas:

"I read The FA's guidance and carried out risk assessments for the club. From that, I was able to put together guidelines for everybody to use. I created a consent form the parents sign to say they're happy for their children to be here, as well as a self-check health assessment players complete on arrival. It's been really successful, and it's great to see the kids back here."

The wider benefits of football

Madeleine knows how important football is for the children"

"We wouldn't normally train at this time of year but some of our girls suffer from anxiety, which isolation can heighten. I was determined to make sure we would train again, once allowed, so we could provide them with a routine and fresh air. Getting on the pitch improves confidence, as well as fitness, and means they'll be prepared when the season starts again."

Mike agrees:

"The big thing for us now is getting the kids out for the exercise and friendships football provides. Some children have issues at home and they need the sense of normality they get at our club."

Playing again

On 17 July, the government approved The FA's plan for the return of grassroots football. Clubs could begin competitive training in groups of 30 and under, once their facility was compliant with Covid-19 legislation, and with the use of social distancing and stringent hygiene practices. The beginning of August will see the return of matches, with social distancing being observed before and after, and in any breaks in play.

Clive is anxious to hear how the return of their supporters will be managed:

"We hope our fans will be allowed back as normal, as non-league football can't survive without them."

Mike is grateful to everybody who supports the Caterham Pumas:

"We're privileged because we have a dedicated committee, that I'm proud to lead, and brilliant coaches. Everything we do here, the maintenance of the clubhouse and the grounds, is by volunteers. And thanks to the work Madeleine has done we can reassure parents that their children are coming back to a safe, comfortable environment."

Clive concludes:

"I would like to thank all our volunteers and everybody who donated money and time. It's so important to us, and shows the type of club we are. It's been challenging but we will get through it, and football will be played here again."

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