NON-LEAGUE NEWS by ANDREW SINCLAIR
Football fans can return to stadiums to watch their favourite non-league sides, it was announced last week.
If only Croydon FC had a stadium that was open and operating where they might be able to play their home games, with the post-lockdown status of the council-owned Croydon Arena still uncertain, just days ahead of the new season.
After a campaign by fans and supporters of non-league clubs across the country, as well as pressure from some MPs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced that supporters would be able to attend, in restricted numbers, any games below the National League North/South – their cut-off for “elite” football.
Under the FA’s guidelines for the return of fans, capacity is dictated by the level clubs play at rather than the size of their ground. During the next phase of a return of football crowds, from the start of the season proper next week, clubs with grounds with a capacity of 1,000 people or fewer and playing at Step 5 or 6 – which applies to Croydon FC and Croydon Athletic – will be limited to 30 per cent capacity for their games – no more than 300.
Athletic’s chairman Paul Smith was delighted by the news. “It is a very important decision to allow fans in,” he told Inside Croydon.
“Leagues at Step 5 and 6 had made it clear that they would not begin the season until spectators were allowed in and while we are supportive of that position, clubs can’t afford not to play either.
“Clubs at this level needed to benefit from the entrance fees and the sales from their bars and tea bars. This is essential for covering running costs.”
According to Smith, making Mayfield Stadium covid-safe for returning fans has required a lot of changes.
“Things will look a little different. We will be asking all those who come along to follow the instructions and signs around the ground and to ensure that they socially distance.
“There will be restrictions in the grandstand with some seats taken out of use but there will still be plenty of seats for those that need them and the disabled area will be open as usual.
“Both the bar and the tea bar will be open but there will be arrangements for queuing both in the clubhouse and for the tea bar to keep everyone safe.
“We are not, at present, going to mandate that spectators must wear face masks but they are welcome to do so. We will encourage spectators to use cashless payment both on entry and in the bar and tea bar, although cash will be accepted.
“As with all clubs, there will be heightened cleanliness with sanitisers available around the ground. Obviously, players and match officials will see things operating slightly differently too. However, these are all minor new ways of working that means they can do what they all want to do and that is play football.”
The new systems will get an early test, with the Rams given a home tie in the FA Cup extra-preliminary round against Combined Counties Premier Division side Sutton Common Rovers next Tuesday, September 1.
“It’s a tough draw,” said Rams boss Kevin Rayner.
“They are one of the sides expected to be in the promotion hunt in their division. I think they must enter the game as favourites to beat us, but we will see what we can do on the night.”
Croydon FC don’t get to play in the FA Cup this season – the competition was oversubscribed, and a ballot held among the clubs at their level. Croydon missed out.
The draw for the FA Vase was also conducted last week, with Athletic facing a trip to West Sussex and Wick in the first qualifying round on September 19. A victory guarantees Rayner’s men £775 in prize money and a home game with Saltdean United in the second qualifying round.
“The Vase draw is a good game. Wick have a new manager and look progressive this year, so again it’ll be a tough game but hopefully, we can get through”, Rayner said.
The first set of fixtures for the Southern Counties East Football League were also released last week, with the league stating that, “We are only able to release fixtures a few weeks at a time while we await sight of the fixtures from the Leagues above plus the re-opening of all grounds in the SCEFL.”
Athletic begin their Premier Division season with a trip to Punjab United on September 5. Their first league home game is three days later against Erith and Belvedere.
Balham, who are ground-sharing the Mayfield this year, were also drawn at home in the FA Cup – they face Hassocks. In the Vase they will travel to play Lewisham Borough, while they kick off their league campaign at “home” against Hollands and Blair, who made a few headlines recently by snapping up former Wimbledon and Gillingham striker Danny Kedwell.
Croydon were drawn to play at home in the FA Vase against SCEFL Premier Division promotion favourites Sheppey United, but with Croydon Arena still closed, they’ll have to play it at the Havill Stadium on September 19.
On the club’s cup prospects, Trams boss Liam Giles said: “With regards to the FA Cup, I am very disappointed in how the decision was made and feel very hard done by but it can’t be helped and I suppose it’s one less distraction for us. The prize money would have been huge if we could have had a run, but it wasn’t to be.
“It’s a very tough draw in the Vase against one of the favourites for the Premier Division this year. I am relishing the opportunity to test ourselves against Sheppey, but I know we will be huge underdogs going into the game. I believe on our day we will be a match for any club at Step 5 so hopefully the lads will go out there and prove me right.”
It was not just the usual managerial soundbytes offered by Giles regarding his team’s playing potential this season. Croydon have been in strong form pre-season, winning four games in seven days, all with clean sheets, with two of those wins coming against clubs from the tier above the Trams.
The winners of the FA Vase tie between Croydon and Sheppey would go through to a second qualifying round tie with either Crowborough Athletic or Molesey. Fixtures for SCEFL Div 1 are expected to be released this week.
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