With the rest of European football locked down in response to the coronavirus, England’s fifth-tier National League provided a controversial respite for fans looking to satisfy their craving for sport on Saturday.
The growing threat of the deadly pandemic forced the Premier League, the Championship, League One and League Two to suspend play on Friday until at least April 3.
But, unlike elsewhere across the world, large gatherings in public are yet to be officially banned by the British government.
So, in the grassroots of the English game, there were still matches being played as the fifth division decided their fixtures would go ahead, for this weekend at least.
Although National League games at Barrow, Boreham Wood, Bromley, Woking and Yeovil were eventually postponed due to COVID-19 fears, nearly 5,000 fans watched Notts County beat Eastleigh 4-0 on Saturday.
However, the decision to keep playing has been divisive, with Eastleigh manager Ben Strevens accusing the National League of greed.
“The reason National League games went ahead and the EFL games didn’t go ahead and the Premier League games didn’t go ahead is because whoever sits on the board of the National League cared about money. Simple as that,” he said.
“I looked around today and there are stewards that are older. They’re the ones that are most at risk from this virus.
“There’s no way whatsoever these games should have been played.”
National League chief executive Michael Tattersall refused to be drawn into a war of words, saying: “It’s not really a time for having an argument, it’s a time for reflecting on what’s happening in our society.
“We’re going to put out our own statement thanking everybody for their efforts and sending everybody who is suffering from the virus or self-isolating all our best wishes.”
The mood was calmer at Halifax as 2,154 fans saw the promotion-chasing Yorkshire club beaten 1-0 by Ebbsfleet.
AFP / PAUL ELLIS Halifax supporters arrive to watch the National League match against Ebbsfleet
Halifax fan Gary Pell, 56, spoke to AFP from the Three Pigeons pub, where supporters gathered before the match.
“It’s a bit surreal,” he said. “We were looking at the fixture list and every country in Europe has its fixtures as postponed or cancelled.
“It’s really strange seeing the National League games and a couple of other leagues still on.”
In a bid to capitalise on the lack of games elsewhere, Halifax let fans of Premier League and Football League clubs into The Shay for just £10 if they could prove they were season-ticket holders.
Two Manchester City fans, who would have been watching their team play Burnley but for the postponements, told AFP they wanted to take in a match to get their football fix.
One Ebbsfleet fan posed in a face mask and rubber gloves in the pub, but more in jest than for safety.
No other supporters were seen in protective masks, while a sign in one stand reminded fans to wash their hands.
AFP / Paul ELLIS An Ebbsfleet supporter wears a face mask and rubber gloves as fans drink in The Three Pigeons pub in Halifax
Pell said his fellow supporters were doing their best to keep calm about the global health crisis.
“I think there is a bit of pragmatism. We’re taking note of the advice but there’s also a sense of ‘keep calm and carry on,” he said.
“If it carries on they will be under pressure to ramp up precautions. I think the next few weeks are going to be key.”
The possibility of cancelling the season has been raised in some quarters.
That prospect could be financially disastrous for clubs lower down the pyramid.
Fifth-tier Dagenham’s managing director Steve Thompson, whose team’s trip to Woking was cancelled, agrees with the concern: “Yes, depending on how long it went on. Potentially, some clubs are not going to survive this.
“We’re talking £10 million to £20 million just to support the National League clubs over three or four months.”
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