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By Jonathan Eeles
18 March 2020
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Jim Hannah of the Leek Post and Times recently contacted Jon Eeles, Chairman and Neil Baker, Manager for their thoughts on the recent developments around the suspension of football activities. Here is the article

LEEK Town chairman Jon Eeles says he’s confident the club can weather the coronavirus pandemic storm, although he not’s so sure other non-league clubs will come through it unscathed.

Blues face weeks of non-activity after all football was postponed indefinitely as the pandemic spreads across the country. They signed off with a 2-0 victory at Lincoln United on Saturday and were due to play Stocksbridge Park Steels last night before welcoming local rivals Newcastle Town to Harrison Park on Saturday.

Two home games which would have helped to generate much-needed income, but nevertheless, the chairman says the decision to suspend all football was the correct one.

He said "While the effect on a club’s operating cashflow of indefinitely suspending the league is potentially devastating, I welcome the announcement on Monday as I believe any further games would have put spectators, volunteers and players at risk. A large proportion of our volunteers are over 60 and more than half of our spectators also fall into this category.

We played a game on Saturday at Lincoln and there was a very subdued atmosphere at the game, I commend Lincoln for hosting the game under difficult circumstances and would like to thank our management team and players who acted with the usual professionalism to complete the game with no fuss.

As we stand we have 10 games left to complete the season, in just over six weeks, I estimate the operating income lost from losing seven homes games is somewhere between £12,000 and £18,000 depending on the level of crowds. Against this, operating costs will be lower but the club now faces a decision on what to do with the biggest cost - players wages. The players are either contracted or non-contracted. We have a legal requirement to continue to pay contracted players or be in breach of contract - a player could walk away from the contract, or worse sue for financial loss. The non contracted players are less of an issue as we have no legal obligation to pay them, but I do feel we have a moral responsibility. I am awaiting further information from the league and FA regarding the likely outcome of completing the league before any decision will be made on wages. I took the opportunity to speak to players over the weekend and canvas their thoughts on this and I was encouraged by their response - we have a team on and off the pitch.

Clearly there will be a hole for most non-league football clubs at Step 4 and above, and it is how this funding hole is covered - fundraising activities, loans, deferred payments, share issues, cost reduction, support from sponsors are all strategies for this. Whilst I am confident Leek Town can weather this storm, I am not as confident that all clubs will come through it - and this is where our FA need to support clubs.

The support from spectators and sponsors this season has been superb and I have already been approached by several with offers of support.

The other issue is what our league, and others, intend to do with the current season, as the measures around the virus increase at this point it is inconceivable to me that the season will be completed at non-league level. The time created by the suspension should be used to hammer out a plan and way forward for clubs and the liabilities they are facing - I feel the season will either be treated as null and void or they will promote/relegate on some agreed measure, possibly points per game.

Inevitably there will be winners and losers in all scenarios, but clubs will need to work together to make sure the long-term future of non-league football is secured. It is a time for a clear, common sense and impartial actions.”

Neil Baker added he was 100 per cent behind the decision to suspend all football because of the coronavirus pandemic, even though his team is so close to winning the BetVictor South East title.

Leek were 2-0 winners at Lincoln United on Saturday thanks to goals from Rob Stevenson and Tim Grice, his 199th goal for the club, to keep Leek two points clear of main rivals Stamford, with a game in hand.

"I am 100 per cent behind the decision. It’s an unprecedented situation and we have to do what’s right. Everyone is disappointed, especially the players, they want to be playing football and do what they love doing, but for the safety of everyone involved in the game, it’s a decision which had to be taken.

Baker is now anxiously waiting to see what decision the league will come to in the coming weeks with regard to promotion and relegation. He says he can’t see the season being completed, but doesn’t want all his team’s hard work to go to waste.

It would be ridiculous to wipe out this season’s record. We are three-quarters of the way through the season, so we need to find a solution."

Asked what he would like to see done Baker added

“In my opinion they should settle the promotion and relegation issues on a points per game ratio, I think that’s the only fair way to do it.

That would mean ourselves and Stamford being promoted, which is fair given our current league positions. We are clearly the best two teams in the league. It’s not ideal, but I can’t think of a fairer way of doing it. We can’t play into next season or anything like that because of contract situations, so there’s a big decision to be made."

Meanwhile, Baker will continue to keep the squad together and train during the enforced break. He’s put together a plan which he put to the players during a training session last night and he plans to hold another session on Saturday.

Baker added “I’ll make the players aware of what I plan to do over the next few weeks. It’s important we keep things ticking over and meet for training sessions and see how we go.”

Saturday’s win at Lincoln was a fairly comfortable one, despite the home side fielding eight new players for the game. New manager Sam Wilkinson wasted no time in registering 23 players ahead of the game on Saturday and Leek took advantage of an early mistake which presented Stevenson with the first goal.

“I spoke to the players before the game and said we need to get at them early, unsettle them because there were a lot of new faces in the team and it paid off. Our first goal was the result of a mistake at the back, but to be fair they did have a go later in the game to try to get back in it, but we got the result without being at our best,” said Baker who said conditions weren’t ideal.

“The pitch was surprisingly dry and that caused a few problems with the bounce of the ball. We fell into the trap of not knowing whether to get the ball down or get it forward early, but we got there in the end. The second half was much better from us and we were able to control the game.”

Grice was on target with his 199th goal for the club, but it looks likely now he will have to wait before he reached the magic 200 mark, but Baker says it will happen.

“Tim’s missed a few chances since he returned from injury, but I told him before the game not to worry about it, just play well and his goals will come again and he managed to get one for us. He’s been a great servant to the club and reaching the 200 mark will be a fantastic achievement for him. Hopefully it won’t be too long before he is back out on a football field.”

Since the interview the Club has taken the decision to suspend all training with the first team, this following the FAs guidance. Training on Tuesday was cancelled and the ongoing situation is being monitored.

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