Matt Maher: Pros facing uncertain future down pyramid

For Ashley Hemmings and his Kidderminster Harriers team-mates, weekdays provide a sense of normality.

Kidderminster Harriers are facing uncertain times.
Kidderminster Harriers are facing uncertain times.

It is the weekends which are tougher to handle.

Between Monday and Friday, Harriers’ players train as they usually would. The trouble is they have no idea precisely what they are training for. Their next match could be a few days from now. More likely, it will not be for another five months.

“You just have to take it day by day,” says Hemmings. “We really don’t know what is going to happen.

“The season may well be over but there is always a chance they might turn around tomorrow and say the season is back on. At least coming into training every day helps keep the mind ticking over.”

Welcome to life in National League North, the lowest level of football the government classes ‘elite’ sport, where the only certainty is ongoing uncertainty.

Last week’s announcement the majority of clubs in the division and its southern equivalent had voted to declare the season null and void should have provided clarity.

For some, including AFC Telford United, it has. The Bucks were among those clubs who felt curtailing a campaign ravaged by the pandemic was the right thing to do.

“We feel it’s the correct decision in the current circumstances,” chairman Andy Pryce told the Shropshire Star last week. “Not just for our club, but for others at this level, it’s the right thing to do for the welfare of players, staff and volunteers.”

Finding an outcome to suit everyone at a level where part-time and full-time clubs co-exist was always going to be impossible, though the situation has been exacerbated by the National League’s handling of the crisis. The row over what funding was promised, or who got what, will rumble on for some time yet.

While at Telford the decision to curtail was met with a sense of relief, at Kidderminster the chief emotion was dismay.

Harriers are one of 19 clubs in the North and South divisions now pushing for the season to be restarted, with the two leagues effectively combined for a one-off 18-match campaign, with promotion to the National League Premier retained.

Longest of long shots it may be, yet the fact it has even been considered demonstrates the frustration which exists among full-time clubs.

Harriers chief executive Neil Male chose to back the #letusplay campaign after consulting with his manager, Russ Penn, along with the players, who are desperate to play. For the past 12 months, they have rarely gotten the chance. The National League North and South divisions were the latest to restart after the first lockdown, not beginning their seasons until October. Now it looks as though they have been the earliest to finish.

“Back when the pandemic first began last year we had no idea of how long it would last,” says Hemmings.

“We hoped we might be back playing in a month and when last season got cancelled, it did hit a lot of people hard.

“We are full-time players and when we are not training or playing there is not a lot else for us to do. It is not like we have other jobs.”

If the bid to restart the campaign fails then by the time next season begins, Harriers will have played a total of just 17 competitive matches in the space of 17 months.

Players who operate at the lower reaches of the professional game, where contracts tend to be no longer than a single season and one bad campaign can have severe repercussions for your career, tend to develop strong mentalities.

Even so, continued financial uncertainty and the prospect of clubs further tightening their budgets means next few months are set to be particularly taxing. Last summer there were 800 professional players out of contract. This year there will be more and fewer places to land.

“It will be a very difficult time for players whose contracts finish this season,” says Hemmings, a product of Wolves academy who was 18 when made his professional debut for his hometown club more than a decade ago.

Since leaving Molineux in 2012, he has spent most of his career in the lower divisions, with stints at Walsall (2012-14) and Dagenham and Redbridge (14-16) his longest stays anywhere before arriving at Aggborough in October 2019, following spells with Boston, Mansfield, Fylde and Altrincham.

“It does toughen you up. You learn a lot about yourself,” he says. “There will be a lot of players worried about what the next few months hold.”

Hemmings knows he is one of the lucky ones. Earlier this month he signed a new contract with Harriers through to the summer of 2022. At the age of 29, after years of travelling, he believes he has finally found a home at Aggborough.

A big supporter of the club’s link-up with the mental health charity, Kaleidoscope, he feels it has never been more important for players to have a voice.

“Players always need to talk,” he says. “At Kidderminster we have had a lot of support which, five or 10 years ago, simply wouldn’t have been there.

“Sometimes players find it hard to talk to team-mates or manager but there is always someone else you can talk to. I know a couple of the lads have taken advantage of that in recent months.

“It is about keeping people as positive as possible. Since the pandemic started we have used the players WhatsApp group to make sure everyone is OK. We’ve tried to keep spirits up with quizzes and daily challenges.

“The announcement this week, the roadmap, has provided a bit of light. Hopefully soon we will get to play again.”

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