Few really took note when the Football Association announced it had decided to end with immediate effect all leagues in steps 3 to 6 of the non-league football system expunging all results in the process. There are a few notable names that play at this level – fallen giants of the semi-professional game – but most are small town sides who attract a few hundred supporters at best, just family and friends at worst.
Outside of these pockets no one was going to care much about what happened with their dreams, hopes and fears.
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In the town of Stowmarket, however, they cared. The small market town of just under twenty thousand residents is best known as the place where political writer William Godwin and the late great disk jockey John Peel lived. As with anywhere else in England, there is a football club: Stowmarket Town FC. Founded way back in 1883, the club hadn’t done much worthy of celebration in all the years of its existence much less earn fame outside the town’s borders.
This year was different. The team that had been coming together over a number of years was delivering the kind of season that fans dream about. Unbeaten in the league, their twenty three wins and five draws had seen them open a twenty five point gap over second place. On average, they scored more than three goals per game including five where they scored seven times each. A historic promotion out of Level 5 of the National League appeared inevitable.
And then came the COVID-19 enforced stop.
“It was a strange situation,” said Stowmarket Town FC manager Rick Andrews in an interview with Footy Analyst.
Rick Andrews has been their manager for the past eight years and they owe much of their recent success to him. For him too this was turning into the season of his life. His description of how it all unfolded, then, seems remarkably restrained.
“We were preparing for a game and one of the players called asking, ‘Is there any chance our games could be postponed?’ I told him ‘no chance’, but it was and we didn’t play again.”
Yet, if that was strange, what came next was astounding. Whilst there had been talks of bringing the league to a preliminary end, the expectation was that a way would be found to bring them to something of a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, the decision went for null and void.
“We heard the news through the media and obviously we were massively disappointed. They cancelled the league pretty early and we can see why that was done. Our frustration is in the fact it was deemed null and void. Enough of the season was played for there to be a conclusion.”
“There were people saying that they might have turned things and won the games they needed to avoid relegation, for instance [to justify the absence of relegation]. And yet those same teams hadn’t won two game in a row throughout the whole season so I don’t know how likely that was.”
A fair end to the season is what Rick Andrews had hoped for, especially when there were just a quarter of the fixtures pending.
“In the meantime there was a lot being said and loads of opinions being aired. You’ve got to have integrity, I feel. We’ve played 75% of the games and were well clear. I understand why certain others adopt different positions but if you are a true footballing person you know that you want the season to finish in some way.”
“Obviously this season everything was pointing at us getting promoted as we were well clear but decision was to call the season null and void. We made our position clear but now all we can do is plan to go again [next] season. As long as everyone’s healthy, we’ll come back. People’s health is what really matters.”
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Andrews’ response is measured and mature. He’s had plenty of opportunity to rehearse it, given the number of times he’s been asked the same questions in recent weeks. The passing of time has probably also helped dissipate the anger and frustration that this situation must have brought about. Others probably would not have been so understanding and justifiably so.
Outsiders might look at a club like Stowmarket Town FC and see a bunch of men for whom playing football is a hobby, one taken with a high level of commitment but a hobby nevertheless. That way of viewing matters ignores the efforts and sacrifices that go into keeping the game alive at this level. It disregards the sacrifice that goes into the hours of training after long days at work.
The game of football requires a high level of emotional investment, time spent worrying ahead of matches, disappointment at the pit of your stomach in the aftermath of a loss and days where you feel invincible after a big win. Those are the emotions that drive the game and you cannot simply disregard them. That is what is so unfair with the decision, not the fact that Stowmarket (and others) have been denied a potential promotion.
Again, it is impossible not to think that at another club this disappointment might even have had repercussions that go beyond one season. Within days of the end of the season, works were underway to carry out pitch improvements, as strong a sign as any of their desire to look forward.
Andrews is, again, forgiving.
“The current situation is disappointing [but] there is always the bigger picture to look at.”
“I always believe that you can’t fret on things that you have no control over. What you can do is be prepared, which is what we’re doing. Works in and around the ground have started. People going down and mending fences at the ground, largely because they want to go out and do something but also because they feel part of the club. I’m confident that when things restart we will be ready.”
History backs him. Although he has long been involved with the club, there is little doubt that Stowmarket are in the position that they are in now thanks in big part to his appointment as manager.
His story reads like a love affair.
“I started coaching with the U12s and kept progressing with them up till the U18s,” he recounts. “My lad was playing for them up till he was seventeen but then I took a break from football. That didn’t last long and soon afterwards I found myself running a Sunday morning side that had a lot of very talented players. We did quite well and a player who was still at Stowmarket said to my son ‘I wish your dad would take over our side.’”
“I knew that there is a big difference between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning football but I was intrigued. They weren’t in the best of places at the time, struggling towards the bottom, the average support was about 30 people and as a club it had lost a bit of heart and soul.”
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“So I approached them and made it clear that whilst I didn’t want to create issues, I would be available. My words were something like ‘you’ve already got a manager in place and I don’t want to create problems for anyone but if things change I would be interested’. Two weeks later they parted ways with their manager and they approached me.”
“There were ten games left till the end of the season and they asked me if I was willing to take the job on a caretaker basis. To be honest, not getting the job on a permanent basis hurt a bit but I was set on making the most of it. In fact, when I got the role, the chairman said to me ‘you won’t get another point but we’ll be happy if you improve our disciplinary record’. Well, we got 12 points in those game and we improved the disciplinary record in the process.”
Things were about to get better for Stowmarket. Andrews was given the role on a permanent basis and delivered promotion as champions, the first time in 66 years that they could celebrate a title win.
Andrews, however, was never going to be happy with that. “We won the league and one of our long-standing fans found me afterward to say ‘I can’t believe that we’ve gotten promoted to the Premier League but promise me we won’t get relegated’. That thought stuck with me especially when we didn’t have a good start to the season when we gained just 11 points in 12 games.”
“But then we went on a run over the next 30 games and ended the season on 103 points but still finished third which meant no promotion.”
Things didn’t go as smoothly in the second season and it was evident from early on that promotion was off the table. So they took the opportunity to sort out which players they wanted to keep and who they wanted to join. It set the path for what looked like a glorious cavalcade for promotion.
“We started this season in great form and kept going. By the time the season got stopped we had lost only two games and those came in the FA Cup and FA Vase. We were top of the league by 25 points and in two semi-finals but lady luck has not been kind with us.”
The success of recent years has also been aided by investment into the club that has enabled them to bring in some players that are beyond others in the same division. One of those was the former Ipswich, Yeovil, Milton Keynes and Northampton midfielder Dean Bowditch. It was a move that raised eyebrows but Andrews emphasises that even that move followed their principles and Bowditch only joined once everyone was certain that he was going to fit in.
Bowditch has since left the club, one of a handful of departures, as part of the reshaping of the squad even if the current situation does complicate matters particularly for a club and coach who have a history of long term planning.
“It is a difficult one, to be honest. You want to plan for next season and there are some things going on in that respect. We know what we want to do but there is [a] lack of clarity over when things will be picking up again so you can’t really start working.”
“[The main thing is that] there is a club when we return. Other cubs I feel for because they were already struggling before this whole situation, so I don’t know how they are going to manage. I genuinely think that there will be some casualties along the way.”
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“Every football club is important. Each club will have fans that have been supporting them for their whole lives so clearly it means a lot for them. I sincerely hope that every club survives and that money does cascade down from up above.”
This is a crucial point that goes beyond the simple discussion over the merits or demerits of cancelling a season. Those who follow bigger clubs often don’t fully grasp the idea of their team no longer being around. Nor do they understand the pivotal role such small clubs play in their communities.
“Every club is important because there is no way they would be around for as long as they have if they weren’t. I sincerely hope that clubs that are close to not surviving find a way through. This is a true community club and it is important that we act as such. No matter how successful we may or may not be is irrelevant, we have to serve the community. Stowmarket is a welcoming club where fans can come to enjoy their time. The minute you lose that, it won’t go down well.”
Andrews’ earlier example of fans going to the club’s ground to help paint the fences highlights how much this is the case. Indeed, this was the only one instance during the whole conversation where Andrews sounded boastful.
“My biggest achievement is engaging the club and community,” he confesses. “Over time we’ve got the supporters back. I think that for my first game the gate was of 30 or 35 people. Now we get more than 300 every week. It has been a process but slow progress is sustainable.”
“This is a real community club,” he stresses once more “where everyone goes to the bar after the game. I genuinely look forward to my Saturdays because of the atmosphere. At the same time all of that places a huge responsibility on your shoulders as you know that their happiness depends on how you do. When you think of those things, the current situation is really frustrating.”
It is partly the reason why Andrews feels that his job at the club is far from over. “In all honesty, I don’t think that my job here is finished. I’m very proud to have been the manager to lead the club to its title win when we won the First Division in 2016-2017. But I want to go beyond that. The club has never played at Step 4 and I want to deliver that here. In 8 years we would be two leagues higher which would be a great achievement.”
For now that dream of promotion will have to wait. As ever, Andrews takes a philosophical approach.
“Of course all of this might have happened for a reason. There’s a lot of investment going on in the leagues above us so it could be that had we gone up we would have struggled. Hopefully we will manage to make things right next season. Whenever that is.”
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Within football it is often easy to lose sight of why so many people fall in love with the game. Winning becomes such a prevailing ambition that the game isn’t enjoyable any more. It obscures the real joy of football. That what’s truly important is the experience of supporting a club; the raw emotions that it can conjure and the unique friendships that are born out of fandom.
For Stowmarket Town FC, this was shaping up to be a season of a lifetime. Circumstances meant that they didn’t get to celebrate as they wanted but the memories made throughout the season will live with everyone who was there to witness them. As long as there’s a club to return to when the game resumes at this level, that is ultimately all that matters.