Mark Carruthers: Return of competitive action is a welcome one but the continued absence of supporters leaves a sour taste
This coming Saturday will see an end to a run of 102 days without an Ebac Northern League club seeing competitive action.
Division One club Seaham Red Star will be hoping to make the most of an unexpected second chance as they travel to North Ferriby in the third round of the FA Vase
The two sides have already met as the Villagers came from two goals down before sending Mark Collingwood’s men out of the competition by holding their nerves in a penalty shoot-out.
However, the Northern Counties East League club were found to have fielded an ineligible player, so a place in the last 32 of the competition and a home tie against Northern League rivals West Auckland Town is still in the offing for Red Star.
The replayed tie also offers Collingwood and his players with an opportunity to guide the club into the fourth round of the competition for the first time since 1982 and for only the third time in their history.
The return of competitive action is a welcome one for everyone involved in the non-league game – although the continued absence of supporters does leave a sour taste.
The DCMS and the Football Association continue to send out mixed messages over the return of supporters and it seems that the roadmap out of the Covid-19 pandemic will mean making as many U-turns than the government has made throughout the last 12 months.
Put simply, supporters do not know whether they are coming or going and have become increasingly wary of the lack of clarity and consideration they have been shown during the last year.
Hope is offered and snatched away from them as conflicting information is dispatched by those in charge of the country and the national game.
We saw further evidence of this over the last week when it was confirmed that the gates will be open for a limited attendance for the Carabao Cup Final, both FA Cup semi-final ties and the FA Cup Final over the next two months.
However, in a major blow for supporters of Consett and Hebburn Town, their FA Vase Final on Monday 3rd May – which is sandwiched between the three aforementioned ties - will be played behind closed doors.
Explanations have been scarce, and supporters of both clubs deserve better after showing such patience and understanding as they waited for news on their club’s historic first appearance at the home of football.
I do have some sympathy with those in charge given the unique nature of the situation we have all found ourselves battling against over the last year.
The FA have come in for criticism, but they are having to assess the guidance they receive from the government before making their own decisions.
However, both bodies seem to be neglecting the importance of supporters in the non-league game and, as a consequence, the clubs are suffering.
The four North East clubs remaining in this season’s FA Vase have been left to contend with incurring expenses for playing competitive ties, but without the cushion of receiving any income from supporters.
The financial challenges facing clubs at non-league level have been well-versed during the pandemic and the impact of Covid-19 has only heightened the task they are facing.
Several chairmen across the non-league scene is the region have stressed that the vast majority of their revenue streams have been turned off over the last year and the strain of the pandemic is starting to show.
In my opinion, there were two options to take in order to find a sensible way forward for everyone involved.
Clubs have worked hard to get their home grounds ready to host supporters in a Covid-environment and showed great diligence and responsibility when the gates were reopened for a short time in the opening months of the season.
So why not allow the gates to open to a limited number once again and give clubs some income to work with during what continues to be a testing time.
The other option – and it would not be a popular one – would be to call an immediate halt to this season’s Vase and start again when the new season gets underway in August.
Nevertheless, the return of competitive action is a welcome one after such a long absence and I am sure that players, coaches and supporters will be grateful for the return of some form of normality.
The region has a proud record in the competition, and we know that one new name will be etched onto the Vase in early May when Consett and Hebburn meet under the Wembley arch.
It would be a remarkable end to a testing time if the region could provide yet another Vase winner just under three weeks later.
Congratulations to Birtley Town winger Robbie Williamson on being named as the ‘Best Aspiring Young Influencer’ as part of #RareReach2021 social media awards.
Robbie suffers from Behçet's, a complex, chronic condition that causes a number of painful symptoms and affects sufferers throughout their life.
It is incurable at the moment, but it is not untreatable – however, the way that Robbie has bravely opened up on his emotional battle with Behçet's is to be greatly admired.
I have known Robbie since he was an aspiring five-year-old footballer and can honestly say just how proud I am to see him becoming an inspiration to other young people suffering from the condition.
You can find out more about his award here and learn more about Behçet's via the Behçet's UK website here.