By Simeon Wright
Dulwich Hamlet chairman Ben Clasper has praised the National League’s “decisiveness” in proceeding with fixtures until the government advises otherwise, but has admitted coronavirus will likely stop the competition soon.
Most matches in the three Vanarama National League divisions, bar two top-tier games, will go ahead as planned this weekend, including the Hamlet’s home fixture against Hemel Hempstead on Saturday, a move which Clasper has backed.
“The chief exec phoned me [Friday] morning and to use their phrase, the government has set a policy on this, so it would be slightly strange if we started coming up with our own. I think there is a lot of truth in that, because the government needs to run this situation.” Clasper told the News .
“If we are to believe the accepted opinion that crowds outdoors carries less risk than all those people congregating indoors somewhere else, then you’ve got to take their word that they are making that on the back of research, not guess-work. Clubs do not want to put their fans at risk.
“That’s the decisiveness they are going to need, should the decision come [to postpone or cancel the schedule]. My gut feeling is that that decision will still come at the National League level.”
The National League’s stance contrasts that of the Premier League and EFL, as well as the Isthmian League a divisional step below Dulwich, which have all postponed their games this weekend. Clasper, however, has questioned the chances of an April resume.
He added: “I don’t see how they can restart a season in three weeks, in any league of football, because we are currently in a serious situation and all wisdoms tells us that that situation is going to get worse, not better.
“The wording of the EFL was slightly different from the Premier League. It [the EFL] said at least until April; the Premier League said it intends to start on April 4t. But you’ve also got to be clear that people really know what’s happening in the future. My advice would be that we don’t know.
“To call a halt, you’ve got to go into that decision knowing full well that this could be a permanent halt. I’d rather see one season written off than two heavily impacted.”
The prospect of cancellation is a disastrous proposition for non-league clubs, whose ability to pay its staff and its bills depends on gate receipts. Dulwich Hamlet is no different, and Clasper underlined some of the complications imminent decisions may hold for the Champion Hill side.
He explained: “The National League is that level where you are in between, because it does not receive media income on the whole. Your match-day income is everything, and your players cannot all fall back on other sources of income. You are only in business because of your gate receipts.
“If you are going to suspend a season, you have got to be very clear what the expectation is for playing contracts. Do they continue? Is the season going to be resumed? All playing contracts are up next month, so what do you do if you’re saying we’re going to reconvene next month?
“Clubs made it very clear: if we don’t have any match-day income, that’s it for us. It’s not that they’re putting health and safety behind financial gain, because it’s not gain, it’s simply that they need to pay their bills.
“Playing behind closed doors at non-league level is an absurdity, because zero income at all costs is going to put every club in that tier out of business very quickly.”
Clasper understands why the Premier League has taken the measures it has [Friday], in light of Covid-19 outbreaks within clubs, including Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi both testing positive, though reiterated the importance of following the government lead.
The Dulwich chairman added: “The Premier League making a decision should not then set a policy for football. I’d be enormously concerned if any one body was overruling the government and everyone else.
“The news was that Premier League games were going ahead on Thursday. It was only after Arteta that they decided otherwise [Friday] morning. Had whole squads not been wiped out, the Premier League would also be playing Saturday.
“On Thursday every league was following the government advice, but those that are directly impacted have chosen not to; their participants [players and staff] were affected, and that’s totally acceptable.”
It is effectively business as usual at Champion Hill on Saturday, as Dulwich Hamlet continue their scrap to avoid National League South relegation, but the club has assured fans that optimal “hygiene” is a major priority during this, the biggest public health crisis in a generation.
“We’ve taken precautions with all of our staff, and contacted stewards and security regarding the hygiene and policies that we want in place.” Clasper added.
“The club has online tickets and card sales on the turnstiles, so there’s very little interaction between people, even when entering the ground. The key then is to make sure people are taking extra care when handling cash.
“I would hope that the attendees would adjust their behaviours. Be clean, whether you’re working, serving, or attending.”
The Hamlet chairman confirmed that the first team has continued to train, but a great deal of caution is being taken regarding the welfare of the players and coaches. He also admitted that unnamed players have been told to stay away from training.
“Their working conditions have to respected as well. They need to feel safe.
“We’ve had some players that we’ve asked not to attend training if they’ve felt ill. Some not even with coronavirus symptoms, because the government advice on that is not particularly strong.
“You’ve got a duty of care to people, so there could come a time where we take a view that we can’t even have the squad together.”