I plead for everyone to do a sun dance in Whitstable, says chairman Gary Johnson

Sunday 09th February 2014
WHITSTABLE TOWN chairman Gary Johnson has called for an extension to the Ryman League season.

The Oystermen must cram 23 league games and one Kent Senior Cup semi-final in 74 days, starting with their trip to Ramsgate on Tuesday night.

Nicky Southall’s side have completed half their league campaign and are presently fourth-from-bottom in the Ryman League Division One South table with 27 points from 23 games.

Folkestone Invicta were one of two clubs in the division to play yesterday, defeating Worthing 3-1 at Cheriton Road.

Eleventh-placed Worthing have played eight games more than Whitstable Town, who are battling to beat the drop.

The other game in the division took place in Guernsey on Saturday night, after a rugby match, when Eastbourne Town suffered a 4-2 defeat.

BBC Weather confirmed on Friday that this is the wettest winter for 250 years - and our non-league clubs are struggling to cope.

“I think it’s disappointing and very difficult for all clubs at our level,” said Johnson, a former football referee.

“Clubs like ours are run on a shoe-string in fairness and we’re not unlike any other club and it’s very difficult when of course our main stream of income is just not there with the weather keeping us off the park.

“It’s not only the fans that get frustrated, it’s the players that get frustrated and it’s the people like myself around all clubs at our level because our bills continue to (increase) and running costs need to be paid for.

“Football clubs are like any small business so we are dependant of playing the games so the adverse inclement weather we’re getting is horrendous for our level of football.”

Each of the three divisions in the Ryman League increased in size to 24 clubs, which means a league season comprising of 46 games, which is simply too many for semi-pro footballers who must hold down jobs.

Whitstable Town enjoyed their best run in The FA Trophy when they were knocked out by Ebbsfleet United in the Second Round on 14 December, after an epic eight-game run in the competition.

“We’ve got 23 league games to go and we’re in a bit of a difficult position,” admitted the Whitstable Town chairman.

“I won’t say precarious because we have got games in hand. We have got two or three games in hand on teams around us with teams at the bottom and seven or eight games in hand of some of the other clubs in the competition now.

“I think the next five or six games for us are really important. We need to get the points on the board.

“I can’t take anything away from anybody from the club because they’ve worked so hard on and off the field to get the team together, the management team together and the pitch together.

“On the field, Nicky (Southall) is working everyone hard with his management team to keep everybody interested.  Instead of giving people the day off yesterday, the boys got together and willingly went training.

“Nicky’s got a very professional approach. I know some of the players find that extremely difficult and it will be the same at all clubs, not just ourselves, it’s all clubs really.

“We do need to get the games done, but it’s all credit to the groundstaff and volunteers at Whitstable – and again at all clubs that keep people going.

“Some people sub-soil, giving them a greater advantage than others. At Whitstable the water table is very high. In fact our under 21 game on Tuesday night is in serious jeopardy already because it’s just waterlogged.”

Two Ryman League clubs, Maidstone United (Premier) and Harlow Town (Division One North) can get their home games played because they play on 3G pitches.

However, as things stand at the moment, artificial pitches are banned by The Football Conference.

Opinion is clearly divided on whether artificial pitches should be given the go-ahead, simply because of people’s bad memories of the pitches at clubs like Queen’s Park Rangers and Luton Town in the past.

But 3G pitches is the way forward and the quality playing surface at Maidstone United – and the worsening weather conditions – is changing the tide of people’s opinions on the subject.

Steve King, a central defender who plays for Conference South club Concord Rangers over in Essex, tweeted: “Have to say I HATE 3G pitches but was converted by Maidstone United’s playing surface.  Absolutely shocked they won’t allow it in the Conference.”

King, who lives in Billericay, Essex and is a firefighter for the London Fire Brigade, is a prime example that most semi-professional footballers hold down physical jobs and playing four games in a seven day period on a regular basis would be tough.

But while Maidstone United and Harlow Town generate match-day income by playing on their 3G pitches, other teams hire other pitches to train or play friendly matches to keep their players match fit when their games are postponed due to waterlogged pitches.

When asked whether he would install a 3G pitch at The Belmont, Mr Johnson replied: “Well, that’s a really interesting point. There’s a lot of discussion clearly from our counterparts in the county town that are pushing on and good luck to them.

“If someone came knocking on my door and said ‘Gary, we’re going to put a 3G in for you’, naturally I’d take it. I’d be a fool not too.

“It’s an extra revenue stream there that we could generate.”

But he added: “I think you need to remember football is a grass playing surface game and its history is steeped in that.

“Commercially it’s got to be good. Maidstone and Harlow have proved it is good because they can continue playing on pitches where by the likes of us and others can’t.

“3G is an interesting view but at the moment if the Football League aren’t taking clubs and the Conference won’t entertain it, where do we stop?

“If we were thinking it’s guaranteed they would let clubs through on a 3G surface, I think more clubs would go that way.

“With the current situation where the powers at be aren’t readily accepting that for whatever reason then I think we have to continue on grass.

“All clubs know the rules before we enter the playing season.  Those are the rules that we need to abide by and not just change when we’re doing well and we think we need too.

“Commercially I understand the revenue streams and getting the games on but personally I’m not a fan of 3G pitches.”

In 2011, Johnson was appointed as a director of the Isthmian League and he pleads with the league to extend the league season.

He said: “We undoubtedly like an extension to the league season and the question has already been asked, but it’s a FA directive that the league’s at our level end the season on April 26.

“Interestingly, the Non League Paper reported one league has got an extension by seemingly two weeks – that begs the question really if that’s being allowed now, maybe we in our competition and other competitions would benefit from an extension but you have to draw the line somewhere.

“It does make it very difficult for competitions to run and be supervised. We do need a common sense and a pragmatic approach to get the games in.

“In March we have one particular week playing on Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Tuesday, then of course we’ve got five games in eleven days.

“That’s a hard ask for clubs at our level, even with the dedication and commitment of our management team and players and volunteers.

“It’s hard for our supporters financially. It’s hard for the players to get time off work continually so I think an extension would be the right thing and it’s something the FA will need to consider if the adverse, inclement weather continues for another two or three weeks.

“Of course, we’ve had no snow or ice either, so the worse could still yet become.”

A solution for all leagues is to cram in midweek fixtures during each week at the start of the season to avoid fixture back-logs towards the business end of the season.
There are seventeen teams in the Southern Counties East Football League but Ashford United (14 games), Whyteleafe (14), Corinthian (15), Deal Town (15), Sevenoaks Town (15) and Canterbury City (14) face fixture back logs.

“It’s a difficult one for me to suggest because at the end of the day I am privy to how the (Ryman) league fixtures operate,” explained Johnson.

“It’s a massive and colossal job compiling fixtures. Everybody appears to have a different and a better solution than the league.

“We have a league competition board and secretariat who are responsible in making things happen and generally I think they do a really good job so in excepting that we could play more games earlier on and maybe we need to front load the games when the pitches are generally a lot firmer in August, September and October.

“Of course, any club with any Cup success like ourselves in The FA Trophy or some others in The FA Cup or anything else, it makes it very difficult and puts pressure and burdens on the clubs.

“We’re in a no-win situation at the moment, but when will it stop raining? I plead for everybody out there to do a sun dance, I really do, especially in Whitstable.”

Mr Johnson wants everyone to pull together to help the club during these troubled times.

He said: “Commercially I think it’s difficult to run a club at this moment in time, like all clubs at our level.

“I would like businesses in the town to get behind us. We are seeking a commercial manager at this moment in time.

“These are difficult times. We’re not alone in this. An extension to the league season, would in my opinion, at this stage now, would be beneficial.”

Visit Whitstable Town’s website: www.whitstabletownfc.co.uk