Whatever the league’s decision, we have to be sensible and support that, says newly-appointed Sittingbourne manager Darren Blackburn

Sunday 15th March 2020

NEWLY-APPOINTED Sittingbourne manager Darren Blackburn says Isthmian League club’s find themselves in a crazy situation during a period of suspension due to the coronavirus outbreak.


Blackburn was appointed the club’s manager last week after Chris Lynch resigned after a run of 10 defeats in 11 games and sitting in the bottom five in the Isthmian League South East Division table with 28 points from 29 games, 18 points clear of the relegation zone.

However, Sittingbourne’s game at home to Chichester City yesterday was suspended as the Isthmian League have made the decision to suspend their competition for the first time since the outbreak of the Second World War back in 1939.

“It’s a difficult circumstance I’ve taken over in. It’s not nice to see someone, to see a manager, especially someone you’ve worked with, resign from their job or lose their job,” said Blackburn.

“It is difficult when you’ve been the number two as well and you step in, probably more difficult than coming in a fresh. You’ve worked with that person and tried to support their ideas and visions and it’s not quite worked out for him.

“Having said that, Chris and I are difficult personalities. We’ve worked together but it doesn’t mean we think exactly the same, so I’ll try to employ my management style and put my personality on to the team and bring smiles back on people’s faces that have drifted away in the last few weeks with the run that we’ve had and the season has taken a little bit of a turn for us.”

Blackburn, who has previously managed and played for Gillingham-based side Hollands & Blair, has taken over Sittingbourne in a situation that none of us have ever experienced before.

Isthmian League chairman Nick Robinson issued a statement yesterday and said: “The Football Association has convened a conference call for 4pm on Monday to review the events of the weekend and the Government has indicated that it will announce whether to postpone gatherings early next week.

“The Board will therefore convene at 6pm on Monday to decide what date to put on the suspension so that Clubs have a clear view of what is happening and can make plans themselves.”

Blackburn said: “The situation is unprecedented, not one us has ever experienced something like this, I certainly haven’t in my football lifetime.

“There’s been some difficult decisions to make. I think mainly because, as well, the direction from different angles is a little bit muddied, schools are still open, certain things are still happening and I think it’s confusing people.

“You’ve got people in the shops panic buying and League’s have suspended matches.

“I went to watch Blair play Beckenham (in the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division) yesterday, an opportunity to go back to my old club and see some faces and watch a game of football. There were 181 people there and I’m sure there were big gates in league’s that haven’t been called off.

“I’m not criticising anybody. Every league has been left to their own devices to make their own decisions.  It probably would have been simpler from grassroots football all the way up that The FA came together and there was one decision and once voice and clear direction on it.

“Personally, at our club we were due to have a players’ meeting at noon yesterday and I cancelled that. We’re due to train on Tuesday but we’re going to take guidance over the next couple of days and see if we train or not because schools may not let facilities to be used. I don’t know, that may cause an issue.

“At the minute, personally, we’ll put the players’ safety paramount and take things day-to-day, step-by-step and just be guided by the people who know a lot more than I do.

“I haven’t watched the news, I haven’t had the time and I think I know enough about it and keep families safe and the elderly, some people with other issues might be at risk and try to keep everyone as safe as possible but it’s difficult because shopping centres and shops are still open so it’s still going to be passed around, unfortunately.”

Blackburn revealed Sittingbourne are not in a precarious financial position but this suspension will hit other club’s hard if they cannot play home games and pay their bills.

“I think we’ll be absolutely fine. We’ve got some cracking people around the club that are astute on finances and they do keep a lid on things and keep an eye on stuff,” said Blackburn.

“We’ve already suffered with the weather, a lot of clubs like us, have had a lot of cancelled home games so the financial implications were probably already there.

“Playing at home on a Saturday afternoon to a Tuesday night are completely different because the gates aren’t as big usually so it does have a financial impact and that’s something that I’m sure every club, including us, will have to sit down at the end of the season and look at how much it’s impacted on them before they draw up their budgets for next season.

“The main thing is making sure that everyone is safe as they can be, without causing hysteria.

“Whatever the league’s decision, we have to be sensible and support that and our youth team meeting tomorrow has been cancelled and the clubhouse has taken the route to close its doors to a degree as well.  Our changing rooms can’t be used, just following all of the guidelines that we’ve all been given.”

There has been plenty of speculation over what is going to happen to the 2020-21 season, whether to declare it null and void is one option, or suspending it for a number of weeks and finishing it later on in the calendar year.

“It’s crazy times in many ways we find ourselves in,” said Blackburn.

“Also, I feel for FA’s and League committees because they have to sit down and make some tough decisions very quickly and we all know committees have to agree on things and have rules and regulations that need to be voted for and against and you have to try to implement those decisions and get people on board and make sure it’s generic on all leagues across the board.

“Look, at Sittingbourne we’re in a comfortably position baring an absolutely crazy disaster, we’re sitting very pretty for next season. We’ll be in the same league next season but I feel for teams that are currently in relegation zones that might have games in hand because of the weather we’ve had, or teams might be sitting just outside play-offs and teams sitting top of the league.”

Or little Corinthian, who are 180 minutes away from reaching The FA Vase Final at Wembley Stadium, should they beat Northern League side Hebburn Town in a two-legged Semi-Final.

Denying Michael Golding a chance to lead his team out at the iconic stadium just because of a virus spreading around the world would be the worst pill to swallow.

Blackburn said: “It’s disastrous really for these young players, it will be their only opportunity to every reach that, they might not get there again, it’s something that they might not get anywhere in their football careers, or have been before.

“This is why we get into football at a young age, boys and girls alike, they want to play at a higher level, they all want to play at the best grounds, who didn’t dream about playing at Wembley one day?

“We all want to be England footballers when we’re younger but when reality kicks in when you get older and you realise it’s not going to happen, there’s non-league cups and you can get to Wembley in them and it will be devastating for those lads.

“We all put our families on the line every week, we leave kids and wives at home more often than not on Tuesday night’s and Thursday nights in the hope that we do it because we love the game and the rewards it can bring on the pitch and if you fall short for reasons that are out of your control it’s devastating!

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that and keep our fingers crossed it and that league’s can finish their games and teams don’t face relegation for lack of playing matches, just keep our fingers crossed that it gets back on track sooner rather than later, somehow.”

The UK’s heath department has confirmed that 14 more people have died from the virus in the UK, raising the death toll to 35.

There have been a total of 1,372 positive tests for coronavirus in the UK today, up from 1,140 on Saturday, the department added.

Blackburn added: “I feel for the families that have lost loved ones, personally, I haven’t. 

“I know a lot of our supporters and around this level are retired ladies and gentlemen who support this level week-in-week-out and they could be at risk from it.  Just be sensible and keep everyone safe and hope they get this under control sooner rather than later so we can get on with our lives.”