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Devonshire: 'Next few weeks will determine if non-league football can return safely'

Maidenhead United manager Alan Devonshire says the impact of measures such as reopening pubs and other facilities this week will go a long way to determining whether it’s safe for competitive football to return later this autumn.

The National League hopes to start the new season in September if possible, with matches played in front of paying spectators. Clubs have been asked to come up with an action plan to ensure their ground is COVID-19 secure for the return of football and management teams are starting to think about the possibility of bringing players back in from the cold for training sessions in the coming weeks.

At present those sessions would need to be socially distanced – hardly ideal for football clubs – however, some strength and conditioning work would be possible to try and get players back up to speed after such a long lay off.

However, most clubs will be hoping those restrictions will be eased in the coming weeks to enable them to get back to full contact and mixed training sessions. Speaking this week, Devonshire admitted he was unsure if this would be possible but believes there will be greater clarity on the situation in the next two to four weeks. He says they’ll need four to five weeks to get the players ready for the new season, and doesn’t fancy the prospect of leading socially distant training sessions.

The league’s plans could also be threatened by a spike of infections across the country. This week Leicester saw its lockdown restrictions extended after a local outbreak of the virus in the area.

He said: “Yeah, it’s been strange. Everyone is finding this difficult but everyone’s just got to stay safe really.

“I haven’t heard anything concrete on when we’ll return. We’ve heard bits and pieces about what they’d like to do, but I think that will all depend on what happens in the next couple of weeks across the country. If there’s a second spike, I’m not sure what will happen. People are still dying every day.

“It was fantastic for Liverpool winning the title, but then thousands of people went out and were not social distancing. We could have another outbreak of the virus and more people’s lives could be lost because of people not doing what they’re told. It’s alright for younger people who think they’re immune to this virus but they should be thinking of their parents and grandparents who they could give it to. You could see that coming without a doubt. We did so well for three months or whatever, but what’s going to happen when the pubs reopen on Friday. I just fear for the people who are vulnerable really.”

Devonshire added that he’d been able only to do ‘bits and pieces’ in terms of talking to players about extending their stay at York Road, or bringing new players to the club.

This week defender Joe Ellul tweeted that ‘it was time for a new chapter’, prompting speculation that he would be leaving the Magpies this summer. The manager said preparing for a campaign when you don’t know when it’s going to start or how long it will be is difficult and he added that putting on matches behind closed doors was a ‘non starter’ for Maidenhead and many other clubs in the National League.

“We’ve been able to do bits and pieces,” he said. “That’s all. We’ve had people offered to us and I’ve had chats with people. But listen, until there’s a decision made about when the season restarts there’s not a lot we can do about it. It’s difficult for everyone at the moment. I just hope we can get things under control and get back to normality.

“It might be that we have to end up living with this (coronavirus) and if that’s the case we could have social distancing in place for a very long time and I don’t know where that leaves football.

“It’s a non starter for us to play behind closed doors because we can’t afford to do it. That’s where clubs get their budgets from. And if you’ve got no fans in the ground you’ve got no budget. It’s ok for the big clubs with the millions they get from Sky but we’re not in that situation.

“I hope we can get back by September, but the most important thing is the lives that we’re losing every day. If we do go back it’s got to be done in a safe environment for people. You need fans back. It’s no good having football without fans. The Premier League and the Championship are playing because of the money, it’s not about integrity.”

“The boys are on bike rides and runs and most of them will take care of themselves anyway because they know what’s coming up,” he said. “If training is socially distanced I might have to start at 9am and work through to 4pm with small groups. But as long as we have four or five weeks to get them fit we’ll be fine.

“They won’t be as sharp as you’d like them to be when we start the season, but would you want them to be sharp because it’s a long old season and they’ve got to grow into it. If all goes well in the next couple of weeks then hopefully in July we’ll come back to training.”

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