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Bartley believes failure to restart season at steps 3 and 4 could 'break the non-league pyramid'

Marlow boss Mark Bartley believes a hesitancy to resume the league season at steps 3 and 4 this month could break the non-league football pyramid and create ‘a national lockdown’ for football clubs competing at those levels.

Dozens of clubs in the north east and north west – as well as several in the south east – are reluctant or unable to resume their league season behind closed doors after the Government placed their region in tier 3 of coronavirus restrictions.

The FA has asked clubs at steps 3 and 4 to vote for or against a proposal that ‘steps 3 and 4 continue the current pause in the season with a regular review in light of the changes to the current tiers and/or grants becoming available’.

Voting on this is due to close at midnight tonight (Wednesday) and further discussions are set to take place tomorrow (Thursday) on how to unpick the deadlock.

However, Bartley doesn’t believe that blanketing clubs in the south in with those in the north is the best way to proceed and says flexibility is needed to ensure that everyone can complete their seasons. All clubs in Marlow’s league, the Isthmian League South Central Division, are in tier 2 and could therefore start playing matches immediately with crowds in attendance, however, the fear is they’ll be prevented from doing so until January at the earliest.

“It’s a bit of a mess,” said Bartley. “You’ve got a situation where clubs at steps 1 and 2 will continue to play, and clubs at steps 5 and 6 in the south will go back.

“They’re trying to synchronise all of the step 3 and 4 leagues because a lot of northern clubs are in tier 3 as it stands and won’t be able to play without supporters. So, they’re asking us if it might be better to push things back to January.

“But I don’t think that will achieve anything. You just lose a few more weeks of the season and there are implications. Players could be picked off by step 2 clubs or they could drop down to play at step 5.

“Surely the most sensible thing is to have some flexibility because tier 3 restrictions could come down south and we might have a spike at some point. You can’t stop everyone from playing because then it turns into a national lockdown for this level of football.

“The other thing is that it breaks the pyramid. Because if steps 3 and 4 aren’t playing you might end up with no promotion or relegation from those leagues and you then couldn’t have teams coming up from the levels below or relegated from the leagues above. There needs to be some pragmatism shown here but there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of that about. With the greatest respect why do the northern teams have an impact on what we do down here? If the northern leagues can’t continue now and need to do something creative to finish their season well that’s absolutely fine, but if we’re prevented from playing down here then we’ll lose players to other clubs that are playing. Some will go up and others will go down.”

Marlow were due to get back to league action against Hertford Town on December 12, but the Blues will have to wait and see if the game can go ahead. Most in their division are desperate to start playing again as soon as possible, but Bartley says there are one or two dissenting voices.

“In our league, we’re all tier 2, so we could play with a crowd,” he said. “And over the last couple of days it’s become clear that a substantial meal could be a pasty or a scotch egg or a packet of crisps so we could also have the bar open like we did when we restarted.

“There have been two or three extreme voices who said that we should cancel the season and start again in the summer. But what closely links those clubs is that they’re all toward the bottom of their respective divisions, so there’s a little bit of cynicism from the rest of us about that.

“There are rightly concerns about COVID but there’s also the mental well-being side of things to consider. As managers we know several of our players are struggling. They’re used to the physical exertion of training and playing matches and some of them are really struggling.

“To have them locked down again and prevented from playing matches wouldn’t be great.”

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