10:00AM, Saturday 15 May 2021
After a difficult and mentally challenging year for Rebels’ boss Neil Baker, he can finally see bright light at the end of a tunnel with the prospect of a normal football season kicking off with fans in stadiums once again.
For most of us living through the pandemic has been a struggle, however, Baker was forced to take a step back from the game he loves last season to continue safely visiting his father who was going through chemotherapy treatment at the time.
He did so when COVID-19 cases were rising sharply across the country and with few measures in place from the National League to adequately protect players, club staff and their families.
Baker was never fully convinced the season would be completed, and those views were borne out in February when most clubs voted to cancel the season and declare it null and void over safety concerns and a lack of grant funding.
However, with Baker and Jon Underwood back in the mould of finalising their squad for next season and organising pre-season friendlies, he said he’s got that desire back and, while the Rebels won’t be the league’s biggest payers, he believes that with a few more additions, the hard-working Rebels can be re-established as play-off contenders once more.
“Yeah, I’ve got that hunger back,” he said. “Being brutally honest, this last year has been really tough for me.
“Mentally, with the situation with my dad, and with COVID, and not knowing what was going to happen. I think at this stage last year I was convinced this season that’s just gone was not going to happen and so I could never quite get my head around. I just didn’t believe it would finish and it was difficult to get my head around that mentally.
“But I’m looking at it now and I’m thinking everything is going in the right direction and there should be no reason why we’re not back to normal, with the fans in, which is what we need.
“Therefore, I can get excited about it again and I think there will be a real desire from people to come back again and have their old routines again.”
Baker is desperate to see fans back in grounds again – even if that means that he and Underwood cop some flack for their decisions – adding that it’s been ‘soul destroying’ playing in front of empty stadiums.
With the return of Matt Lench and Scott Davies to the fold last week, and the new signings of Jonathan North and Tom Derry, Baker believes Slough are in the process of piecing together a squad that will be much more competitive than last season.
He said: “It’s been 15 months without football for a lot of people.
“To not go on the Saturday and have a pint, and perhaps give myself and Unders a bit of grief, or whatever.
“It’s soul destroying when you’re playing in front of empty grounds.
“That’s not what we got involved in football for. It’s been a tough 14 months, but for me I’ve got that real desire.
“We want to get back to being hardworking team.
“Listen, we’re never going to have the biggest budget in the league, we know that and are aware of it.
“There are certain maximums we will not go above with regards to paying players and therefore we won’t get a number of people because of that. We need the right people around us; the characters and we’re excited by the two new lads who have come in already.
“They’re desperate to be here, it’s not about contracts or money, it’s about wanting to be at Slough and playing in a good side, hopefully.
“We’re really excited.”
Police were called to the River Thames between Cookham and Bourne End yesterday at about 3pm, to reports that a teenage boy had entered the water but hadn’t been seen to leave.