Havant and Waterlooville have put health at the top of their priorities list – can the National League say they have done the same? - opinion

Clubs in tiers three and four were handed a financial lifeline via the Premier League last month - £375,000 per club in League One, £250,000 for those in League Two.

Sam Magri felt ill for around 10 days after testing positive for Covid-19. Photo by Dave Haines
Sam Magri felt ill for around 10 days after testing positive for Covid-19. Photo by Dave Haines

All very handy, but those in the fifth and sixth tiers - the National League, South and North - have been told they must rely on loans to see them through three months, including this one.

Hawks have virtually no income this month - games are going ahead behind closed doors, the Westleigh pub remains shut - but must still find around £20,000 to pay the players’ salaries next week.

Leon Chambers-Parillon, right, is one of the Hawks squad to have tested positive for Covid-19. Pic: Kieron Louloudis.

While the financial woes are worrying, the effects of the pandemic have had a truly shattering impact on all at Westleigh Park. The directors will somehow find the money to pay the wages; ensuring everyone remains healthy in the middle of a health crisis is far more concerning.

Hawks yesterday placed themselves in a 10-day period of self-isolation, the club’s third in the space of just 31 days. While coronavirus outbreaks at Aston Villa and Derby hit the national headlines around FA Cup third round weekend, no football club in the top six tiers of English football has had to self-isolate as much as Hawks in such a short space of time.

York City are the only other club to have had three separate Covid outbreaks this season forcing the postponement of games. But City’s were over a far wider timescale - one in October, one in November and one this month.

Westleigh Park CEO Stuart Munro insisted he had a duty of care to those employed by his club - the staff, the players, their families, their friends.

Roarie Deacon sadly lost his father to coronavirus before Christmas. Pic: Kieron Louloudis.

He is speaking from sobering experience.

For Munro has seen the club’s kitman, Richie Pope, contract Covid-19 before Christmas and end up spending several days at QA Hospital in intensive care. Though now thankfully recovering at home, he has yet to return to Westleigh Park.

He has seen the club’s chairman Derek Pope and his wife Sue both fall ill due to Covid.

Munro himself contracted the virus, as did physio Natasha Nolan, goalkeeping coach Jordan Knight and assistant kitman Darren Welch.

Tragically, the father of Hawks winger Roarie Deacon passed away before Christmas - another person whose name was added to the harrowing, ever-lengthening list of those the pandemic has taken from their loved ones.

Some of the players have also tested positive. Teenage loanee Leon Chambers-Parillon was one, showing how the virus can strike the young as well as the elderly and the vulnerable.

Ex-Pompey defender Sam Magri - ‘as fit as a fiddle’ according to his boss Paul Doswell - spent days earlier this month in bed feeling sick, showing how the virus can strike the healthy as well as the infirm.

So when I say Hawks have suffered more than most clubs, please believe me.

In the EFL, it is now mandatory for players to be tested for Covid twice a week. The tests are being funded by the Professional Footballers Association.

In the National League South, the situation is very different. Here, it is not mandatory for clubs to test their players at all - weekly or monthly, or even seasonal.

Hawks have tested their squad for the past two weeks, but paid for it out of their own pockets - a four-figure fee both times and, lest we forget, at a time when they have no income.

They tested some players yesterday, but not all the squad were present - some were self-isolating, and one might well be positive, hence the decision to inform the league of their latest 10-day period of inactivity

Hawks will almost certainly have played teams whose players have not been tested all season. And this is not the Premier League with squads existing in bubbles - at NL South level most clubs have part-time players who could be spending time on building sites or in other difficult-to-socially-distance situations.

In the National League South, the facilities can be basic. Doswell reported that at Bath on Tuesday his team talk saw 19 people cram into one changing room. Bath actually gave Hawks both changing rooms, but obviously the team talk could only be held in one.

Hawks were due at Concord Rangers this weekend. No disrespect to the host club, but their changing rooms are not the largest either. Thames Road, in Canvey Island, is not The Emirates, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.

Hawks’ actions in self-isolating have shone a light on the National League and asked the question: What has been THEIR No 1 priority this season?

Has it been the health of those involved with their 66 member clubs, be it players, backroom staff, directors or officials?

I don’t think anyone closely involved with those clubs will say it has been.

And if health isn’t the top priority during the worst health crisis of any of our lifetimes, that is a damning indictment on those charged with running the league.

How can an ‘elite’ league progress in the current climate without the players being tested regularly, as they now are in the EFL following a rise in national infection rates?

Forget the nonsense about players not socially distancing while celebrating a goal - a tool to beat footballers with by politicians trying to cover up their own shortcomings and policy disasters - the lack of testing is a major problem to people’s health at Hawks’ level.

After all, apart from the quality, there is nothing between an EFL match involving Pompey or one two divisions lower involving Hawks. Same amount of players, same tackles going in, same jostling in the penalty area at corners.

But one big difference - no mandatory testing in the National League South.

How can the league continue without it?

The National League have allowed a situation to develop where one of their member clubs - Hawks - are scared to play.

‘Scare’ is an emotive word, but that is where we are.

A player’s father has passed away, the club’s kitman was close to death, directors have been very ill. Some of the fittest adults in the county - how many people do you know that could get through 90 minutes of an ‘elite’ football match? - have been struck down.

Havant & Waterlooville are scared they could be adding to that total by carrying on doing what they love - playing football.

That is the stark reality of ‘elite’ sport in January 2021. And the ball is now in the National League’s court as to what the hell they are going to do about it.