By Andrew Warshaw
September 14 – Spare a thought today for a tiny English non-league team who put the health of its players first yet have been thrown out of the FA Cup, the world’s oldest domestic knockout tournament, for refusing to play.
In a case of rank insensitivity by the English Football Association, Hollands & Blair, who play in the fifth tier of the non-league game – in other words the ninth down the entire English football pyramid – were chucked out of the competition for “failing to fulfil” their preliminary round fixture against fellow minnows Burgess Hill Town at the weekend.
Yet guess what for. Because players from their opponents had tested positive for Covid-19.
Incredibly, instead of rescheduling the game or handing the tie to the visitors, the FA, which prides itself on caring about grass-roots football, awarded the game to Burgess Hill, a heartbreaking ruling for Hollands & Blair who play in the Southern Counties East League, had never before participated in the preliminary round of the competition and lost potentially crucial prize money.
Club secretary Laurence Plummer said Hollands & Blair had appealed against the FA’s decision which appeared to fly in the face of health considerations and has wider implications in terms of potentially discouraging other clubs – at whatever level – from refusing to travel because of legitimate concerns about coronavirus.
“Quite frankly I wasn’t surprised at how the FA responded because they’re a funny animal,” Plummer told Insideworldfootball. “I’ve dealt with them before and they are, shall we say, impassionate. I only found out about us being thrown out on Twitter. I received nothing official until early in the evening asking us why we didn’t play.”
Plummer said his club did not know about the Covid cases at Burgess Hill until the night before the scheduled game. While Burgess apparently were happy for the match to go ahead with safe players who were not infected by Covid, Plummer and his executive board felt they could not take the risk.
“I asked the FA for clarification and never received it. So as a duty of care to our players and our supporters, we had to make a decision and decided not to travel.”
“Other teams in the competition have put their hands up and withdrawn when they have been affected by Covid. It hardly seems fair that we have been penalised.”
In a statement, Burgess Hill explained: “It is the responsibility of the individual(s) who have received a positive test result to self-isolate and follow advice from the NHS track-and-trace system.
“The players who tested positive are now doing the above and have not/will not be involved with the club until they have completed the required self-isolation period and no longer show any symptoms.”
There were nevertheless fears that those players who had tested positive might have already spread the infection to others in the Burgess Hill team – and then on to Blair’s men.
To make matters worse, Hollands & Blair had never been beyond the preliminary round and their name was conspicuous by its absence in the draw for today’s first qualifying round, one round further in the tournament for part-time teams.
“We feel our game should be replayed and now waiting with bated breath to see what happens though I’m not very optimistic,” said Plummer who questioned how the FA would have reacted if the same situation had occurred in the professional game.
“I have nothing against Burgess Hill, everyone has had problems. Nor is it about the money we might have received. The players come first. We simply felt we had to make a stand but we know how the FA works. It does make you wonder how much they really care about teams at our level.”
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