“I am worried about some players mental health” – AFC Renegades Secretary Andrew Bullen on the impacts of Covid-19 on grassroots

“Everybody works hard and looks forward to playing at the weekend’s for fun, so we’ve lost players that aren’t in the same place anymore.”

Football has always been a source of escapism and forever will be. As a fan watching your team week-in week-out, five-a-side stories created with your friends on an astroturf or the Sunday League experience enjoyed by two million Britons on a regular basis.

But what are we escaping from? The grueling nine to five week that lurks over every Sunday sunset? The personal issues that enslave our minds? Or is it as simple as being given a platform to express ourselves weekly?

For Andrew Bullen, the Secretary of AFC Renegades, the worries are beginning to mount that should there be another break in the season – his club will not suffer just financially, but mentally:

“We will have a break [this season] in my opinion because we have no changing rooms or showers, everyone is getting changed on the side of the pitch.

“I just can’t see us getting through winter. There will be players that don’t turn up because of this. They don’t want to leave their clothes on the side of the pitch. Sometimes that’s all it takes. The last time we stopped, some weren’t ready to come back mentally.”

With AFC Renegades season being called null and void in March, their Saturday side missed out on a Cup Final and a potential league title. Seven months on, doubts linger over this season and whether they will suffer the same fate.

“We did go out a bit earlier than others to get back to training which helped our players. Everyone seemed alright, we are like a big family and we always have been.

I think if they had cancelled this season as well it would have been a different story.

“We all stick together, if anyone needs help we will be there to bring them through. Even the injured players, we get them to training to work with our fitness coaches, they do stretches and stay involved.”

Imjin Barracks are the new home of AFC Renegades for their Saturday side.

Usually playing their games at Imjin barracks, the Army have denied access to public football sides due to insurance issues which has left AFC Renegades without a home since the summer.

“We have suffered a bit,” said Bullen, “We haven’t got a ground to play on so I’m ringing about trying to get us a pitch to play on every week.”

Having to cater for Saturday, Sunday League and Veterans sides, understandably the costs are adding up – they are now playing the majority of their games at Plock Court, Gloucester.

This has created a new problem for AFC Renegades, who will now be paying over three times the amount of last season to play football matches.

“Trying to get hold of someone who runs Plot Court is a nightmare as their office only has one or two secretaries a day I think. We might lose points or get a fine for not having a pitch.

“We were charged for three teams, £400 for the season. At Plock Court it’s £50 a game, so after eight games we’ve paid the equivalent of a full season.

“Last season, we played 28 games last season so it’s really going to add up, unfortunately – well over £1000 without a doubt.”

For any other side the solution would be simple, get more fans through the door to cover the costs. But at grass roots level this is simply not the case and fundraising is harder to come by.

“We don’t charge people to come and watch our games. At the moment I think more people that come and watch brings more of a risk that the club could get into trouble.

“Obviously we have rules in places to keep supporters away and we have to do track and trace. I can’t see how the public can really support the club by watching. For me personally, it creates more problems than it solves.”

Guidance from the FA has helped them try to minimise these risks, but financial issues still linger:

“They’ve given us a list of Covid rules and what we have to do with supporters. Financially there’s been nothing, they have done for certain teams at certain levels but a team at our level just won’t get that same support.”

With so much grassroots football being played up and down the country, you can guarantee that these financial issues aren’t a one-off case.

However, Bullen remains hopeful for the future of the Renegades, with a long-term plan in place to develop the club into a top Sunday League side.

“We do have a local sponsor who’s been sponsoring us since day one, they pay for our match fees and training so we are a little bit lucky in that.

“As a club, we are looking for our own ground with changing rooms and hopefully in ten years time a clubhouse. Whatever we are saving in terms of the sponsor is going into that pot to build for the future.”

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With proper funding and support, the platform for football can be repaired and even strengthened. As the future looks bleaker and bleaker with ongoing socio-economic issues, this endangered escapism must be preserved.

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