If everything went as well for Halesowen Town as planned, their time spent in the Southern League Division One Central would have been over in a flash. After years of struggling in the division above, last season they were finally relegated. The failure prompted a complete rehauling of the team, with an entirely new set of players and a new head coach brought in. It worked. By March they sat second, one point off the top with a game in hand, well on course for promotion.
On Thursday afternoon, all those hopes and expectations dissolved. After weeks of postponements because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Football Association finally announced in conjunction with the National League System that all leagues from steps three to six were cancelled. All results have been “expunged” and no teams will face promotion or relegation.
Although Halesowen’s head coach, Paul Smith, asserted that public health was the priority, he could not hide his disappointment. After 27 league games completed, 71% of the league season, in official terms their effort had been reduced to nothing.
“It’s been a horrible situation for us and the statement that came out from the FA has put us all in a horrible place right now because the work and effort that’s gone in all season,” said Smith. “From the work that’s gone in from behind the scenes to the owners and the board to my management staff and then the players, for it to be wiped away in a couple of sentences, it is very difficult to take.”
A total of 45 leagues are affected and all of the clubs flitting towards promotion have been charged with coming to terms with the irrelevance of their efforts. However, Halesowen’s success presents a unique predicament.
This season they have pieced together a delirious, unexpected run to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy. After starting in the extra preliminary round, the very first stage, they breezed through nine rounds and 13 games. In their last three ties, they went to the home stadiums of three National League teams, three steps above them, and vanquished them all.
After starting the season with crowds of 200, they have sold more than 3,000 tickets and counting for the home leg of their postponed semi-final against Concord Rangers, with a final at Wembley in sight. “It was a bit surreal in certain stages,” said the captain Paul McCone. “As people from a lower division you always say: ‘This is your cup final.’ Every game should have been our cup final, but we were looking at progressing to the next stage, the next stage and the next stage.”
The FA stated that it “remains hopeful” of completing the final rounds of the FA Trophy but Halesowen are the only team in either step three or four to reach this stage, which means that they stand alone on an island with no remaining league games and nobody else to play.
“If the games do get played, we’ve gotta try and find some opposition to get a couple of friendlies in before that,” said Smith. “Well, all step three to six sides have all been stepped down now. So, I don’t know how we would manage to do that.”
Halesowen’s success also reflects the transient nature of non-league football. Smith arrived to a revolving door of a football club that he says utilised nearly 100 players last season. He rebuilt the side, tying the squad players to contracts in order to foster a tight-knit team and enable fans to familiarise themselves with players. Smith convinced most of his players to step down from higher divisions, assuring them that they would go straight back up. In the end, they performed even better than they imagined but the final result was out of their hands. Now Smith must convince them to remain in step four for one more season.
“I’m hoping that everybody wants to stay at the club because of that factor,” says McCone. “In theory, we’ve got unfinished business. Unforeseen circumstances that have caused that unfinished business, but it is definitely something to get ticked off the list. The plan was to go there, get promoted and get Halesowen up the league. Regardless of what has gone on, that plan hasn’t changed.”
Smith seems to be at the right place for another attempt. The club was near bankruptcy when it was taken over by Keith McKenna and Karen Brooks at the end of 2018 and they have turned it around. The finances are healthy enough to survive these unprecedented stoppages and it seems that that the team spirit is, too.
“There’s no point of looking at what ifs and how the season could have progressed,” said Smith. “It’s so, so important that we take great pride in how far we have come … It’s been a magical, magical journey. As much as it might be wiped off the record books, no one can take those memories away from these fans.”