AFC Fylde are one of 18 teams supporting the #LetUsPlay campaign urging the National League and FA to find an alternative solution to the null & void outcome announced last week. Like the 19/20 campaign, the current season has been largely hampered by the pandemic, which saw The Coasters controversially relegated via the PPG system, and now, denied the opportunity to bounce back. The chaotic nature of last season and the quick turnaround left no suitable opportunity for Jim Bentley to express his feelings towards the events that unfolded. We recently caught up with the manager to address the current situation, last season’s relegation and the unjust criticism aimed at the football club.
Speaking to afcfylde.co.uk, Jim Bentley explains his reasons for wanting the opportunity to continue:
“It is now public knowledge that we are very keen to continue playing. Financially, we have put an awful lot into this season, not only with the £10,000,000 National Lottery grant, but also our Chairman has invested heavily to help us towards our aim. There has been a lot of time and energy put in, and we feel that needs to be rewarded with the opportunity to try and bounce back.
“Last year the pandemic had a detrimental impact on the football club, resulting in relegation via PPG, which was controversial because we felt it was undeserved. There is a general misconception that we wanted the league to be null and void last season, when actually we wanted the season to carry on. We were in good form; we’d just taken seven points from nine; and we could all see that the lads were full of confidence. We had games in hand on our nearest rivals and still had Chorley, Maidenhead and Ebbsfleet to play.
“So, with all those factors in mind, we were really keen to play on to get ourselves out of trouble. At that time, however, there was an enormous amount of uncertainty around the Covid-19 virus, which led to the Premier League being stopped. There was no intelligence around the virus in those early stages and that, naturally, bred concern. Because of that concern, football clubs were eager to step away and our season was curtailed. It was the Premier League and EFL that set the precedent for the National League and grassroots football.
“For those that are comparing that situation to where we are now, they must realise that the circumstances are completely different. Today, we have testing programmes, vaccines, scientific intelligence, and evidence that football can safely resume in the levels above. Following the government roadmap, it looks as though things are improving and we may even see grassroots football back up and running at the end of March. There may be scenario where I am allowed to watch my son play grassroots football on a Saturday morning, yet cannot manage in the afternoon.
“The welfare of players, fans and staff remains paramount, but the protocols and guidelines in place have mitigated those concerns. We are in a much different position now.
“For a number of weeks we have had our own internal lateral flow testing programme which brings peace of mind to everyone at the football club. That is testament to our Chairman who has invested in this. From day one we have done everything in our power to fulfil our fixtures this season; changing the way we travel to training and away games; changing the way we train and use the gym; putting really strict guidelines in place with regards to PPE.”
The miscommunication around loans and grants was the primary reason for the uproar that broke out across the National League system, particularly from members of the North and South. The public commotion led to a two-week suspension and a vote that offered the option of resumption, or curtailment with a null & void outcome. 19 Clubs that possess the resources to fulfil their fixtures are now eager to find a way to do so, and Bentley believes this option should have been presented in the first instance:
“In all honesty, I don’t think the National League have covered themselves in glory. I understand that it is a tricky situation, but what they promised in terms of loan and grants hasn’t been obtained. I am not for one second suggesting that I have all the answers, but the league have to do more to find a solution that keeps everybody’s best interests in mind. I don’t think they have done enough to find that solution and explored every option. Clubs all have different agendas and views, so the vote that was drawn up didn’t present enough alternatives for ambitious clubs with the resources to continue. Hopefully now, with talks underway behind-the-scenes, they are closer to finding that solution.”
Reflecting on last season’s relegation, Bentley says he hasn’t had the chance to speak out about the damage that it has caused, both on the football club and himself. Many will see a club relegated because of an unfortunate state of affairs, but there is much more to it than that:
“It was on my birthday, June 11th, that I received a phone call from Jonty Castle our C.E.O. He explained that in both scenarios the league had assured us that we would be safe and relegations weren’t in play. Within three days, the goalposts had moved due to the National League North and South being awarded ‘elite’ status. I still to this day do not know how this league can be classed as ‘elite’, when the majority of the clubs within it are part-time. Ultimately, we were relegated because of that reason.
“Although we felt that it was unfair, we accepted it, got our heads down and cracked on. Now, it is that same ‘elite’ status that saw us relegated, that is being brought into question. As it stands, we are top of the league on PPG, so would be promoted if the same rules were applied this time around.
“On a personal point of view, last season’s relegation had a huge effect on my career. From November to July, I went from being a League Two manager to a National League North manager. With that, I took a 25% pay cut which was in my contract. So that decision has not only affected my career but also my personal life. Mentally it has been really tough to take.
“I am extremely grateful that I am still in work while the pandemic continues to affect livelihoods across the country, but the events of last season and this season have seriously affected my life. People from afar don’t consider those factors, but it has a huge impact from a mental, financial and career perspective.
“Away from myself, the Club has taken a massive hit. We only have five players on the books from last season, so the null and void decimated the football club. When I arrived at the football club, the players were mentally at rock bottom. There was a huge void in confidence, with the majority of players wanting to leave and even some wanting to tear their contracts up. In itself, that was a huge challenge to try and change that mindset. Unfortunately in football there is no magic wand.
“It has taken a lot of hard work to psychologically resuscitate the football club and bring in a brand new group of players and staff. We have virtually had to start again following the relegation. Having rebuilt the squad, we are now facing the possibility of having all of that work taken away from us and that is really hard to take.”
The football club’s stance advocating the resumption of football this season has come under fire from a number of clubs, supporters, managers and owners. The Coasters boss was keen to address this, and believes showing ambition to continue should be respected rather than attacked:
“I will never comment on any other Club’s position, because I don’t know their individual situation. Clubs are all experiencing different things. Some are concerned around finances, others have health and safety issues, and some individuals at other clubs have their own personal agendas. Everybody is fast to point the finger at us because we have voiced our desire to carry on.
“Some people may comment on AFC Fylde with a hint of jealousy, particularly at this level. Our Chairman takes a lot of unjust criticism for his wealth and the way in which he financially backs the football club. He has his ways of working, which people may not always agree with, but he is living the dream in owning his own football club, building it up from absolutely nothing alongside Dai [Davies]. Why should he be criticised for that? He is heavily invested in the community and given the surrounding area a football club to be proud of. He has built a facility that is used by surrounding organisations, charities and community members. I think that he should be applauded for that.
“If you step back and look at it, a lot of the Clubs that are pointing the finger are part-time, so have no understanding of our position. The players and staff at those clubs have day jobs, so putting this season to bed is a lot easier when football isn’t their main source of income and daily routine. Football is our livelihoods; we have no secondary job to revert to if this season is deemed null and void, and that is a very difficult situation for us to have to manage.”