How grassroots sport in Norfolk is returning to action after lockdown
PUBLISHED: 07:00 25 July 2020
After months away from their favourite sports, men, women and children across Norfolk are finally able to dust off their equipment and polish their boots once again. Daniel Moxon looks how grassroots sport is returning
The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown saw everything from Premier League football to village cricket called off to curb the spread of the disease.
To the delight of thousands across Norfolk, football teams, rugby clubs, cricket sides, tennis players and other sports men and women have been able to train once again, with a view to playing competitively in the coming weeks and months.
We spoke to clubs from all over Norfolk to find out their recent experiences, and gauge the mood of the local sporting community as grassroots leagues gear up to take to the field once again.
The government gave The FA’s plan to get non-league, grassroots and women’s football going again the green light, with a phased return to competitive action put in place.
This comes great news for clubs like Dereham Town, who have been through “a challenging few months behind the scenes”.
Chairman Ashley Bunn said: “We were conscious to make the most of this time and ensure we came out of it in the best position we could. We feel that we have made huge improvements on and off the pitch, and we can’t wait to welcome the fans back to Aldiss Park as soon as possible.”
Players have been able to get back to small-sided training and drills where social distancing is easily maintained. Manager Adam Gusterson said they were “determined to make the return a worthwhile and positive one”, and that the players have “really enjoyed being back”.
“I am sure I speak for everybody involved in football when I say we have all missed it massively and it has been a great feeling putting the boots back on and getting back to work on the training field,” he added.
The long wait for a return to competitive action is almost over, as FA guidelines say clubs can begin to take part in pre-season friendlies, festivals and small-sided competitions from the beginning of August.
The Women’s Football Pyramid, men’s National League system and grassroots leagues can commence from September, giving clubs like Loddon United FC the opportunity to find success after it was taken from them last season.
“The season finishing they way it did was not great for us,” said club chairman Richard Summons.
“Our senior team was in a cup final and were second in the league and going to get promoted. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is and there are far more important things.”
The first team is now back in training with extra precautions in place to ensure everyone’s safety. A maximum number of 20 people can attend any given session and those who wish to train must first inform coaches so they can keep track of numbers.
On arrival players are checked in and then train in small groups of five players, with one coach per quintet taking the groups up to six people.
With that working well, the club is working on getting many of the youth age groups back into training as well with similar measures.
But it’s the return to competitive action that can’t come soon enough for Loddon, with the financial impact of the pandemic – added to the four-figure sum they had to fork out to repair their pitch after it was vandalised at the end of last year – weighing heavily on already stretched finances.
Mr Summons said: “Like a lot of local clubs we don’t have deep pockets. Who knows where in three, four, five, six months where we’ll be, but as a club we’re just trying to scratch our heads and see what we can do. There are some bright people on our committee and I’m sure we’ll be okay – it’s just a difficult time across the board.”
There is optimism that, after such a long layoff, male rugby players will be able to get back to competitive action before the end of September.
Those at Diss Rugby Club have been training for three weeks, splitting their squad in half for two separate sessions per week. After not playing a competitive match for the last six months, players are looking forward to getting back to it.
First team captain John Bergin said: “If nothing changes we’re due to play on September 26, a home game against Stowmarket.
“We have seen a proposed fixtures list where our league would be split into three windows, where in the first one we wouldn’t travel further than Norfolk or Suffolk. It’s really exciting actually, because it means we’ll have a load of local derbies. That’s great for the lads to get pumped for, and as a fan what more could you want?”
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However Katie Allcock, new head coach of Wymondham Wasps Ladies, described the timeframe for the return of the men’s game as “optimistic”, considering how difficult it is to avoid close contact during matches, and questioned why there had been no such movement for the women’s game.
“The women’s game, as always with women’s sport, seems to have been forgotten about for quite a while now. I assume we’ll get some information soon – I know we’ve had emails but certainly nothing like what the men have received.
“But the dates for the men’s game seem very optimistic – I don’t see them playing again before January to be honest.”
There were worries for a long time that local matches may not have been able to go ahead at all in 2020.
But the England Cricket Board (ECB) has given the go-ahead for games, so long as players follow strict guidelines.
Stuart Bartram, chairman of Swardeston Cricket Club, hopes their first team will be able to play a minimum of 10 games before the end of the season, having started with two friendlies last weekend.
Preparing the ground and wickets to ensure their home is fit to host matches under these new guidelines has been a challenge, though Mr Bartram paid tribute to the community which has come out to help them prepare.
“There have been an awful lot of volunteers at our club, and I imagine a lot of others clubs as well, who have been helping to make sure that our grounds are safe for both players and spectators.
“People have missed cricket – it’s a very social sport – you get to play with your mates, have a beer afterwards and it’s one of the few sports where you get to have a meal in the middle of it.
“We’ve been really encouraged by the level of interest from our own players. We’ll be turning out three teams every Saturday in place of our normal four, and we’re also looking at enabling and helping our youth, women and girls sections to play some games against other clubs too.”
Elite tennis is already back under way, with Norfolk’s own Olivia Nicholls being part of the team which organised the Progress Tour Women’s Championships which took place at the National Tennis Centre last week – she also lifted the doubles title alongside Alicia Barnett.
Meanwhile tennis was one of the first recreational sports to return after lockdown, as court bookings across Norfolk soared with people eager to take part in some sport after so many weeks of inactivity.
Norfolk LTA press officer Stuart Silvester said that “more people are playing than ever before” in the county as many new players came forward after lockdown.
“Tennis in the county is pretty much back to normal – you can play with different households recreationally, and coaching sessions are back. You have to stick to groups of six but you probably wouldn’t have much bigger groups for tennis coaching anyway, so they’re basically working as normal.
“As a county we’ve set up box league competitions, starting with a men’s invitational for the top 12 players in the county, and we’ve now started a ladies version of that and will be rolling it out for each of the junior age groups.
“For recreational players as well at junior level we’re doing a similar thing – box leagues which groups players together based on where they are geographically in the county so that they can play some competitive matches again.”
For those who like to run competitively, however, the outlook isn’t so positive. The ever-popular parkrun has now resumed in New Zealand, but events across the rest of the world are still off.
There are a number of parkruns across Norfolk, including Norwich, Sheringham, King’s Lynn, Thetford and Blickling, among others.
But all are currently postponed, with organisers “keener than ever to understand when and how our own events might return”.
Parkrun’s Global CEO said he “does not feel it is appropriate to provide hard and fast commitments”, but confirmed that events will return “as soon as possible once it is safe and appropriate to do so”.
Meanwhile the Run Norwich 10k – which had already been rescheduled for October – has now been cancelled, though participants can still take part in a virtual run.
Daniel Wynne, head of marketing and communications at organisers Norwich City’s Community Sports Foundation, said: “The cancellation of this year’s event will indeed have a huge impact on our fundraising for 2020, which has already been decimated since restrictions began in March.
“It is a devastating blow for us to cancel the 2020 event and so we have developed two options in the hope that entrants may be able to help us reduce the financial impact of cancellation and sustain our community work and the future of Run Norwich.”
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