I hope and pray that crowds can come back when Highland League returns, says Wick chairman
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Wick Academy chairman Pat Miller says he is hoping and praying that crowds will be allowed back inside grounds when the 2021/22 Highland League season kicks off.
He admitted that it came as a relief when the league management committee agreed this week to call a halt to the current campaign because of the disruption caused by Covid-19.
Miller said the move would allow Academy to carry out pitch improvements at Harmsworth Park over the coming months – but warned that Covid-19 protocols may still be in place when football does return.
The chairman admitted that clubs will struggle financially, although he praised the "fantastic" response by some supporters who have donated money to the Scorries.
The league management committee said it was ending the season as there was no viable way of concluding it within a reasonable timescale. Brora Rangers – the title holders and league leaders after their opening three fixtures of 2020/21 – were declared as champions again and will be put forward as the league's nominated club for the end-of-season Scottish Professional Football League play-offs.
The committee noted that the cost of PCR testing, at an estimated £1500 per club each week, would be "beyond the sustainable resources" of Highland League teams and hoped that circumstances would allow "a return to more normal activity" next season.
The shortened 2020/21 campaign began at the end of November with a 15-game fixture list. Academy were among nine teams who managed only two fixtures, while one club – Strathspey Thistle – failed to play any.
Miller said: “We have been on tenterhooks thinking what do we do if we have to start up again, and under what conditions.
“Testing was never going to come into the equation with us because of the monetary factor. It was always going to have to be that the testing would drop out before we would start.
“We’re going the right way Covid-wise but there are still hills to climb and all it needs is one outbreak somewhere and everything would be back to square one.
“For us I think it’s just a bit of relief that we can now maybe get some work done on the park earlier than normal and we can start preparing for next season. Hopefully everything goes okay and we can actually get started in July."
Harmsworth Park hosted two competitive matches in 2020/21 – against Buckie Thistle in November (league) and Musselburgh Athletic in December (Scottish Cup) – when the Highland Council area was in level one of Scotland's five-tier system of coronavirus restrictions, with spectator numbers limited to 300 and with protocols in place.
Although progress is being made on the coronavirus vaccination programme, Miller warned that clubs could still face restrictions when the league restarts.
“Unfortunately I have a feeling that the match-day protocols are going to go on into autumn," he said. “I hope and pray that crowds are going to be allowed back because that’s why we play, at the end of the day – we play for the audience, we play to keep the town behind us.
“Trying to get it back to normal as soon as possible would be our ideal scenario.
“We have proven through the couple of games that we did play in Wick that we can handle a crowd in the Covid situation, and I’m hoping that we will go back to tier one where we can actually operate and use that. But I say it with my fingers crossed."
When asked about the impact on the club's finances, Miller said: “At the moment I would have to say that we’re not the worst-off club but we’re not the best-off club. I’ve been luckier than a lot of others because the footballing squad have never taken a penny’s wage since this started, so we haven’t had that worry.
“There are pluses and minuses because we haven’t had the £20,000 bus bill this year. But money-wise there is no doubt that we will struggle, and between now and the start of the season we have to try to get some finances together."
But he added: “We have been really surprised at the generosity of the people in Caithness who have just chapped on the door and handed us £100, £200. We have to thank these people – and they know who they are – for the generous donations that they’ve made to us.
"People realise that you’re not earning, you’ve got expenses, and I think it’s fantastic that they are dipping their hands in their pockets.
"People bought season tickets and got no reward from them, but we will work something out.
“We’ll have enough money to start the season and hopefully when we get back we’ll be able to generate some funds through our normal sources.
“But the crowd and hospitality is our main concern just now because we want people at the park. Playing in front of a couple of stewards doesn’t give the players the same buzz.”
Academy manager Gary Manson said the decision to halt the season had not come as a surprise. “I've been anticipating this for probably the last month or so," he said. “The longer it has dragged on, it was more and more difficult to see how they could squeeze in any kind of season before the play-offs."