A day before his side’s 3-0 FA Trophy win against Kettering Town. Leamington FC manager, Paul Holleran, spoke to Birmingham Eastside.
He addressed the pandemic, transfers, and progress at the club he has served for over 10 years.
The twelfth man
For Holleran, a noticeable part of playing, or watching, sport in the pandemic, is the lack of fans. This takes a lot of getting used to.
“I remember watching the FA Cup Final and thinking, Oh, this is awful. For us, playing behind closed doors, you know, it was really difficult to start with, but you do sort of get used to it.”
But there is a silver lining to this cloud. Much of the pressure on players, and the advantage that a large opposition following can bring, is negated.
There have been times where this has greatly aided the Leamington cause.
“We went three nil down at halftime against Alfreton. It wouldn’t have been ideal for the players coming off at halftime then. There would have been a lot of disappointed supporters, and rightly so.
“You’ll always get sections that will vent that. We didn’t have that scenario; we were able to regroup and managed to recover.”
Holleran’s men didn’t just recover on that day against Alfreton. Four second-half goals blew away the opposition.
Jack Edwards’ winner came in the second minute of added time, a sight that fans surely would have loved. However, maybe their added pressure wouldn’t have afforded the players as much freedom to mount a comeback.
Tightening up the purse strings
Many of the Premier League’s big guns threw about money on expensive new signing during the summer, and now in the January transfer window.
At the other end of the spectrum, Leamington and many other non-league clubs, have had to make savings where they can. The pandemic has cut off large portions of revenue.
“I know for a fact, certainly in step three and four, there’s a lot of a lot of football clubs that haven’t handed out contracts this year, because of the pandemic. So, a lot of players are non-contract, which means they’re week to week.”
The pandemic has reduced the financial stability of clubs and players. Many players at step six and below of the football pyramid have full time jobs on top of their football contracts.
For a club on the up like Leamington, the pandemic may mean their squad doesn’t have the depth that it might otherwise have had.
“Maybe any other year where we are now. I’m pretty sure the club would be going, ‘go on let’s go and get another one or two and keep improving.’
“I think at the moment with so much uncertainty, I think a lot of football clubs would run football this year, more as a business.”
It could be the bottom line, that prevents them from playing at the top of their game.
From Premier League to non-league
Of the players that Leamington were able to sign a handful were players released by the academies of larger football clubs. Though many of these player will have learned a lot in academies, playing time is often hard to come by.
Paul stated that there can be quite a learning curve for players dropping to the National League level.
“Sadly, when you come out of that kind of environment, you’ve then got to try and find a way in non-league football, which is a completely different animal altogether.
Paul separated this ‘different animal’ into two areas that prove challenging for young players. The sheer number of games can wear down someone physically.
“(In youth football) it’s not very often you play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, the fact is that you’re not playing 40, 50 or 60 games a season. That’s something that non-league players have to do, as well as holding down a full-time job.”
The importance of each and every game, is something that is hard to replicate in an academy environment.
“The mental side of it is, all of a sudden, they’re coming into changing rooms where every period of the game, every tackle, every pass, means something, there’s something on every game.”
This adjustment to playing competitive matches regularly, is why Paul believes that academies should make sure their players get this experience, by loaning them out.
With Holleran having managed the club for over 500 games, he has had a lot of time to observe the long-term changes around the club. Off the pitch, the club has come on leaps and bounds.
“Look at the work that’s been done on the ground, the improvements of the ground, you look at the improvement of the community’s scheme, the academy scheme.
“The ground has become almost unrecognizable over the last 10 years.”
It could become even more unrecognizable, with plans in place for a new stadium closer to the centre of Leamington.
But the improvement isn’t limited to stadium development and community projects. The football being played has improved, and taken the club to new heights.
“On the pitch, bit by bit, we’ve gradually built a side that came up from step four (of non-league) to step three.
“In all honesty, it’s probably a step three football club, but we’ve managed bit by bit to build it up into a very competitive step two football club.”
With the club sat comfortably in Eighth in the National League North, and in a good run of form. This ‘step three’ football club, doesn’t look like it will be dropping out of step two any time soon.
How has the pandemic affected how you watch sport? When should fans be allowed back into stadiums? Comment below with your thoughts.