There was plenty of frustration among non-league clubs when the temporary lockdown was announced – and none more so than at Stone Old Alleynians.
All football from the Northern Premier League down is embarking on a month-loan suspension as part of Government’s coronavirus regulations.
For Stone OA, though, the decision couldn’t have come at a worst time.
They had recovered from a slow start to their North West Counties League campaign to string together a run of four wins and a draw in five matches in all competitions.
And that sequence included a 3-2 victory over higher-division AFC Mansfield in the FA Vase first round.
Stone battled back from 2-0 to defeat their Nottinghamshire rivals to book a place in the second round for the first time in their history.
Player-assistant manager Luke Askey appreciates the need to stop playing, but can’t help but wonder whether his side would have been able to maintain their fine run of form.
“It is slightly disappointing we have stopped, but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” he said.
“The majority of non-league is on hold and semi-pro football isn’t really a consideration when people are suffering from Covid.
“We didn’t start the season too well and lost the first couple of Division One South matches and were also knocked out of the FA Cup.
“But since then we have found our rhythm and picked up some really good results.”
The stand-out was the victory over AFC Mansfield, which saw goals from Jack Tomlinson, Askey himself and Sam Bradbury complete the recovery for Wayne Brotherton’s side.
That has set up a tie against Long Eaton in the next round.
“We didn’t have the greatest first half against Mansfield and we had a bit of a telling off at half-time,” added Askey.
“The second half was remarkable and we could have won by seven or eight.
“We knew before the game that it was probably going to be the last match before lockdown, so it was good to go out on a high.
“It’s new ground for us in the Vase and we want to go as far as we can.
“A few years ago Nantwich won it and look where they are now.
“We drew Mansfield, who are one of the top sides and play in the highest division possible in the competition.
“They had beaten Gainsborough and Cleethorpes in the FA Cup, so they were fancied, but we managed to beat them.
“We’ve now got Long Eaton who are near the top of the step above, but if we can get on a run, who knows? It’s not like we can meet a league or Conference side.”
Stone’s FA Vase commitments are something of an aside, though, to the big ambition of climbing the league ladder.
They have only played five league matches so far this season, pocketing seven points, to sit in ninth place.
Askey and Co seemed on course to clinch one of the four automatic promotion places last season before the coronavirus pandemic halted their campaign.
And when it was declared null and void, Stone were forced to start all over again in their mission to move up.
There’s still the same number of promotion places up for grabs this season – and that is firmly in Stone’s sights.
“I think we were third last year when the season ended,” explained Askey. “We’ve only played five times this year and although we’re not in a great position, it could be worse.
“The league is as strong as I can remember and a lot of the teams are going for it.
“Wythenshawe Town and Vauxhall Motors are two who have squads full of players who have been at a higher level.
“There’s no ‘gimme’ results and you would say that the top half of the league could compete in the division above.
“We looked on course for promotion last year and we’ve strengthened, so claiming one of those four places has to be the aim.
“But so many other clubs have improved as well, so it’s going to be tough.”
There’s also no guarantee that this season will finish, either.
The lockdown is due to be lifted in early December, but even then it will leave sides facing the prospect of playing every midweek until the end of the season.
And a longer suspension may even force the North West Counties League to implement an alternative plan to ensure the league campaign is played to some sort of conclusion.
“My cousin James (Askey) is at Newcastle Town and there has been talk at that level of regionalising the leagues to get them played,” said Askey.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, but we could be playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday to the end and that’s not ideal for lads who have full-time jobs.
“You work all day and then have to travel around t north west playing football every midweek.
“It will be interesting to see what proposals the league come up with.”
For now, Askey is making sure that Stone’s players keep themselves in the best possible shape during their month off.
“We want the lads to do four or five fitness sessions a week – half-an-hour or 45 minutes each time,” explained Askey.
“We are a fit side anyway, but there’s nothing else to do at the moment, so we might as well work on our fitness.
“Hopefully if we do that it will give us a leg up when we do get back out to play.”