With 11 games still left to play, Newhaven were very much in a Southern Combination Football League Premier Division title race when it was prematurely brought to an end by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has swept across the globe.
The news came out on Thursday that the season was going to be declared null and void and all results will be expunged for men’s leagues below and including Step 3 of the National League System (NLS) and for women’s leagues below and including Tier 3.
Eight points off leaders Lancing may sound significant, but the Dockers had two games in hand and had won 13 out of their previous 14 league fixtures, drawing the other one, as they raced up the table. That run included nine consecutive victories, up until the early ending, and no points were dropped in a rain-affected 2020.
But was it the correct decision to end the season and void all results from August? Joint-manager Sean Breach admits he has been torn on the matter.
“My initial instinct was disappointment,” said Breach. “However, I have been torn on this matter. With the form we were in I ideally wanted the season to carry on. However, the longer it went on we knew that wasn’t an option.
“We all have ambitions to go as high as we can so to potentially be promoted on points per game would have been nice, and for Cooky and I to lead Newhaven to the Isthmian League would have been even more special. But on the flip side its not really how I want to gain promotion.
“I keep saying it, for me football is about moments and if you win the league or gain promotion you want that moment of it happening. Not to get an email to say ‘you’ve been promoted’, so yeah, I’m sitting on the fence with this one. Whether it was the right decision, I don’t know. I do know it was probably the easiest one to make.”
So a season that we put SO MUCH time and effort in to (for absolutely nothing in return) has just been null and voided. For us it’s a hard decision but it is what it is & no point dwelling on it. We got ourselves in to a such a great position & proud of the lads for the season ❤️
— Sean Breach (@Regiblinker16) March 26, 2020
And fellow manager Andy Cook agreed. “It didn’t surprise me,” said Cook. “It was probably the most convenient decision for the FA. However, it doesn’t necessarily make it right, as those teams in with a shout of winning something or getting promoted, like us, won’t be pleased at all.
“The worst thing about it is it just feels like the last nine months have been a complete waste of time and energy. Having said all this, there are far, far more important and significant events going on around the world and it makes football almost irrelevant in some ways.”
So did the early finish stop Newhaven catching the leaders and potentially clinching a first title since 1974? “Yes, we actually believed we would win it,” said Cook. “We have been on such a run since late November, early December and have beaten all the top teams around us. And with Lancing having a few tricky games left we felt they would slip up.”
Breach was in agreement and added: “We were in great form, we had no injuries and real squad depth. The best since I’ve been at Newhaven. Out of the top five we only had Peacehaven at home to play, where as Lancing had Eastbourne Town and Peacehaven to play.
“Eastbourne Town, Peacehaven and Horley all had two or three games against each other as well. Plus, all of those sides (apart from Eastbourne Town and us) had to go to AFC Uckfield Town which for me is one of the toughest places to go in the league.
“I am sure all the other sides would have also been confident of title success. It has been a great season to be apart of and it is such a shame that we don’t get the run in we all deserve.
“It’s been a very strong league this year. Naz has done a superb job with Lancing and its no secret they play great football on their 3G surface. Shutty at Peacehaven needs a mention as well and I am gutted for him that the season has ended. What a run they had in the Senior Cup! And potentially two cup finals for him as well.
“As I say it shows how strong the teams in this league have been and we haven’t had this many sides fighting for the title in four or five years plus.”
Six games in to the season it didn’t look like a promotion push would be on the cards for Newhaven. Just a solitary victory against Loxwood on the opening day, along with defeat at AFC Uckfield Town and four draws – in which they lead 3-0 and 3-1 in two of them – meant the Dockers were languishing around the bottom half.
So what did the managers put the slow start to the season down to?
“We lost so many players in pre-season,” said Breach. “I am pretty sure I counted that we lost 12 of our squad that ended the 2018-19 season. For a club like us it hurt us.
“You look at the squad now and only eight were here at the start of the season. And from those eight we had injuries to Robbo [Lee Robinson], Robbie Keith and Cal Connor. Cooky and I seemed to constantly be scrambling for players, especially at centre back. We were playing players out of position.
“Once the likes of Ian Robbo, Tristan [Jarvis] and Henry [Watson] came back we were much stronger. Then we acquired players like Mo [Diallo], Alfie and Bailie Rogers and Matias [Torres] and we were able keep a consistent side out with players playing in position.”
And Cook cited availability for the early struggles: “We didn’t have the squad we wanted at the start of the season and availability was hit and miss.”
“It took a while to get the players in that we wanted, after a few had decided to try their luck a bit higher up. But when that didn’t work out and they returned we became stronger, better and more consistent.”
After steadying the ship, a wobble followed in late October/November which saw the Dockers lose four out of six games in all competitions. But then came a scintillating run that saw Newhaven pick up 40 points from the next 42 available.
Cook puts the upturn in form down to confidence and added: “I always say that winning is a great habit and once we turned the corner we got better and better. And also, as I said previously, the squad settled down and availability of players was far more consistent.”
And Breach put it down to the players they had available from November onwards: “Mo came in and hit the ground running and scored 12 in 12,” he said. “It took the pressure off Robbo who was still recovering from his injury and Cal Connor was also struggling with different knocks. Tom Cooklin and Rob Malila coming back from their universities was huge for us as well.
“But football at all levels is about confidence and momentum, and once we got that in us you could see we were a totally different side to that of the first three months.”
One of the reasons for Newhaven’s lofty position in the table was their record against the other members of the ‘top five’. Of the seven matches against their promotion rivals, the Dockers didn’t lose any of them – winning five and drawing two.
So the managers must have been impressed by the mentality shown by their players in big games?
“Absolutely,” said Breach. “We managed to grind out two draws against Lancing and Eastbourne Town earlier in the season when we weren’t at our strongest. The Eastbourne game we were probably fortunate to draw that one.
“But we enjoy playing at the Saffrons and got a great 4-3 win there. We beat Peacehaven away on Boxing Day, beat Horley away 4-1 and that could have been a lot more, and the same with Lancing when we won 3-1. The lads enjoy playing the top sides and playing in the bigger games.
“Maybe due to our slow start sides never saw us as a title threat or a big game? I saw a few comments on social media but within our group we always knew what we were capable of. That’s why Cooky and I were so desperate to keep these lads who wanted to go and play higher at the start of the season as I knew what they could do together as a group.”
And Cook added that games against the top sides has never really been an issue. “It’s strange but over the years we have always been decent against the top sides and this season was no different,” said Cook. “In fact we were at our very best against those at the top around us. We seemed to turn up and just believe we were going to win.”
When Cook and Breach took over full-time in 2014, they spent the first three seasons winning trophies – claiming the Peter Bentley Cup in 2014/15 and then back-to-back RUR Cups in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
So having built a foundation of cup successes early in their times at the helm, were they disappointed to exit the cups relatively early in the season?
“Yes and no,” said Cook. “The league is where our focus was from the end of last season, and although we didn’t deliberately exit the cups early it was a bit of a blessing in disguise as it meant we could focus all our efforts on the league.”
But Breach was less forgiving and said: “100%. I mentioned previously about moments in football and the three cup wins are right up there as the best days I have had in football. Cooky and I always take the cups seriously.
“We had a good run in the Vase. In the FA Cup we had to rest players away at Whistable as with the squad we had, and the injuries we had, we couldn’t have competed against Eastbourne Town on the Bank Holiday Monday two days later.
“In the RUR Cup we lost away at Pagham in what was probably our worst performance in two or three years. Again, we had no recognised centre backs and it cost us.
“And in the Peter Bentley Cup we went out early to Lancing. We were very good to be fair. 1-0 up and had played with ten men for 35 minutes. The referee fancied playing two minutes longer than the additional time he stated and they scored with the last kick of the game and went on to win in extra time. Hopefully we can put this right next season.”
With the world’s events rightly taking precedence at the moment, it is hard to predict exactly when we will be back playing football. But are the managers confident of keeping the squad together and pushing for silverware again next season, whenever that might be?
“I would like to think so, yes,” said Breach. “The one thing I have learned in management is don’t count on anything until that form is signed.
“Obviously Cooky and I haven’t yet spoken to the lads and I am sure a lot of interest will be shown in them, and rightly so. But I am hoping they can see what a fantastic group they are together. They are young lads, hungry to win things, get on very well and are top players.
“They have all the ingredients to be a top side in this league and I just hope this premature (and possibly unjust) ending has got them wanting to come back stronger and from the very beginning this time. Cooky and I are lucky that we have a great group of loyal lads who love playing for Newhaven. So I am sure the calls will start soon and the planning starts all over again.”
And Cook agreed, adding: “We certainly hope so and the lads were certainly enjoying their football so why not? If I was a player I would be saying let’s stick at it and give it another big shot.”
Unfortunately, it will go down as the season that never was. But do the managers have any standout memories from the previous nine months?
“There were some nice wins, especially against teams near the top,” said Cook. “Beating Lancing at home was decent as they were flying and the win away at Eastbourne Town was enjoyable. It was a fantastic game.
“Then there was the boxing day victory at Peacehaven which we all thoroughly enjoyed!”
And the derby win was at the front of Breach’s mind as well. “I love a local derby! So I would say beating Peacehaven on Boxing Day. We were the underdogs on the day with league positions, and in front of a big crowd away from home – that stands out for me.
“Also, the Saltdean game where we blew them away 5-1 and it could have been a lot more than that on the night. It was another derby and we were superb, and they had some top players playing for them that night.”
We now wait to hear when the next season might start, but in the meantime, do as you’re asked to do. Stay safe, and keep your friends and family safe.
Please keep a close eye on the website and social media channels as we get the views of managers and club officials in what are testing times for everyone.
Photo: Steve Mills