Eastwood CFC, where Nottingham Forest Women's play there home games, is empty after fixtures were cancelled. Credit: Andy Cook

By Francis Moore

Nottingham Forest Women’s boss Andy Cook doesn’t believe The Women’s National League will return this season after all fixtures were postponed and a lack of COVID -19 testing is to blame.

On Monday 4th January, the UK government ruled all ‘non-elite’ leagues of football across England have to cancel all upcoming fixtures and training sessions to comply with the latest lockdown rules.

This decision meant Nottingham Forest Women’s who play in the Women’s National League Northern Premier Division, in the third tier of Women’s football had the remainder of their season postponed for the foreseeable future.

With cases still high, and reports of the lockdown being extended into March, it doesn’t look like there will be a return for The Women’s National League any time soon, which leads Cook to believe the season may not return at all.

“Personally I don’t think it will return, not unless infections reduce further, lockdown guidelines are reduced and also with how long we will have left to play. Nothing is going to happen to our league until maybe April which leaves 12 weeks at most if they extend the league into June. If not, 8 weeks to potentially play 8-12 games. So its a big ask.

Nottingham Forest Manager Andy Cook watches his team from the sidelines. Credit: Andy Cook

“We recruited 25 players at the start of the season so therefore we have a squad to handle the pressure, and also a first class team of staff so we will be able to return and play at a good level of fitness. Some teams don’t have that and then they will struggle.

“I just hope the FA promote and relegate those who are in those positions. I feel it should only be null and void if such a thing was in place to move teams around leagues because for 3 or 4 seasons now, teams have stood still and the progressions aren’t happening which isn’t good for the game.”

After missing an entire season due to lockdown restrictions, this campaign was a breath of fresh air for many involved with the Women’s game. Andy Cook was one of those who was thrilled to finally get back in the dugout.

“It was brilliant. When we saw all the staff and players it didn’t feel as though we had been away. But unfortunately things haven’t panned out and we’re back in lockdown again.”

The season had barely begun when fears began circling of another hiatus, and just nine games into the season, all further fixtures were cancelled.

The Red’s had started the season brightly, but currently sit mid table in the Women’s National League after a drop in form Cook knew the situation wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

“The season has been okay, given the circumstances we’re in. It started off really well, but then we’ve not matched the form of the first five games. But these things happen and we need to find the solution. It’s a fine margin sometimes and we have always been close.”

Unlike the divisions above them, The Women’s National League has little access to sufficient COVID-19 testing. Far from those in the elite leagues who test their players once, or twice, a week.

As we know, testing is the easiest way to keep track of the spread of the virus, but in the lower echelons of Women’s football, where there is next to no available testing, there is no way to tell who has the virus.

Without adequate testing, it means day-to-day training has had to change, Nottingham Forest Women have struggled to adjust to the new climate and Cook is keen for a return to normality.

“No testing is available. We would only get a test if symptoms happen. So we’ve not actually been inside at all as a group, we’ve not done any classroom work or anything we could normally do with the situation as it is.”

“We’ve had to find ways of working that we never do and more of this has been online. Which I personally do not like.”

The frequent in-and-out of lockdown hasn’t only disrupted the fixture list, but it’s also having an impact on players fitness and mental health. There is very little that can be done over internet meetings and zoom calls than compared to proper face-to-face training, what Andy Cook sees as a big issue going forward.

“So we’ve maintained our training by using HIIT and players own physical plans. But it’s really just offering ways to keep basic fitness, nothing can replicate the game at all.

“Keeping moral high is the tougher process. That’s very much each to their own. I have no answers and reach out to people over text or the odd email but I’ve tried to stay away from the main football chat, as I feel that I miss it more and want to get back, Ultimately that will have to wait.”

The Women’s National League played its final games on December 20th and there is no set return date. Yet the Women’s Super League, with increased testing has been running throughout the lockdown.