The largest community soccer club in northern NSW, the New Lambton Eagles, has told members it will not participate in almost all interdistrict competitions this season, leaving about 1100 players looking for a new home.
New Lambton informed members on Tuesday that the club would not be part of Arnetts, Miniroos and Interdistrict competitions but they will play in the revised Northern League One and Herald Women's Premier League seasons.
The Eagles will also take part in Zone League 1 "pending advice from Newcastle Football on competition fees and structure" and the Skills Acquisition Program (SAP) if it goes ahead.
The decision to withdraw from Arnetts, a program for children with special needs, Miniroos (ages under 6-11) and Interdistrict (under 12-seniors) comes as clubs throughout the region survey members and weigh up the risks, feasibility and viability of playing amid COVID-19 restrictions.
Northern NSW Football and zone officials are working towards a resumption of football in early July and a 14-week season to finish in October. Soccer nationwide was suspended in mid-March and clubs were allowed to return to modified training only last week.
The NSW government announced later on Tuesday that under-18 sport can return from July 1 but senior competition was still in limbo. However, NNSWF boss David Eland was "hopeful that senior football can also return to play in early July".
In explaining its withdrawals, New Lambton said the open nature of Alder, Novocastrian and Regent parks would make it difficult for club volunteers to manage crowd numbers and maintain COVID-19 restrictions.
The club's survey also found higher than expected proportions of interdistrict players would request a refund, leading to player shortages, and there were concerns over refunds if play was suspended.
The Eagles estimated reductions of $150,000 in revenue from sponsorship losses and the absence of canteen operations because of restrictions. They were also concerned with the potential loss of committee people because of burnout.
"The decision to not participate in Mini Roos and Interdistrict competitions in 2020 was not one that was easy for any us and our hearts go out to all the kids who will miss out," New Lambton told members in an email.
"As volunteers, we give up many hours every week so that others can enjoy football and be part of New Lambton FC. We understand that many of our members will be very disappointed by this news and question our position, but without certainty of all requirements being relaxed, clubs must make decisions on 'worst case scenarios' (e.g. restrictions being in place all season long).
"While this decision will not be welcomed by everyone, we hope you appreciate that our experience running a club the size and diversity of New Lambton, the conditions placed upon the club and the results of the survey together make it very difficult, near impossible, for us to provide an overall safe and efficient outcome for our members and the club."
New Lambton will refund club fees, less the government's Active Kids Voucher.
Newcastle Football chief executive Russell Henry was unsure of the process but he believed junior New Lambton players could use their Active Kids Voucher at another club or sport this year.
Henry said players would be able to sign up at a new club once they had de-registered from New Lambton.
"People are free to do what they want but it's whether other clubs can carry them or they have room for them," Henry said.
"They are de-registered from New Lambton and the individuals are OK to seek registration elsewhere or go to a different sport if they wanted to, although that would be disappointing."
Henry said the withdrawal of New Lambton and other clubs would mean more work to redesign grades and draws but Newcastle Football "respected whatever the volunteers make a decision on".
"It creates some workflow for us because we already had, going on the nominations of the teams and grades, we had already done [draws] in March and early April," he said.
"We were ready to push the button on our fixtures for the 1st of May kick-off but that was obviously put off.
"It just changes the workflow and we have a busy time ahead of us as we start to assess who is still in this and who isn't."
Northern NSW Football release on Tuesday:
Northern NSW Football (NNSWF) is delighted to announce that junior football for those aged 18 years and under will be able to resume from 1 July in accordance with the NSW State Government's announcement on Tuesday.
NNSWF CEO David Eland is ecstatic to get junior players back on the pitch and said Northern NSW Football welcomes the NSW Government's announcement.
"No doubt the announcement will create great excitement throughout the football community and the 35,000 players under the age of 18 years.
"We're encouraged that the Government has also signalled the resumption of senior football.
"NNSWF and Football NSW will continue to impress on the Government how important Senior Football is to community clubs and are hopeful that senior football can also return to play in early July.
"NNSWF and the Member Zones are well prepared for the return of community football. The Sport's Return to Play Guidelines have already been submitted to NSW State Government for approval.
"Our focus will be now be applied to helping clubs and local government authorities prepare for competitive football and MiniRoos including attracting further volunteers for clubs.
"This season has been challenging to say the least. The enduring support of the thousands of selfless volunteers who have hung in there and held their clubs together throughout this crisis is acknowledged and appreciated.
"I strongly encourage the parents of young players to continue to be patient as their club's volunteers prepare for the long awaited return of Football," said Eland.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw all football activities suspended in early March. All NNSWF Clubs were allowed to return to training from Wednesday 27 May, with the caveat they abide by the NSW Public Health Order and NNSWF Return to Training Guidelines which were recently released.
While junior football has been given the green light to return from 1 July, there continues to be no age restrictions on training for senior players and teams, who will be able to continue to train provided they abide by the NSW Public Health Order and the NNSWF Return to Training Guidelines.