Pre-Season Purgatory

By Andy West

Ebbsfleet United manager Dennis Kutrieb tells Bloody Hell about his first 10 months managing in the National League South and the messy end to the now ‘null and void’ 2020/21 season…

Dennis Kutrieb’s first season in England ended in an abrupt manner in February, with National League North and South clubs voting to declare their 2020/21 season ‘null and void’. This went against the wishes of Ebbsfleet United, who had put a sluggish start behind them to find some good form and begin a push for the playoffs: ‘Our club and me are devastated. We thought that we could continue the season, things were starting to click, and you can see from the last few results that we were heading in the right direction’.

The former Altglienicke and Tennis Borussia boss knew that the season was likely to be a bit disrupted, and says his club were prepared for games being cancelled at short notice due to COVID cases (Ebbsfleet themselves suffered an outbreak in late November that led to an enforced two-week break). The Kent club do not see COVID itself as the eventual reason for cancelling the league, though, and it is this feeling that grates the most: ‘Of course, we were aware it could be stop-start as it is normal in these times, but that the league would stop from money or politics – we never expected this’.

National League chaos

The ‘politics’ Kutrieb speaks of refers to the circumstances that led to the February vote, still hotly disputed by clubs on both sides of the argument. In a nutshell, at the start of 2020/21 many cash-strapped National League clubs were hoping that the return of fans in January would provide a sufficient boost to enable them to fulfil all their fixtures through to the end of the season. These hopes for fans in stadiums were soon dashed by the December COVID spike in the UK. When it was announced that no new government grants for NL or NL North/South clubs would be forthcoming to help fill the financial void (as had been the case at the beginning of the 2020/2021 season), a number of them banded together to ask for the season to be ended early unless ‘adequate and fair funding towards COVID testing and to offset against the loss of income’ was provided.

The fallout is still ongoing. The National League have charged a number of clubs with failing to fulfil fixtures in the two regional leagues and Dover Athletic, who have refused to play any matches since 30th January in the National League top tier (whose member clubs voted in February to continue), are refusing to pay the £40,000 fine they have been given as a result. The 18 NL North/South clubs who wanted to continue also put together plans for a ‘mini-league’ to round off the season. Approved by the National League itself, the idea was vetoed by an FA Committee. As often seems to be the case with the English FA, no one is quite sure why…

The longest pre-season since…2020

Kutrieb is not hung up on the episode: ‘It is what it is…I am using the time to have a look at other players because the National League continues, and league football too.’ He faces an extended pre-season for the second year in a row (the 2021/22 National League is scheduled to start in August) and is keen to make good use of his time. Despite the league stoppage, Ebbsfleet play at the lowest step on the football pyramid that still grants them ‘elite’ sporting status, meaning they are eligible to continue training and playing friendlies despite the ongoing pandemic. Trying to retain normalcy is key – ‘of course we can get a few triallists in, but the main reason is we want to keep the players fit’. He is also getting used to the loan market, something that is almost non-existent at the equivalent level in Germany – ‘there are many teams from the Premier League and Championship with academies. All their U23s play in their own league, but it is more kid’s football than men’s football. Clubs know that when they want a youngster to play in a good men’s league, they can go to the National League, or the National League North or South.’

Discussing the signing of new players prompts Kutrieb to mention the fact that his strange 18 months in football could be about to get stranger. He was still manager at TeBe when they finally had their promotion to the Regionalliga confirmed on a points-per-game basis at the end of the 2019/20 season. Within weeks he had arrived at Ebbsfleet, who were still waiting on confirmation as to whether they would be relegated from the National League to the NL South. This was eventually confirmed, also on a points per game basis. Now there is the possibility of another twist and therefore more uncertainty – the sad demise of Macclesfield Town, who were due to drop down into the National League top tier from League Two for 2020-21, means the NL has only had 23 clubs instead of 24 in 2020/21. In order to rectify this, Ebbsfleet’s relegation in 2019-20 could retroactively be rescinded, as the null and voiding of the NL North/South this year means the possibility of simply promoting an extra team was taken away.

A complicated scenario and a complicated situation for a manager who is trying to assemble a squad that can compete at a level where going one division higher can make a huge difference – ‘I can’t talk to players if I am not sure if they are good enough for the National League, or to players who I know would never play as low as the NL South’. The uncertainty also causes an issue in the aforementioned loan market – ‘in the National League you get better loan players than in the NL South, because big clubs want to have their young players in the best league possible. The best talents would definitely play in the National League to get experience in men’s football – be it for 1 month, 3 months, a whole season – but these players are hard to get in the NL South.’

Fitness and fans

The presence of loanees from the higher leagues aside, what other differences does Kutrieb notice compared to his experiences in Germany? Prior to his arrival he told Bloody Hell that he was expecting higher levels of professionalism from Ebbsfleet, and the National League in general, in comparison to the Regionalliga and Oberliga. So far he feels these expectations have been met, particularly when it comes to the fitness levels of players – ‘even in the Regionalliga we do have not the same fitness level as here in the NL South, where the players are fit. Or ‘fit as fuck’, as we say here!’

Ebbsfleet themselves are a fully professional squad, but Kutrieb says that even the part-timers in the league have a fitness level that brings an extra intensity to the game. This has forced him to learn quickly and adapt his style of play accordingly. ‘At the beginning we had a few problems because we tried to play football in areas where you can’t or are not allowed if you do not have the right abilities, and we conceded red cards or easy goals. That was a big process to learn – where are the right areas and when is the right moment. You can see in our stats that we were starting to win games in the right moments, so I can see we are going in the right direction.’

Regarding next season, Kutrieb is particularly looking forward to the opportunity for him and his team to finally build a proper connection with fans in the stadium – ‘it’s terrible without fans as it feels like a friendly or a pre-season game, and for players it’s not always easy to play in big games…like when we played at Dartford and there were no fans in, and we explained to the boys that it’s a big derby for the fans…that was a bit weird’. Perhaps an apt way to sum up the feelings of many NL North and South fans at the end of the season that never was.

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