These are, to say the least, unusual days to be a non-league football manager: a restless job at the best of times, even more so in the time of Covid-19. “It’s very strange,” says Danny Grainger, the former Carlisle United captain and current Workington Reds boss.

“One thing I must say is I’m lucky that I and my family have all got our health. We’re blessed with that. But it’s strange, really strange. The other day I woke up and it was lashing down, and didn’t go out of the house at all. You get a bit of cabin fever at times. But it’s what we have to do until we can get back to a bit of normality.”

Grainger has been occupying this weird downtime by helping his young children with their schoolwork – “I can genuinely say they’re in trouble, ‘cos there’s not much I can teach them!” – and developing his coaching knowledge through webinars, reading and conversations with people like Clint Hill, his former Carlisle team-mate.

There is, on top of all that, the business of “planning for two scenarios” when it comes to his role with Workington. The west Cumbrian club’s Northern Premier League North West season is on hold, months after the previous campaign was null-and-voided in March at a time Grainger’s Reds were leading the division.

They are third this time, and awaiting news on what happens next. Clubs are being canvassed for their views in the event of the season not resuming. The fear is of another null-and-void: an outcome which Grainger feels will damage the “integrity” of the non-league game. If the season cannot continue, the 34-year-old is in greater favour of a conclusion which would combine results of last season and this, settling promotion on a points-per-game basis.

This, he feels, would at least reward performance in a measurable way and not consign more months of competitive work to oblivion. “Look, first and foremost, we all understand that people’s health is most important, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think the pandemic is getting pushed to the back of people’s minds in football,” he says. “But there is a stage where you’d like to think that, at the end of this horrible tunnel, there’s some light and we are going to be able to get back to a bit of normality.

“Football, at the end of this, is a big release for a lot of people – fans, volunteers, board members, managers, coaches, players, kids, everything, and for me, null-and-voiding a second season can’t happen. If we can’t get a conclusion to this season on the pitch, the two seasons have to be put together and we go for points-per-game.

“People might say, ‘You would say that, because you’ll be the ones to benefit’. But I would still be pushing for this - our club would be - if it wasn’t us. The hard work that goes on behind the scenes, from fans, volunteers, players, staff, board members…it shouldn’t be two years of just, ‘Ah, we’ll try and glide over it again’.

“You wouldn’t do it to Liverpool or Manchester United. We know we’re not those teams, but why do Workington Reds deserve that to happen? Why do Kendal, Cleator Moor…and look at Carlisle City sitting at the top of their division and their season’s getting null-and-voided? It’s just not fair. That for me is the biggest thing. We go on about integrity in our game; for me, you lose all that if you go down the line of null-and-voiding again.”

News and Star: Workington sit third in the Northern Premier North West, whose season is now on hold (photo: Ben Challis)Workington sit third in the Northern Premier North West, whose season is now on hold (photo: Ben Challis)

Grainger did not expect his first two seasons as a manager to be embroiled in these issues. After a five-year spell with Carlisle, the Cumbrian, from Eamont Bridge, hung up his boots at 32 in a pro-active career move. He has brought positive new beginnings to Workington but Covid-19’s ability to cause upheaval in all aspects of life has set these weird new challenges.

The game, though, can handle some of them clearly, he feels. The threat of a second results wipeout, he says, would mean recent history is unfairly obliterated. “For now, we’re sitting here and, since the start of last season, everything that’s happened hasn’t happened,” Grainger says. “Scott Allison hasn’t got his 100th goal. Brad Carroll hasn’t got his first career hat-trick. Conor Tinnion hasn’t captained Workington Reds for two years. Goose [Dan Wordsworth] hasn’t scored a last-minute winner. All these things haven’t happened. That’s not fair.

“I’ve had my eyes opened since going down to this level. What these lads give up…the players getting half days off work for Tuesday night games, the financial hits they take to play. They could all work on a Saturday morning and probably make more than they do with football. It’s not a financial thing. It’s because they want to play football.”

“When I first got the job,” Grainger adds, “I asked the lads, ‘what do you want?’ They all said, ‘we want to win trophies’. I’ve been lucky enough to win trophies in Scotland, and there isn’t a better feeling. Even if we get promoted [through PPG or another method] it’s still not gonna feel like we’ve got what we deserved, because we never got our trophy. But it would go some way of saying there’s a little bit of reward here, because over the [combined] games you are the best team.”

Grainger says it cannot be right that some teams in certain leagues – such as in the professional game – went up by points-per-game last season, but Workington’s record was simply reset. “I’ve been very quiet on the whole situation from day one, but it got to the point when I was reading opinions, and it was starting to frustrate me on what people were saying,” he says.

“You have to look at it and ask what is fair. Me and Ruddy [Reds No2 Steven Rudd] spoke about it in depth the other day, and went on a bit of a stats hunt. The amount of teams in different leagues that would have been relegated last season are still in that bottom area now. On the flipside, teams that would have won the league last year are still at the top end the league. So you couldn’t turn around and say it would be unfair to relegate on points per game. Otherwise you’d be giving them a third year out.

News and Star: Grainger and Workington No2 Steven Rudd (photo: Ben Challis)Grainger and Workington No2 Steven Rudd (photo: Ben Challis)

“To be absolutely clear – I want to play, rather than get promoted on points per game, and we’ll put motions in our vote that we think there’s a viable way we can play everybody once, for example with 10 games left this season. If you’re talking April-May, you can get 10 games in eight weeks, no problem at all. If you don’t win the league on that, you’re probably saying it’s not really a full season, but it’s a much better way for promoting someone, because you’ve given them a chance of winning games, rather than a piece of paper saying you are the best team.”

Views such as these will be put forward to the Football Association survey on how to decide the season. The deadline for responses is tomorrow, with a decision then to be made by the FA Alliance Committee and FA Council. Clubs have already been told that league fixtures can’t resume until clubs can admit a certain number of supporters again.

A number of clubs are joining forces behind ‘Project Non League’, a campaign which argues for combining this and last season’s results rather than opting for null-and-void. Grainger repeats that there is enough on the records now to render this a reasonable competitive outcome.

“What we’re asking for is a little bit of integrity for the game, the competition, at our level,” he says. “If they have to stop now, because we can’t get back playing, they [the FA] have a chance to rectify what they’ve done wrong.”

Football is hardly a special case when it comes to charting the sectors disrupted by the virus. This does not, though, make it any easier to digest as Grainger wonders what will become of his positive opening to management and the implications for his team and club.

“It’s hard,” he says. “It’s two years in my own development, two years in the club’s development, two years in these lads’ careers that’s gonna be missed. You can’t do anything about it with what’s going on, but if you go back from August [2019] through to February [2020], and how much we enjoyed it as a group and a club – that first season was amazing.

“We will get back to that, we know that, but it has been a hard, tough two years.”

Grainger has to keep his squad of part-time players as primed as he can for a resumption, even though group training is currently ruled out and uncertainty hangs over everything. “You’re trying to keep the lads prepared and fit, but we’ve no end goal in sight, in front of us,” he says.

“Not long before the last lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson, one of the lads said at half-time in our of our games, ‘Come on lads, enjoy it – it might be our last game for a while’. It’s always in your subconscious. If you’re sitting in the house and it’s cold and icy, and thinking, ‘Do I need to go for a run? Is our season going to get started again?..’ That’s the hard part of it.

“That’s the bit where me and Ruddy have to motivate them, say there’s a good chance of it starting up again, and to make sure they’re ready. If not, we’ll take that challenge and move on to next season.”

This sense of suspended animation takes place during Workington’s centenary year, while Grainger’s own Cumbria Football Academy is on temporary shutdown, relying on weekly Zoom sessions to keep its many young players engaged.

“We’re lucky parents have supported us a lot in lockdown,” says Grainger of the academy, which is based in Penrith. “We’re working on keeping the kids as busy as we can, setting challenges, trying to do as much as we can.

“Kids in general are going to be affected by all this. There will be some that will probably fall away from football now, because they’ve got out of the routine of going training twice a week or playing a match on a weekend. There will be kids who go into different things now.”

The professional game, which has occupied most of Grainger’s life, continues despite the pandemic. For the grassroots and semi-professional scenes it is a different matter. Grainger says they should receive the same care and respect.

Whether or not the FA’s decision turns out to be the one Grainger and his peers want, the bigger picture for those whose lives are consumed by football at these levels is yearned for. “I’m sure everyone has a day in their head which keeps them pushing forward in this pandemic,” Grainger says. “Whether it’s seeing family at Christmas, whether it’s the first day of the football season…we all have to keep our eye on these things and stick together.

“To be sitting in the house every day not having anything to plan for, football-wise is very strange for me. Fingers crossed we can get it back soon.”