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‘Looking Forward To When This Nightmare Situation Is All Over’ – How Have The Leagues Responded To COVID-19?

Three months into the new decade and the UK has been thrust into the greatest socio-economic challenge the country has faced since WWII. The violent nature of the virus outbreak has placed the world on pause and indeed too, the ‘beautiful game’. How are our favourite athletes and our favourite teams dealing with quarantine? How will the clubs cope? When will we next see a live match? Questions we want answers to, but some questions I feel haven’t been asked are ones including the governing bodies, the leagues themselves, the organisations that run the football we watch day in and day out. Luckily enough for me, I was able to ask some of those questions; a fortnight into the lockdown I was in contact with Michelle Dorling, Honorary League Secretary of the Essex Senior Football League (ESL), and in week five of the lockdown I spoke to her non-league neighbour Nick Robinson, Chairman of the BetVictor Isthmian League.

Michelle Dorling, Honorary League Secretary of the Essex Senior League

What makes the world go round? Money. The first and foremost concern right now is the health and wellbeing of our kin, that goes without saying, but something of this magnitude is going to make a mammoth mark monetarily.

If anything, the adjective ‘mammoth’ understates the ESL’s predicament, as Dorling explained potently the sheer suddenness of this pandemic: her proactive action of undertaking “additional delivery of this season’s footballs, excess to our contracted order”, on the 26th February, costing the league “just over £8,000”, has abruptly come back to bite: “clubs were starting to run short of balls and with six to seven weeks still to play of the season we anticipated that a great deal of those balls would have been sold”. “We are now stuck with personalised old stock that we cannot recoup full costs on for next season as we are contractually bound to purchase a new design for our third year of our three-year agreement with the manufacturer. We are therefore also liable for the purchase of a further five-hundred balls and must pay a 50% deposit very soon”.

She explained that the league has “lost revenue from cup finals” and that “having already ordered” they are “therefore” “liable for the cost of trophies and medals for those cup finals”. “The estimated losses are £29k taking all of the above into account to the league alone, without revenue that grounds would have lost for not hosting the cup finals; food/beverage stock that will now go out of date as now left unsold”. Especially worrying with each passing day, that figure will only increase, bearing in mind our conversation took place on the 8th April.

To conclude, as bleak and blatantly as Robinson, the leagues “have no income, same as the clubs. We have no income coming into the league”, particularly since, as he points out, a major source of income is player registrations: in which “up to the last Thursday in March there will be registrations, every club registering a player has to pay”, has ceased.

An adjacent dynamic of the inevitable loss of income as a result of the virus outbreak is a concept vast swathes of the country have had to become accustomed to: ‘furlough’. And when commenting on whether the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme had had to be exercised, whilst the ESL “operate on a volunteer basis so do not have any paid staff”, Robinson and the Isthmian league, from a team of four, unfortunately “have furloughed two of our staff”. “If this goes on we may have to put a third one on furlough”, but to their credit, have paid “100% of the salary” for the first two periods of furlough, and are “staying” at that figure.

Strikingly, the financial severity of the pandemic and how the leagues have been affected fiscally is where the similarities between the ESL and Isthmian League, end. The sheer unrest and uncertainty that grips the nation is what ironically, unifies us all, we can take comfort that, as cliché as it is, ‘we’re all in this together’, or so we’d like to think.

Though claiming to “understand very closely” the impact of closing the league on the local community, how “our clubs are the hub” and “would not survive without the support of their community, it’s not just going through the turnstiles on a Saturday or a Tuesday… the bars are open”, “grounds aren’t just used for football matches, there’s wedding receptions, funeral wakes… all sorts of things that happen during the average week of a football club”.

A veneer of pragmatism ultimately eclipsed Robinson’s warming sentiments of football’s societal stitching; what underlay all of this was that it’s “not our job” to help the clubs, “we don’t have funds to help them financially”, “we wouldn’t do that anyway, if we do it for one we have to do it for everybody”. “Our function is to run the league”, it’s “not our job to sustain a club that is not sustainable”.

The alarming possibility of non-league clubs going bust as a result of Coronavirus is something both Dorling and Robinson recognise. Robinson believes that “yes there probably will be casualties” as “the longer it goes on, the more difficult clubs will find to fund what they have. With no revenues streams, and overhead still there, clubs will find it very difficult. If it’s three months then directors may find the ability to fund it, if it’s six months, that’s more difficult”. Dorling explained that “some clubs/leagues will not survive if they lose too great a number of their volunteer network as there are very few volunteers from the younger generation” (the lack of replacement younger volunteers being something she claims as “another problem” “grassroots football face[s]”). She added that, “financially many of our clubs have lost their only source of revenue, particularly in a league with sixteen ground-shares amongst nineteen Premier Division clubs who charge admission for games. Some clubs may not survive if they don’t receive grant funding or other sources of revenue. It is estimated that many ground-share clubs have lost in excess of £18k in revenue from gate receipts, bar or food booth takings and/or raffles”.

Herein lies the stark contrast of stances; the two respective leagues are juxtaposed; whilst Robinson categorically states “we are a conglomerate of eighty-two clubs, we can’t select one club over another, whatever we do has to be for the benefit of our eighty-two clubs”, “we shouldn’t get involved in the actual running of member clubs, we could be accused of inter-meddling” and that “that would be silly”, Dorling explains that ESL are “trying to maintain the status quo by supporting our members/committee/referees in as many ways as possible” “to ensure their survival” as the “thought that” “some clubs may not survive” and “that the National League System may be irreparably altered as a result of loss of leagues/clubs” is “heart breaking”. The thought of that impending doom has spurred the ESL into “working behind the scenes to support our members/committee by providing them with a number of avenues to raise funds”, as Dorling claims “it may be necessary to employ or at least pay expenses for volunteers to fill any gaps in their volunteer network”. And so, the ESL have been “liaising with grant making organisations; providing advice and guidance; and on occasions assistance with grant applications” as well as waiving “outstanding league debt owed by clubs and not” invoicing “clubs for player registrations from 31st December 2019 to the end of the season”.

She ends her battle rhythm with a rally cry: whilst “there are no guidelines on mandatory support, we are supporting our clubs/committee/referees willingly, as we are fully aware that their survival, and indeed our own, depends on how well we are able to support our members”. Interesting how one pandemic has the ability to distinctively distinguish the difference in attitudes between two organisations, effectively, doing the same job.

The brutal but nonetheless fair centrality of Robinson and indeed the Isthmian league’s outlook, is personified through his explanation to dismiss the season. Robinson revealed how “a number of clubs” had written to both the league and FA “because they did not agree with the decision that we took to terminate the season and expunge the records”.

Before our conversation, it was my understanding that the decision to dismiss the 2019/20 season was an FA one, upon querying him, Robinson enlightened me “the way it works is that the FA sanction our leagues, and the leagues each have a representative on the committee”. After informing me of his position: “I am a FA Council member, and I sit on the Alliance Committee”, Robinson went onto explain that “the Alliance Committee made the decision, after consultation with each of the Boards. I went back and discussed it with my Board, we all went back we made a decision, for a sub-committee, the sub-committee then went to the main-committee and the main-committee decision then went to the council for main approval, or for confirmation. So, yes the FA made the decision, they decide when football can start and finish, but it was done after consultation with us”.

“The clubs concerned” (those who had written) “are those who are not getting promoted who thought they should do”, and they thought that “we should have gone out with a greater consultation, but we didn’t. I have eight club representatives on my Board, and we took the view that we would not send out a voting paper to every club”.

Another point of comparison typifying the difference in methodology and viewpoint under quarantine between the two Leagues, as Dorling believes “the decision wasn’t made by the League or the FA, but ultimately the Government when they instigated this partial lockdown. The decision wasn’t really the FA’s to make as it all unfolded quite quickly, the Government putting the country into lockdown effectively ended the season. Whilst the FA has shouldered the responsibility, they didn’t really have any other option”, explaining that “the FA took the decision to conclude the season during a Web Ex meeting on Tuesday 24th March which was later announced by the FA on Thursday 26th March”.

Earlier I emphasised how in spite of how peculiar this state of standstill may be, we can take re-assurance in that we’re all united as a collective, but after speaking to Michelle and Nick, it’s safe to say something else unites us, for the football world at least, we can stand in union together over our longing for the return of the beautiful game.

By Aman Ahmed.

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