This pandemic will be without doubt, the biggest upheaval in peace time, sport, not just football, will face. Rarity and magnitude combine to create a situation as complicated and unprecedented as this; a spotlight should be shone on how our non-league football clubs are dealing with such an encounter. I cast the net and contacted a number of non-league clubs to explore the affects of the virus outbreak and was thankful to be met by Andy Wilkins (Media Officer for Southend Manor FC), Norman Posner (Secretary of Hornchurch FC), Anthony Mercer (Secretary of Tilbury FC) and Greg Lake (Chairman of Billericay Town FC).
Once the nation was resigned to the confines of their own homes the ensuing weeks were filled to brim with rumours, headline stories and breaking news of the damaging financial effects of COVID-19, with high profile Premier League clubs exercising (and in some cases reversing) the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, placing their staff on ‘furlough’ in a bid to dampen the severity of the coinage consequences. Transfer market budgets reduced, season ticket prices frozen, sponsorships terminated, the list is endless and quite frankly decimating; one can’t bear to think of just how alarming this must be for those in the lower echelons of the sport.
“It’s a disaster” is how Mercer damningly describes it. “Since everyone was told to close down the club has been shut, literally shut, not been opened since”. Posner explains that “we have no income coming in, no income at all. Our normal income is obviously gate receipts and functions held in our club house, and then on match days – use of the bar. None of that is happening, no income is coming in”. This is a situation synonymous with the landscape of non-league football and will ring true for all non-league clubs as they attempt to steady the same boat. This exact dynamic will duplicate up and down the country. In fact, Wilkins outlines to me just how terrifying this horror story really is: “COVID-19 has hurt us badly in the pocket financially with an anticipated £2500 plus lost in our own gate fees over the course of March and April’s home fixtures we were due to play. Coincidentally, we were due to host YouTube side Hashtag United on March 14th and that would’ve brought in about a predicted £1000 at least from sales in the bar, gate and programmes due to the monumental size of their fanbase. We also predicted our home games against Saffron Walden and Woodford Town to bring in at least £350 plus apiece if not more due to the size of their fanbases.” He adds that “we were also scheduled to host a few more league games involving our tenants Clapton with Hashtag set to come play them as well at our ground later on in March, that game potentially making us miss a good £300 plus. I predict the loss of finances from those Clapton games has resulted in a loss of about £1500. We were also due to host a few cup finals and charity matches so we’ve lost an added £250 to £500 there as well. So in total, I predict in general we’ve lost about near enough £5000 at least, due to the season being cancelled early”. The pains are exacerbated as Mercer points out “the season was going really well , so the worst thing for the club and for the players and supporters is that we weren’t able to finish the season, hopefully in the playoffs: where we would have had a play-off semi-final at the end of April and a play-off final in May. The idea was to try and get promotion, that’s affected the club, it’s a real dent, we were going really well”. Time and energy has been wasted, and Posner explains, investment too: “you invest, we’ve had an investment to do what we’ve done this season, whether you think that investment has been wasted, maybe it has because we haven’t got anywhere. We wanted to get promotion to the Conference, but we haven’t, and we won’t, so we go back”.
The replication and dismantling of clubs, in the same manner as Bury FC, is a daunting but nonetheless inescapable possibility that may well come to fruition for many non-league football clubs as a result of the pandemic. Mercer accepts that “if it goes on for a long period of time, clubs at this level may go out of existence”, which he believes is “demoralising really”. Wilkins states that “I don’t wish this on any clubs but I think we will see a lot of clubs realising after this pandemic that they can’t spend outside of their means anymore and what you say is your budget for the season will need to be reimbursed, whether it be via cup run money, gate money or sponsorship money”, adding that, “I can see a few clubs in non-league withdrawing from their current league to go in a lower division as there won’t be the budgetary problem in some of them, unlike if they were to stay in a certain league they’re in. But the complications will be crazy and monumental should any fold or even withdraw between now and the start of the new football season, once the constitutions are drawn up”. Times like this cry out for optimism and Norman put forward a more sanguine view in his reply to the same question, “to be honest, no I don’t. But, football will be different. I think clubs will survive, somehow, you do, you do survive. And I mean the word ‘survive’, I don’t think there will be any clubs at our level that will go bust, that will go out of business, no I don’t think so. Because the people that run the clubs want to keep the club going, if they can’t pay X pounds, they’ll have to pay X divided by two, and get that type of player, to keep that club going. I think most clubs would want to keep going, I don’t think they’ll just pack it in – that’s a personal opinion there”.
But it’s not just this season that’s affected, or indeed defected, but future plans and ambitions are seemingly being halted too, as Lake explains, “we are on record saying that we were going to replace our pitch with an artificial one next season and build a second artificial pitch on adjacent land. We have no idea if we can continue with that major investment. At the moment, we might still need the current pitch to finish the season. Will people even be allowed to do the work? Will there be a second period of isolation for everyone which impacts the start of the next season and the revenue to pay for those pitches? Would anyone invest a hefty sum of money in football or sport in general with the current uncertainty?”. Again, this cautiousness is parroted, as Mercer explains that “the club are going in the direction of building a new ground, we’re just waiting on planning permission from the local authority. The plan was for that to go the local authority in the summer, but unfortunately that will get delayed. The plan is to build a new ground and then houses and flats to be built on the current site, but if we get into any kind of recession, that will slow the process down”.
It’s clear how prevalent the sympathy pains between each club are, they stand in union showcasing the same scars, but one area in which there seems to be less of a consensus involves the decision to null and void the 2019/20 season. Posner believes that though “we would have definitely got a playoff place”, “I think the league made the correct decision to call it null and void”, as he adds “you’re going to upset some people whatever you do. I don’t see what else they could do”. Mercer believes that “I don’t think there was any other decision really, because the season has to finish by the first week of May and that’s never going to be, so it’s the same for everyone. We as a club, we spoke and we said that it’s out of our hands, if that’s what they decide then we go with it”. He explains that “unfortunately, the Premier League and the level we’re at, in a way in my opinion, it’s a different sport because money talks in the Premier League. If you can/going to null and void it, you should have started from the top and go straight to the bottom, but what’s happened is we’ve gone from our league up to the National League and the Football League and the Premier League are having their different way of dealing with it”. Whilst feeling the decision to null and void was fair, Mercer points out that “when there was talk about the season being null and void, I would have thought the FA, and it’s not the League’s issue, I thought the FA may have wanted to get a straw poll of what clubs wanted, but they left it to the Leagues. I thought we would have had more communication from the Football Association on it, but it wasn’t to be. I thought the FA may have asked for the views of the clubs, but they didn’t, they left it in the hands of the League, and we’ll support the League, we’ve supported the League in their decision”. Wilkins echoes this by categorically stating that, “I don’t support the decision by the FA at all and I feel somewhat like they’ve disregarded us at Steps 3-7 like nothing more but little squashes of air in fairness. I will feel very annoyed should the Premier League and even the EFL be allowed to finish their seasons given we weren’t exactly given a choice for us to say we’ll finish our season in June or July which I know many have wanted for a decision”.
What is for certain, is that for all football clubs in the non-league pyramid, this is an ever-changing and fluid state of disorder and turmoil; we can only hope that whenever the new normal surfaces, that there are as few casualties as possible.
By Aman Ahmed.