Lower league clubs’ sur­vival is es­sen­tial

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Jim White “Be­cause It’s Satur­day”, by Gavin Bell (Pitch Pub­lish­ing, £12.99), is out now

Afew years back, Cam­bridge United hired out their hos­pi­tal­ity suite to a lo­cal girls’ school for its sixth-for­m­ers’ end-of-term so­cial gath­er­ing. No boys were al­lowed, the school’s head teacher in­sisted, much to the grum­bling an­noy­ance of her pupils.

Mid­way through the event, how­ever, the head no­ticed that more than half the girls were miss­ing from the room.

She rang the club grounds­man to ask him to turn on the flood­lights so she could see where her pupils had gone. When he did so, sud­denly across the pitch and into the stands the girls’ des­ti­na­tion was starkly il­lu­mi­nated. Un­be­known to the head, dozens of boys had sneaked in through the turn­stiles and ex­ten­sive canoodling was tak­ing place in the sta­dium.

That is one of the many anec­dotes ex­tracted by au­thor Gavin Bell as he spent the 2017-18 sea­son jour­ney­ing around Bri­tish foot­ball’s lower leagues. The re­sult­ing book, Be­cause It’s

Satur­day, is a de­light­ful tale of small-town love and ded­i­ca­tion.

It is the story of club sec­re­taries em­bark­ing on lengthy spon­sored walks to raise funds, of fans rat­tling buck­ets, of chair­men dip­ping their hands into their pock­ets to pay the bar bill af­ter vic­tory in the lo­cal derby. This is a yarn of an al­most per­pet­ual scram­ble to keep the bailiffs – as well as lo­cal six­th­form­ers – out of the main stand. But it is also a re­minder of the sig­nif­i­cant part lo­cal foot­ball clubs play in their com­mu­ni­ties.

“These clubs are so­cial sup­port sys­tems,” Bell says. “In some of the more for­got­ten, left-be­hind parts of the coun­try the foot­ball club is lit­er­ally the only thing lo­cal peo­ple have go­ing for them.”

It is not just, his book in­sists, the man­ner in which foot­ball pro­vides a sense of Satur­day af­ter­noon com­mu­nity, of­fer­ing thou­sands of peo­ple the es­capist op­por­tu­nity to lose them­selves in sport, to re­lieve their frus­tra­tions shout­ing at the ref­eree. It is also the work the clubs do in out­reach, in health ini­tia­tives, in education. These days foot­ball clubs serve as much as so­cial work­ers and health pro­fes­sion­als as they do sports out­fits.

We saw that writ large dur­ing lock­down. In so many of our small towns, it was the lo­cal foot­ball club de­liv­er­ing food parcels, shop­ping for vul­ner­a­ble cit­i­zens, pro­vid­ing cooked meals for the needy. Or just get­ting the first-team cap­tain to

If they do go un­der, it will af­fect the fab­ric of so­ci­ety to a much greater ex­tent than peo­ple might ap­pre­ci­ate

phone up the el­derly and iso­lated. As the sec­re­tary of Cam­bridge tells Bell in his book: “If a club is not here for the com­mu­nity, you have to ask what it’s for.”

But now, alarm­ingly, the fu­ture of this kind of work has been put in sud­den jeop­ardy by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. When Bell made his trip round the coun­try the idea of lock­down was some­thing con­fined to zom­bie movies. Even so, the pre­car­i­ous fi­nances of the lower leagues were a con­stant theme of his re­search. As he trav­elled, Bolton were be­ing as­set-stripped to the brink of ex­tinc­tion, Black­pool and Charl­ton were driven close to the precipice and Bury had been re­versed over the edge by reck­less own­er­ship.

The pan­demic has only mag­ni­fied the prob­lem. Stripped of in­come from spec­ta­tors pre­vented from clack­ing through turn­stiles, of com­mer­cial sup­port from lo­cal busi­nesses no longer able to spon­sor the match ball, of fees from girls’ schools un­able to hire the suite for end-of-term frol­ics, clubs’ cash flow has di­min­ished to the point of nonex­is­tence. The re­turn of crowds is crit­i­cal: some es­ti­mates sug­gest as many as 50 pro­fes­sional clubs could go bust if nor­mal­ity is not re­sumed by Christ­mas.

“One thing I dis­cov­ered was the col­lec­tive de­ter­mi­na­tion of com­mu­ni­ties to make sure their clubs sur­vive,” Bell says. “But this rep­re­sents a much big­ger task than ever be­fore. If they do go un­der, it will af­fect the very fab­ric of so­ci­ety to a much greater ex­tent than many peo­ple might ap­pre­ci­ate.”

He is right there. Un­less clubs can soon get back to busi­ness, the con­se­quences will be un­think­able.

Un­der threat: Grounds such as Cam­bridge United’s Abbey Sta­dium play key roles in their com­mu­ni­ties

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