Lower league clubs’ survival is essential
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