Non-League primed for sur­vival fight in the post-Covid era

In the first of a five-part se­ries on the state of the game, Jim White looks at the per­ils clubs face, and why com­mu­nity spirit may just be their saviour

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football -

In March, Paul Lyon had never heard the word “fur­lough”. Six months on the fi­nance di­rec­tor of Ox­ford City cred­its the pol­icy, brought in by the Southamp­ton­sup­port­ing Chan­cel­lor Rishi Su­nak, for en­sur­ing his club will be able to start the new Na­tional League South sea­son.

“No doubt about it, we would have had to let every­one go, all the play­ing staff, the ground staff, the com­mu­nity team, all of them,” Lyon says. “But thanks to the fur­lough scheme we could keep every­one.”

He pauses be­fore adding: “That, though, is when it will get re­ally chal­leng­ing.”

Lyon (be­low) reck­ons it is be­cause of gov­ern­ment emer­gency sup­port that, like Ox­ford City, all of the other 67 clubs in the three di­vi­sions of the Na­tional League will start the new sea­son on Oct 3.

In­deed it might be re­garded as a strength of the non-League game in this coun­try that dur­ing the pan­demic only Droyls­den FC, in the North­ern Premier League, folded.

Now, how­ever, as they pre­pare to res­tart the game, non-League clubs will be tak­ing staff off fur­lough.

Re­turn­ing every­one to the pay­roll when the clubs have had no in­come for six months and there is such un­cer­tainty about how quickly they will be able to gen­er­ate new and mean­ing­ful rev­enue is the most press­ing is­sue.

“I fear there will be fur­ther ca­su­al­ties,” says Bill Water­son, co-chair­man of Al­trin­cham FC, newly pro­moted to the Na­tional League. “No­body knows pre­cisely how they can op­er­ate in the new sea­son. At this level clubs tend to live hand to mouth.”

The Foot­ball League sea­son starts on Sept 12, with the hope of be­ing able to bring back limited crowds from Oct 3. The Na­tional League, how­ever, recog­nised that its clubs, with­out any broad­cast­ing rev­enue, sim­ply do not have the re­sources to play even for a cou­ple of weeks be­hind closed doors. So it was agreed that the new sea­son would be con­densed to eight months, with fixtures be­gin­ning on Oct 3 when the fans – and their cash – can re­turn.

The prob­lem clubs face is that no­body knows how many of those sup­port­ers will be al­lowed back or how many will even want to re­turn, with fears of a sec­ond pan­demic wave still a con­cern. The Na­tional League has asked clubs to do their own fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies on how to keep crowds so­cially dis­tanced, as­sess­ing cri­te­ria such as the size of the sta­dium con­course, cir­cu­la­tion space and the ease of ex­its.

Re­ports have been sub­mit­ted to lo­cal au­thor­ity health and safety de­part­ments, but few de­fin­i­tive num­bers have been of­fered, so sea­son ticket re­newals, cru­cial to ev­ery club, have not been is­sued.

De­mo­graph­ics, at this level, play a part and sug­gest a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of sup­port­ers are well over 60 and may not wish to rush back.

“I think this is a se­ri­ous con­cern for many of our regulars,” Lyon says. “Yes we get stu­dents and ground-hop­pers, but a lot of the fans are older. Will they come pil­ing back or will they hold off?

Which is why Lyon, like many non-League di­rec­tors, is con­cerned about other as­pects of his club’s in­come stream, not just gate re­ceipts.

“We have a 3G pitch which is hired out ev­ery day,” he says. “We have a bar that pro­vides food and drink, darts teams, yoga clubs, fes­ti­vals and youth tour­na­ments. All of that went with lock­down.”

At Na­tional League Maiden­head United, the issues are the same. “We have a five-a-side pitch next to the ground that is a lit­tle gold mine,” says the club chair­man, Peter Grif­fin. “That closed overnight, along with our func­tion suite and bars. What we don’t know yet is how much of our nor­mal ac­tiv­ity we will be able to re­open.”

Such un­cer­tainty has fed di­rectly into fi­nan­cial plan­ning, and Wrex­ham, one of the big­gest non-League clubs, have en­forced a 40 per cent re­duc­tion in their play­ing bud­get and Water­son ex­pects to see oth­ers obliged to be sim­i­larly fru­gal.

“One thing non-League clubs can do very well is turn the taps off mid­way through a sea­son,” he says. “You in­vest to make a run for pro­mo­tion, but if it doesn’t hap­pen, the con­tracts mean you can re­lease play­ers. I ex­pect to see a lot of clubs do­ing that if things don’t pick up.”

One area of un­cer­tainty is how preva­lent lo­cal lock­downs be­come, bring­ing in­evitable dis­rup­tion.

As they an­tic­i­pate fu­ture cur­tail­ments and de­lays, many clubs have changed the du­ra­tion of play­ers’ con­tracts, ex­tend­ing them from the stan­dard 39 weeks to 52, though with no in­crease in cash.

In­deed, for non-League play­ers, one thing is cer­tain: there will be less money around. At Maiden­head, Grif­fin has been alerted to sev­eral for­mer League play­ers who have de­cided to turn part-time, see­ing their play­ing fu­ture more likely to in­volve us­ing foot­ball to sup­ple­ment their in­come rather than de­pend­ing on it.

“Our play­ers have been bril­liant,” he says. “They are not on big money any­way, but when they went on fur­lough, they all agreed to a 20 per cent pay cut. There are no Me­sut Ozils in the lower leagues.”

But what there is in the nonLeague game is a long-stand­ing and uni­fy­ing com­mu­nity spirit, as shown when Al­trin­cham were in­volved in the Na­tional League North play-offs in May.

Bring­ing play­ers off the fur­lough scheme and un­der­tak­ing an ex­ten­sive Covid-test­ing pro­gramme meant the club ran up a bill of more than £50,000 to com­plete three be­hind-closed-doors matches. A fund-rais­ing ef­fort among the fans raised £45,000.

“It helped that we won the play­offs,” Water­son says. “But that is an ex­am­ple of the con­nec­tion between fans and clubs at this level.”

It is also an ex­am­ple of the sort of fi­nan­cial jug­gling that Maiden­head’s Grif­fin be­lieves will help non-League clubs ne­go­ti­ate the chal­lenges ahead. “When you’re a club with not much money, you get used to mak­ing do with less,” he says. “I was chair­man in the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 2008 and I thought foot­ball would change. For a cou­ple of years things did slow down, but then it was back to the way it ever was. Clubs will al­ways spend money they haven’t got, which is why I be­lieve there is more chance of big­ger clubs go­ing bust than clubs like ours.”

Over the next nine months we will see if such op­ti­mism is borne out.

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