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
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.