By Ben Fleming
As professional sport continues undeterred and largely unaffected by the Covid-19 crisis, non-league football and local clubs here in the North East continue to be left in limbo by the government and National League over the future and financing of the current 2020/21 season.
With fans not allowed in grounds for almost the entirety of the season due to various coronavirus restrictions, most clubs in the National League and National League North and South (the first and second tiers two of non-league football) don’t have the financial resources to continue the season.
A £10 million grant from the national lottery saw clubs able to fund the first three months of the season but with fans still not back in the grounds, clubs once more have looked to the governing bodies for financial support if they are to continue the season.
However, the £11 million in further financial support offered to clubs from the government was set to come in the form of loans, causing uproar from clubs who say they were promised grants and not loans, which would put them into further financial concern in years to come.
Speaking to Palatinate, Ollie Bayliss, presenter of The Non-League Show on BBC Three Counties Radio, explained the financial consequences of such loans.
“In most circumstances, the loans are over 10 years. They’re low-interest loans with an initial payment holiday. What isn’t clear is whether they have to be guaranteed against a club’s facilities or against an individual.” With these loans extremely unappealing to non-league clubs, the alternative financial cost of playing through until the end of the season without fans or grants would “be significant,” according to Bayliss.
“Losses will be probably somewhere in the region of £300-400,000 for some of the larger full-time clubs. The part-time sides could perhaps see loses of somewhere in the region of £100,000.”
With only 16 out of the 66 clubs in Steps 1 and 2 making a profit in the 2018/19 season, prior to Covid-19, it is unsurprising that such financial costs are insurmountable for the vast majority. In the past few days both Maidstone United and Tonbridge Angels have announced they will have to furlough contracted first-team players and be forced to field non-contract players should the season continue.
However, the season may well not continue. Currently, all clubs in Steps 1 and 2 of non-league football are voting on four resolutions which will decide whether their respective leagues will continue. A simple majority is required for Step 1 (Vanarama National) or Step 2 (Vanarama North and South) to be null and voided for the 2020/21 campaign.
Bayliss suggests that by current estimations, “it feels as if a slight majority of clubs at Step 2 (the National League North & South) want to stop the season. It’s harder to gauge a consensus within the National League (Step 1). Very few clubs have publicly voiced an opinion on the issue. At a guess, it feels as if that division will continue.
All three clubs in County Durham have publicly announced their voting intentions. Hartlepool, who currently lie third in the National League, announced via their website that they want the league to continue and have voted accordingly. When approached by Palatinate, the club stated they “will not be commenting further on this matter until we understand the position following the vote being finalised.”
Darlington, a fan-owned club, who currently play in the Vanarama North voted differently and to null and void the season immediately. Speaking to Palatinate, the club stated “we’re not prepared to take on the burden of a six-figure loan to cover four months” and that their vote has “got nothing to do with league position, simply about funding and testing.”
Spennymoor Town voted similarly and said, via their website, “ensuring the safety of our players, staff, volunteers and supporters” was their key priority and that funding from the government “would be better spent in other places during a global pandemic.”
In a later statement on 12th February, the club said that regardless of the outcome of the vote, “the club will not be continuing with the 2020/21 season” and have since refused to play in their most recent games against Telford and Alfreton Town. The club declined to comment on whether they had been charged by the National League for this refusal to play games, with Dulwich Hamlet, Curzon Ashton and Chippenham Town just some of the other clubs already charged for the same offence.
Further down the non-league pyramid, in Steps 3 to 6, the FA is also still yet to decide on when, or if, the season will continue. That means yet more uncertainty for the likes of Durham City A.F.C, who sit bottom of the Northern League Division Two, and Consett AFC, who reached the final of the 2019-20 FA Vase, meant to be held at Wembley, which has been indefinitely postponed.
At present, the outcome of the vote and lack of financial support remains unclear despite weeks of turmoil. What is for sure, though, is that the handling of this saga from the governing bodies has left many unimpressed. The words of Slough Town joint-manager Jon Underwood, who said he was “embarrassed right now to be associated with the league we now manage in”, likely represent the sentiments of many in non-league football at present.
Image: Hartlepool United FC