The postponement of matches has become, in recent years, something of a rite of passage for any non-league football club on the point of financial collapse. It has become an apt metaphor for the state of a club – in such a desperate position that it is unable even to pay to get to an away match or raise a team – and its significance hasn’t, in previous years, been lost upon those that regulate the game, either. For football clubs that have lurched from crisis to crisis, this has proved to be point at which the banging of nails into its coffin lids. It had been considered that “failing to fulfil a fixture” was about as serious a crime as a football club could commit in the ordinary course of a season, a line in the sand which, if we may be permitted to mix our metaphors for a moment, also served as something of a line in the sand. It spelt, usually, if not quite the absolute end of a football club, then at least the beginning of its death throes.
This season, however, has seen something different. There doesn’t appear to have been a memo on the subject, but an increasing number of non-league clubs are finding that having matches called off is not quite the beginning of the end that it might previously have been. In the cases of both Kettering Town and Truro City, two clubs which had some to represent very different yet very similar degrees of basket-casery found that they could go for significant periods of time without matches and also, it would appear, without sanction. Truro City, of the Blue Square Bet South, went for three weeks without a match between the second and the twenty-third of October following their much-reported financial capers, while Kettering Town, of the Southern League Premier Division, managed even better than this, going from the sixth of October until the tenth of November without playing a single match.
It would be absurd, of course, to wish for the death of a football club. However, the question should, perhaps, be asked of how long leagues are willing to put up with the inconvenience of clubs having matches because of messes that they have got into themselves. Non-league football is a hand-to-mouth existence for most clubs that compete in it and match day revenues – either through what is paid at the turnstiles, taken behind the bar or at the food kiosk – and all clubs need that regular source of revenue throughout the season in order to ensure that they can continue to pay their players, which is without even getting into the small matter of the expenses that clubs might have to pay in order to be ready for a match to take place. In addition to this, the cancellation of matches for reasons such as those that we have seen so far this season distorts league tables. Teams can ill-afford to build-up any sort of fixture pile-up in the second half of a season when their players have other jobs that they have commitments to and, as we have seen over the last seven days, the weather can be unpredictable.
All of which brings us to the peculiar events at Histon a couple of weeks ago, when the club’s trip to Colwyn Bay was postponed after the club announced what seemed, on the surface, to be a somewhat familiar-looking non-league story of financial crisis, which had been exacerbated by it losing a court case against a former director. Something about this story, however, didn’t quite feel right. The clubs chairman was reported as being on holiday at the time of this trial and the club’s statement on the matter was vaguer than usually happens in such a situation. Whatever the situation had been at the club seemed by the following week, and their elimination from the FA Trophy did the club a favour when they were allowed to play Chester in a home league match. All of this, however, was no good to Colwyn Bay. They also had a free weekend that weekend, but the Chester match was allowed, for reasons best known to the Football Conference, to take precedence. Colwyn Bay, as a result of the cancellation of their match against Histon, were subjected to a six week long break without a home league match, with the Histon match now being scheduled for the middle of December.
It has even been suggested in some circles that the decision to announce that it couldn’t play at Colwyn Bay might have been a part of a brinkmanship on the part of the club in order to get debts owed to former directors written off. We have no way of knowing, of course, whether there is any truth in this, but if there is then the Football Conference must surely come down upon Histon like a ton of bricks. The revenue streams of another club have already been disrupted by whatever has been going on at The Glassworld Stadium over the last few weeks. Indeed, it might even be argued that the postponement of matches for financial difficulties should be met with the result awarded as a walk-over to the opposing club and, in the event that the club calling the match off is the away side is that which cannot put out a team – with a fine which is paid to the home side by way of compensation for the inconvenience caused for failing to meet this most basic of obligations.
We do not know whether there has been a switch of policy this season with regard to allowing clubs to not put out teams for matches. What we can say for certain, however, is that what was once the near-capital crime of failing to fulfil a fixture doesn’t seem to bringing the same level of punishment for clubs that break it this season, and that whether or not Histon were gaming the system, the apparent relaxation of sort of rules of this nature is only likely to make attempts to find loopholes more likely, whilst simultaneously punishing clubs that do run themselves prudently. There can be no doubt that the pain in which Histon FC may or may not have found itself of late is entirely self-inflicted, a consequence of living way beyond its means, and that if any club deserves to suffer as a result of this, it should be that club which suffers these consequences than those drawn against them when financial push comes to financial shove. If the FA and the Football Conference wish to show themselves as serious about a trend that has clearly grown this season, then Histon will have to pay the price for whatever happened which led to the postponement of the match at Colwyn Bay.
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