With the AGM Cup looking set to decide the non-league pyramid’s final placings once again, Jenni Silver looks at some of this year’s possible contenders.
It should be the most exciting time of the season, promotions, play-offs and relegation dog-fights, the glorious month which ends the football season.
But forgive me for not really feeling it this year. Somehow I know the Blue Square North table after the last game has been played won’t really tell the true story of the winners and losers of the league. The same can be said of its sister league in the south and the BSP too, along with several of the feeder leagues.
As with the past few seasons the real winners will come in the AGM Cup, the clubs who are lucky enough to be handed a reprieve at the expense of another club with no ground grading/ financial woe/ big tax bill (delete as applicable.) Give it a few years and we will effectively be back in the days when clubs were voted in and out of leagues and relegations didn’t count if you had the right connections. I’m not being dramatic here, last year no one was relegated out of the BSN or into it from the BSP thanks to Salisbury and Northwich being booted down the pyramid (Grays Athletic, Farsley Celtic and Chester City had already dropped out of their respective leagues by this point.) This saved Harrogate Town and perennial AGM Cup finalists Forest Green Rovers and Weston super Mare from the drop and saw Worcester shifted back into the North to neaten up the numbers.
With the loss of more teams from various levels of the non-league pyramid (Bromsgrove, Ilkeston, Windsor & Eton off the top of my head), numerous teams docked points for not meeting the Conference’s new financial reporting rules (Histon, Kidderminster Harriers, Redditch being just three of them) and rumours galore this year’s AGM Cup looks like it will have a bumper number of entries.
So let’s look at three of the teams who may be contenders this year:
Hayes & Yeading: The merging of Hayes and Yeading back in 2007 helped Cirencester Town with a rare AGM cup reprieve but now ground worries look set to seal the club’s own entry into the Conference Board’s tombola. The current ground at Church Road (Hayes’ old ground) has been sold off for houseing and won’t be used next season, meanwhile work on a new stadium at Beaconsfield Road (Yeading’s old ground) won’t be finished until midway through next season. This was all announced a week before the ground grading deadline and although talks are being held with Woking and Farnborough about a possible groundshare they could fall foul of a sub-clause of one of the bewildering rules about ground grading.
Forest Green Rovers: If they win this year the ‘little club on the hill’ will probably get to keep the cup. Reprieved last year thanks to Salisbury’s inability to pay back their creditors, FGR very nearly went into financial meltdown in the summer but were saved by eco-millionaire Dale Vince who has pumped more than £500,000 into the club. Manager Dave Hockaday said he struggled after being told to build a BSP team with a BSS budget and while off the field activities have included banning the sale of burgers on match days this hasn’t distracted from the problems on the field which have seen Rovers once again drawn towards the foot of the table but if any BSP club falls foul of the rules FGR could be saved from the drop once again.
Rushden & Diamonds: According to the Non-League Paper the players were prepared to strike before Saturday’s game against Mansfield after not being paid on time for the second month in a row. The PFA stopped the strike but it is clear there are some big problems at Nene Park. The local BBC radio station suggested the club is close to administration (although if I had £1 for every time I’ve heard a club is close to administration this season I’d be able to buy a whole season’s supply of Bovril), there’s been a reshuffle in the boardroom with Gary Calder being voted off the board and replaced as chairman by Liam Beasant, the son of the father-son combo who are one of the club’s main financial backers.
You could also throw a few more clubs dogged by rumours of financial woe/ ground worries/ players not being paid into the mix and it is fairly obvious that the last day of the season will not be the day when the leagues are decided. Most of these examples are from higher up the pyramid but, as we saw last season, the changes cascade down the leagues, so one club entering administration in the BSP will affect the relegation places from either the BSS or BSN and the make-up of the leagues below.
The non-league pyramid is already horrendously complicated when it comes to arranging the fixtures and deciding who goes in what league and the precariousness of which-club-might-go-bust or who-hasn’t-sorted-their-ground adds a new level of confusion. There have been a few eyebrow raising decisions of late too, for example putting Gloucester in the BSN and Worcester in the BSS in 2009/10, but its not surprising given the chaos; thinking about all the possibilities and potential outcomes makes my head hurt.
Scan the fans forums and the NLP and there is not a week goes by without one club or another reporting problems and sooner or later there will be a season when more clubs go bust/ enter admin/ are kicked out the league than there are relegation places. Given the usual backlog of games, the complex feeder leagues and regional split, this could create an even bigger mess for the fixtures secretaries to sort out in the summer months.
The Conference, to their credit, have been trying to create some clarity – there are the financial reporting rules, quarterly reports to make sure teams are paying their tax and controlling their debt. There is also a cut off point for ground grading, to make sure promotion-chasing teams have the right number of seat and the correct signage, number of toilets and all the other odds and sods which make the difference before the season is done.
But there are still the repeat offenders, the clubs who don’t pay their players, who don’t pay their tax or PAYE or NI until they get angry reminders from HMRC, who owe money to creditors and staff.
It’s hard to know what the answer is either. Wage caps and limited budgets have been touted in the past but that’s probably not the answer, there will always be clubs who will spend and spend and spend, go pop, drop down a few leagues and do the same again. There are ways around the wage caps and there is an argument that an A-League or MLS ‘marquee player’ rule could water down the league. An ‘entrance bond’ is another idea, but, with a drop in revenue this season for most clubs, who will actually be able to afford to pay a ‘bond’ at the beginning of the season. But then again clubs have to prove their ground is suitable for BSP football, it makes sense to ensure their finances are in order too. With most of the clubs who force the AGM cup scenario coming from the BSP why shouldn’t there be a ‘fit and proper finances’ test to ensure the clubs coming up, as well as the clubs already in the BSP are capable of lasting the whole season. Each club will already be filling in the quarterly reports to the Conference, as well as (you’d hope) detailed accounts, an additional report – with realistic predicted gates, player budgets and detail – which could be compared to the information the bigwigs already have would not be a big ask. If the sums add up, sorry but the BSP isn’t right for you just yet. New owner? Then you do the report again. Ground up for sale? Redo the report to factor this in. It would mean clubs would have to make their ‘break-even’ gates realistic – so the likes of Workington who budget for a few hundred more than their average can’t complain they have no money and dip into the money for their new stand to balance the books.
Lets not forget most of the people who own and run football clubs are businessmen and women, how about they start running their clubs like they would run their businesses?
Yes, form filling could be fabricated and yes it is harsh to deny a place in the league based on sums and numbers but tough love is needed to bring some order back into non-league.