It may be coincidence or it may not be, but at the end of a winter that has decimated the non-league football calendar it has hardly felt like much of a great surprise that the cold winds of financial difficulty have been blowing through the bank accounts of some semi-professional clubs of late. We have already lost Eastwood Town of the Northern Premier League, and recent troubling rumours have also been emanating from Bashley and Corby Town of the Southern League along with the announcement of Conference North side Vauxhall Motors that they will be resigning their league place at the end of this season and dropping down the non-league pyramid.
Even if there is nothing to link these stories directly to the weather, it’s difficult to imagine that vast swathes of matches being called off on account of inclement conditions wouldn’t have a severe effect at a level of the game at which match day revenues and bar takings make up a substantial proportion of income. Obviously, the vast number of matches that have been cancelled on Saturday afternoons will have to be played before the end of the season, but non-league attendances have a tendency to be significantly lower for midweek matches than for Saturday matches, and during the latter stages of the season there are plenty of televised temptations that may keep all but the hardiest stuck to their sofas of an evening.
Bearing this in mind, we might expect game’s authorities to move heaven and earth to be able to allow clubs to maximise revenues and get matches played on a Saturday afternoon. The other week, we reported on the concerted efforts of Ryman League Premier Division club Maidstone United to try and persuade the Football Conference to lift a ban on 3G artificial pitches that had been threatening to disbar the club from getting promoted at the end of this season. The clubs of the Conference voted comprehensively against such a move. We can only speculate over what the reasons for this might have been. On the one hand, it has been suggested that the clubs of the Conference remained terrified of incurring the wrath of the Football League, upon whose munificence the existing two up two down promotion and relegation arrangement between League and non-league football exists and which didn’t, at the time of the vote, look like overturning its ban artificial playing surfaces at any point in the near future.
Since this vote was taken, however, the Football Association has stepped into the debate nand earlier this week the Daily Express reported that the FA’s board had voted to allow 3G artificial surfaces to be used in the FA Cup from next season. Although this decision hasn’t yet been ratified, it is hoped that the FA may even allow the use of them up until the semi-final stages of the competition. This may not sound much like a major hurdle overcome on the face of it, but it is understood that the FA Cup ban had been an influencing factors in the Football Conference’s vote on the matter in January and a similar poll held by the Football League in 2012, and it is also worth bearing in mind that such a ringing endorsement from the game’s overall governing body in this country carries the sort of weight that the Football League might just listen to. Pressure, in other words, is starting to build upon the Football Conference and the Football League to change their ways on this subject.
In the meantime, the latter stages of this non-league season have something of a chaotic look to them, and one of the worst affected clubs of all this winter has been Braintree Town of the Conference Premier. With less than two months of the Conference season left to play, Braintree still have eighteen league matches left to play due to postponements, and have a jaw-dropping seven games in hand on Woking, who sit one place below them in the current league table. Braintree already know that they have to play on the Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday of the same week on three occasions between now and the end of the season, and such regular matches is likely to have a detrimental effect on both the well-being of their team and finances, as supporters find that getting to every match becomes rather expensive on a week-by-week basis when your team is playing three times a week.
This week, however, Braintree Town received a rather peculiar rebuke when Football Conference general manager Dennis Strudwick said, “You have to look inwards for these solutions and not look outwards and blame other people. Braintree have lost eight matches through an unfit pitch. That’s an awful lot. I’ve got seventeen clubs this season that haven’t lost a home match through bad weather.” Well, good for you, Dennis. Weather in ‘affecting some clubs more than others’ shock. We might have assumed that the league itself would have a degree of sympathy for clubs that have fallen foul of the bad weather this winter, but instead Strudwick seems to implying that the blame over this at the door of the club itself. Has the club been spending too much money on wages and not enough on pitch maintenance? Has it been a cunning plot to create a fixture backlog on purpose? (The fact that no other explanation for this than ‘for shits and giggles’ springs readily to mind would seem to exclude this possibility.
Perhaps, rather than making passive aggressive statements regarding his member clubs, Strudwick should focus a little more on persuading clubs in both the Football Conference and the Football League to vote in line with the FA’s wishes and drag themselves into the twenty-first century in allowing 3G pitches to be used in the future. As things stand, surfaces that are permitted in the Champions League, which the FA endorses and which have the potential to bring much needed revenue into clubs who spend most of their time living fending off the realities of a financial world in which they are forced to lead hand to mouth existences, are still banned in these leagues for reasons that have never been satisfactorily made clear. This winter has surely proved the case for lifting this ban beyond reasonable doubt.
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