Dover Athletic’s High-Risk Stakes

by | Aug 4, 2020

Apocalyptic predictions have been made for lower and non-league football since the start of the pandemic, but the last few months have been quieter than some predicted. There have been fundraisers and there is no question that clubs are undergoing major financial headaches at the moment, but casualtiesthus far have been few. None of this means that there’s any room for complacency, though, and the first rumbles of what might yet be to come were heard this week with a public statement threatening the possible closure of a National League club in the next few weeks.

Yesterday, Dover Athletic, who finished last season in twelfth place in the division, issued the following public statement:

The Board have been busy assessing the clubs financial position and immediate future due to the very difficult circumstances of the COVID 19 pandemic.

The club is still unsure of its income in the coming season but the Board are clear income will greatly reduced.

The club has 14 players under contract for next season and at a meeting last week the clubs position was explained in detail to the players and staff.

At that meeting the players and staff were asked to accept a 20% short-term reduction in salary to assist the club in its efforts to stay solvent and keep the club alive bearing in mind the club will move from four to three days training.

The management have accepted the proposal, however, unfortunately the players have not agreed.

Therefore it is with great regret that I must announce that all of the squad are now available for free transfer as an initial immediate step.

I must further inform supporters that if a solution or further investment cannot be found by the end of August it is likely that the Directors will consider the club insolvent and as a consequence will be forced to cease trading.

The directors are doing everything they can to keep the club afloat, but have reached an impasse and require the support of our playing squad.

Season ticket purchases are fully protected and a full refund will be issued if the worse happens, so supporters can continue to purchase in confidence.

There has to be a certain amount of reading between the lines, here, because Parmenter’s statement left out a detail or two that we may have considered relevant. The obvious question to ask at this point why his talk is immediately of closing the club rather than seeking a form of rescue through administration and a CVA. He doesn’t address this, but I’d presume that it’s because the player contracts that he wants to cancel are considered “football debts” and therefore couldn’t be included in any future CVA.

These are uncharted waters. When Portsmouth entered into administration a decade ago, they entered into arrangements with their players to pay the remainder of their contracts over time, but this situation was different in that this settlement was worthwhile if it allowed the CVA to go through. Dover Athletic have other debts outstanding. Their last filed company accounts show creditors falling due within a year at £1.05m at the end of May 2019, up from £548,840.

If the players’ contracts are the issue that is pushing the club to the brink – and it’s an obvious question: “If we have no match day income, what are we supposed to pay you with?” – then the value of administration would be limited. There may be other reasons why a CVA might be considered a bad idea by the directors, too – if the biggest unsecured creditors were the directors of the club, for example. But this is, of course, speculation.

Dover Athletic were the first club from Kent to enter the government’s furlough scheme at the end of March, with chairman Jim Parmenter by this time already unhappy at the lack of support that clubs such as his were getting from within the game:

With no funding being offered from the world of football we will need to take advantage of all the fantastic help being offered by the government and by doing this coupled with some financial support from myself and Sally [his wife] I believe we can get through this to play football again. I have offered all footballing staff participation in the governments ‘furlough’ scheme, the details of this are not complete, but I have been informed that it will be applicable in our case.

A fundraiser (still active) was set up and raised £7,300 towards keeping the club going through the lockdown, and in May goalkeeper Lee Worgan was interviewed by the BBC and gave this somewhat prescient view on the issues facing non-league clubs at the time.

If Dover’s players are furloughed, this means that the government has been paying 80% of their wages. The furlough scheme is due to end in October. There is no legal obligation on the part of Dover Athletic to make up the other 20% of the players’ salaries, but football rules requiring football creditors to be paid in full mean that there might as well be. It is, however, tempting to think that this could be brinkmanship on the part of Parmenter. By making the discussion public, he is putting pressure on the players, quite plausibly with the intention of that pressure coming from supporters.

There are, however, holes in his argument. If Dover Athletic are asking their players to take a 20% pay cut during the furlough, they are effectively admitting that they cannot pay their players a single penny at the moment. At present, we only know that the National League will be restarting when crowds are allowed to attend again, and we do not know when this will be (they’re talking about October at the moment, but there are absolutely no guarantees of that whatsoever.) We do, however, know that it will restart at some point, and that Dover will require players again then, so… what would happen if Dover’s entire playing squad were to take up their free transfer option by the end of August, with the new season to start just a few weeks later? If they can’t pay a single penny at the moment, how are they going to get replacements that have a chance of competing in the National League?

Is it as simple a matter as “greedy” players? Well, there are two sides to that particular coin. On the one hand there has been an increased level of professionalism at the top end of the non-league games, and agents are now commonplace. On the other, though, the truth remains that Dover’s players will be modestly paid (especially in terms of being a professional footballer), have financial commitments, and work in an unstable business in which they’ll be lucky if they’re still making a living by the time they’re in their mid-thirties. Is it reasonable to demand that footballers take this hefty pay cut? Is it the best they’ll get in what looks increasingly as though it’ll be football’s “new economy”? It’s a little early to say.

Ambition has out-stripped reality in non-league football, with growing numbers of clubs turning full-time, especially after the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football Conference and the Football League in 1987. Whether this was dream-chasing or simply having to keep up is a largely semantic issue, but the truth remains that there are football clubs that are being run in an unsustainable way, at this level. Dover Athletic’s average attendance in the National League last season was 1,104. Dover, for all its national and international fame, is a small town, with a population of around 30,000 people. It’s fair to ask whether the town of Dover can support a full-time football club.

Although undoubtedly frustrated by the players’ refusal to take a pay cut, Parmenter runs the risk of standing accused of holding the club to ransom in order to rip these players’ contracts up. This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s an interpretation that some will inevitably take from the bluntness of his message, and the fact that he has chosen to take this public so vocally could easily be interpreted as an attempt to shame Dover’s players into accepting having their contracts terminated.

The reason why we continue to hold an iota of sympathy for Parmenter – because his tone is hectoring and making the matter public does feel a little like holding a gun to the club’s head – is that he is right to say that there is the money available within the professional game in this country to be able to see every club through this crisis with the minimum of fuss. The fact that this won’t happen is ultimately down to the game itself. Rather than coming together with any sense of solidarity towards the game itself, it seems most likely that the end of this pandemic will see an even greater gap between the richest and the rest, with any financial assistance coming in the form of loans, offset against future revenues, or potentially even with onerous clauses attached. Professional football was completely consumed by greed a long time ago, and should clubs start falling like dominoes, we’ll all remember the summer when nobody did anything when the crocodile tears start flowing.