The Forthcoming Lower League Apocalypse

by | Sep 29, 2020

Such is the nature of a force majeure that criticism of those in charge of administering anything while it wreaks its havoc is usually tempered. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the popularity of the prime minister received something of a boost because somebody was doing something. Appeals to national unity can go a long way when we’re collectively faced with some degree of existential threat. With time, however, comes greater room for scrutiny and skepticism. Once we’ve seen the effects of decisions already taken, we can make something approaching an informed decision over whether these were the right ones at the time.

Everybody knows the state that senior football is in as a result of Covid-19. Warnings have been sounded with increasingly urgency over the last few weeks that, away from its most elite level, clubs in this country are already at the point of widespread financial collapse. The reason for this is obvious. Premier League clubs may charge heftily for tickets and season tickets, but they have the relative comfort blanket of television contracts that guarantee even their worst performing clubs around £100m in television and associated performance fees.

Pretty quickly below the Premier League, however, this security quickly slips away and clubs become increasingly dependent on gate money. National League clubs get just a few thousand pounds a match for being on the television. There is no live television coverage of the National League North or the National League South. It’s hardly as though Premier League football clubs aren’t financially strained at the moment as well, though, and they are as tied to their financial and contractual obligations as anybody else at the moment. It’s easy to whip up some hatred of Premier League club owners by caricaturing them as Rich Uncle Pennybag, the Monopoly mascot, but the truth is a little more complex than that.

The moral case for arguing that the Premier League should find a way of supporting smaller clubs remains strong, but we should understand three things: that, despite the breathless talk about transfers that still dominates so much media coverage, most Premier League clubs are not rolling in money themselves at the moment (they recently had to cancel their contract with Chinese broadcaster PPTV, who broke their contract less than a year into a three-year deal worth £564m), that rescuing the EFL and the National League would likely be horrendously expensive, and that any bail-out offer from the Premier League would likely come with strings attached at which many supporters would baulk. You want Premier League B teams in the National League or EFL? Carry on campaigning for the Premier League to ‘rescue’ their clubs, then.

Despite substantial pressure from the government, the Premier League has so far not yielded, so for the time being the feeling of impending doom is continuing to grow inside many of our stomachs. Earlier this week, Monday a group of supporters, former players, administrators and politicians sent an open letter to the government warning that many EFL and National League clubs were “unable to meet their payroll obligations for next month”, and that without government assistance English football was facing “the collapse of the league structure that we have known for over one hundred years.” It has been reported that conversations on this matter are ongoing, but the matter is too pressing (and the government’s record on what it’ll support is too patchy) for clubs to just sit back and assume that a decision will be reached that will do the right thing. Clubs have to act.

The ongoing issues relating to not allowing fans in applies, of course, to “elite level” football, which, for the purposes of this conversation, means everybody from the National Leagues North & South up. Yesterday, twenty National League North clubs were signatories to a letter saying that they were unwilling to start their league season until a financial support package is in place, with clubs highlighting that many player contracts begin ‘on the commencement of the football season’, as per information that they’ve previously received by from the National League and Football Association. Activating player contracts with no guarantee of income for five or six months would, of course, be a completely unsustainable policy to see through.

The statement also covered the fact that, within the National League, each club in its top division has one vote each while clubs in the two feeder divisions only have four per division. It has been claimed that National League clubs themselves voted to pursue “elite” status so that they could complete their play-offs last season while “recreational” clubs had already had their seasons curtailed, but it is clear from the voting structure of the National League that this was not a vote that treated all of its member clubs equally. Regardless of this particular injustice, though, asking over and over whether those concerned regret their votes doesn’t feel like it’s contributing a great deal to the debate bar the amazing clarity of hindsight.

Below the National Leagues North & South, clubs are still allowed to let small crowds in to matches, though with everything pointing towards tightening the lockdown, for how much longer that will last is debatable. And as if to throw yet another firework into this bucket of disasters waiting to happen, this weekend Step 2 clubs enter the FA Cup at the Second Qualifying Round stage, alongside the clubs below them who are still permitted to allow supporters into matches.

So, what about the ticketing arrangements are for this weekend’s FA Cup matches, then? Well, this afternoon it seemed to be confirmed that the following would be allowed for them:

  • Elite Club v Elite Club – Match to be played behind closed doors
  • Elite Club v Non-Elite Club – Match to be played behind closed doors
  • Non-Elite Club v Elite Club – Home fans only allowed to enter
  • Non-Elite Club v Non-Elite Club – Home & away fans both allowed to enter

There is a certain amount of logic behind this. Home matches for non-elite clubs are likely to have considerably smaller attendances, at which social distancing should be easier. And larger travelling away supports should probably be dissuaded from travelling at the moment. But the desperation of clubs to try to earn something from their matches has shone a harsh light on a set of regulations which seem to have been drawn up as those who were writing them went along.

A couple of National League clubs – Dartford 9d the National League South and Wealdstone of the National League – have home matches this weekend, and both have advertised that they will be streaming the matches live in their bar for supporters who want to attend, subject to strict number limits, all of which leads us to the bizarre position of having supporters gathered together indoors, which is commonly assented to be less safe than congregating outdoors, in order to watch a match that is taking place literally behind a curtain from where they’re getting together.

Similarly ridiculous is the idea that one can apply a blanket solution across leagues and between divisions without expecting an immediate proliferation of outliers that make the solution look pretty daft. Elite clubs, we might think, have better facilities, crowd segregation and the general wherewithal to be well-placed to host matches under such restrictive circumstances. So why are matches involving Elite clubs having to be played behind closed doors (apart from away matches against Non-Elite clubs, which they’re merely banned from attending)? If the match is all-ticket and social distancing is strictly enforced, what does it matter which particular division a club is playing in this season?

There are any number of ways in which this could have been handled differently. The reason for treating “elite” and “recreational” clubs differently has not been adequately explained, still less treating clubs from Step 2 and Step 3 of the non-league game differently when they’re playing against each other. And it’s difficult not to reflect upon the National League’s “elite” status, no matter what the intentions behind that vote might have been during the summer.

But at this stage, the grim truth of the matter is that with each passing day it feels increasingly as though the idea of just buckling down and getting on with the 2020/21 season was a pipe dream borne of a combination of hopeless optimism and blind desperation. Like a shark that dies from a lack of oxygen if it stops moving, the football carousel has to keep turning, no matter how out of shape it might come to look. And with lower league clubs being unlikely to be able to test their players at anything like the levels of bigger clubs, it’s not difficult to imagine how, even if matches do start behind closed doors or even in front of reduced crowds, the coming season could become so clogged with postponements that we’re all wondering why anybody even bothered by the spring.

And yes, it is tough on the EFL to be critical in their handling of this crisis. Just as it’s the same with the clubs of the National League. But in years to come, should we have to reflect on this period as football’s night of the long knives, there will be culpability on all sides. In truth, the myth of “the football family” is finally being shown up for the PR sham that it always was. Everybody is grasping for a lifeboat, and the most needy will likely be elbowed aside in the rush. It’s unlikely that we’ll forget should it come to pass, and it still feels scarcely believable that it could come to this, but the depth of the English league system, its greatest asset and its greatest gift to supporters, could be set to be lost forever. And the cause of death won’t be Covid-19: it’ll be selfishness and inertia on the part of everybody who could have done something, but didn’t.