Mo Lockdown, Mo Problems
Football below Step Two – the National League North & South – has, on the whole, managed to negotiate its way through the pandemic, so far. Crowds were let back in under social distancing rules from the start of this season, and whilst there have been severe restrictions on crowds – which are currently limited to 30% of the lowest capacity allowed in any division – the volunteers that run smaller clubs have done an outstanding job in the face of near insurmountable adversity, keeping matches going with an efficiency that has been impressive to watch from the outside.
This weekend’s announcement, however, blows a hole in all the hard work that has been put in by so many people so far this season. From the end of next week until at least the 2nd December, there will be no further crowds allowed into grounds at Step Three and below, and this of course creates a headache for smaller clubs, who will retain their financial liabilities throughout this period, but with the vast majority of their income now stripped away. There may even be a rush of fixtures to be brought forward to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, as clubs and leagues scramble to shunt through one more round of fixtures while supporters can still turn out for them.
At the exact time of writing, though, it feels a little as though no-one quite knows that to do or say about this. The Football Association has communicated only that, “We acknowledge the government’s announcement today regarding COVID-19 restrictions and are awaiting further information before we can confirm how this may affect non-elite football across England.” Considering the absolute state of the government’s messaging about the pandemic over the last few months, what sort of guidance they might receive from them – or whether they’ll actually receive any at all – feels somewhat in the balance.
Considering that it has felt for the last couple of weeks that a further lockdown would be inevitable, there may be some sharpening their pencils to complain about a lack of preparation on the part of clubs and leagues to deal with this eventuality. It doesn’t really feel, however, as though such criticism would be terribly fair. Hindsight has 20/20 vision, and it should be recognised that clubs playing at Step Three of the game or below are hardly in a position to put money aside for a rainy day, even at the best of times. And the last four or five months, of course, have not been anything like the best of times.
The “elite” level of the game, on the other hand, seems likely to simply plough on regardless. They’ve been playing behind closed doors since the start of the season, and a financial bailout – albeit a deeply unsatisfactory one, at least in terms of the way in which it has been divided up – has already been agreed for the clubs of the three divisions of the National League. It’s difficult to think how the finances of these clubs could be even more negatively affected than they already have been, but last nights’s announcement hardly seems likely to improve them.
One debate that certainly seems redundant now is the one over whether supporters above Step Three should be allowed back into matches or not. There was certainly something perverse about the state of affairs prior to last night’s accouncement. There were plenty of places in which people could congregate indoors – which, as is now abundantly clear, is considerably riskier than gathering together in an outdoor setting – and there seemed little real logic behind the blunt instrument of dividing the game into “elite” and “recreational” levels.
This was most abundantly clear in the recent Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, for which matches played at grounds at Step Three or below could have crowds in attendance whilst others couldn’t. The FA had already confirmed that all matches in the First Round would be played behind closed doors, but the rules as they stood had a wider application than this. Why, say, was it safe to allow 600 people into grounds in the Northern Premier League while it wasn’t safe for matches played in the National League North? If anything, grounds at higher levels, with full-time staff and more developed facilities – including more seats and segregation – would be better placed to safely manage this than those below it.
The most likely answer to this question is that this division was created for other reasons than this, and to a point they’re academic now, regardless. Perhaps all concerned should take this period to reflect upon how they can best prepare for when crowds are allowed back into matches. With no financial assistance still having been agreed with EFL clubs and financial obligations continuing to mount, it still feels as though an opportunity to save the game and ensure its ongoing health is being squandered by a lack of solidarity between clubs and leagues. And not for the first time, either.