The National League’s Uncivil War

by | Nov 18, 2020

Since the very beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, more than eight months ago, most of our worst fears about how professional and semi-professional football would react to it all have been realised. Most clubs and leagues have proved themselves to be fundamentally unable or unwilling to pay attention to the wellbeing of the game to any significant extent, and almost every decision that has been reached over money has been marked with squabbling that is chipping away at any remaining vestiges of solidarity between clubs and leagues during these uniquely challenging times.

Even in cases where money has finally been agreed, the arguing doesn’t seem to be ending. It was announced several weeks ago that a deal had been agreed through the National Lottery to provide emergency funding to the tune of £10m to the 66 clubs of the National League, but to suggest that this story stops there would feel a little like Donald Trump calling the US presidential election for himself. The agreement to provide funding to the league’s clubs has instead proved to be the start of an argument that is not only still ongoing a month later, but if anything actually seems to be escalating.

The breakdown of how this money was to be distributed was roughly as follows:

  • 7 National League clubs to receive £95,000 per month.
  • The other 16 National League clubs to receive £84,000 per month.
  • 5 clubs from the National Leagues North & South to receive £36,000 per month.
  • The other 37 clubs across the National Leagues North & South to receive £30,000 per month.

It didn’t take long for the flaws in this distribution model to become apparent. The split made within the divisions was calculated upon two factors: which division a club is in, and average attendance, but explanation was given as to why the matter of attendances between divisions wasn’t taken into account. Did the National League believe that the fixed costs of running Boreham Wood or Wealdstone are more than double the running costs of York City or Chester?

And furthermore, the club that would receive the most per supporter throughout this period, Boreham Wood, were not only going to be receiving multiple times as much money as the least funded clubs on the list, but they also  also just happen to be the home club of the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden MP. Even if this were a coincidence, the complete lack of transparency throughout the entire process has been highly concerning, especially when viewed through prism of the rates of distribution that it produced.

Since then, of course, the situation regarding the state of the non-league game has significantly deteriorated. Clubs at Step Three and below had been allowed to let in limited crowds, but the introduction of the second lockdown two weeks ago kicked that into touch, and leagues below the National League have been suspended until the start of December, at the absolute earliest. Meanwhile, the National League plays on, but the recent tightening of lockdown restrictions doesn’t seem likely to be lifted at the end of this month, and the idea of paying supporters being allowed back into grounds before Christmas doesn’t seem terribly likely, either.

At the end of last week, the wheels started to fall off the wagon. Nine National League clubs called for National League chair Brian Barwick to resign over the allocation of £10m of the government funding, with it being clear that the National League had reneged on guarantees that payment would be proportional to lost gate revenue. The outgoing chairman of Hereford FC, Andrew Graham, spoke on behalf of nine clubs – AFC Fylde, Telford, Chester, Dulwich Hamlet, Hereford, Kidderminster Harriers, Maidstone United, Dorking and Chesterfield – when he said:

£10m has been handed to the National League thus far. This is a significant amount of money for which we are extremely grateful. However, there has been unsatisfactory transparency over how funds were allocated and there are inexplicable inconsistencies which amount to some clubs receiving five times as much in funding as others, per absent spectator. As a result, some of our clubs will now face income shortfalls, which may threaten their existence.

On top of this Barwick was also coming under pressure from MPs such as Helen Grant, Harriet Harman, Mark Garnier, Toby Perkins, Tracey Crouch, Lilian Greenwood and Mark Menzies to explain himself, with their open letter describing the allocation process as “wholly unfair and appears to contradict the reason was originally provided”, before going on to add that, “the only way for lost revenues to be truly compensated and for football clubs to receive certainty about their immediate financial futures is for the funding to be allocated according to lost gate receipts.”

The National League’s response, it turned out, was a lengthy open letter to the Non-League Paper in which, to the surprise of just about nobody, sought to push the blame for this row entirely onto clubs that have been critical of their approach, claiming that these clubs have “brought our Competition into disrepute”, and defending Brian Barwick as having an “unblemished reputation of the highest level.” Clutching at their pearls – because hey, we all know who the real victims are here, right? – they wrote:

Tempting though it has been for us as a Board, who have been libelled as a group and in some cases individually, to resort to legal action, we have for the moment kept our counsel, taken all the criticism on the chin, and simply battled on to seek to ensure that this funding is renewed after the initial period. Not one of our critics has offered to assist us, merely to criticise us, sometimes in the vilest of terms.

Of course, they don’t go into any detail about how they reached the decision that they did reach. Rather, they prefer to nitpick over semantics:

You quote from a Commons answer given by the Sports Minister and then fail to reach the correct conclusion from it.  He stated (as long ago as 30th September, well before an agreement was reached with Camelot, not the DCMS, by the way) that gate receipts will “drive the criteria.” He did not say then and clubs have never been told that they would be the only criteria.  Attendances and gate receipts were an element of the methodology of distribution and continue to be, but they are not the only criteria to be taken into account.

Okay, fine, so what were the criteria that were taken into account? There’s no mention of that anywhere else in their little exercise in self-justification, and it would be reasonable to assume that the aggrieved clubs feel as though they had the wool pulled over their eyes with regard to this, judging by the fact that their anger only became public once the amounts to be allocated had been made public.

So, what happened here? Were these clubs as unhappy with this allocation before the allocation was publicly announced? And if so, why weren’t their concerns satisfactorily addressed sooner? Dover’s Jim Parmenter, let us not forget, had threatened to close his club at the August in a similarly hectoring tone after his players refused to take a 20% cut. Small wonder that this similarly petulant “open letter” should appear in full on Dover’s official website. But this is where we are now, isn’t it? No hint of conciliation, or even empathy with other clubs who now find themselves in a potentially serious position, only some “we’re the real victims here” and baseless accusations of defamation. For those of you still labouring under the misapprehension that the National League is somehow still closer to where the heart and soul of football resides, you should probably start recalibrating accordingly.