Non-League Football Will Die Without A Plan
The sudden collapse of Droyslden FC last week ignited a debate that has been broadly overlooked over the course of the last five months or so outside of non-league football circles. While it is clear that the lockdown had to happen in the first place, how exactly are football clubs whose incomes are largely dependent on people being present, to pay admission fees and to buy food, drinks and raffle tickets, supposed to remain trading without any clear indication of when the current restrictions are going to be eased still further than they are now?
This doesn’t have to be a question with a binary answer. Restrictions on public gatherings are still in place, and are likely to remain so for some time to come, but that doesn’t mean that the counterpoint to this has to be, “Oh okay then, let’s just open everything up, try to act like nothing has happened, and if there are any further illness spikes we can just blame the people who attended in the first place.” There are degrees and ways in which lockdown restrictions can be lifted slowly, gradually, and with practices in place that minimise risk to the public so far as is practicable.
Non-league matches might be considered the safest to open first, considering that crowds usually number in the hundreds (or lower, at a lot of clubs) and that most grounds allow people to move freely around the ground before, during and after matches. But it’s easy to see how opening up non-league matches might go wrong quite quickly. With no matches having played with supporters in attendance for months on end, it’s highly likely that interest in whichever matches do allow fans in first will be very high. Are non-league football clubs, which are mainly staffed by volunteers, the best-placed clubs to deal with the challenges that reopening will bring without significant external support?
The longer the public are banned from attending non-league matches, the more pressing the need to reopen will become. We’ve been lucky so far that the number of clubs who have decided not to carry on seems, for now, to be a very slow trickle rather than a torrent. As time continues to pass, however, the needs of clubs will become more pressing, and whilst some have been successful in setting up crowdfunders online to help to tide them over, they surely can’t depend on the digital equivalent to rattling a bucket outside the turnstiles in order to secure their immediate futures indefinitely. And communities that lose their clubs will lose much more than just a football team to watch. Non-league football clubs can serve as communal hubs and focal points for local pride. They mean something considerably greater than the sum total of their bank balance, or even their league position.
So, what is to be done about this? The government’s announcement at the end of the week before last that they’re not going to be lifting lockdown restrictions any further for the time being was met with a collective groan, and this is understandable considering the garbled messaging they’ve been sending since they started contorting their outlook on the basis of the behaviour of some of their own number. And it feels right to be angry that people are practically being told by the government to go to pubs and restaurants, indoors and therefore theoretically at higher risk, while those who indulge in the outdoor activity of going to watch a non-league football match of an afternoon, out of doors and quite often already socially distanced (whether they like it or not), that their chosen leisure activity is a grave and mortal danger to society.
The answer, of course, rests somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of “keep every single thing locked down until there is a vaccine” and “open everything up and pretend as though nothing has happened, this last few months.” But such a delicate position, with so much at stake if it goes wrong – the cost may well include human lives – requires the touch of a government that understands the nature of the beast that it has to get to grips with. Earlier today, Non-League Show presenter Ollie Bayliss contacted the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to see he could get some degree of clarification of what might be happening with regard to saving these institutions, but the DCMS response was, well, even more dismal than we might have expected:
We have been clear that individual sports will be able to reopen venues to fans at a professional and semi-professional level when it is deemed safe to do so. This will be strictly in line with social distancing measures, published guidance and local licensing authority permissions, which includes local transport feasibility.
We are in regular discussions with the EFL and other football authorities on the impact of coronavirus and how the wider football family can be supported. We have stressed that finances from the resumption of domestic football at the highest level must do this. The Premier League has voted to advance funds of £125 million to the EFL and National League to help clubs throughout the football pyramid.
So, in other words, they haven’t really got anything to say on the matter. We all know that the Premier League’s £125m isn’t a donation made in solidarity with “the football family.” We all know that it’s an advance (so can only really be interpreted as an exercise in kicking the can down the road, because it’s only coming out of future revenues), and we all also know that this amount of money is only for EFL clubs and National League clubs, almost none of which are semi-professional. We can, therefore, surmise that the DCMS either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about non-league football, and is prepared to hang it out to dry.
In the meantime, clubs have been just trying to get on with it. Some clubs have been playing local pre-season friendlies since the start of the month but these have all, of course, been behind closed doors. The government had initally said that crowds could possibly return to mainstream sport events in October and had planned to let crowds into several sporting fixtures as a pilot. A rise in Covid-19 cases put paid to that, but where is the support for smaller non-league clubs from within the game? Where is the FA in all of this? Where is this incredible “football family” that we hear so much about when things are going reasonably as per normal? It’s almost as if it’s easy to talk of football as a “family” for cheap PR points, but somewhat less pressing to treat it like one when it might require some degree of sacrifice.
Between them, non-league football simply cannot depend on the DCMS, the FA, the EFL or clubs with substantially more money than all of them combined to do the right thing. That much has been perfectly evident since the lockdown first came into force almost five months ago. The DCMS had an opportunity to provide comfort to the many who are wondering whether they will even play again and proved only that they care so little that they didn’t read the question. The Premier League, EFL and FA apparently care so little that in five months they’ve done next to nothing, either. Non-league football doesn’t necessarily need vast quantities of cash right now, but it does need a plan, and a concrete one rather than some two-bit minister squawking whatever he feels will play best as a soundbite on the breakfast news, only to forget what he said within thirty minutes of having said it.
And it’s difficult to know what to do with all of this, apart from keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. At least, some might consider, non-league clubs have experience with that, at least when it comes to money. In the meantime, the hashtag #LetFansIn is doing the rounds on Twitter, and you can sign a petition calling for non-league grounds to reopen here.