Non League : Safe To Start Again?

by | Nov 10, 2020

So. Farewell, then, Pitching In Isthmian Football League. Pitching out as England locks down until 2nd December to prevent the increasing spread of the coronavirus (Covid). A spread caused in part by regular, boisterous congregations in close proximity in semi-enclosed, sometimes tight spaces.  And by people drinking in pubs too.

Non-league football, with fans, was always going to be a health risk in a pandemic. Angry crowds shouting at players, match officials and each other, especially when their teams are losing, doesn’t have the required attention-seeking impact from behind a mask and could spread all kinds of everything without one.

And then there are the risks associated with semi-professional footballers, usually congregating twice-weekly, for games and/or training, while having day jobs. I have written elsewhere about a comparable situation in Ireland where Gaelic Football and hurling being “elite” sports but amateur, thereby increasing potential for viral spread across two working environments. But my first-hand experience is of the risks/problems which have arisen in admitting fans to non-league football.

As a turnstile operator at suburban Surrey Isthmian Leaguers Kingstonian, I have seen a lot of these congregations. And 346 congregators, including plenty of entertainingly-vocal Haringey Borough fans, decided that non-league football was an ideal way to spend the last night before lockdown. The Boro’ fans spent much of it in traffic, as they and the team arrived game-threateningly late (kick-off was 8.34). But they were right. Ks won 3-1, thanks to a hat-trick from (remember the name) Corie Andrews. Yet Boro contributed handsomely to an entertaining game. They will play worse and win.

But, despite Ks’ victory lifting them to sixth in the league after nine games, I was relieved that Isthmian football was stopping for a bit. Since the 2020/21 season began on 12th September, the club had made stringent, admirable efforts to stage games safely. But they were overtaken by events, authorities’ muddled ‘thinking’ and, alas, the individual attitudes of some supporters.

Covid’s “second wave” was, let’s not forget, widely-heralded. We were told that hot weather was, excuse the technical terminology, not the virus’s friend. And it was a bloody hot summer. So, when the weather got colder and, simultaneously, schools returned, people began commuting to work again and non-elite sport restarted, a “second wave” was inevitable. Ergo, the government’s ham-eyed, cock-fisted attempts at local lockdowns before finally conceding to the science and locking England down entirely, the main effects of which Prime Minister Boris Johnson trailed as formally announcing at five o’clock on Halloween.

But this government seems utterly clueless about everything outside their personal experiences, which may have been true of previous administrations but has never seemed SO obvious. Thus staff at the Non-League Paper (NLP, out every Sunday, all good newsagents, £1.50) waited in vain for information on the immediate future of football that wasn’t the Premier League or “grassroots and amateur.” In other words, most of it. If it wasn’t Liverpool or Old Carthusians (fine club, no disrespect to them AT ALL), the government didn’t seem to know.

Frustrations abounded as Johnson based his “5pm” on it being “five o’clock somewhere.” Cries of “put the Rugby back on” grew louder (the Rugby Paper is produced in the same office). And his speech said FA about football. He said “leisure and entertainment venues will all be closed.” But when asked in his post-speech press conference about football continuing, Johnson gave the gormless thumbs-up only he (and actor Bill Maynard in the title role of 70s sitcom “Oh no, its Selwyn Froggit”) can and said “yes to the Premier League.” Magic.

The other constituent leagues of English club football were left to make their own assumptions and seek confirmation from the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). An English Football League (EFL) statement that evening said the DCMS had “confirmed” to them “that elite sport will be able to continue and EFL competitions will therefore remain as currently scheduled,” which at first glance didn’t entirely clarify if the DCMS had confirmed the EFL as “elite sport” or the EFL had ‘self-confidently’ assumed so.

The league added the now commonly-cited mush about “our national sport” continuing “to provide some form of welcome distraction” and giving people “a sense of normality, during this next phase of the crisis.” That, of course, is the priority for “elite” football continuing, And any links between football being deemed “elite” and the need for football to fulfil its side of its lucrative broadcast deals are scurrilously made.

The vast majority of “our national sport” had to wait for news. “Guidance” was “still being drawn up,” noted the BBC website at ten o’clock that night, when the NLP has to go to press so as to BE “out every Sunday.” But on Tuesday, the FA announced that “subject to the publication of bespoke (government) guidance” (and parliament voting for lockdown) “our football, indeed all football from Step Three to Step Six, must cease” until lockdown does. Training too, which might make a restart immediately after lockdown problematic, unless setpiece work and the like can be done *checks notes and shrugs shoulders* “over Zoom.”

The announcement detailed “the impact on ‘non elite’ football in England,” the ceasing of “all fixtures and training,” starting at Step Three, on which Ks stand, and including Step Three’s “feeder” leagues, Tier Three and below in the women’s game and “indoor and outdoor youth and adult grassroots football.” Meanwhile, last weekend’s FA Cup first round fixtures involving Step Three sides were played behind closed doors. And the FA had to “wait for more details about when the next round of the FA Trophy,” due this Saturday, “will be played.”

There was governmental clarity on Steps One and Two, the National League (NL) and NL North and South. They were already deemed “elite” football, way past Johnson’s definition of the term. So NL games remained fan-free, as they’d been since their season began on 3rd October. This was a forecastable financial headache for clubs with insufficient finance outside gate receipts to cover player wage bills. And it appeared resolved on 2nd October when the NL announced “a significant financial grant from the government to compensate clubs for essential revenue lost from fans not returning.” But muddled decision-making soon rose again.

Details emerged on 18th October. A “£10m lifeline from the National Lottery” would let the 66 NL clubs “continue to play behind closed doors after the return of fans was paused due to rising infection rates.” And it was supposedly to be distributed based on clubs’ average attendance. The mush was provided here by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who knew “from a brilliant club in my area” (Boreham Wood?) that NL clubs “are the beating heart of their communities and too precious to lose.”

The reality was provided by NL clubs left less-than-fully compensated by the distribution model, which led to wildly inexact correlations between grant and gate receipts. National clubs received £84-95,000-per-month, North and South clubs got £30-36,000, regardless of average crowd. “Brilliant” BWood were an eye-catching and thus oft-cited example of this disparity, receiving more cash than clubs with multiples of their 724 average crowd..

Eleven clubs sought a funding distribution review and demanded “an emergency Board meeting” to “determine a fair resolution,” based on the stated “objective for the funding.”   They were ”extremely grateful” for governmental “intervention” but furious with the NL Board’s “arbitrary and subjective distribution of funding,” which the board “failed to explain” and which ignored the “irrefutable fact” that the money was meant to cover ‘lost gate revenues’.” And, they noted darkly, “some clubs represented by members of the Board” got “far in excess of their actual loss of gate revenues.”

Inexplicability was by no means exclusive to the NL board. Financial health has been prioritised over personal health in determining the admissibility of fans to matches. There is some logic to this, though, as so many clubs from Step 3 down are almost exclusively reliant on gate and bar receipts for financial survival. And with bar receipts constricted by Covid rules, gate receipts are now fundamental.

But some decisions in fan admissions have defied logic. National League South Dulwich Hamlet visited Isthmian Premier Corinthian Casuals in the FA Cup on 3rd October. And as Isthmian clubs admitted fans, Casuals’ fans were admitted. But as National League clubs did not, Hamlet fans were not, though how this could be policed wasn’t clear. That same day, Wealdstone could not admit fans to their National League game with Chesterfield at their Grosvenor Vale ground. But fans could watch a live stream of the game in the adjacent clubhouse.

It isn’t certain whether such inconsistent ‘thinking’ has contributed to fan-disregard for Covid regulations, in the manner in which government adviser Dominic Cummings’ disregard for them arguably did . But, if Kingstonian is an accurate barometer of such things, a laxity developed between the start of the season and last week’s halt.

Typical of clubs at our level, Ks introduced on-line ticket sales to make the ground entry process safer, for fans and curmudgeonly turnstile operators alike. This was designed to minimise cash sales. And, as pay-on-the-day arrangements were clearly needed for the small but significant minority if fans without on-line access (non-league football’s fanbase being, let’s say, older than the national average), an “exact money only” edict was issued to eliminate the handling of coinage.

These arrangements worked. For two games. Then word got out that sanitised change was available. And cash sales, and the need for coinage, mushroomed. It was clear that some fans had simply forgotten to bring the right money. And their heartfelt apologies were, and are, accepted. But otherwise, the instructions and processes are now ignored by many. In football, as in pandemic life, once people found ways to body-swerve the bit of effort required to keep people as safe as possible, they made a greater effort to do so.

Hence my particular relief at lockdown. It gifts us all a chance to recalibrate and re-educate… and a chance for our Covid-19 officer to finish his necessary AND ironic self-isolation, having missed two home games since being deemed a “close contact” of a positive-tester last month.

Non-league games could be super-spreader events unless EVERY precaution is taken by EVERYBODY in attendance, fans and cash turnstile operators alike. Rules and requirements need to be clear and explicable, from government, from football’s governing bodies and from curmudgeons on turnstiles. Fans need to be patient and compliant, for the sake of their health and those around them.

These lessons need re-learning by all of us, if football is to be as safe as possible to watch, whenever lockdown is unlocked. We all got sloppy since the summer. We now have three weeks minimum at the time of writing to ensure that we don’t get sloppy again.