The Steps & The Tiers

by | Nov 28, 2020

Those who had been locking forward to the ending of the national lockdown on the 2nd of December have been feeling somewhat disappointed, this last few days. The new regional tier system will be coming in at that point, and for much of the country, particularly across the Midlands and the North of England, the most severe of restrictions will be coming into force.

So first, a quick review: it was announced last week that supporters would cautiously be allowed back into games. Clubs at regions in Tier One would be allowed a maximum of 4,000 supporters, or 50% of their stadium capacity, whichever was the lower. Regions in Tier Two would be allowed a maximum of 2,000 supporters, or 50% of their stadium capacity, whichever was the lower, and no supporters would be allowed at matches played at clubs in Tier Three.

The release of the list of Tiers that regions of the country will be joining once the current restrictions end next week has at least put paid to any thoughts of crowds of 4,000 flocking to matches for the foreseeable future. Only Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, neither of which are particularly noted football hotbeds, will start in Tier One. The majority of the south and pockets of the north of England start in Tier Two, but much of the Midlands and the north starts in Tier Three, which will likely mean no entrance to matches.

Then, of course, we have to consider the differentiation between “elite” and “recreational” level football, a phrase that has become increasingly important in non-league football circles in recent months. Recreational clubs. those playing below the National Leagues North & South, have been allowed to admit supporters since the start of the season – up to 600, though this has differed across leagues. When the national lockdown began, these leagues closed down, since it was impossible for them to continue, but many had already scheduled proposed start dates for after the 2nd December, and now many of those plans are in disarray. The Northern Counties East Football League issued this statement:

The latest monthly COVID-19 meeting between the FA and National League System Step 5 and 6 competitions – including the Toolstation NCEL – took place tonight with discussions about how new tiered restrictions would affect the restart of non-league football.

The FA were keen to stress that their key objective is to “conclude the 2020/21 season and achieve promotion and relegation throughout the system as a result”, either by fully completing the fixtures or by relying on a mathematical formula (i.e. Points Per Game).

37 of our 40 teams have today learned that they will be placed into Tier 3 once the national lockdown ends on 2nd December, 2020. The only member clubs who will be placed into Tier 2 are Knaresborough Town, Harrogate Railway Athletic and Selby Town.

The tiers will be reviewed by the Government every fortnight.

Information received by the FA after consultation with the government indicates that no spectators will be allowed into grounds into clubs at Tier Three

Clubs at tier 2 would be restricted to a maximum capacity of 300 as before with restrictions also placed on their clubhouses.

The NCEL is currently scheduled to restart on December 8th and 9th but, to gauge the opinion of clubs, we are asking our member clubs to consult with their committees and indicate to us whether their club would be willing to restart playing behind closed doors or would wish to wait until spectators are allowed back into the stadiums.

The survey of our clubs will close at 5pm on Sunday 29th November, 2020.

The North West Counties League, meanwhile, acted swiftly and decisively:

Following a meeting of the Management Committee of The North West Counties Football League this evening, the decision has been made to suspend the restart of the League season until 19th December.

The decision follows the move to introduce tougher restrictions in England meaning that 40 clubs currently sit in Tier 3 areas, which means they cannot admit spectators. The League indicated at the beginning of the pandemic that football behind closed doors at Steps 5/6 is not sustainable for the majority of clubs and therefore we had little choice but to continue with the suspension of fixtures.

The League will review the decision again on 16th December once the UK Government has reviewed the Tier levels. However, should the situation remain the same in relation to spectators being excluded from matches, then the restart will likely be postponed until Saturday 2nd January.

Other Step 5 & 6 leagues have already confirmed that they are holding emergency meetings. The implementation of the new tiering system is perhaps the biggest existential threat that non-league football has ever seen. Contracts have to be honoured. Bills have to be paid. Payrolls will be falling due at the end of the month, and it has been reported that there could be anything up to ten clubs out of the 72 in the EFL who might not be able make theirs at the end of this month.

It is worth bearing in mind that, for clubs starting below the National Leagues North & South, the ability to admit some form of paying spectators was very much a condition of them agreeing to start. It seems inconceivable that clubs at this level of the game could sustain themselves for any significant period of time without match day revenue, and there will only be greater costs, should matches have to be played behind closed doors. And it’s no use blaming the players, either. Footballers at this level of the game are not living the high life off their incomes, and many likely depend upon it as a source of income. And they should be paid to play, of course. Especially under these trying conditions.

Any money offered by the government, however, is going to come in the forms of loans only and will, when divided by the sheer volume of clubs in need it. Nearly every league consists of several divisions and dozens of clubs. The are 82 clubs spread across the four divisions of the Isthmian League alone, for example. There is a small glimmer of light in that all tiers are to be reviewed every two weeks. That said, though, the laxness of the recent national lockdown doesn’t inspire much confidence that this second eave will be any less disastrous than the first, and quite likely more so. Infection rates need to fall sharply before we’re all in Tier One, and it simply doesn’t feel, with the government now coming under pressure from MPs that their restrictions are too severe, as though the atmosphere is quite right for it.

It’s starting to feel as though a house of cards is finally starting to tumble. Non-league football has long  been corralled into considering itself a business, just as everything else in modern sport has been, but the reality of their hand to mouth existences is that many clubs will only able to withstand so many knocks before they finally fall. And this is a perfect storm. Clubs need money from match day revenues, but in many parts of the country it isn’t considered safe for this to happen. Some believe that it is safe, more that it is relatively more safe than other leisure activities. All the messaging is muddled, there’s confusion in just about every corner of the game, and there is a serious risk that this season, certainly in the non-league game, leagues may face issues completing this season, after having had last season curtailed.

Still, at least they got their positive headlines, eh?