Government bombshell could halt Eastbourne Borough - and rest of National League season

Eastbourne Borough’s 2020-21 season has been thrown into uncertainty by bombshell news of a probable change in Government financial support.

Eastbourne Borough won at Havant last Saturday - but could it be their final game for a while? Picture: Lydia Redman
Eastbourne Borough won at Havant last Saturday - but could it be their final game for a while? Picture: Lydia Redman

Borough, together with a National League and National North and South clubs, have been receiving a monthly grant since October, to compensate for the absence of spectators. The initial grant, for October, November and December, was for an undisclosed five-figure sum, to cover players’ wages and running costs.

Clubs had understood that the support would continue for a further three months – but the DCMS (Department for Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport) has now indicated that support from January to March will take the form of loans from Sport England, instead of grants.

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The non-league grapevine has been humming with such rumours since the turn of the year – and now the worst fears appear to be confirmed. And the news has stunned the National League – including officials at Priory Lane.

“To incur debts of tens of thousands of pounds would be unthinkable,” Borough chairman David Blackmore told the Herald today, “and it would put the very future of Eastbourne Borough in jeopardy.

“Every club at our level faces an annual battle just to make ends meet and balance the books. We have a duty to our employees, to our supporters and to the community, to be responsible and not reckless with our club’s management.

“It was actually touch and go when we opened the current season, at Dorking Wanderers on October 3. We had only just, hours before, had the confirmation of the monthly grant, funded by the National Lottery. As soon as we kicked a ball, we activated our players’ contracts for the season.

“The club had every indication that, if crowds had not returned after the first three months, the financial support would be extended. In common with all of our league, we currently have no significant income week by week – and we are suddenly expected to play the second half of our season accumulating debts.”

Borough’s usually thriving youth section, of more than 400 youngsters, is currently shut down because of the Covid-19 crisis, and the social club is also under lock and key. Other than the players and coaching staff, the club officials are volunteers. Month by month, there are running costs of staging home matches (including Covid-19 protocols) and travelling to away games, as well as maintenance of the Priory Lane site and rent paid to Eastbourne Borough Council.

Crisis is not too strong a word – and all the more alarming for its suddenness. It is rather like a cross-Channel ferry shutting off its engines, floating in mid-crossing, and announcing to passengers that it has run out of fuel. The threat of a complete shutdown of the National League – classed by the Government as elite sport – must now be very real.

Blackmore has written to Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell, seeking support for the club, but this decision appears to have come from ministerial level. The National League board has called an urgent meeting for today (Tuesday) and will update all clubs in a Zoom meeting scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday).