Opinion: Only certainty in non-league football at the moment is uncertainty
There are a few moments in the season off the pitch that have football fans on the edge of their seats, writes Lewes FC chairman Stuart Fuller.
The release of the season’s fixtures each summer means a quick dive to see where you team will be playing on the opening day, when hope is so high, or who your team will be facing at Christmas. The FA Cup draw, whether that is in the early part of the season for Non-League fans or just after the completion of the Second Round for Premier League and Championship fans. But last week we saw fans at all levels of the game in England impatiently awaiting the news of a non-football event that would determine in some cases the future of their clubs.
On Thursday morning, just after 11am, the Government announced the new Tier structure for the country via a press conference hosted by Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Or in reality it directed us to a website that unsurprisingly quickly buckled under the load of requests from people who wanted to understand what tier they would be in when Lockdown 2.0 ends on December 2.
For clubs at Step 3 downwards, there has been no football since October 31 when the details of the latest measures were announced by the Prime Minister. I was on the coach back from Lowestoft Town where we had crashed out of the FA Trophy when Johnson addressed the nation and laid out details of a four-week national “circuit breaker”. It soon became very clear as the details were shared that we had just played our last game for at least four weeks.
The introduction of the furlough scheme during the first lockdown meant that clubs were able to change the status of their managers and players as soon as the new restrictions were put in place, meaning that the biggest costs in running a Non-League football team would be reduced significantly until football could restart, balancing out the lack of revenue through the gate and over the bar.
The combination of furlough and restrictions on meeting up with other people has meant the onus has been on the players to keep themselves fit during lockdown. Unlike pre-season where the squad could train together, for the past four weeks this has had to be a solo affair. Virtually every player at Step 3 and below is part-time – they will have continued to do their full-time jobs (where possible) and spend more time at home which will mean that the chances of them coming out of lockdown in the same shape and fitness as when they went in will be variable.
Essentially, clubs need to have a mini pre-season again to get the players match ready before competitive fixtures could start again. Unfortunately, the demands of the FA to ensure they fulfil their commercial arrangements for the FA Cup, Trophy and Vase (let’s not forget that the final of the 2019/20 competitions for the latter two still haven’t been played) meant that fixtures had to be played for some clubs during lockdown, whilst many others would come out of lockdown and immediately be expected to play in the cup competitions which will increase the risk of injury to players, just as we saw when the season started in September.
Each league decided on their own restart date, with the Isthmian League board deciding on 19 December as the latest date to resume league fixtures, giving their clubs up to two full weeks of preparation. The Northern and Southern Premier Leagues chose their resumption date as a week earlier although many decided to arrange games from 5 December, all with the caveat that the new tier structure would allow football with fans to return up and down the county.
Unfortunately, the announcements made by Matt Hancock on Thursday meant those plans were thrown into confusion with significant restrictions placed on a huge percentage of the country. Bar three areas (Cornwall, Isle of Sicily and the Isle of Wight), every club in England faced either playing games behind closed doors and not being able to open their bar on a matchday, either of which situation would have a massive impact on revenue-generating abilities.
The situation in the Isthmian League is that 14 clubs found themselves now in Tier 3 with 67 in Tier 2. In the Isthmian Premier League just Folkestone Invicta and Margate were in Tier 3 meaning that the fixtures list would be relatively unscathed but it was still two clubs too many to consider restarting the season as it is is a viable option. Likewise, putting restrictions on ALL clubs being able to open their bar and sell any drinks, whether alcoholic or not, unless they were classed as restaurants and thus could sell a substantial meal with each drink sold that has to be consumed in the seating area. In other words, every club would lose a major secondary spend revenue line.
Of course, there is an option that clubs in Tier 3 could look at switch their games in the short-term so that they play all their games on the road until the restrictions are lifted. However, it is unlikely that any major changes will be made to the broad brush approach to the tiering in the coming months – Kent as a county was placed in Tier 3 whilst some areas had exceptionally low rates which could lead to issues the longer the restrictions eat into the season. Likewise, if the clubs in Tier 3 were expected to find alternative home venues in Tier 2, whilst fans could come back, restrictions on movement of people from Tier 3 to Tier 2 would mean very few home fans would be able to attend.
Let’s use the example down at the Dripping Pan. Whilst we could welcome 600 fans at a Isthmian Premier League game according to the Government and FA guidelines, the social distancing guidance issued by the Sports Ground Safety Authority back in August meant that we started the season capping capacity at 450, with a plan to gradually increase to 600 once we could be assured that fans would be able to safely enter, move around the ground and leave again.
Our average attendance over the last three full seasons (2016/17 to 2018/19) was 613 which gave us around £4,400 per game (net of VAT), so we would be seeing less income through the gate (admission price had remained constant). However, it is in that secondary spending in the bar where the big financial hole is, with approximately £2,000 worth of spend missing on each match day. Add the two together and we have thousands of pounds of revenue missing every time we play at home.
Of course, we could look at reducing our spend accordingly, but taking that amount out of the playing budget would see us in real danger of relegation, and the knock-on effects of that – for instance Government/FA regulations would mean we would have to reduce our safe capacity downwards – less gate revenue and so on in a doom cycle.
The Government had announced that there would be £14 million made available to clubs at Steps 3 to 6 BUT the vast majority of that would be in the form of loans rather than grants. With many clubs in a precarious financial position AND new restrictions meaning they would incur more losses, it is hard to understand why football would be prepared to take on more debt without any sign of income streams fully returning. So where does that leave us? There is a real risk that we may not see non-League football in the coming weeks or even months unless there are some concessions made by the authorities.
The only certainty in Non-League football at the moment is uncertainty. Whatever the combined leagues decide, in conjunction with their member clubs, there will be some that don’t agree with the decision or will be penalised in some way. It is hard to see how Non-League football can return unless the burden of the current restrictions are reduced on clubs (in a controlled manner).
* Stuart Fuller is chairman of Lewes FC but the above views are his own, not that of the club or the Isthmian League