Tom Waterhouse is an Associate Director at Public First.
Last month the majority of non-league football came to a halt. The sixth, seventh and eighth tiers of the English game voted to declare this year’s leagues null and void. Unable to cope with the on-going financial impact inflicted by the pandemic, and without hope of having fans back any time soon, they felt they were being forced to call time on the season or incur huge debts just to keep going.
The first divisions to make that call were National League North and South, the sixth tier of English football. While many clubs are facing hard times, problems here seem particularly acute.
What are we talking about here? These are semi-professional teams representing towns and small cities, which attract anywhere between 300 and 3,000 fans at home games. Many have long histories – some, like Brackley Town or Hungerford, even go as far back as the nineteenth century.
They are run in a sustainable manner because they have to be – they are a very long way from the big money of the Premier League. Clubs rely on devoted volunteers to sweep the changing rooms, weed the terraces and staff the turnstiles. (When I played for Oxford City as a teenager, the amount of money saved by the absolute hero who used to hunt down match balls that had been booted out of the ground was incredible).
These clubs wouldn’t be able to operate without generous local businesses – solicitors, estate agents, builders firms – sponsoring the first team’s shirts or taking out adverts in the matchday programme. When a club wins prize money for reaching the early stages of the FA Cup, or sells a player for a five-figure sum every decade or so, the cash often goes into reserves or improving facilities.
In short, what you have here are carefully-run local institutions with great heritage, deep links into communities, several thousand passionate followers and huge amounts of social capital invested in them. Can you think of many organisations better placed to build relationships with their local MP and, through them, the Government?
And yet on the face of it, that appears to be far from the case. In October, clubs in the National League were given grants to begin the season, in a commercial deal brokered by the Government. As the cash was to compensate clubs for lost gate receipts due to Covid-19 restrictions, clubs believed that if fans were not back in grounds by January then the grants would be continued.
However, three months down the line it was made clear that no further grants would be made available and instead clubs were told that support for January, February and March would be in the form of loans through the Government’s Sport Winter Survival Package. This was despite clubs in the leagues below sharing £10 million in Government grants.
With no prospect of fans being able to return, no grants, and the financial burden of regular Covid testing, clubs feared they would need very large loans to complete the season. Rather than overstretch themselves and put their long-term futures at risk, clubs in the sixth tier instead voted to end the season.
Was this really unavoidable? Sports minister Nigel Huddleston had said publicly that any National League club that can demonstrate they are in dire need may be rewarded with a grant on a case-by-case basis, insisting: “We will not let clubs go to the wall.” And in any case, taking a low-interest loan – such as the Treasury’s Business Interruption Loan or Bounce Back Loan – is the way vast numbers of businesses have managed to keep going (over £67 billion has been provided by the Government to almost 1.6 million businesses).
It’s possible that clubs misjudged the support on offer and were too slow to raise the alarm about their situations. It’s also possible the Government failed to communicate clearly with clubs about when initial grants would cease and how to re-apply. Whichever is true, neither side has properly understood the other’s position and that speaks to a need to build much better relationships moving forward.
In fact, that need looks to be quite an urgent one. When the Government announced a £300 million package for grassroots sports earlier this month, The Telegraph was briefed that the winners will be “English cricket, tennis, horse racing, rugby league and the Women’s Super League.” Community football was conspicuous by its absence. Maybe this was down to poor Government communication, given that no funding allocations have been made. But perhaps it was because whoever was representing the National League – as the heart of the grassroots game – wasn’t good enough at making its case to Government.
So what should the National League do now? Get organised. For times when it really needs to get the Government’s attention – and competing for a fair share of the Sport Recovery Package is one of them – community football can certainly make itself very hard to ignore.
For a start, every club should be maintaining a good relationship with their local MP, who will be alert to the influence a club with several thousand fans can have (especially as a number of clubs are located in the constituencies of Cabinet ministers or “red wall” MPs).
But more broadly, looking at average attendances for the last “normal” season played, the 66 National League clubs have around 100,000 fans waiting to be mobilised. That’s an incredible amount of support to be able to call on. Clubs also have respectable social media followings which, with co-ordinated action, can be deployed to great effect.
Given the role clubs play in communities and the depth of support they can rely on, the top of non-league football should be able to run very effective campaigns when it comes to calling for its fair share of sports funding. What are they waiting for?
Leadership. Any frustration with the Government among clubs appears to be nothing compared to the anger directed at the board of the National League. Clubs are now openly calling for the chairman and board members to resign or be removed by the FA following a series of problems, from claims of unfairness in the way the initial funding was allocated through to the board’s refusal to publish an independent report into the matter. The failure to fight clubs’ corner for grassroots sports funding must rankle too.
What non-league football needs now is for either the board to re-group and come out fighting for a fair share of sports funding, or for someone else with the trust and respect of clubs to take the lead. If not, grassroots football in England will never make its voice heard.