Non-League clubs face financial struggle amid coronavirus crisis and indecision from authorities

Officials at three Northern Premier League clubs have spoken about the immense toll that the coronavirus pandemic has had on their finances.

On March 26, all divisions of the Northern Premier League and the North West Counties Leagues (spanning from tiers three to six of non-league system) were cancelled and declared null and void, with no promotion or relegation; meaning that clubs have had to cope for over seven weeks without matchday revenue.

Since then, uncertainty for non-league clubs has increased amid a lack of developments higher up the football pyramid. The Premier League and English Football League (EFL) have been suspended until further notice, with a decision regarding a restart date yet to be made.

Additionally, on April 22 the National League, the highest level of non-league football in England, announced that all remaining fixtures were cancelled in their Premier, North and South divisions. However, its board stated that they have to wait for a decision from the EFL before deciding how it handles promotion and relegation from their divisions.  

Lacking matchday revenue and without a confirmed restart date to plan towards, non-league clubs have relied on various measures, including government windfall, crowd-funding, and releasing players, in order to stay afloat during the crisis.

Rob Gorski, chairman of Tameside outfit Stalybridge Celtic, spoke about the struggle to manage the club’s finances during this period.

He said: “Having no matchday income – that includes not just gate receipts, but beer sales, food, and merchandise, has blown a massive hole in a non-league club’s cashflow.

“I’m not a fan of Boris Johnson, but had it not been for the injection that this particular government has put forward, I think large numbers, maybe even 100 non-league clubs would have gone to the wall. We would have struggled enormously had we not received the help that the government is giving everybody.”

Stalybridge sat twelfth in the NPL’s Premier Division when the season was brought to an abrupt end and Gorski has criticised administrators for their handling of the crisis.

Image: Stalybridge Celtic in action this season. Photo: Phill Smith – @phillsmithphoto

He added: “I’m not normally so vociferous, but I have to say that the FA and the Northern Premier League representatives have been absolutely abysmal in helping the club.

“It’s been an opportunity for the FA to stand up for grassroots football and in the end they just took a very hastily made decision weeks ago to expunge all of the results from non-league tier three to non-league tier seven and therefore the whole of the season was terminated with immediate effect.

“I don’t have any problem with our league representatives individually, but I think they were terribly unwise in agreeing to all of this because it left all of the clubs with huge cashflow problems.”

Clubs are having to find ways to overcome this lack of income. Many, including Stalybridge, have turned to crowd funding to help them survive the crisis, hoping fans can give what they can to help their teams.

Warrington Town are another of the clubs to set up a crowd funding page. The Cheshire side’s Chairman and CEO Toby Macourmac spoke about the measures that they have instilled to weather the period of financial insecurity.  

He said: “Every club has a lot of invoices at the end of the season – coach travel, player loans, so these would normally be underpinned by the bar being open. With the weather we’ve had recently, our bar would have been really busy, but it’s shut, so it’s just not helping with what would be the normal continuity of the business.

“A Just Giving page is the only system that we’ve got in place at the moment. We put a £10,000 target in and it’s just to tide us over and clear the end of season invoices.

“Pretty much every player that we’ve got is a free agent and some clubs have already spoken to them.

“It’s difficult, some clubs want to continue, some want to restart. We were third in the league before it stopped. If play-offs were going to go ahead, and it did restart, we would have had to put 16 kids out, but I was out quite early by saying the season should be null and void.”

Wigan-based Atherton Collieries have also launched a crowd funder to cover running costs and essential stadium maintenance. Committee member Joseph Gibbons spoke about his worries about losing a potentially lucrative pre-season.

He said: “The summer is important for a club like us and at the moment we’re not sure whether we’ll have that summer, so we are panicking a little bit.

“If we lose pre-season, by Christmas time we might be struggling hugely, once we’ve had to start forking out for wages again, because we won’t have that head start that we would have normally.

“Usually, we’d have a big friendly against Bolton, we’d try to get another couple of games in. Even having the outside bar helps so much over the summer.

“We’ll have to come up with ways of evolving and coping all the time. Whether that’s trying to put gigs on in the club house or opening the bar as much as we can.

“Next season, when we come back from away games, rather than getting dropped off at a local pub, we might have to get dropped back off at the ground and drink there for a couple of hours, just to bring some extra cash in.”

Different leagues across English football’s pyramid have adopted varying measures and timetables to tackle the crisis. Gorski believes that this lack of collective action has inhibited Stalybridge and other non-league clubs from making meaningful plans.

He said: “I think the lack of consistency across English football is what I find deeply disappointing.

“The Premier League and Championship are not really clear on what will happen with the end of this season, it might drag on until September. As a result, you can’t schedule any lucrative pre-season friendlies.

“The teams in the National League went their own way and applied to the Premier League for their own funding, with no interest whatsoever in non-league tiers three to seven, they just were concerned about their divisions.

“Secondly, as I said, the FA have basically thrown grassroots football under the bus with their appalling, hasty decisions.

“We all know that the Premier League look after themselves, that’s why they broke away from the Football League years ago. It’s become very self-interested – a highly fragmented and disjointed approach to football. Unfortunately, people have shown their colours.”

Warrington’s Macourmac was equally scathing of governing bodies, saying: “I think the immediate support should come from the county football associations, not the FA itself.

“In my view, the county football associations don’t do enough. I’ve not had one email or any interaction from anyone at my county FA (Cheshire) since the Covid-19 crisis started. I know a number of clubs within our county FA who also haven’t.”

When asked how clubs should be helped to battle through a crisis such as this, the three representatives had differing views.

Gibbons stated: “I don’t think that Football League clubs funding lower league football should be a long-term thing, but maybe in this situation they could do a bit more, after they’ve looked after their own employees. That’s the main thing for them, I wouldn’t expect any help from clubs when they are still struggling themselves.”

Whereas, Macourmac emphasised his view that clubs have had to adapt to survive, saying: “I was speaking to a club in the North West Counties League and they’re really struggling, to the point where they might actually request relegation.

“They need to cut back on their reserve team and under-18s side, because they’re costing the club about £7,000 a year. They won’t make the decision to get rid of them and that’s the kind of really horrible decisions that clubs will have to make to survive. Some will make them and some won’t, because I think you’ve got to strip it right back to the start.

“I know it’s really difficult, clubs are run by volunteers who give their time and they’re not accountants, they’ve not got businesses of their own. They do it for the love of the game and they’ve probably given their lives to the club.”

Gorski instead directed his displeasure towards the FA and those at the top of English football’s pyramid.

He declared: “It’s absolutely shameful that everybody is looking after themselves and grassroots football, where it all comes from, is left behind.

“Everybody thinks about Jamie Vardy and what a wonderful story it was when Leicester won the Premier League.

“It was, but Jamie started playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels. At Stalybridge Celtic, we had Dominic Calvert-Lewin when he was an under-17s player. He’s now thriving at Everton. These players started here and have risen up.

“Grassroots football is massive in this country and it has been left to fend for itself because of the incompetency of the FA and the league structure. That is shameful.

“The Premier League pays lip service to the idea of richer clubs helping smaller clubs out, but they don’t do it in reality. They throw their loose change at it to make them feel like they’ve covered their social responsibility to grassroots football and the FA don’t help in the matter.”

The government announced on Monday (May 11) that football can return behind closed doors from June 1. This may allow Premier League and EFL clubs to finish their season and honour broadcasting deals in the next few months. Unfortunately, it means little for non-league clubs, for whom match-going supporters are their lifeblood.

It is said that football without the fans is nothing. This is never more true than at the grassroots. Indecision has left non-league clubs in the lurch, holding out until they can welcome fans through their gates again.

They require clarity and support if they are to see the other side of this crisis.

Header image: Bower Fold, the home of Stalybridge Celtic.

Image courtesy of Stalybridge Celtic on Twitter, with thanks

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