FEARING FOR THE FUTURE OF THE PYRAMID IN LOCKDOWN TWO

It’s been a tough few days to take. Both from a personal interest and a personal life standpoint, whether it’s the likelihood of not being able to partake in ones favourite social past-time or the sad loss of my 19-year-old family dog, it’s definitely been the whirlwind of emotions.

However, it’s the former I’d like to focus on and my worries that this second lockdown could possess the potential to cause irreparable damage to lower league football in this country, damage that I fear could result in the loss of many of England’s grassroots football clubs.

SO WHAT’S HAPPENED?

Basically put, on the Saturday morning, we had gotten word of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was making an emergency address to the nation at 5pm that evening, and the word was that he would bin the current ‘three tier’ system of restrictions in favour of a 4 week lockdown which would mean the league season being paused.

PHOTO CREDIT: Darren Tinmouth

So this meant going to South Shields’s FA Trophy Qualifying Round tie against Colne was a near sombre experience, mainly because of that impending announcement. The atmosphere was understandably muted with fear. It was nothing like the last time we were on the eve of a lockdown when over 3,000 packed into Mariners Park to watch Shields win an epic encounter 5-3 against title rivals FC United of Manchester. That was treated like one big party which everyone in attendance (including Little Mix star Jade Thirlwall) took full advantage of, really partying like it really was 1999.

The game against Colne was anything but, even though Shields won through 1-0 in a game of attrition which in turn banked the club a much needed £2,450 in prize money, there was no mood for celebration. The crowd limited to 300, the bar and the picnic benches outside with extreme social distancing protocols and a sense of defeatism. Especially as the club had done a wonderful job of following every single guideline thrown their way.

As it turned out, the announcement duly came (ironically after a 90 minute delay) where Johnson and his main scientific advisor Chris Whitty delivered the news we had all been fearing, there would be a vote on Wednesday in Parliament and if that were passed, England would go into a strict lockdown from Thursday to last for 4 weeks.

THE ELITE/NON-ELITE QUANDRY

However, this lockdown has some differences, it won’t be as strict as the last one back in March. For starters, Schools and Universities will remain open and importantly for football, elite sport will remain permitted. Any sport considered ‘non-elite’ would be ordered to stop, and not just official fixtures, everything associated with it, including training.

Going back to the first lockdown, levels considered ‘non-elite’ in football would be all levels below National League North & South (in other words, Steps 3 and below). However unlike the first lockdown, there is no talk into how the season will finish (well yet), instead, the definition centres around the availability and/or frequency requirements of COVID-19 testing, and the clubs in the leagues below NL North and South just cannot afford the level of testing required at the above levels, that and the likelihood being the capacity to extend those levels of testing to around 1,000 clubs residing in England’s top 10 tiers is just not there.

And with that, the government seemingly are unwilling to take any chances, despite the wonderful work the lower clubs have done to allow them to re-admit fans.

And then there’s the FA Cup, one fear I had was that because of ‘non-elite’ teams being barred from playing their league games in lockdown, the FA would have taken the simple option of throwing out those ‘non-elite’ clubs. As you can see above, 9 of the ties involve these clubs with the added complication of one all ‘non-elite’ tie. To further complicate matters, 7 of those 9 ties have been selected for live broadcasts with those clubs involved due to receive substantial payments in broadcast fees.

Chucking out non-elite clubs would have involved likely paying out a ton in compensation to those clubs and awarding a ton of byes to the ‘elite’ clubs they were due to play, throwing the whole integrity of the competition under the bus.

In the end, after discussions with the government, an exemption has been made to allow these 10 to compete with the ‘elite’ protocols extended to them and the FA also altered the prize fund for Rounds 1 and 2 to help compensate with loser’s prize money being introduced. That means South Shields for example will receive a minimum of £5,657 for taking part in their mammoth 525-mile round trip to Cheltenham Town.

There is a little piece of WTF attached to this though, the second round is pencilled in to take place on the weekend of November 28th. A whole week before the lockdown is due to end. Let’s picture the scenario and again use South Shields as an example. Let’s say Shields pull off a spectacular cupset and beat Cheltenham. Yes they’d receive a nice sum of nearly £17,000 for doing so and be guaranteed another 8 and a half grand on top of that for participating in the next round, but between then and the second round, they will be reverted back to ‘non-elite- status meaning they would be forbidden to organise training sessions in the three weeks up to that second round tie.

As things stand, its unclear if the rules would be altered to allow ‘non-elite’ clubs to properly prepare if they were to reach Round Two. That would potentially put them at a major disadvantage if they were pitted against an ‘elite’ club that would be allowed to train every day. Again, it would throw the competition into chaos as far as integrity was concerned. It’s a ridiculous situation that not just South Shields but all 10 of the ‘non-elite’ clubs find themselves in, and remember, with one of the ties being all ‘non-elite’ (Banbury United v Canvey Island), at least one of those clubs are guaranteed to be in Round 2.

FEARS OF A LONGER LOCKDOWN

Here’s hoping that this lockdown only lasts for this one month, if so, it would mean football at the lower levels would return on the 5th of December. That wouldn’t be too bad as there are a good number of midweek slots available to fit in those fixtures but what if the lockdown extends beyond that aforementioned date and god forbid, over Christmas? That could potentially throw the lower leagues into chaos.

If that happens, then only three options would remain, null and void the season again (which they do NOT want to do), extend the end of the season by at least a month or implement drastic format changes. Otherwise you are talking about clubs having to play 3 or 4 games a week for multiple weeks which would be ridiculous to think.

Sure, there has been talk of format changes to counter this, but all would involve less opportunities for home games and with it, less opportunities to earn valuable revenue from those. And that brings me to the possibility of clubs going to the wall as a result, and not just the odd one or two, we could well be talking a lot of clubs.

When one thinks of that, the natural reaction from some fans would be “well they should manage their finances” or “you shouldn’t have spent so much in the first place”. To that, the retort

We’ve already seen Bury and Macclesfield bite the dust (sure the demise of Bury is a major example and not a non-league club per-say, but the argument is the same), Blackfield & Langley have taken voluntary demotion, Merthyr Town, Droylsden, Guernsey and Isle of Man have already canned their seasons, and those I fear are just the tip of the iceberg. For instance I saw Heaton Stannington on Sky Sports News on Monday saying they’ve calculated that they’ve lost £5,000 in potential revenue in just the last 8 weeks.

It doesn’t seem a lot especially compared to the tens of millions Premier League clubs throw about in player transfer fees but it just emphasises how much that amount of money means to a club like Heaton Stannington, calculate that over a whole season and you’re talking about a potential loss of around £40,000, that is huge money at Northern League division 2 level. It makes one think of Skelmersdale United’s run to the first round of the FA Cup. They are guaranteed a minimum of just over £60,000 from it which has pretty much rescued their season.

Now think of losses like that placed upon a smaller club with a smaller fanbase, unless those teams have owners with deep pockets or other revenue streams that turn out to be successful. Then the immediate future is very bleak.

Now I don’t want to sound like a doom-monger but with the potential challenges ahead if the lockdown is more prolonged than first feared, then unless the government or the FA provide a reasonable level of support, then there is the fear of many clubs going to the wall.

THE FINAL WORD

The next 2-3 months of this pandemic are crucial for the very future of grassroots football in England. Unless the help provided is ample, then I fear we could be heading into the 2021-22 season with a very different picture in terms of the English Pyramid, one of the most revered and popular domestic structures in world football.

The news that the furlough scheme is being extended by at least a month will be a big help I’m sure but beyond that first month? Who knows. In his speech to the Commons on Monday (November 2nd), Boris Johnson said he was determined to relax the restrictions after that month and in his words ‘save Christmas’. But what if the numbers don’t improve, what if the pandemic actually escalates in that month? I dread to think of the consequences.

Thanks for reading and remember more then ever to stay safe!

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