By Darren Tinmouth: https://claretandbluepixels.wordpress.com
Throughout this lockdown, fans across all levels of the game have been eagerly anticipating one date, December 2nd. That is the date that PM Boris Johnson has continually insisted the UK will exit the second Covid-19 lockdown that has lasted throughout the month of November.
As far as non-league is concerned, this meant the immediate halting of all football at levels that have been considered as ‘non-elite’, this being from Level 7 (Step 3) and below, with exceptions to train given to the 10 clubs from these levels that had qualified for the FA Cup 1st Round as that is classed as an elite competition. Of those 10, two clubs made it through to the second round (Canvey Island and Marine) and therefore the exception to train has been extended for those two clubs throughout the lockdown period.
With the inactivity, it has left a multitude of competitions in limbo, the FA Trophy and FA Vase were already well underway and many leagues were beginning to look very intriguing with Worthing looking very strong in the Isthmian Premier and surprise leaders in the NPL Premier in the form of Mickleover.
Going back to the December 2nd relaxing of lockdown, there needed to be an announcement on the exit strategy in order for non-league football to restart and for fans to be allowed back in. but early words coming out of the government’s cabinet meetings did a lot to insert many fears amongst club officials and also fans alike.
That word was of the 3 tier system in place before lockdown would be toughened up and that more regions of England would be placed in these tougher tiers. So cue many people keeping very close eyes on the daily updates on covid infection rates, as that and the ever mentioned ‘R number’ (basically the rate of infection) would be the indicator as to what region each tier would be in.
Before that though, some promising news for football fans, the 3 tiered system was updated to include the long awaited return of supporters at elite stadiums (clubs in England’s top six tiers), these were as follows
- TIER ONE: Clubs in areas falling within Tier 1 restrictions would be allowed 50% of capacity or 4,000 spectators, whichever is smaller. Pubs and clubhouses allowed to open with table service.
- TIER TWO: Clubs in areas falling within Tier 2 restrictions would be allowed 50% of capacity or 2,000 spectators, whichever is smaller. Pubs and clubhouses allowed to open but with no table service and only if they can offer ‘substantial meals’
- TIER THREE: Clubs in areas falling within Tier 3 restrictions would be forbidden to have spectators in attendance. Pubs and clubhouses must close for everything with the exception of takeaway orders only.
For all three tiers, that would mean for non-league below Step 2, the crowd limits in force before the lockdown would be re-introduced, that being 600 at Step 3, 400 at Step 4 and 300 at both Steps 5 and 6.
That obviously filled many fans with excitement but for those living within areas that were experiencing high infection rates, further fears that the season would be further impacted. Mainly because for clubs in the non-league setup, the primary source of income is from home matchdays, without that income stream, clubs would be unable to function unless they had received financial help of some description.
The Premier League could rely on its income from its broadcasting deals, the EFL likewise to a lesser extent and the National League are currently benefitting from a £10million emergency grant from the National Lottery spread out over three months. Non-League had no such fallback with only the limited revenues from those restricted gates and any season tickets sold.
Then on Thursday (November 26th), at around 11am, the tiers were finally confirmed, and for fans in the North of England and the Midlands, it’s a pretty grim outlook.
Basically the whole of the North of England with the exception of Liverpool, Hull, Cumbria, Cheshire and the West Midlands would be placed into Tier 3 (areas in red on the map) along with Bristol, Slough and the whole county of Kent. Only Cornwall and the Isle of Wight would be placed in Tier 1 (yellow) with everywhere else placed in tier 2 (orange). These tiered restrictions are due to be reviewed every two weeks, the next review due on December the 16th.
TROUBLE AHEAD FOR NON-LEAGUE
The immediate problems it brings to non-league football can best be seen in the area of the pyramid known as ‘The Trident Leagues’, those being the leagues at Steps 3 and 4. Mainly the NPL, The Southern (both South and Central) and the Isthmian.
These three leagues all have divisions that encompass geographical areas that fall in multiple tier restrictions, and judging by the below list, it poses a big problem for the most northerly of the organisations, the NPL.
To break that down further, the Isthmian League’s restrictions have their sides all in Tier 2 apart from their 9 clubs based in Kent. For the Southern League, only the 16 clubs based around Birmingham and around Bristol/North Somerset would be affected. The NPL however have just the 16 clubs in the lesser Tier 2 meaning only the following clubs would be allowed spectators if the league were to resume.
- PREMIER DIVISION (Limit of 600): Nantwich Town, Scarborough Athletic, Warrington Town, Whitby Town, Witton Albion.
- NORTH WEST DIVISION (Limit of 400): City of Liverpool, Kendal Town, Marine, Pickering Town, Prescot Cables, Runcorn Linnets, Tadcaster Albion, Widnes, Workington.
- SOUTH EAST DIVISION (Limit of 400): Market Drayton Town, Wisbech Town.
The problem here is this. I am of the belief (and it’s the same with the vast majority of non-league fans) that football in these lower levels simply cannot return without spectators in attendance, and with only 16 of the NPL’s 61 clubs able to do so, then I just cannot see how the NPL can return on time unless either areas have their tier’s relaxed from three to two or with serious financial support from higher up, whether that be the FA or the Government.
The news a fortnight back of £14million in government loans to affected clubs at Steps 3-6 is certainly welcome but the problem is these are loans, these will need to be paid back at some point and non-league clubs I fear are not now (nor will they likely ever be) in a position to repay these loans which could run well into five figure sums. An equal share of the £14million amongst the near 900 clubs within those four tiers equates to around £15,000 per club.
The restrictions on spectators are bad enough but there is also the strong recommendation that not only fans but also players are not advised to travel between areas in different tier restrictions. So for instance South Shields’s first game back was due to be on December 5th at home to Nantwich Town. That game would break all sorts of regulations regarding travel as it would be Tier 3 against Tier 2.
ANOTHER WHAT IF
Again looking at the future, the next review of the covid tiers is in two weeks (December 16th), Lets picture a scenario.
If Kent is downgraded back to Tier 2, that would pretty much give the Isthmian League’s 4 divisions the green light to restart. The same goes for the Southern League if Bristol and the more southerly parts of Birmingham also get downgraded. What will happen if they are able to restart and the NPL is in no position to do so or even finish the season? If the FA are still committed to ensuring promotion/relegation takes place, then what do they do?
Because remember, the already delayed by 12 months restructuring is supposed to take place this summer. This involves the following…
- STEP TWO: National League North and South due to be expanded from 22 clubs each to 24
- STEP FOUR: The NPL due to gain a third Step 4 division increasing Step 4 to 160 clubs and the FA Trophy levels to a total of 320 clubs
- STEP FIVE: Two new Step 5 leagues for the Midlands (run by the United Counties League) and for London (run by the Combined Counties League), this would complete the FA’s much wanted 1-2-4-8-16 structure.
This is supposed to help alleviate one of the major financial problems regarding competing at especially steps 3-4 and that is travel costs, it’s one of the many reported reasons why Northern League clubs have always felt wary of being promoted into non-league’s upper levels over the last 30-40 years.
In my view, there is no way the FA would ever allow promotion from a league to clubs that have played only 8 or 9 games so on the face of it, the only solution would be to give those promotion places in Step 2 to the NPL’s southern partners, the Southern League and the Isthmian. That though would create an even worse geographical imbalance with travelling costs for the most northerly clubs in National League North potentially skyrocketing so . I mean a National League NORTH division that could potentially have the likes of Gloucester, Oxford and even Needham Market doesn’t bear thinking about.
THE FINAL WORD
I don’t want to provide speculation by providing what I would see as a solution, but more to emphasise what a massive problem the FA’s League management committee and especially the bigwigs at the Northern Premier League now find themselves in thanks to the Government’s covid restrictions.
The leagues are due to meet the FA this weekend (Saturday November 28th) to discuss the way forward but in the short term? I can’t see any league football being played at these levels until at least after the next tier review on December 16th. FA Competitions like the Trophy and Vase though are another matter given the prize money on offer.
One thing’s for sure though, get it wrong and it may take years for non-league to recover.
I mean who really would want to be a league administrator right now? Talk about a near impossible job.