FANS ALLOWED TO RETURN, BUT IS IT TOO RISKY?

By Darren Tinmouth: https://claretandbluepixels.wordpress.com

Since the beginning of November when the latest national lockdown was initiated, clubs at Steps 3 and below in the non-league pyramid (albeit with the exception of 10 clubs that partook in the FA Cup first round proper) were forced to shut down almost all aspects of why they exist, not only their league programs, but also their clubhouses and even rules that forbid them from training.

This was all the result of grassroots football seen by the powers that be as a negative factor in the fight against coronavirus, that is despite non-league clubs investing time and money to make their grounds covid safe and the vast majority of those clubs had conformed to all of the rules diligently and without trouble.

A week ago, the lifting of the lockdown was supposed to allow fans to return to football, allowing non-league to restart and for clubs to begin generating some desperately needed revenue. One problem with that though, the new, more draconian Tier system was put in place with clubs falling within the Tier 3 limitations being ordered to host games behind closed doors.

Even Tier 2 (which would allow upwards of 2,000 fans per ground and 600 below the Step 2 leagues) placed severe limitations as to the function of the clubhouses. Almost 96% of the country fell within those two tiers with only the Isle of Wight and Cornwall falling into the less stringent Tier 1 which would allow clubs to open up their clubhouses to table service. As I understand, only Truro City (Southern League Premier) and the majority of clubs in Cornwall’s Step 6 league (the South West Penninsula Premier League) fall within that Tier.

BBC SPORT: Fans to Return

A UNITED FRONT AT STEPS 3 AND 4

At Steps 3 and 4, there was an eagerly awaited vote on the matter. The result of which was published at the end on <insert date here>. Even though a big majority of clubs in the Southern and Isthmian Leagues fell within Tier 2 restrictions, the NPL had a major problem with 45 of their 61 clubs subjected to these Tier 3 restrictions. Meaning they would be in an impossible situation.

Thankfully in that regard, the three organisations (who call themselves ‘The Trident Leagues’) presented a united front and over 76% of the member clubs at Steps 3-4 voted to continue the stoppage despite the lift of lockdown. As things stand, these leagues are not due to return until December 19th with the exception of the NPL whose next fixtures are due on Boxing Day

A NEW TWIST

However, the FA’s major non-league competitions the Vase and the Trophy would continue to be played regardless, this saw the Vase’s second round take place as scheduled on December 5th and the FA Trophy’s first round ties on the following midweek.

After those midweek games though came a new twist. Thursday December the 10th saw the FA add to the statement given out by health secretary Matt Hancock. Probably as a result of pressure from back-bench Tory MP’s and some Labour backbenchers, most notably Kate Osbourne, the representative for Jarrow (below). To put it simply, the rules were being altered to allow fans in Tier 3 back into grounds at Steps 3-6.

The proposal on the table is for football clubs to be allowed the return of spectators at Steps 3-6 in Tier 3 areas at even lower limitations than what we saw in September and October. Instead of 600-400-300-300 for Steps 3-4-5 and 6 respectively, these would be halved to 300-200-150-150. However, the clubhouses in tier 3 areas would still follow the same rules as the local pubs, as in they would remain closed.

FA STATEMENT

In addition to this, the cross-tier travel limitations would be relaxed to allow clubs to fulfil home and away league fixtures.

MY OPINION

First things first, a disclaimer. The opinion I’m about to give may not be in conjunction with many other fans who are eagerly anticipating the return of their attendance at their local clubs. This is just my opinion on the matter and should not be taken as complete gospel.

What really prompted me to write this piece was the most recent episode of Tim Fuell’s brilliant podcast, The Non-League Show. He dedicated the first 10-15 minutes to air his opinion on the situation citing his experience in his role as a volunteer at his local club Hayes & Yeading United. And it’s well worth listening.

And if I’m honest, I 100% agree with his fears. Yes, bringing back fans is a major plus point, but will it be enough to help clubs survive? Remember, let’s look at the main revenue streams for the vast majority of non-league clubs. Gate Reciepts and most importantly, clubhouse revenue.

For a good number of clubs in Tier 3, the limitations may not account for all season ticket holders (who would more than likely get first priority). This is especially the case at my team South Shields where we had sold in excess of 500 season tickets. This means that the gate receipts revenue would be nullified as the costs of that were mostly already paid upfront.

That would leave just the clubhouse and refreshments as the main source of revenue on a matchday. And with that out of commission due to the rules, it only leaves secondary avenues like the livestreaming of games, programme sales and the 50/50 raffles, all together only being a drop in the ocean compared to what they would be generating in normal circumstances. And that’s not just South Shields, many other clubs will be in the same predicament.

I for one am as desperate for fans to return just as much as everyone else. It is after all for people like us, the highlight of the week in normal circumstances where people who have grown to make many friends get together to chat, have a drink or two and do what they love, and that is watching football and supporting the local team. It’s the social event we as fans all look forward to.

But what I’d hate to see is for this short-term vision to be achieved at the expense of long-term sustainability. Especially due to the aforementioned limitations in terms of clubhouse revenue. Yes, we would be back in the ground but if a club is unable to make enough money through their expected means to cover the costs of staging games, then I think it’s a little bit counter productive.

That I believe is a big reason as to why the clubs at Steps 3-4 ended up voting the way they did. Steps 3-4 are like a no man’s land in terms of the football landscape. Especially if you are a club in what is seen as a distant outpost like for instance the North East, Cumbria or the Westcountry (Cornwall & Devon). They cover vast geographical footprint but without the commercial benefits that come with member ship of the National League divisions. To put it simply, it’s a very costly part of the pyramid to compete in.

THE FINAL WORD

Yes, I know my opinion will differ from those fans desperate to get back into stadiums and support their team, but with what I’ve stated above, you can understand where I’m coming from.

If we get this wrong, then there is the danger of the non-league game below Step 2 being damaged to a position where it may take many years if not decades to recover. Since the acceptance of semi-professionalism in the early 1970’s when the pyramid as we know it had its beginnings of taking shape, the non-league game has worked hard to gain acceptance. With pyramid progression, the overall standard of football at the lower levels has improved greatly especially over the last 20 years, we’ve seen the likes of Burton Albion, Fleetwood Town, Crawley Town and Morecambe go on to become established league clubs and also seen the likes of Dorking Wanderers who’ve progressed from the 11th to the 6th tier in just 9 years.

Finances have also seen a marked improvement in the last 40 years but also in that time, costs have also escalated. What the covid-19 pandemic has exposed is the financial fragility of Football in England and most tellingly make many people understand that outside the Premier League, the game is not awash with as much money as many people think. It’s also shown how much pretty much every non-league club relies on their clubhouse for revenues, even clubs like mine at South Shields are heavily reliant on the income our marquee, the bar and the Shipley lounge generate.

The important date to keep an eye on is Wednesday December 16th. That is the next government review into the tier system and even though in some Tier 3 areas, covid infection rates have dropped, I fear the government will still deem them too high to alter and if anything, they would appear to be more likely to actually upgrade some Tier 2 areas up to that Tier 3. A move which las I write this has already happened to London, Essex and parts of Hertfordshire. Meaning the return of fans at some EFL matches in London has been very shortlived.

Hopefully the vaccine rollout receives a high take-up and is also successful in supressing the virus, therefore allowing us in the new year to eventually return to normality. But in the meantime, the uncertainty surrounding the non-league game I fear will unfortunately continue.

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