FOOTBALL clubs at all levels are feeling the squeeze at the moment. When you hear that a huge organisation like Barcelona is having financial pressure and their players have taken a pay cut, then you know the game is in a precarious state. Just six weeks without football and some clubs are already staring into the abyss.
If the likes of Barcelona are in a mess, then it is no surprise that non-league clubs are facing existential threats at the moment. The concept of provisioning for a rainy day has never been one of football’s priorities and many non-league clubs live day-to-day and basically use up all their spare cash on wages. The wage-to-income ratio of non-league is probably quite frightening. Most people don’t realise it, for many club accounts are, at best, pretty opaque, and the subject of player wages is a topic that is rarely accurate.
When the dust finally settles, non-league football could be decimated, unless the game takes a good look at itself and comes to the conclusion that living beyond one’s means should be consigned to the past.
Fans should challenge clubs about their financial affairs
It is all very well clubs seeking supporter donations, but the lack of clarity around finances should prompt supporters to ask some challenging questions of club officials before they part with their cash. Expecting fans to do so without more openness over how the money is managed lacks integrity and trust, the very thing some clubs are asking their fans to exercise. All too often, pouring money into a football club is merely throwing it down a bottomless pit.
But solutions should be sought not on a club-by-club basis, but across non-league football, even if they have to determined step-by-step. The root to many clubs’ problems is the wage structure (if indeed there is a structure). It is surely appropriate to introduce a wage cap along the lines of maintaining a sensible and pragmatic wage-to-income ratio. Of course, some people will abuse the system but it may also deliver other benefits such as greater levels of competitiveness. Non-league football could, dare we say, become more democratic.
It may also be time to eradicate full-time clubs at non-league level. Non-league wasn’t meant to be a full-time professional body of clubs. Obviously, the creation of National Leagues has, to a certain degree, necessitated the shift for many clubs, but it is a fairly ridiculous scenario in some cases. Is it really progress?
Some could argue the move back to part-time would be a retrograde step, but the Coronavirus has shown us that in some respects, everyone is dancing on a volcano. Let’s be clear, non-league football clubs should not be bailed out, no matter how much we love our own. More than ever, clubs have to be able to pay their way and live within their means. If that translates into taking a step back, then so be it. Better to be a well-run and realistic club than one that flies too high with wings made of tallow.
And now, surely it is not a bad idea to mobilise the fans and those that care about the local club, to really become stakeholders? Clubs claim to be “community”, but the fans, the number one stakeholders, rarely have a tangible stake – it is purely emotional. The time is right to create more fully or partially supporter-owned clubs. If the result of that is a structure based on lower cash income levels and allows clubs to remove the need for autocratic owners, then non-league football should tell itself it is in it for the long-haul. The good of the game.
“Community” should mean just that – not a tag of convenience
Basically, clubs can deal with short-term pain through asking for donations from fans and the public, but the real issue is how they should manage their affairs going forward. This latest crisis has shown us that football, indeed most people, have little protection when the unexpected happens. Worryingly, we live in a world where the “unexpected” seems to be happening all too frequently. The economic fall-out of stopping the world in its tracks will be far worse than anyone can imagine, although it may be a short-term slump with a sharp rebound. Nobody really knows.
The lockdown has taught us that we can do without many of the things we took for granted and that includes expenditure, instant gratification and the superficial. As for football, it has reminded us that the term “hand to mouth” can describe all sections of the game. It is time to initiate change by making the community truly part of the club as well as a club claiming to be part of the community. It has to be a two-way street. Some clubs know how to do it very well, but it should be a model that defines non-league football going forward and the fans should know exactly how their club is governed and financed.