THE pandemic has delivered a few blows to football, not least the recent collapse of Macclesfield and problems at Droylesden. Add to that the demise of Bury and the alarm bells should be ringing very loud. The national media hasn’t really given it too much thought, but the CV-19 crisis has hit non-league very hard and given the often fragile nature of club finances, cast huge doubts about the sustainability of the game outside the Football League.
In the past, the non-league game was something of a nursery for bigger clubs and occupied a unique part of the eco-system (long before such phrases were invented). Quite often when small clubs were in trouble, pro clubs might donate some money to the cause, play a friendly to raise funds and, generally, adopt an attitude of generosity towards their junior neighbours. Some clubs still do, playing regular pre-season games and providing loan players and access to academy products.
When you consider how much revenue is generated at the top level, the cash flow crises of minor clubs could easily – on paper – be solved by the game’s behemoths.
Of course, these clubs are businesses and although they have allocated funds for charity and assorted good deeds, they would have to justify lending a helping hand, but the amounts involved need not be that big. And the positive PR that would be created by an elite club bailing-out the local non-league institution would be immense, changing the perception of big-time football and the people that run it – especially those that have faced questions about the motives of owners.
While some clubs have urged supporters to donate money to help them through the crisis, they are, effectively, going back to the same audience time and time again. Innovation is needed to introduce more cash to the non-league game in a time of intense pressure. Let’s not kid ourselves that football is a democracy, but surely, it is in everyone’s interest to maintain a healthy football structure?
If non-league clubs start to fall like dominoes, and there is a danger of that happening if their main source of income, matchday revenues, does not return soon, the roots of the game will dry-up and wither. And once club failure becomes commonplace, it could prove contagious and creep up the ladder to the Football League. As it is, many clubs live hand-to-mouth.
Perhaps there is a way out in starting a fund that provides a back-stop for clubs, a fund that is paid into by the elite to ensure those around them can prosper and possibly contribute to player development at the highest level?
Of course, non-league has to get its house in order and stop paying the sort of wages the clubs can ill-afford – any argument about sustainability has to begin with the question – how much of your income is spent on wages? After salaries, the other major question should be whether the current structure is the best geographical mix or has the crisis made it more vital to restrict non-league to more stringent regionalisation?
I was involved with a Hertfordshire-based non-league club for 20-plus years and it always puzzled me how a club from step three could travel 200 miles, setting out early on a Saturday morning, to play a game in front of 250 people. A game that would go largely unnoticed by the majority of people in the respective towns of the two teams. I particularly recall one trip where we hurtled north in our coach and were passed on the other side of the A1 by Bradford Park Avenue going south for a league game. That just didn’t make sense. Admittedly, we enjoyed going to faraway places, but the profit and loss on a fixture like that would have been interesting.
While a benevolent or crisis fund makes sense in some shape or form, clubs also have to start provisioning for rainy days and using prize money as emergency capital rather than bonuses. It cannot simply be “cash in, cash out” and hope for the best. I’ve long been an advocate for lower wages and restrictions around how much a club can pay, but that’s allowing the head to rule the heart. As we know, football is often run with the heart dictating the narrative and that invariably ends in tears and often even life-threatening for a club.
As matchday income is so crucial, non-league has to get started as soon as possible, but not behind closed doors. There is no imperative around broadcasting for the vast majority of clubs. Although this is controversial, clubs and leagues might also consider wage freezes until normality is restored.
Regardless of the practical challenges and hurdles facing non-league clubs, how dull would the world be if we didn’t have that vast family of little clubs, all corrugated metal, spindly floodlights and creaking turnstiles, that has produced some excellent players for the highest stage?
This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.