THE late Alan Hull of Lindisfarne once wrote a tune called “The Money Game” and sang that he could “smile when it’s a rainy day”, implying that he didn’t have to worry about cash when things were bad. Sadly, modern lifestyles and mass consumerism have left many people without a proverbial pot to pee in, personal debt is high and many folk are one missed pay day away from disaster. In some ways, non-league football reflects that scenario and the game at that level could be facing a rainy day like no other.
At this precise moment, clubs at steps three and beyond are allowed to admit spectators, but the signs are not good. Already, in response to rising cases of the covid-19 virus, the UK’s floundering government has started to restrict normal activity once more. While pubs, restaurants and shops have been affected for some time, this latest clampdown could spell disaster for many if it morphs into another lockdown.
We all missed football when there was none and the sheer joy at being allowed back into non-league games was there for all to see. But there were some examples of spectators and players failing to adhere to the rules – notably a much-publicised game involving Hashtag United. The club’s timing could not have been worse, it was screened on the BBC and made most newspapers, just a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson fist-pumped his latest instructions.
If the game at Pitsea witnessed such scenes, is it possible that others that were not so much in the public eye also had examples of the rules and precautions being ignored? There is a distinct chance that non-league football could be stopped in its tracks if the game doesn’t work out a way to prevent a repeat performance.
Most grounds at step three, for example, should be able to accommodate a restricted crowd at a safe distance. Indeed, the demographic at most stadiums comprises fans simply not interested in jumping on each other for fear of a dislocation, sprain or break. The average stadium utilisation rate in the Southern League Central Premier, for example, is just 11%, meaning that there’s a lot of unused room.
Nobody should underestimate the damage that abandoning another season will do to the very fabric of non-league. Matchday revenue is a huge part of a club’s income, there is no broadcasting money to compensate. Clubs have become very vulnerable.
Can they do anything about it? Non-league has to take a long hard look at itself and its economic model. Players’ wages have to be limited and not consume a huge part of total revenues. Clubs need to have a fighting fund to pay for that leaky roof, broken perimeter fence or dressing room refurb. Spectator comfort and safety should be the top priority. Clubs need to be stress-tested.
There also has to be more thought given to making the supporters – essentially the only people who truly care about the club’s longevity – have to become true stakeholders. This requires a nation-wide movement to change the constitution of semi-professional and amateur clubs. The notion that your local club is effectively Manchester United in short trousers has to end – the big time is corporate football, the small time is community football.
This may sound like a pipedream and a threat to their current status, but when small clubs call for bail-outs and supporter money to keep them afloat, something needs to be assessed – how many clubs are really financially viable?
Moreover, if clubs rely on charity, the supporters need to receive something in return that validates their contribution. Yes, the time of fan-owned clubs is upon us.
Whether a second lockdown comes or not, it is the right moment to change how non-league clubs sit in the community. There’s a lot of talk about “community clubs” but this should surely be a two-way street, not merely a license to gain grants and kudos. Make the fans true stakeholders, not merely a revenue stream to be tapped when times are hard.
This really is non-league football’s tipping point. There’s a huge opportunity out there to pick-up new audiences and fill a gap for live football. Screw it up and when this crisis passes for us all, we may find that the club in the heart of town has been boarded up.