OPINION: Non-league football below step 3 has been betrayed
Non-league football has been both abandoned and betrayed by the decision to not allow fans into games inside Tier 3.
After a month off due to Lockdown 2, many clubs were looking forward to returning to action but that has now been plunged into uncertainty.
Though the tier classification is set to be reviewed every fortnight, the current rankings could easily last into the New Year. Even if there are some movements, there will still be many clubs in areas facing the toughest restrictions.
What this means is that clubs are expected to play fixtures but without receiving any of the match day income they rely on. This is despite the fact they will still have to pay out all of the usual costs that go into running a club. With it getting darker earlier, clubs will be using floodlights longer and there will still be the fees for match officials which are more often than not, in three figures. There’s the usual water and electric bills to run changing rooms whilst many clubs will have players wages to also consider.
Clubs cannot be expected to pay for all this whilst there is no money coming in. A £14 million grant to help clubs was announced but it now appears that the majority of this will be in the form of loans. This is a short term solution to one problem which will only cause bigger issues down the line as clubs find themselves burdened with debt.
What makes this worse is that before Lockdown 2, fans were allowed into non-league games with limited attendances and clubs were working hard to adapt their grounds to make them as safe as possible for spectators. No evidence has been produced to suggest that fans attending games caused any sort of rise in infections.
On top of this, it was previously deemed unsafe for fans to return to professional grounds but now teams in tier 1 and 2 are allowed up to 4000 and 2000 spectators respectively. Of course they will be following social distancing but surely non-league clubs could still follow the guidelines and allow some spectators in?
The Northern Counties East League are allowing their clubs to vote on whether the season should continue behind closed doors, the Southern Counties East League is suspended until Boxing Day whilst the East Midlands Counties League and the Northern League have both decided to suspend the season for a further two weeks in the hope that more areas will enter tier 2 at the next review. What other leagues decide remains to be seen but further suspensions add to the fixture back log and increase the risk of the season not reaching a natural conclusion.
Last season was null and voided despite being a considerable way through and the last thing anybody wants is to have two consecutive seasons where teams are unable to fulfil their full quota of fixtures. The FA have reaffirmed that their aim is “ensure that the 2020-2021 season is completed” but with the winter weather having a big impact every year, they will need clubs to play as many games as possible over the next month or two.
Back in August, when plans were underway to get the non-league season up and running, the FA announced that all start dates for leagues were subject to being fans being able to return as they appreciated that playing without them just wasn’t viable. They accepted that it could lead to some clubs going under.
That idea appears to have been abandoned. Common sense needs to prevail to stop devastating consequences for the entire non-league pyramid.