Until COVID-19 hit, non-league football was thriving.
A perfect storm at the summit of the English game – disillusionment with the corporate capitalism of the Premier League, anger at exploitative ownership, high ticket prices, a pervasive feeling that elite football values money above fans – led to soaring attendances at numerous non-league clubs.
English football works like this: there’s the Premier League up the top, three divisions of the English Football League below that, then the National League – the first “step” of non-league football – below that. There are six further steps which make up the base of the English league pyramid, going all the way down to the county and regional leagues.
From the National League down, at clubs largely run by volunteers and, in some cases, owned by their supporters, fans found they could have a say in how things were done. Players and coaches are accessible, rather than guarded by small armies of bureaucrats, while chairmen are more likely to be found behind the goal than in the boardroom.
And in an environment that, compared to the Premier League, is practically anarchic, left-field subcultures flourished: highly politicised “ultras” like those at Clapton (now reborn as Clapton CFC), Whitehawk and Eastbourne Town, bookish groundhoppers, fanzine writers, venerated terrace elders, and even a fandom for non-league dogs.
That all came to an abrupt halt in March. The Premier League shuddered to a halt, followed by the grassroots game. Before long, it was announced that all results below the National League – the fifth and sixth tiers of the English league pyramid – would simply be expunged.
While Premier League clubs are economically dependent on television money and, as such, had to finish the season one way or another, the vast majority of non-league sides subsist on their match day revenue. Finishing the season behind closed doors was never an option, or at least not without bankrupting clubs who would still have had to pay players and staff with zero income. Likewise, with budgets set at the beginning of the season, clubs effectively bank on a certain number of home games and all the associated takings on the gate, at the bar, at the merchandise stall and so on. Some ended up with five or six fewer home games than they had accounted for, immediately throwing them into disarray financially.
“It was very difficult for us,” says John Forrest, community director at storied Isthmian League club Corinthian-Casuals. “We missed a number of games at the end of last season and ended up losing what is really the main source of income for a club like ours. We operate on a shoestring budget, so any loss of earnings can be potentially catastrophic. That’s the same for any non-league club, really.”
During the first couple of weeks between the curtailment of the season and the announcement of the government’s furlough scheme, it was touch and go for many professional and semi-pro clubs. Money has always been tight in the lower reaches of the league pyramid, but with function rooms standing empty, sponsors cutting costs and pitch hire no longer an option, many clubs found that even their secondary revenue streams had dried up.
“It was a bit hairy there until the furlough scheme came in,” says Tom Cullen, director at Dulwich Hamlet in the National League South. “Thankfully, we got to a place where we could just sort of mothball the club… we left it in stasis, really.”
At FC United of Manchester – a club formed by fans opposed to the Glazer family’s debt-laden takeover of Manchester United – the club hierarchy figured out they had lost around £220,000 in revenue. However, through a combination of the furlough scheme and various grants, they managed to claw much of that back.
“We applied for whatever assistance was available,” says club chairman Adrian Seddon. “We also appealed to our supporters and asked them to help the club through the situation. Our fans have been absolutely fantastic […] We’ve raised just over £100,000 in donations from our supporters.”
At Corinthian-Casuals, which has a much smaller fanbase, supporters raised £15,000 through a crowd-funder, including a ten-year-old who did a sponsored walk looking for £250 and ended up raising £1,500.
“It was an incredible amount in total, especially since a lot of people are unsure of their own financial situations,” says Forrest.
Some clubs have not been able to weather the storm. In July, FC Oswestry Town announced they would be withdrawing from the North West Counties League and folding, “due mainly to the COVID pandemic”. In August, Droylsden FC resigned from the Northern Premier League, citing “the disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis”.
Ahead of the new season, one word comes up time and again: “uncertainty”. While the news last month that fans would be able to return to non-league games was widely welcomed, there are still huge problems to overcome. There has been detailed guidance from the government and the FA in terms of how to prepare non-league grounds for social distancing, sanitisation and so on, but clubs have been given just over a month to prepare.
“That’s been a big thing for us: not knowing what the rules are, not knowing when we can start planning, all those sorts of things,” says Stuart Fuller, chairman of Lewes FC in East Sussex.
One issue is the way crowd numbers have been capped. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has asked the FA to limit attendances to 30 percent of the minimum ground capacity for Step 3 of the league pyramid and below, as opposed to 30 percent capacity for each individual ground. While that will leave most clubs satisfied, as their attendances will be largely unaffected, it’ll hurt clubs with bigger crowds and bigger stadiums.
“We’re the second or third-best supported team in our league,” says Fuller, with Lewes competing in the Isthmian League, or Step 3, where crowds have been capped at 600. “We get crowds that, in many instances, are bigger than Step 2… how do you decide which 600 come in?”
FC United of Manchester, also at Step 3, has the same problem. With a 4,700-seater stadium and average crowds of around 1,700, they will now be capped at almost a third of that number, despite submitting a detailed risk assessment for considerably more.
“The disappointing thing for us is that there’s been a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Seddon. “They’ve not looked at each particular ground, they’ve not looked at our capability. We’ve had to provide all this to our Safety Advisory Group, but that’s been ignored by the government.
“[Safety is] our first consideration. Beyond that, you have to allow clubs that have already been severely hit financially the best opportunity to raise money… it can’t be the case that a ground which holds 1,950 can be as safe with 600 fans as a ground that holds 4,700.”
Dulwich Hamlet, which has seen a huge boom in crowds over the last few years, could also be badly affected. At the time of writing, however, it has not yet been decided whether fans can return at National League level.
“We’re still waiting. We don’t know yet, in Step 2, what crowd we can have,” says Cullen. “Our budget is massively reduced from last year. It’s down to the uncertainty. We have to be super-conservative, because we just don’t know when fans are going to be able to come through the doors.”
Each club faces numerous other logistical difficulties. Lewes FC Women play in the FA Women’s Championship, where the coronavirus protocols are much stricter and have required a huge amount of additional planning, while various clubs are worried about the workload on volunteers, the stress on directors, how to allocate tickets for away supporters and so on.
Non-league clubs are hugely varied, some able to bring hundreds of travelling fans and others half a dozen, which makes a cap based on minimum ground grading seem even more arbitrary. That – and the fact that, where two teams at different steps are ground-sharing, a stadium can have two different capacities depending on who is playing.
In the longer term, there are fears that other clubs will be faced with difficult decisions this season. “There will be clubs where it’s three or four people who run the entire show behind the scenes and, at some point, they might decide they can’t hack it anymore,” says Cullen. “I get it, it’s not easy at the moment.”
Even at the best of times, non-league clubs which have been too optimistic with their budgets often feel the squeeze as the season goes on. “It might end up being that, at the end of the season, you see a few more casualties,” adds Cullen.
The worst-case scenario for non-league is another disrupted season.
“The biggest risk for us is clearly if football has to stop again,” says Seddon. “There’ll be no more furlough scheme from October, so we’d have to pay our staff in full while having no revenue… that would mean the money we have in the bank would dwindle very, very quickly.”
While many feel that would necessitate direct financial support from the government, the FA or the Premier League, fans won’t hold their breath. Ultimately, if the worst comes to the worst, it will be up to them to save non-league football once more.