FOOTBALL: It’s a real shame that the main talking point of the week for the club is again the apparent funding problem that looks set to engulf the National League, writes Mark Hearle.
This column is written ahead of a planned meeting between the league’s board and all of its member clubs so, by the time you are reading this, the outcome may be known or at least a little more clear.
Here’s a potted history of what has always been a complicated issue. Back in September, after Step 3 football, along with the Premier and English Football League had all got under way, the go ahead was given to the National League, and its feeder North and South divisions to begin their seasons in October without crowds.
After debate, the leagues began with the promise of funding to cover the lack of supporters in stadiums. That funding arrived in the shape of grants, secured from the National Lottery, which clubs received until the end of December.
Some clubs were annoyed that, in their opinion, the cash had not been distributed fairly and an independent panel was formed to investigate. The panel’s finding only unearthed more apparent failings in their view of the league’s board, which created further ripples around the running of the leagues in general.
The mixed messages given appeared to indicate that further funding, in the form of grants, would be available from January.
This, however, appears wide of the mark with monies now being available but only in the form of repayable loans. When your income is virtually zero, that is something you probably will not take on in a hurry.
With the pandemic at a worse point than when the season was suspended in March, an increasing amount of fixtures have been called off due to positive tests from players and staff. This had made an already tight fixture schedule even more so, with the Linnets, for example, playing twice a week until the end of March.
On Tuesday evening, seven games were due to be played but only two took place due to FA Trophy games and COVID-19 issues.
The league was awarded ‘elite sport’ status early last summer, something that assisted us with promotion from National League North, and, without it, would have meant we would have stayed where we were as a result of a null and void season.
Club chairman Stephen Cleeve summed up when he said the government are forcing clubs to close their stadiums but were unwilling to support them for doing so financially.
As each week passes, it seems more unlikely that supporters will be allowed back this season. Much time and money was spent at The Walks putting social distance practices in place only for spectators to be prohibited less than a week before the season was due to start. In December we were allowed a limited number of fans back into the ground but that proved to be for only a single game before tighter restrictions were imposed.
With the predicament we now find ourselves in, we appear to be driving down a one-way street, suffering from a lack of leadership and control from the people running football at our level.
There appears little appetite from the two leagues below us to continue their seasons with an unofficial vote of clubs in the North Division showing 75 per cent support for the season to be stopped now. If that does happen, does that mean no relegation from our league?
We are in urgent need of clarity and common sense from all who are charged with running our national game.
Clubs will not survive on a wing and a prayer for much longer. They need assistance and reassurance from those at the top. Questions must be answered quickly and clearly as to the way forward.
The non-League game is in a serious situation and facing a second season with little promotion or relegation and, even worse, clubs folding.
The weeks ahead look ‘interesting’, to say the least.