This article originally appeared in the Prescot Cables v Clitheroe Programme, 20th August 2019. It is a personal view, forged over many years of experience and should not be considered the opinion of Prescot Cables FC or its Directors. However, I did choose to include it in an issue that I knew would be sent to the League, so I may yet get some feedback…
Welcome back to Hope Street for the first home match of the 2019-20 campaign. The time has come for players, coaches, volunteers and supporters alike to get back on to the rollercoaster for another season.
Except, for some of us, it might feel more like a treadmill than a rollercoaster.
I’m sure that, for the players, the competitive edge created by League fixtures is more than welcome after eight warm-up games and many sessions designed to build fitness above all else. In addition, for many of the club’s volunteers, a return to meaningful matches will come as a blessed relief after a summer consumed by administration, planning and checking, double-checking, then triple-checking that the club has complied with the various new directives, guidelines and instructions that have been issued.
There has been a lot of extra work to do off the pitch this summer. A fair amount of the additional workload has been caused by the change of title sponsor. We now play in the BetVictor Northern Premier League and the selection of a bookmaker as the main partner of all the Leagues at Steps 3 and 4 has meant that numerous additional compliance measures have been rolled out to clubs.
To an extent, that is to be expected. There are certain legal restrictions on both gambling and the promotion of it, so there was going to be a certain amount of work all clubs would need to do to ensure that they stayed on the right side of the law. I’m not sure anyone – the League included – was prepared for just what turned out to be required.
In order to stay on the right side of the Advertising Standards Authority, clubs must now adhere to a remarkable set of restrictions. We are no longer able to feature photos of players under the age of 25 in images that appear on the homepage of our website. The homepage also features a banner promoting the sponsor, which is fair enough, except for the fact that it must appear at the top of the page, but not in the header across the whole site.
Even when that banner appears, clubs are expected to go above and beyond the Advertising Standards Authority’s legal restrictions on the promotion of gambling and apply “Age Gating” so that any young people visiting their websites don’t see it. We don’t yet know how this will work, except that it will use software developed and provided by BetVictor. This is a perfectly reasonable idea and a brilliant one, in theory. The problem is that there are many ways to build a website and what works on Pitchero is unlikely to work for us, given that we use WordPress to power the club website.
Then there are the various things we can and cannot do and say on social media. The restrictions on clubs are very specific and extremely comprehensive. Fair enough. They have to be. But when you have a rotating team of volunteers using Twitter on matchdays and trying to engage with supporters there is a lot to remember, especially whilst also watching a match.
There are several apparent conflicts between the rules and how to execute them now that BetVictor is the title sponsor of the Step 3 and 4 Leagues that simply didn’t exist in previous seasons and the penalties for non-compliance are draconian. While I can understand the need to ensure that clubs are compliant – rule breaches could have legal implications, as well as attracting the attention of the League – the guidelines issued would be hard work for paid marketing professionals, let alone volunteers with full-time jobs and families.
Yet, the full-time professionals enjoy a freedom that us mere hobbyists don’t. Anyone with even a passing interest in non-league football will be aware of the story of AFC Wimbledon, the fan-owned club formed amid the chaos that saw the old Wimbledon FC relocated to Milton Keynes. These two clubs were drawn together in the Carabao Cup last week, in a match to be played at AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow. The last time the Buckinghamshire side had to travel to Surrey, AFC refused to use the word ‘Dons’ in the programme, or on the electronic scoreboard. Instead, they simply called their visitors ‘MK’.
The Football League fined the Wombles for this heinous crime, so they decided not to bother printing a programme for the cup match. Then, on the morning of the tie, their scoreboard mysteriously developed a fault. Because both match programmes and scoreboards are optional at that level, there is pretty much nothing the Football League can do.
Yet, if Prescot Cables (or any other NPL club) fails to produce a programme for any home match, the minimum fine for breaching Rule 8.14 is £75; the sanction could be as much as £250. For a club like ours, that’s a lot of money.
On the one hand, I can only applaud the Wombles’ subtle protest both against the claim made by Milton Keynes on a history they consider their own and the Football League’s application of its own rules. On the other, I return to a question which has vexed me for several years; why are the paid professionals of the Football League operating to a more relaxed set of rules to those by which the volunteers in non-league football must work?
To stick with programmes as an example, not only do we have to produce a programme, we get told what to put in it. Here’s an extract from the first part of League Rule 8.14:
“The home Club is responsible for publishing a full match programme acceptable to the Board for each of its Competition matches. A Team Sheet will not be considered sufficient to comply with this Rule.
“The visiting Club must send in writing to the home Club details of the proposed team they plan to field together with their Club history and up-to-date pen pictures of their current Players registered with the Competition for the season at least five days before the scheduled date of the match between the two Clubs. The home Club programme must include the details sent by the visiting Club in the match day programme.”
If we hadn’t received anything from Clitheroe for tonight’s game, they would be liable for a fine themselves.
Now, this shouldn’t be taken as a rant against the management of the NPL, because this isn’t their rule. To be fair to the League, while they are strict when it comes to enforcing the rules, they do work with clubs to make sure the regulations are understood before hammering people. There’s been a lot of extra work generated by the new sponsorship but the clubs haven’t been the only organisations doing overtime.
The rules for our League (and all leagues from Steps 1-6) are dictated to the competition by The FA. So even if our League’s management committee wanted to make a minor revision to any of the rules, they can’t.
There are financial reports that need to be submitted every three months and an annual licensing process that sees the club apply for its place in the League. Our ground grading is revisited every three years and our floodlights recertified every two. We have to work incredibly hard, just to stand still.
Meanwhile, professional clubs can link directly to bookmakers’ websites in their site headers, even within pages aimed specifically at children and families.
It is almost as if the rule-makers at Wembley don’t care about the pressures their decisions place on people who are involved in football on a voluntary basis, although I think the reality is that they don’t realise just how hard it has become to run a club at this level.
Having got that off my chest, I’d like to finish this piece with a word to our fantastic supporters. Please remember that our Board and all our administration staff do what they do in their own time and because, just like you, they are Cables fans. We are human and every so often we will get things wrong. Please, please, remember that before you fire off a message on social media.
The jobs we do are hard enough as it is, and we would always welcome some extra people coming on board to help out. But if you don’t feel able to volunteer, that’s fine too. Just be kind to everyone within the Cables Family – we’re all on the same side, after all.