As will be evident to anyone browsing this site, I am passionate about non-League football. On Tuesday night, I wrote to my MP, Sir George Howarth, to ask him to lobby the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to #LetFansIn to non-League matches.
My original motivation was a tone-deaf statement the DCMS gave the journalist Ollie Bayliss; since then, DCMS have announced (at 26 hours notice) that Casinos, Soft Play Centres and a raft of other facilities can re-open but given no indication as to when small football clubs might be able to welcome the spectators who provide so much of their income. I reproduce that letter below in the hope that others might be inspired to do what they can to tell those who represent us that our sport matters.
Dear Sir George,
The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably altered the way we live our lives and it might be argued that the situation has been worsened by the Government’s handling of the situation. I personally believe that the UK locked down too late and has potentially unlocked too early. However, having decided to allow ‘non-essential’ businesses to reopen, the Government has applied this decision unevenly, placing the futures of hundreds of semi-professional football clubs at risk.
At first glance, that might not seem important. After all, these ‘little clubs’ don’t attract huge crowds or generate the kind of money that Everton or Liverpool do, so what does it matter if they go out of business? Who cares?
Well, I do, and so do lots of people like me. A non-league club gives a town an additional rallying point, a sense of identity. Now, I should declare an interest here; I have been involved in non-league football for 30 years, having first got involved with my home town club (Egham Town) at the age of 10. When I moved to Kirkby in 2015, I was stunned that a town with over 40,000 people living in it had no senior football club of its own. In fact, there is only one club within the National League System in the whole of Knowsley – Prescot Cables FC.
Prescot Cables FC is owned by its supporters and exists for the benefit of the local community, not to make money. I am writing to you as a constituent, a Cables supporter and as a volunteer with the club, to ask for your help to keep your local club and the whole footballing ecosystem alive.
More than 140,000 people live in Knowsley, yet it has only one senior football club. Contrast that with the borough in which I grew up, Runnymede. A mere 93,000 people live there, yet the borough has three clubs at Steps 1-6 of the National League System. Proportionally, Knowsley is under-represented within senior non-League football.
Yet, despite having such a significant catchment area, the future of Prescot Cables is very much at risk. The club has not played a fixture in front of spectators since 14th March, which is cataclysmic for any business which relies on matchday income – gate money, food and beverage sales, merchandising, etc – to survive. Pubs and restaurants have been allowed to reopen but Cables cannot reopen their Social Club, even on matchdays, because it is built into the Main Stand. As there is an (obstructed) view of the pitch from the clubhouse, it can’t be opened on a matchday, while the ground’s location in a residential area means that opening as a social club seven days a week isn’t viable.
Therefore, without spectators at matches, the club cannot generate any income from games, yet still incurs costs associated with staging those fixtures. Cables are just one of hundreds of clubs hamstrung in this way and without an urgent change in the regulations, many of those clubs will not survive.
Today, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, gave a statement to BBC journalist Ollie Bayliss which defended their stance, but made no reference to clubs such as Prescot Cables, who play below the National League. According to DCMS, the fact that the Premier League has advanced £125 million to the English Football League and National League, should be enough to see the whole of the football pyramid through this crisis.
It is not enough. There are numerous reasons, but the key ones are as follows:
- The National League only covers the top two tiers of non-League football. Prescot Cables are in Step 4 of the National Leagues System – two levels below the National League. Not one penny of the £125 million will reach Cables, nor any of the clubs at their level, or the level above that, or the numerous levels below that in which Prescot play.
- This advance is not new money – it is money that the EFL and National League would have received anyway, which has been paid early. This effectively ‘kicks the can down the road’ – the cash will help in the immediate term, but leaves a hole in the future budgets of the clubs in receipt of it, as they would have otherwise received the cash in the autumn.
Therefore, as welcome as the advanced cash from the Premier League is, it is the equivalent of a sticking plaster on a severed thumb. It does nothing to resolve the issues faced by the majority of clubs and only soaks up some of the cash haemorrhaging out of EFL and National League clubs.
Although DCMS is allowing sports such as football to resume playing, at present spectators are not permitted. This is at odds with their approach to other sports – club cricket has been played with spectators present for a month yet a football club playing at the same site is expected to turn spectators away! Pubs and restaurants are allowed to use their (indoor) spaces to trade, despite the fact that COVID-19 is more easily transmitted in enclosed spaces, yet a football club whose bar has a view of their pitch is not allowed to trade. None of this makes any sense.
During the aborted 2019-20 season, Prescot Cables had an average League attendance of 371 people. The capacity of their home ground is 3,200. Therefore, Cables’ average occupancy was 11.6% of total capacity.
Even allowing for an uplift in crowds due to the closure of professional stadia, it should not be difficult to achieve proper social distancing via reduced capacities and innovative ticketing solutions. Leagues around the country are working on ticketing systems and apps to facilitate non-contact bar service.
Given the opportunity, I am certain that Prescot Cables could comfortably accommodate their supporters without risking their health; the same is true for practically every non-League club in England. The DCMS seems not to care and instead seeks to treat volunteer-run clubs who are struggling to make ends meet in the same way as businesses with turnovers in the hundreds of millions.
Ignore the financial aspects for a moment and consider the impact football can have on individuals. It can have a hugely beneficial impact on people’s mental health. I can only speak from my own experience, but my involvement with the non-League game has been tremendously helpful for me at times when my mental health has been difficult to manage (I have severe anxiety and depression). If we accept that one in four people have some sort of mental health condition, 93 out of those 371 people are potentially at Cables matches as much for therapeutic reasons as anything else. What happens to them if their club ceases to exist? What happens if you replicate that across the country and take out 5% of all clubs? The costs to the NHS are potentially huge.
I should like to ask you to lobby DCMS to review their position as a matter of urgency before clubs around the country are lost to their communities. The little club in your constituency, Prescot Cables, was where the first non-white player to represent England, Frank Soo, began his career. Having been founded in 1884, it predates current Premier League champions, Liverpool FC. It is a football club with a growing Youth section, providing young people from around Knowsley with the opportunity to play football, and has plans to create a charity so that it can do more to support the community in which it is rooted.
All of that history, potential and social energy might be lost without an urgent revision of the current rules around the playing of football matches. Please, Sir George, do the right thing and make your voice heard not just for Prescot Cables but for the hundreds of clubs like them who are on the edge of extinction. These clubs do matter. They have people that care. They need someone to stand up for them, will you be that person?