As someone with a lifelong passion for non-League football, I’m increasingly worried about how financially viable the sport is below the elite level. Semi-professional football clubs have always led a hand-to-mouth existence and barely a season goes by without at least one club closing. However, I can’t remember the Trident Leagues (Northern Premier, Southern and Isthmian) ever losing four clubs by the end of January, as they have this season.
Isthmian League East Thurrock United were the first to fold, after the owner of the club’s ground turfed them out with a view to redeveloping the site. Southern League Hamworthy United were forced to withdraw from the Southern League in the Autumn, because the Dorset FA’s County Ground, at which they were based, had its Main Stand condemned due to asbestos contamination. Then Marske United and Nuneaton Borough both withdrew from their Leagues (Northern Premier and Southern Premier Central, respectively) for financial reasons.
If you’re not a non-League nerd, like me, here’s a quick explainer. The Trident Leagues cover Steps 3 and 4 of the National Leagues System. This is a ‘pyramid’ system of competitions for clubs outside the EFL, with the National League at the top and regional steps down from there.
There are six ‘steps’ in the NLS, the lowest of which has sixteen divisions, each covering a defined area. So, ‘Step 1’ (which is the fifth tier of English football, with the Premier League and three EFL divisions sitting above it) has a single, national division with the number of divisions at each subsequent ‘step’ increasing, as follows (the bit in italics denotes the Trident Leagues):
1 – 2 – 4 – 8 – 16 – 16
In theory, this approach reduces the amount of travelling expected of clubs lower down the food chain and helps keep overall costs down. But the Trident Leagues have already lost four clubs from the 240 which started the 2023-24 season and, in my local area, a fifth may well be on the brink.
City of Liverpool FC play in the Northern Premier League, West Division, which is one of the eight Step 4 competitions. At 10:30pm on Friday 19th January – the night before the club was due to host Widnes at their temporary home, Bootle FC – CoL announced the game had been postponed due to “completely unforseen circumstances”. What those circumstances were hasn’t been made clear but it seems the relationship between CoL and Bootle FC has completely broken down. On Thursday 1st February, just over 48 hours before their next home match was due to kick-off, City of Liverpool announced that the fixture, against Prescot Cables, my local club, would be played at the DCBL Stadium, Widnes… nearly 15 miles from the centre of Liverpool and only just within the City Region.
Playing so far out of town is a disaster for a club initially set up in an attempt to bring senior non-League football back into the City Boundaries of Liverpool (Prescot is in the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley, while Marine and Bootle are both in Sefton). From a PR perspective, the optics are dreadful, but the biggest hit will be financial. City of Liverpool’s temporary home is best known as the home of Widnes Vikings, a Rugby League club. It is an all-seater stadium with a capacity of 13,350. CoL will have to bear the cost of hiring such a cavernous venue, but won’t generate income from food and beverage sales and will have to rely on ticket sales to keep themselves afloat. That will be difficult given that the club’s average League attendance so far this season is 317 and a proportion of those people will almost certainly be unwilling or unable to travel so far for ‘home’ games.
It’s not just the Trident Leagues where clubs are feeling the pinch. In December, the owner of National League North (Step 2) King’s Lynn Town wrote a column for the Eastern Daily Press. Stephen Cleeve said:
“I posted on Wednesday… a breakdown of our gate receipts from our Tuesday night home game against Banbury… The figures showed that once travel and accommodation to our next away game was deducted from the gate receipts and very basic costs were deducted from hosting the game, we lost nearly £1,000 and that is before a single pay cheque was paid.”
In the Northern League, which runs Steps 5 and 6 in the North-East of England, both North Shields and Brandon United had to have their fixtures suspended to give those clubs time to regroup and reorganise, both financially and in terms of personnel. The company which was running Midland League Atherstone Town has been dissolved, meaning that the club no longer has a valid lease for its ground at Sheepy Road, while Wessex League play-off chasers Moneyfields have had to bounce from groundshare to groundshare due to problems with a redevelopment of their home venue.
Having been involved in the running of several non-League clubs over the years, I know how difficult it is to keep a club alive but I’ve never known so many clubs to be struggling so publicly as is the case right now.
So, can we pinpoint a reason, or reasons, why this is the case? There’s nowhere else in the world that has a network of clubs so deep and so interconnected by promotion and relegation that it is theoretically possible to go from park football to the Premier League in a little over a decade. Is the sheer number of football clubs part of the problem? Or is the issue more to do with the fact that non-League clubs are being hit every bit as hard by the cost-of-living crisis as any other business which is reliant on people spending their disposable income, but have a smaller customer base to work with than, for example, an independent coffee shop which opens six or seven days a week?
Take my local club, Prescot Cables. The Pesky Bulls are having a superb season on the pitch and, at the time of writing are second in the Northern Premier League West Division (Step 4 / level 8). Their average attendance has quadrupled in recent years and currently sits at 739 which is not only the second highest in the division but a pretty good percentage of the town’s population of around 20,000. Yet these impressive numbers aren’t enough to sustain the club on their own. Cables’ ground, the Joseph Russell Stadium, is only open on matchdays or if the club’s social facilities have been booked for a function, meaning the club can go weeks without generating income from its bar. The ground was first opened in 1906 and so is expensive and difficult to maintain. It’s location – hemmed in by housing and at the bottom of a cul-de-sac – means that the club must hire training facilities elsewhere in the town. Then there’s the cost of actually putting a team on the park – travel to and from away matches, catering for home matches, a budget with which to pay players, and so on. As several clubs have already shown this season, just keeping the doors open is increasingly difficult.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that as wage inflation in the Premier League and EFL has been rampant, the ‘ripple effect’ has coursed through non-League. Of course, players should be rewarded for their time, effort and commitment, but at what point (and what level) do clubs call a halt? There are very few totally ‘amateur’ clubs in the National Leagues System and the most famous, Corinthian-Casuals, are currently battling to avoid a second successive relegation so, at least in the Trident Leagues, wage budgets are a factor.
Perhaps, instead of fretting about an unusually high number of clubs folding this season, I should be celebrating how resilient the majority of football clubs seem to be. Corinthian-Casuals might be second from bottom of the Isthmian League South Central Division, but they still average more than 200 supporters per home game. In the same division, Sutton Common Rovers have fought their way into mid-table despite playing at a borrowed ground in Whyteleafe in front of an average of 87 fans. Rovers aren’t just their First Team; they have twelve teams, including nine Colts squads and a Sunday League side, which isn’t bad for a club established as recently as 1978 in the Leatherhead & District League.
It’s tragic, of course, that supporters of East Thurrock United, Hamworthy United, Marske United and Nuneaton Borough can’t watch their teams play this weekend. But plans are underway for ‘phoenix’ clubs at East Thurrock and Nuneaton, while Hamworthy and Marske are still alive; their Reserve Teams continued at local level after the First Teams pulled out of their Leagues so, despite everything, there’s every chance that, come August, you’ll be able to some version of all of these clubs playing at a decent level of football, thanks to volunteers who simply love the game. That’s something to cling to, no matter which club you follow.