National League grants are the only way to maintain the league’s integrity – and keep the season going

6 min

“If we’d known then what we know now the season would never have started”.

The sentiment of one National League club official might not reflect the feelings of every National League club but it would be fair to say that an overwhelming majority feel duped by proceedings in recent weeks. 

In September 2020, after weeks of being left in the dark and unwilling to start a new season behind closed doors, clubs were informed by the National League board to prepare for an October 3rd start – safe in the knowledge the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had provided £10m in funding as part of a partnership with the National Lottery.

National League clubs were also led to believe that if fans did not return further funding would be in place to ensure the season could be completed.

However, three months later the National League finds itself in the midst of confusion and disarray with both the National League North and South suspended for two weeks and mass uncertainty at the future of it’s premier level. 

The entire non-league structure stands on the verge of being permanently suspended as accusatory fingers point in all directions.

Perhaps the resignation of National League CEO Mike Tatterstall in December should have raised alarm bells that all was not well behind the scenes as less than a month later the DCMS announced further National League funding would come in the form of loans (not grants) sending the 66 member clubs into uproar.

This ‘Winter Survival Package’ is intended to provide a further £10m emergency support for Steps 3-6 of non-league football, protecting approximately 850 clubs across the country with National League clubs (Steps 1 and 2) only able to apply for grants ‘if their imminent future is at risk and they can demonstrate loans are unaffordable.’

To be clear, only a few National league clubs can say they have the financial capacity to incur debt as a way to completing a football season. Income is negligible without fans and there is no guarantee that fans will return in significant numbers next season let alone this one. 

With this in mind, an extraordinary meeting for member clubs last week saw them presented with three options moving forward:

– National League clubs to accept loans from the DCMS.

– The National League to take on the loan itself and clubs pay them back via reduced revenue in forthcoming seasons.

– Suspend the season.

National League North and South clubs have en masse already indicated their desire to suspend the season but prefaced that decision with several clubs indicating they were unwilling to play on regardless (whether that be due to Covid or funding concerns).

Yet with the decision taken to suspend those leagues for two weeks pending more debate on the possibility/plausibility of ‘fairer’ funding, the situation already resembles a deck of falling cards. 

READ MORE: Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge’s fight for survival as coronavirus hits lower league clubs

With the National League North and South suspension already reaching it’s midway point, the clubs have been contacted to see if they are ready to resume while National League sides are set to meet Labour leader Keir Starmer and the shadow sports minister to discuss the current situation.

The fact clubs are being forced to lobby MPs not only suggests a dereliction of duty by the National League executive but is further compounded by the laughable situation the league is labelled as elite but no Covid testing is carried out. 

It has resulted in a myriad of games called off for coronavirus outbreaks every week with no change in practice forthcoming.

Although National League Premier (NLP) clubs appear willing to carry on for now, quick answers and clear leadership are needed and not the blame game that is currently being played out between the DCMS and National League officials.

Dagenham and Redbridge managing director Steve Thompson echoed the dissatisfaction many clubs feel with current events. Having expected financial respite this month, they now find themselves operating at a revenue loss with no sign of anything other than being saddled with debt to get through it.

Speaking to the Barking and Dagenham Post, Thompson said: “It is inconceivable to consider that senior government figures and indeed government ministers felt that whilst grants were the only way the 66 community clubs were going to be able to start the season, that if the situation were to continue then they would be able to just borrow money to conclude their season. It is just not rational!” 

Thompson is also under no illusion that any form of loan would be a completely unsustainable model to adhere to, adding: “The fact is that our clubs and our league are just not big enough to take on a multi-million-pound loan to enable them to carry on playing.  

“Already most clubs are still relying on financial support from their members and directors and to add to this burden is just impossible.”  

It is clear the league will not survive without some form of intervention and it is hard to shake the feeling that an indefinite National League hiatus is the preferred wish of the DCMS having not shown any sign of budging from their current stance and remaining adamant the National League knew grants would not continue after December.

For the National League itself there are even deeper integrity issues to resolve. 

If clubs in the North and South leagues, as currently looks likely, refuse to commit to finishing the season that will rule out relegation from the NLP and potentially cause a domino effect on clubs at that level seeking suspension.

READ MORE: Tooting & Mitcham United – the community club who continue to defy the coronavirus odds

On the flipside, if the ‘bigger’ and more ambitious clubs put pressure on the others to continue with a government loan of some sort – what stops those who wish to safeguard their future slashing their budgets and fielding their academy players in protest?

Even worse are the consequences on the relationship between the Football League and National League should the latter cease to complete the season. Not only will the EFL have to adapt their relegation and promotion permutations but it will be a further nail in the coffin for National league ambitions to see three-up, three-down between the two organisations going forward.

There is no scenario other than securing more grants that would see the National League come out of this with any credit and for the sake of non-league clubs across the country, their immediate future and season prospects depend on it.           

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