Rags to riches – Premier League billions and non-league’s pandemic survival struggle

“Many are talking about just surviving and hoping to be here in 12 months time, but I would be surprised if we see clubs at all levels survive.”

While the transfer window spend counter ticks towards its final tally of £1.2 billion, the picture looks very bleak further down the football pyramid.

For all the riches being spent in the upper echelons of the country’s top tier, clubs up and down the UK are not just struggling to make ends meet, they’re struggling to survive.

With no fans allowed in grounds the future of many Football League clubs is approaching a tipping point, and the situation gets more concerning the further down the line you look.

Clubs in the National League North have refused to begin their season without fans or a support package. They can’t. Beginning the season with the FA Cup qualifiers on October 3 triggers players contracts and means club outgoings go up with nothing coming in.

It is 4.30pm on October 2 and clubs still don’t know what they’re going to do, or how they’re going to pay their players.

At 4.45pm on the same day comes an announcement from the Government about a bailout package, expected to be £10 million over three months until, hopefully, fans can return.

Collectively non-league clubs breathe a sigh of relief, but in the knowledge that it may only push back the inevitable for some.

Almost a week on from that and AFC Telford United’s Football Operations Manager Luke Shelley is now a bit more relaxed than he was previously.

Two wins from their opening two games have given the club a top start to the campaign, but as he gives an insight into to what life has been like at a non-league club during Covid, he states that if the announcement hadn’t come, futures were looking bleak for many clubs.

Football was back last week for AFC Telford United, but fans were not – Picture – Mike Sheridan/UltraPress

“We believe the amount is split over three months and is £10 million, so it is a huge bonus,” he explained.

“85 per cent of our income is from the gate and that is massive.

“There were some tough conversations over the summer about how we would pay players, we we’re having those tough conversations until quarter to five last Friday.

“A fortnight ago as clubs we decided not to start, we were worried about the season and people were worried here what the future was for the club.”

So far, clubs believe the financial aid package from Westminister will be sliced up depending on the normal number of fans clubs usually welcome through the gate.

For the Bucks part, under that scheme, they will get a sizeable amount as they command decent crowds for their level.

But for others, who are bankrolled by businessmen and women who will have other projects that are shrinking along with the economy, the future could be bleak.

Shelley added: “There will be a cliff edge for some. They have promised three months but six has also been spoken about if fans can’t come back in.

“We’re told it will work on crowds so we will be okay, but for others they may not be.

“A handful have gone at different levels, then Macclesfield have also gone. There are clubs who have money ploughed in but have low crowds, so they will be taking stock probably because those putting money in have other suffering businesses.

“Many are talking about just surviving and hoping to be here in 12 months time, but I would be surprised if we see clubs at all levels survive.”

The football fan fiasco, or a lack of, is being discussed among league officials and clubs on a daily basis. How long can clubs realistically keep going without bums on seats?

It is anyone’s guess whether those conversations are happening at Government level, with cases rising and the establishment now focusing on the rising cases and tighter lockdowns in the north.

400 fans were allowed into Chasetown’s ground for their FA Cup tie with AFC Telford United last week, but the Bucks were the home side the stadium would have been empty – Picture – Mike Sheridan/UltraPress

Football and sport is probably nowhere near a cabinet agenda at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean clubs aren’t pushing and aren’t on their marks, ready to go when the green light is given.

Telford’s New Bucks Head Ground has already been given the sign off by the local council and safety authorities to house 1,000 fans. Significant money has been spent to make it comply.

Shelley explains the club are ready to go whenever the thumbs up comes. He believes that should have already happened, and if it had some of the tax payer money could have been diverted elsewhere.

“We are lucky to have this money because we wouldn’t be playing, but there is no reason why the Government, with all the tax payers money being spent, couldn’t have said to clubs they could have had 20 per cent capacity.

“They’ve done that below us. We went to Chasetown who had 400 fans on Saturday. We could easily have 1,000 on our ground.”

Shelley also explains that on the face of it the financial support is fantastic, but no fans in the ground means no secondary spend.

“We are being subsidised by the Government, but they aren’t going to do that for the secondary spend, for the programmes, the bar, snacks, club shop, and why should they.

“And the local area as well, pubs and chip shops that benefit from the supporters.”

Non-league, Football League and even Premier League clubs could be awaiting a while longer before the terraces are filled and the coffers are increased. Although for the latter that doesn’t really apply given the sums flying around in the transfer window.

Despite all the doom and gloom that is surrounding not just sport, but businesses in generally in the current climate, Shelley added that some good things have come out if it, and it may lead to clubs now learning a lesson when it comes to the balance sheet.

The Bucks Football Operations Manager Luke Shelley has explained the stark reality that has been facing non-league clubs – Picture – Mike Sheridan/UltraPress

“This is a massive lesson for everyone I think.

“No one expected a pandemic, and we hope it never happens again or nothing similar happens.

“Owners and clubs will look in the future and say, can we survive in the future with no fans, most will say no.

“So it will see clubs learn a lesson and budgets may be re-worked to cover something like this happening again.”

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