Football – A matter of life or death?

20th February 2021

Earlier this month, The National League asked its member clubs, including Southport FC, to vote on four resolutions deciding the outcome of the 2020/21 football season at Step 1 (National League) and Step 2 (National League’s North and South)

This week the results of those resolutions were announced, with the outcome being the immediate cessation of the leagues in Step 2 and their seasons being declared null and void.

Step 1 voted to continue and complete the season.

Losing clubs fighting back

Despite the National League member clubs having 28 days to respond and vote on the written resolutions presented to them, some clubs have decided now the voting has closed and they did not get the outcome they wanted, challenging the validity of the vote and the options the resolutions presented to them.

18 clubs across the National League North & South have written an open letter to the General Manager of the National League to express their disappointment and concerns. Those clubs include AFC Fylde, Chorley and York City.

The clubs have collectively requested that the League, “strongly consider that the two divisions at Step 2 continue playing their seasons, either separately or as one.”

The statement talks about the mental wellbeing of supporters and the positive effect football can have on this but fails at any juncture to mention the current Coronavirus Pandemic or acknowledge the risks it poses to players, staff or volunteers.

The situation threatens to escalate, with a number of clubs now lawyering up and preparing to mount legal challenges.

National League South side Dorking Wanderers have stated:

“A legal team has been appointed and within the coming days will be setting out the clear and concise grounds in which we believe the National League have acted in contravention to the required legal and regulatory frameworks.

“We will publish the findings of our legal team which will be countersigned by supporting National League clubs.

“This will be provided directly to the FA who have welcomed the opportunity to fully establish and scrutinise evidence provided ahead of any ratification.”

With National League North’s Gloucester City co-chairman adding:

“We have now formally started legal action against the ‘null and void’ outcome.”

What’s this “Elite” status?

There has been much talk by some clubs and fans of “protecting this levels Elite status” with a lot of onus being put on this supposedly valuable title. But where did it come from?

Cast your mind back to March last year and lockdown number one. All sport ceased temporarily with it later being deemed by the Government that “Elite” sport may continue to be played but behind closed doors, without fans in attendance.

At the time, a number of clubs in the National League and North and South who were vying for promotion, like York City, lobbied for Elite status to be extended to Steps 1 & 2 in order for them to be able to compete the season and compete in the playoffs.

Ironically despite forcing the status upon the steps and having the season concluded York City were still unable to secure that promotion dream.

In conclusion, Elite status is something relatively new to the divisions and doesn’t have any bearing on things like promotion to the English Football League or the relationship with the other professional bodies in the game.

No fans, no revenue, right?

Yes, at this level of the game (particularly at Step 2) the vast majority of the club’s revenue comes from the sale of season and match day tickets with the rest being made up of secondary sales like programmes, food, takings from the clubhouse or bar and merchandise.

Without fans coming through the turnstiles, clubs still have to pay players and staff and cover outlays like stadium and pitch maintenance, insurance, utilities etc.

Supporters have done their best to help their clubs with many buying season tickets, donating to fundraising drives and paying for live streams of the games, but these contributions are just not enough to sustain the ongoing operation of clubs for any substantial amount of time.

But weren’t club’s promised grant funding for this season?

Seemingly clubs were persuaded to start the 2020/21 season off the back of the promise that there would be funding in place to cover their operational shortfall whilst supporters were unable to attend, though this has now proven to not be the case with clubs told to apply for loans if they require ongoing financial assistance.

Initially the National League received £10 million in funding from The National Lottery in the form of a rescue package, with the understanding it would cover the period from October to January and would be distributed according to clubs’ lost gate receipts.
But following rows over the method used to distribute the funds to its member clubs and the transparency around the distribution, an investigation was launched.

A panel led by David Bernstein and including former Southport FC Chairman Charlie Clapham MBE, found that the league had failed to allocate the funds correctly and called for a number of recommendations in a paper the league is yet to publish.

Meanwhile this week in a letter to the Football Supporters Association, Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston confirmed that “at no stage did the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) offer ongoing support to the National League ONLY in the form of grants.

Huddleston went on to say:

“It is unfortunate that the National League chose to communicate this to clubs without first clarifying the nature of the support with DCMS.

“This appears to be a regrettable misunderstanding but DCMS cannot be held responsible for internal communications between a governing body and its clubs.

“An offer of grants, where loans could be afforded, would be inconsistent with support offered to other sports.”

What about clubs who just refused to play?

Things came to a head a few weeks ago when a number of clubs began stating that they would be unable to continue and as such refused to fulfil fixtures.

Southport FC were among those clubs vocal about not wishing to continue under the financial pressure and the moral and health concerns the Coronavirus pandemic raised.

The clubs in question now face being charged by the league for breaking the league rules with potential hefty sanctions being levelled against them.

So why was no support offered to clubs to cover the cost of testing?

Initially no support was offered to clubs at Steps 1 & 2 around meeting the cost of Covid testing for players, staff or volunteers, despite being urged to continue fulfilling fixtures which involved players travelling long distances around the country in close quarters then potentially returning home to vulnerable family members.

The Professional Footballers’ Association fully funded twice-weekly COVID-19 testing for all 72 Clubs in the English Football League from January but despite so called “Elite” status of Steps 1 & 2, they were not afforded the same assistance.

The Government has recently confirmed that it will now fund lateral flow tests for clubs in Step 1 from its Sports Winter Survival Fund allocations.

Where do Southport FC stand in all of this?

Port’s owner Ian Kyle and Manager/Director Liam Watson have been extremely vocal and forward in their thoughts on the situation and how it has been handled by the National League.

Watson recently called their handling of Covid-19 ‘chaotic’.

“It’s just unbelievable how badly the whole situations been run. I can’t believe we have got a [league] chairman who says nothing at all.

“They know all our budgets for the start of the season, and as a company/league they actually manage everyone’s finances … and now that’s all out the window, it’s all completely gone, do what you want. They’ve actually created this chaos, this carnage.

“They’ve misguided us at the start of the season when they told us we have grants and they’ve been proven wrong.

“There’s no consideration for any of the health and wellbeing of the players.

“If I was a director on the conference board now, me personally I’d just get up and resign and walk out because what they’ve done to all of these clubs is nothing short of an absolute disgrace.”

So what happens now?

The National League Board will now seek for the vote made by member clubs to be ratified by the Football Association where they will look to discuss how promotion and relegation could be managed from Step 1.

This is likely to be a formality but with clubs seeking to disrupt these proceedings and legal challenges mounting it looks like this could all rumble on for some time yet.

The long and short of this is that Southport FC’s 2020/21 season has ceased, and the record books will have all league results from the season wiped (meaning that 4-2 Guiseley AFC thrashing technically will never have happened, so every cloud eh!)